The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 4

John Byrne, Oct 2017, photo © Luigi Novi

In 1990, fan-favorite writer/artist John Byrne added computer lettering to his tool set. Rather than use his own hand lettering to create fonts, Byrne worked with lettering by others. In a 2000 interview for Comic Book Resources, John said:

Getting a hand-lettering font for my computer was what really turned me into a letterer, full time. I’d lettered my work at Charlton, laboriously, the old fashioned way. By using a font and pasting in the lettering, I got not only better lettering than I could do, but an extra layer of control over the design of the panel and page. “Control” is the wrong word, really, as it has emotional baggage not applicable here, but it’s also the only word that seems to fit.

In 2014, John told me:

I think I used the lettering for the first time in NAMOR.  The software I used was more antique than Fontographer, though. Fontastic was the name, if I remember correctly. Don’t recall there was a whole lot of process in front of actually using the fonts. I was eager to try them out as quickly as I could!  I remember it took me a while to get the scale right!

From NAMOR #8, Nov 1990, image © Marvel

The Grand Comics Database lists this issue of NAMOR as the first credited to Byrne as a letterer. It works quite well imitating hand lettering, and is easy to read even with the poor reproduction.

Michael Heisler, 2011, photo by Chris Provinzano

I had heard years ago from letterer Michael Heisler that Byrne had used his lettering to create an early font, so I contacted Mike, and he had this to say:

As best I can remember, it was sometime in 1990, and I was on staff at Marvel as Assistant Editor to Ralph Macchio. I was also lettering a handful of books, one of which was IRON MAN, at the time written by John Byrne with art by John Romita, Jr. and Bob Wiacek. One day Terry Kavanagh, the editor of NAMOR (written and drawn by Byrne), approached me to tell me that Byrne had decided to start lettering the book himself, using a computer font he had created from sampling my work. I’m not entirely sure what he used as a source; pages from IRON MAN seemed like an obvious guess.

From IRON MAN #262, Nov 1990, hand lettering by Heisler, image © Marvel, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Terry acknowledged that this was completely unprecedented, and he said that Marvel’s idea was to split the page rate for the lettering between Byrne and myself. I didn’t really know what to think, but it looked like something that was going to happen without any further input from me anyway, so I shrugged and said okay. I didn’t have any objections to his doing it; I was curious to see what it would look like.

The first time it was used was on NAMOR #8. I thought it looked…all right. The bold-italic version was clearly just the regular font beefed up, not sampled from my actual lettering. And Byrne’s approach to balloon shapes was obviously nothing like mine. But it was legible. I thought it worked.

After it was in print, I asked Terry how I should go about billing for the job, or if I even needed to. He said he would get back to me — and when he did, there was now a different story from Byrne. Apparently he hadn’t used my lettering as his only source, but that of a few other letterers too, and for that reason it wouldn’t be appropriate to split the lettering rate with me. It sounded like b.s. to me. I knew very little at the time about building fonts, but I had been a staff letterer in the Bullpen for over a year doing corrections over every letterer Marvel used, and I knew very well that none of us did our work at precisely the same weights or angles. It would have been an extremely complicated job for Byrne to sample work from a variety of letterers and make it all look consistent. Not saying he couldn’t or wouldn’t have done it, but in hindsight it seems far more likely that he simply created whatever missing characters he needed with his own hand. But the underlying point was: obviously no one had discussed splitting the lettering rate with him before this. I don’t blame him for balking, as I’m sure I’d do the same.

In any case, Byrne stopped using the font after that. He had begun lettering a Batman graphic novel with “my” font [BATMAN 3D, 1990, DC Comics], and as far as I know, those were the only times it was used. I did call him at one point during all of this, but only left a voice mail and he never called back. He may have thought I was aggravated by the whole thing and simply didn’t want to deal with it. But I just wanted to ask him for a copy of the font!

From BPRD: The Soul of Venice Trade Paperback, Aug 2004, Dark Horse, image © Mike Mignola

Michael Heisler moved to San Diego, CA in May of 1992 to work for WildStorm, and remembers creating his first fonts around the fall of 1993. He told me:

I know I had some iteration of Fontographer 3, when it was still being produced by Altsys. And I know that when I made them, we were still thinking of terms of printing out the lettering on vellum and pasting it up the traditional way. Sounds like the Stone Age now. 

I wasn’t able to find an example of his digital lettering from that time, above is a more recent one. I’ve written more about Heisler’s lettering in THIS article.

From NAMOR #9, Dec 1990, image © Marvel
From Pogo Daily, Aug 19 1970, image © Okefenokee Glee & Perloo, Inc., original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

When I asked John Byrne in 2014 about his early digital lettering, he told me:

My earliest homemade font was adapted from POGO. (I took a lot of the “bounce” out of it — which, ironically, was what I really liked about the lettering!) Later I did fonts of some other folk, like Dave Gibbons and Fred Hembeck. Mostly, those were just goofing around and teaching myself how to do it.

The font used on NAMOR #9 and later issues is the one based on lettering from POGO, example above. The lettering was laid out in blue pencil by Kelly and lettered by his assistant Henry Shikuma. Kelly was a fine letterer, but Shikuma brought a precise calligraphy to the table that really stands out. John Byrne has continued to use this font on work like his series NEXT MEN for Dark Horse in 2011. I think Byrne’s font version is excellent, by the way, though as with the Heisler font, the bold italic version is not scanned from POGO, but instead is a slanted, thickened version of the regular style.

