The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 3

Sample of Digi Grotesk font by Linotype

Like many aspects of publishing in the 1980s, font creation was also undergoing radical changes at the time. The first commercially available digital fonts, like DigiGrotesk of 1968, were the product of big firms like Linotype, and were made with machines and software that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Fontastic Plus software on floppy disk courtesy of Zuzana Licko of Emigre

By 1981-82, companies like Bitstream and Adobe were producing extensive catalogs of digital fonts, but it was the release of the program Fontastic (later Fontastic Plus) by Altsys for the Mac in 1985 that first allowed desktop users to design their own fonts. Fontastic used only bitmap images to build fonts, images made from square pixels, which could be scanned on early Microtek desktop scanners from hand-drawn letters. As a result, fonts created by Mac users began to appear from all over, not just the big type companies. The designs ranged from elegant to awful, but the cost of font creation had plummeted, opening the door for plenty of new designers.

Altsys Fontographer software on floppy disk courtesy of Zuzana Licko of Emigre

In January, 1986 Altsys introduced Fontographer 1.0 for Mac, the first program that could create fonts using vector outlines and Bezier curves. This allowed for designs that were smoother and more precise, without the stairstep edges of pixels, and the vector outlines could be enlarged or reduced without any loss of edge quality. Fontographer was actually the first commercially available software that worked with vectors, predating Adobe Illustrator.

Using vectors, the jagged edges of bitmaps could be avoided, depending on the resolution of the computer monitor and/or the printer the font was produced on. Now desktop designers had the tools to produce the kind of high-quality fonts once only available to a few at large type houses, and font designers have never looked back. Of course, the quality of the letters still depended on the skill of the designer, but in Fontographer, the outlines could be tweaked and adjusted, and letters could be drawn directly in the program, giving much more control for those who were not able to produce and scan the kind of large, precisely drawn letters that previous generations of font designs required. In fact, vectors, with their mathematically described curves and edges, were more precise than the most carefully hand-drawn letters at any size.

David Cody Weiss from his website

As far as I’ve discovered, the first person to create comic book fonts on a computer was David Cody Weiss. In 2014, David told me he started as a calligrapher, and did signage and name cards for the Seventh World Fantasy Convention in Berkeley, CA in 1981. Tom Orzechowski saw his work there and mentored David on some commercial lettering. He then went to New York trying to break into comics and became a temporary worker at Marvel. According to the Grand Comics Database, David’s first lettering credit is for Steve Ditko’s “Missing Man” story in PACIFIC PRESENTS #1 cover dated October 1982, and he began getting regular lettering assignments from Roy Thomas once he was back in California in the months after that. David’s style was very regular, with little of the “bounce” often seen in hand lettering, so it was perhaps ideal for adapting on the computer.

Macintosh Plus, Apple’s third model, introduced Jan 1986, photo by Jeff Keacher
Screen shot from Fontographer 3.5 showing work on letter W

David told me:

I bought the first Mac Plus sold at U.C. San Diego, and from the beginning I wanted to work out how to use it for lettering. When Fontographer came out I was practically first in line. I didn’t have an option to scan a letter and auto-trace it, that feature came years later. Instead I built each letter onscreen using the drawing tools and then tweaking each one so it looked “blobby” at the ends of strokes. I spent weeks building the font.

Working on letter M in Fontographer on an early Mac, image found online

I wanted the illusion of hand lettering, so I made variants of each letter between lower case and upper case as well as with the option key characters. Typing the word bookkeeper would be keyed in as: bOokKeEper. That way each pair of letters would be different. I also adapted all of the accent marks and special characters. Then came the week of kerning every possible pair.

Kerning sets the distance between particular pairs of letters to make the spacing look right, avoiding unsightly gaps between letters like TA and LT. In a nutshell, David pioneered the method of creating comic book fonts used by many designers who followed him, and still prevalent today. The all upper-case style of comics lettering meant that the lower case and upper case letters could be slightly different from each other, adding to the illusion of hand lettering, especially when in pairs. More alternate characters could be added using the Shift and Option keys.

From GREY #1, Oct 1988, © Viz Comics, hand-lettered by Weiss

In 2014, David told me:

Viz Comics were the real reason to develop a digital font. The photo paper originals [they supplied me with] were so slick that I could hardly find tooth enough to feel my lettering, which came out too wobbly for my—and Viz’s—taste. With my font lettering portable on a floppy disk, I used a print service bureau to print out 600 dpi proofs.

