The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 5

Jeff Smith, 2020, photo by Brian Kaiser

As digital lettering began to have an impact on comics in the early 1990s in titles by John Byrne and others, more letterers began trying it out, including independent comics publisher, writer, and artist Jeff Smith.

Jeff Smith began issuing BONE, his self-published comic, in 1991. The art style was reminiscent of Walt Kelly’s POGO comic strip, but while the writing had lots of humor, it unfolded in a vast fantasy world more like that of J.R.R. Tolkien.

From BONE #1, July 1991, Cartoon Books, image © Jeff Smith

Smith did everything on the comic from the start, including the lettering, which again was roughly in the style of Walt Kelly with lots of large display lettering for emphasis. Smith began falling behind his publishing deadlines, and one way he found to save time was to create fonts from his own hand lettering.

From BONE #6, Nov 1992, Cartoon Books, image © Jeff Smith

The fonts began appearing in BONE #6. Jeff used them whenever the speech balloons and captions required nothing special, and there were two fonts: a regular weight, and a bold weight for emphasis. Smith created them digitally, then printed them out and pasted them on his art, as far as I can tell. Whenever the story called for larger display lettering or sound effects, Smith continued to do those by hand, and he also did all the balloon borders by hand, I think with a brush. The look of the fonts was stiffer and less lively than the original hand lettering on early issues, but it does have a distinctive style and works well. Later printings of the first five issues replaced Jeff’s hand lettering with the font, giving the collected edition a uniform look. Jeff continued to use his fonts on BONE and related spin-offs, helping preserve his unique approach to lettering, and in 2012 Nate Piekos of Blambot reworked the fonts for Jeff, updating and improving them. Those custom fonts are not for sale. I’ve written a little more about Jeff’s lettering in THIS article.

John “JG” Roshell and Richard Starkings of Comicraft, 2006

Meanwhile, a British letterer, Richard Starkings, was finding his way into digital lettering and font creation. He began his career in England, then moved to New York and soon to Los Angeles. In 2014, Richard told me:

I started working professionally for Marvel UK and IPC’s 2000 A.D. in 1984 as a freelance lettering artist, joining the staff of Marvel UK in 1985, and working my way up to Group Editor. I began lettering U.S. comics in 1986 on DETECTIVE COMICS with Alan Davis, but became best known for my work on BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland.

I’ve written more about Richard’s lettering in THIS article.

From BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, 1988, image © DC Comics

In 1989 I moved to America, lettering mainly for Marvel. While continuing to letter with pens, I slowly began working with Quark Xpress, then Adobe Illustrator on Macintosh computers. I’d seen digital lettering by David Cody Weiss and John Byrne, and in 1990, working in Fontographer with help from Neil Sofge, created a digital font based on my own pen lettering. I began using the font on Marvel work early in 1991 and, in November 1992, I hired John “JG” Roshell to work in the studio with me to help handle my steadily increasing workload.

In a 2000 interview with Martin Strong (From the Balloon Tales website), JG said this about his interest in fonts:

I guess I was in junior high when it occurred to me that there were such things as typefaces; that it wasn’t a coincidence the lettering style on a record sleeve matched what I had seen on a store sign or in a magazine. I tried to mimic fonts like Eurostile and Gill Sans by hand, and then I discovered sheets of Letraset rub-on letters, and used those a lot for band flyers and student-council type stuff in high school. Once I got on a Mac for the first time, though, it was all over. The idea that I could just type stuff and change the lettering style instantly was mind-blowing. I went to UCLA and majored in design, though most of the practical knowledge I gained was from my on-campus job in the advertising department, designing all the printed materials for the student union under the supervision of a team of professional designers.

The job of designing type just fell into my lap. A friend of a friend [Starkings] was looking for someone to help input comic lettering into his computer. I was always a big Spider-Man fan, so I jumped at the chance. I started inputting the type for low profile Marvel books like CAGE and HELLSTORM. Soon Richard was letting me make updates to the font in Fontographer, and before long I had created a more accurate version of his hand-lettering as well as fonts based on some of his sound effect and display styles.

From WOLVERINE AND THE PUNISHER: DAMAGING EVIDENCE #3, Dec 1993, image © Marvel

Richard recalls the first full book and series he used his fonts on was this one, though there were some shorts in MARVEL SUPER- HEROES that preceded it.

From MARVELS #1, Jan 1994, image © Marvel
From MARVELS #4, April 1994, image © Marvel

In 2014, JG Roshell told me about the evolution of his and Richard’s fonts:

It was a gradual process. The first year, I made some tweaks to the font that Richard created, and made a couple of sound effects fonts (Zoinks, Clobberin Time, Phases On Stun). Late ’93 or early ’94 I created a new version of his pen lettering from scratch, which became Hedge Backwards.  For better or worse, MARVELS remains a document of our process — Issue #1 is Richard’s original font, #2-3 are my tweaks, and #4 is the new version.

Original Comicraft logo by Starkings and Roshell, 1993

By 1993, Starkings named their lettering studio Comicraft, and their workload was growing. The founding of Image Comics in 1992 meant that many of the more established letterers were being lured away by the Image founders, and Marvel turned to Comicraft to pick up the slack. Richard told me:

Eventually, word of our quick turnaround times made its way to WildStorm, so pretty quickly we were lettering for Image too. Working with WildStorm’s production department, we pretty much pioneered an all-digital lettering workflow.