From HELLBOY: SEED OF DESTRUCTION #1, March 1994, © Mike Mignola

The first HELLBOY mini-series was written and lettered by John Byrne using a new font he’d made by sampling the lettering of Dave Gibbons. Dave had been lettering his own art for most of his career in an attractive, open, readable style. Byrne’s font version first appeared in a preview of the story in SAN DIEGO COMIC CON COMICS #2 dated August, 1993. Gibbons saw it there, and was startled, as he knew nothing about it.

From WATCHMEN #1, Sept 1986, art and lettering by Dave Gibbons, image © DC Comics

At the Great Eastern Con in New York, February 1994, Gibbons and Byrne were on a panel together, and Dave challenged John about using his lettering without permission, but in a good-humored way, as the two were friendly. Byrne took out a checkbook, and wrote Dave a check as payment, but Dave refused to take it. When I asked Dave recently if he had asked John not to use the font, Dave said:

I didn’t ask him to not use the font elsewhere. I think he’d used my font because, being on friendly terms, he didn’t think I’d object. When I did, albeit in a humorous way, he got the message! I dimly remember going to John’s hotel room at that con and him demonstrating digital lettering on his laptop. Although I was coloring on a computer back then, I wasn’t lettering.

He may have sent me my font on a disk. I do recall he sent me a pack of transparent, sticky back paper to print lettering out on and stick on the original page art; an odd hybrid of computer and traditional lettering.

Byrne continued to use his Dave Gibbons font on the HELLBOY miniseries, but as far as I know has not used it since. Dave later worked on his own computer fonts for some time and eventually had Gibbons fonts made for him by Comicraft, where they’re available for purchase. I’ve written much more about Gibbons’ lettering in THIS article.

From X-MEN, THE HIDDEN YEARS #21, Aug 2001, image © Marvel, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

In a 1998 FAQ response on his website, John wrote:

The font I currently use in all my books is based on Jack Morelli’s lettering. Knowing that I had been experimenting with hand-lettering fonts, Jack asked me what I would charge to make one for him, of his own lettering. I said “I get to use it.” So Jack lettered up an alphabet, including all punctuation and special keys (like those little three line bursts that kinda look like > and <), and I scanned them into my computer. Then, using a low-end font maker called Fontastic, I dropped each letter into the appropriate “slot”, fiddled the kerning, fiddled the leading, and created those option keys I mentioned above. That done, I imported the whole thing to Fontographer, which tidied up all the pixilation and created the different sizes. Whole process (excluding Jack lettering the alphabet) takes about an hour and a half. BTW, I ended up using Jack’s font so much, I also now PAY him a small stipend for the privilege!

Jack Morelli at Marvel, April 1982, photo © Eliot R. Brown

Jack Morelli began working on staff at Marvel Comics in 1980, and his first lettering credits on the Grand Comics Database are from Marvel titles dated early in 1981. In 2014, Jack remembered:

The first time I ever heard of computer lettering was around 1992, the year my twins were born. Jim Starlin had just come back from San Diego, and was over to dinner with his then wife Diana. He told me he had seen examples of this new thing, and although it wasn’t quite there yet, I’d better get on top of it or I’d be out of work in a few years. The problem was, I didn’t have a computer and having just bought a house and fixed it up for my new family, I couldn’t really afford one.

A short time later I was at a party at John Byrne’s house and the subject came up. He had a then state-of-the-art computer and asked if I would make him an alphabet and he would do the rest. He’d get to use the font on his own books, pay me a small royalty for each book, and give a copy of the font to me for my own use. A little while later, Terry Austin and I drove back out to his place in Connecticut and gave John the alphabet and the rest is the rest.

From ARCHIE #600, Oct 2009, hand lettering by Jack Morelli, image © Archie Comics

I never did use that font, and later, when forced by diminishing hand work, I bought a computer and Fontographer and began figuring it all out. I had a lot of moral support from Janice Chiang, who was going through the same changes, and a lot of tech support from Jon Babcock, who had it down already. I eventually made a font of my own from an alphabet that I much preferred to the one I’d given John, and offered it to him for free, but Byrne was happy with the one he had and so he continued to use that first one, and true to his word, never missed cutting me in.

From ARCHIE #700, Jan 2019, digital lettering by Morelli, image © Archie Comics

Jack Morelli continues to letter many of the Archie Comics titles, now using his own digital fonts. I’ve written more about his lettering in THIS article.

John Byrne’s computer lettering was probably the most widely recognized early use of digital lettering, I know it was the first I noticed, but others were following right behind. We’ll look at more in Part 5.

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

One thought on “The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 4

  1. Bram

    This has been a great series, not just for the history of computer lettering in comics, but as a reminder of all the changes digital brought to typesetting.

    This one raises the question of “what aspect(s) of lettering are copyright-able?,” which I’m sure more legally inclined minds have failed to resolve.

    Mostly, though, Byrne lettering Hellboy stopped me. It’s funny, I consider Pat Brosseau’s work on that series to be such a powerful part of of the aesthetic, I hadn’t realized that Byrne set the tone.

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