From GREY #2, Dec 1988, © Viz Comics, first digital lettering by Weiss

For digital lettering, I would photocopy original art pages down to 6 by 9 inches, then scan them at 300dpi. I Opened the scan in Canvas — my preferred vector/bitmap drawing app, because it did layers before Photoshop did. There I scaled the scan back to original art size. I’d position the cursor and type the copy. Then I did balloons and pointers with the vector tools. Next I’d do the SFX either in Canvas or in a great pioneering piece of software called Typestyler (which I beta-tested).

When I finished a page I’d cut and paste all that work into a second document. This I filled with all the grouped balloons with as little space between them as possible. I’d print that on sticky-back paper at 300 dpi on my own LaserWriter or take it to the service bureau for 600 or 1200 dpi prints. An X-Acto knife cut later and I’d paste down the individual balloons in their proper places. More (real) cut and paste for the SFX or newspaper copy. Lastly, I’d go over the work with a pen in one hand and Wite-Out in the other [to fill in and fix up where needed].

Note that, while the font and lettering were done on a computer, the lettering still needed to be printed out and pasted onto the art, which was then handled like any comics art at the time, a method that continued for some years. The art would be photographed in “flats,” usually four pages per flat, colored by hand separations following color guides (unless the comic was black and white as with GREY), assembled into signatures with eight pages on each side, made into printing plates, printed on high-speed offset presses, folded, assembled, and trimmed. In other words, the rest of the process remained unchanged from methods worked out in the early to middle 20th century.

David lettered comics for several companies, including DC, but in 1989 he joined the staff of Disney Comics as an assistant editor. At that time his lettering diminished and he began developing a writing career that continues today, with many projects relating to comics. You can learn more on his WEBSITE, and I’ve also written about his lettering in THIS article.

Roxanne Starr from the 1970s, and with Bob Burden and J.R. Mounts at the Atlanta Comic Con, July 2013.

From what I’ve learned, Roxanne Starr was the second person to have her comics fonts in print. After art training at the City College of New York and the School of Visual Arts in the 1970s, Roxanne moved to Atlanta, GA in 1980 and began working as a freelance graphic designer. She started lettering comics in 1982, and is perhaps best known as the letterer of FLAMING CARROT by writer/artist Bob Burden.

From FLAMING CARROT COMICS #15, Jan 1987, Renegade Press, image © Bob Burden

In 2014, Roxanne told me:

I had been lettering The Flaming Carrot for a number of years in traditional fashion, by hand. Part of my job was also inking the word balloons, captions and panel borders. The work I did for Bob [Burden] was something that I did on the side of my regular job as a graphic designer. Because of my interest in computers, from time-to-time Bob had brought up his belief that of all the aspects of comic book production, the first that would go the way of the computer would be the lettering. Okay, I thought, but how exactly would this be done?

Then during the latter part of the 1980’s, in conjunction with my regular job, I attended a Macintosh seminar and heard about a new thing called Fontographer, software used for editing fonts. The rest, as they say, is history.

From FLAMING CARROT COMICS #23, Nov 1989, Dark Horse, image © Bob Burden

The first published comic in which my computer lettering appeared was FLAMING CARROT #23 in 1989, and it was a mess. I was still trying to figure out how to use Fontographer and Bob had me on a tight deadline, so the kerning was very bad.

From FLAMING CARROT COMICS #24, April 1990, Dark Horse, image © Bob Burden

Issue 24 from 1990 (above) didn’t look that bad. Then came issues 25-27 (the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy), and the lettering looked a lot better. That was a year later.

From FORBIDDEN PLANET #3, SEPT 1992, Image © MGM and Innovation Comics

Shortly after my computer lettering hit the stands in FLAMING CARROT, I was contacted by David Campiti at Innovation Comics to letter an upcoming FORBIDDEN PLANET series being painted by Daerick Gross. Vickie Williams was a regular letterer at Innovation, but couldn’t fit the series into her schedule, so David asked me to create a font imitating Vickie’s hand. Another offer of computer lettering work came from Paul Jenkins, who was then an editor at Tundra Publishing. He wanted me to create a font imitating Al Columbia’s hand. Al had just taken over the art duties from Bill Sienkiewicz on Alan Moore’s ill-fated BIG NUMBERS project. The next request for generating a new font came from Alan himself. He wanted me to create an Artie Simek font to be used in the Image project, “1963.” I always formed my letters from scratch and made them look KINDA like another letterer’s hand. The first comic where I was truly happy with my computer lettering was in FORBIDDEN PLANET in 1992.