Workflow

If you compare these charts you can imagine the savings in time, effort and money an all-digital comics workflow could provide. For one thing, the traditional workflow usually involved an entirely separate company to produce color separations, adding lots of time and expense. For another, once letterers and colorists were in the digital workflow, they could be required to make corrections on their own work instead of having it done by production staffers, usually with better results, and saving the company money. I suspect either Image’s WildStorm Studio or Malibu Comics were first to go all digital on at least some titles. Both were apparently heading there by mid 1994, with the help of in-house digital coloring staffs. WildStorm was using Comicraft for some of their lettering. Both companies were encouraging their freelance letterers to made digital versions of their fonts, or hiring letterers already using their own fonts like Roxanne Starr and Willie Schubert.

Edd Hendricks was hired by Malibu in 1992 initially to create a digital coloring system on Mac computers. In 2014, Edd told me:

Once I had that up and running, and we had hired a staff to take care of that system, my next two tasks were to set up an in-house digital film department, so we could send finished film straight to the printers, and to create a digital lettering system. I’d say I started working on the lettering workflow in early 1994, and I developed three typefaces. The first one was based loosely on someone else’s work, and I changed things up so the differences between mine and theirs was significant enough. The other two were totally my creations. Funny how those take longer…

I’d guess I started putting the digital lettering in place in mid-1994, and I’m trying to recollect some of the titles I worked on. A couple issues of DEEP SPACE NINE, FIREFOX. The change from hand lettering was gradual, and we still had some books that would continue to be hand-lettered (mostly the painted books, where the creator insisted on it). By the time Marvel bought us at the end of 1994, maybe a third of the titles were all-digital, with plans in place to go completely digital in 1995. Marvel continued shrinking the Malibu staff month by month until everything was locked up toward the end of 1996. I left and opened a design shop, where I continued to letter comics, primarily for Rikki Rokket of Poison fame, although other jobs popped up here and there, but I never really gained traction with anyone else. And that’s my short story of lettering in the world of comics.

Back at Marvel, Comicraft initially met resistance to their computer fonts, and was often given low-selling books to work on, but in time their quick turnaround and quality led to plenty of work. By 1996 they were doing 25 to 50 titles per month, and hiring additional staff, all working in the Comicraft style as directed by Starkings, using fonts largely created by Roshell from Richard’s hand lettering or JG’s own designs.

Whizbang font sample by Studio Daedalus, © 1993 Andre Kuzniarek

In 1993 the first commercially available font with the look of comics lettering arrived, Whizbang. The first ad I’ve found was in the July 30, 1993 issue of Comics Buyer’s Guide. The look of the font suggests it was scanned from printed comics.

From BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT #1, June 1986, lettering by John Costanza, image © DC Comics

The style reminds me of John Costanza. though he told me he had nothing to do with it. It was apparently designed by Andre Kuzniarek. The font was quickly bought by comics creators and companies, and was soon being used everywhere. John Costanza was a popular and prolific letterer whose first comics credits date to 1969. He worked on dozens of titles for DC, Marvel and others from that point on. Some time in the early 1990s Costanza created his own font from his hand lettering.

From CAPTAIN AMERICA #444, Oct 1995, image © Marvel

One thing to notice in the Costanza sample above is the font does not have the serif I used in most comics fonts for personal pronouns, only the single vertical line version. John’s own font predates the release of Whizbang. I’ve written more about John’s career and his font HERE.

The success and omnipresence of Whizbang had an impact on letterers. Creating fonts was, and remains, difficult, but many came to hate the look of Whizbang, including Richard Starkings, and he decided he should offer some of his own fonts for sale as a better alternative, and perhaps capture some of the Whizbang market. JG Roshell remembers:

In 1993 we licensed Richard’s lettering fonts to a software company that made screen savers. Sharing them actually turned out to be really fortunate — our office was burglarized and all the computers taken, and they were able to send the fonts back to us!

Comicrazy™ by Comicraft

We started selling Comicrazy commercially at the San Diego Comic-Con in the summer of 1995, then released a few more (Zoinks, Clobberin Time, Phases On Stun and Pulp Fiction) around Christmas of that year. 

While Whizbang has been the only font from Studio Daedalus to date, Comicraft went on to become a major vendor of comic book fonts, and continues to release new ones regularly. Comicraft also continues to letter comics, and has moved into publishing with Starkings written titles like ELEPHANTMEN.

Comic Sans fonts designed by Vincent Connare for Microsoft, 1994

In 1994 designer Vincent Connare was working at Microsoft on the program Microsoft Bob, aimed at children. Connare was unhappy with the fonts available, and according to a 2009 Wall Street Journal article, pulled out the two comic books he had in his office, BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT and WATCHMEN, and with them as inspiration, drew letters for his new font, Comic Sans, on a computer screen with a mouse. Let’s compare those three things.

Panel from WATCHMEN #10, July 1987, image © DC Comics, and some of the same text in Comic Sans, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions
Panel from BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT #4, Dec 1986, image © DC Comics, and some of the same text in Comic Sans, original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Comparing the lettering in these panels with the samples using the same text, it’s clear Comic Sans is not much like either. Years of lettering experience by Dave Gibbons and John Costanza are one factor, another is that Connare was drawing with a mouse, a difficult way to draw anything. Beyond that, there’s no sans serif “I,” so all uses of the letter must use the serif one. This looks particularly bad to letterers and perceptive comics fans. There’s no bold italic, so the only option for emphasis is bold, the same letters made thicker. If it wasn’t for its unfortunate name, the font Connare designed would be an unlikely choice for lettering comics, but because of the name, many assume it’s the perfect choice. Comic Sans works fine in its original role of a font for children intended to be used as mixed case. For anything else, Comic Sans fails miserably in my view, especially when the subject or message is meant to be serious. The font has met much scorn, and employing it for anything related to comics is unlikely to go over well.

We’ll look at more digital fonts created by letterers in Part 6.

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

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