Roxanne continues to live and work in the Atlanta area, and is still involved with Bob Burden’s comics projects.

Willie Schubert and Todd Klein, Colorado Springs, CO 1998

My research found the third person to develop his own comics lettering fonts was Willie Schubert. Willie began lettering on a fan project in Chicago with other future pros. It was submitted to First Comics editor Mike Gold, and while it wasn’t accepted, it led to Willie’s initial lettering work for First Comics in 1985. The Grand Comics Database lists his first credit as STARSLAYER #30 cover dated July, 1985. In 2014, Willie told me:

I started putting together my own fonts in 1989. I did my first ‘font’ lettering by the end of 1989. This stuff appeared in work for First Comics. Initially, LONE WOLF AND CUB and a number of Classics Illustrated titles.

From LONE WOLF AND CUB #30, Oct 1989, © 1First Comics, hand-lettered by Schubert

I was working on a Mac SE [first released in 1987] using Fontographer 3. I had to invest in an Apple Laserwriter so I could actually edit the letterforms, adjust spacing, and work out an annoying number of kerning pairs.

From LONE WOLF AND CUB #31, Jan 1990, image © 1First Comics, first digital lettering by Schubert

Once the font was made, I used FreeHand to do the lettering. At the time that program made more sense to me than Adobe Illustrator. (And many things that annoyed me about Illustrator back then continue to annoy me in recent CS versions.) The biggest pain at the time was that programs (or the system) didn’t completely respect kerning pairs generated out of Fontographer. Wide gaps and/or letters slamming together erratically was a regular event. I was constantly tweaking letter spacing. The problem seemed to become “less worse” when I upgraded the RAM in my Mac to 2 MB (maxed out, actually). Anina Bennett was at First Comics in those days. Her assessment of my fonts were that they looked like my lettering, only “relentlessly consistent.”

I have to say that Willie’s fonts are remarkably similar to his hand lettering, I would have a hard time telling a difference between these two samples, except that the font lettering has each line perfectly centered.

From BATMAN: LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #100, Nov 1997, image © DC Comics

Willie continued to letter comics by hand and on the computer for various companies. Like Weiss, his computer lettering was done on-screen, then printed out and often pasted onto overlays to send in as final work. For his hand-lettering, he used the computer for titles and credits. Willie added:

The first book I did that was truly digital was LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #100. An experiment in going digital as much as possible. DC’s post mortem on the issue was…they didn’t save any time…they didn’t save any money.

Willie continues to occasionally letter comics for DC and other publishers using his fonts. I’ve written more about his lettering in THIS article.

Other letterers and artists were following close behind, creating and using their own digital fonts for lettering comics. We’ll look at some in Part 4.

Continue to next article. Back to The Art and History of Lettering Comics.

4 thoughts on “The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 3

  1. clem robins

    that’s great to hear that Willie’s back in the game. when i began doing the Batman books for Michael Wright in 2003, Michael wanted me to go after Willie’s sense of agitation and charm. i wasn’t able to do it. at one point i considered making a faux-Schubert font, but couldn’t bring myself to rip off a friend.

    great posts. i love this stuff, Todd. and i had no idea that Fontographer preceded Illustrator in handling vectors and Bezier curves.

  2. Peter B. Gillis

    My friend Bob Dinenthal, who had a background in greeting card cartooning as well as phototypesetting, approached First art director Joe Staton with lettering samples he had done. Joe liked them, but when he found out Bob had done them on the Mac, he wasn’t so happy. But when Mike Saenz left SHATTER, they called on Bob to both letter and ‘ink’ the (conventionally produced) artwork. (it was only later that I found out that the ugly artifacts in the graphics and type were none of Bob’s doing, but due to the fact that smoothing was enabled on the LaserWriter.) (And the conventionally produced artwork was scanned via a Thunderscan, an amazing kludge that replaced the print-head on a dot matrix printer with a read-head, and reversed the data flow. It took about an hour to scan a page. This was because the only other scanners available at the time were about $6000.)

  3. Roxanne Starr

    Had I not been first and foremost a graphic designer working for companies on the cutting edge of technology and not a comic book letterer…there probably would have been NO WAY I’d end up doing what I did.

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