The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 5


Jeff Smith, 1991, photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Writer/artist Jeff Smith began creating 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 cover dated July 1991, BONE © Jeff Smith.

Smith did everything on the comic 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 a little time was to create fonts from his own hand lettering.


The fonts began appearing in BONE #6, above, cover dated November, 1992. 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. Whenever the story called for larger display lettering or sound effects, Smith continued to do those by hand. There may have been other independent creators in the early 90s following the same plan, but Jeff Smith is the only one I’m aware of. A few years later, fonts sold by Comicraft and the Whizbang font from Studio Daedalus became the lettering solution for many self-publishers and small companies where the artist didn’t want to do all the lettering by hand, or hire someone to do it (more on each below). Jeff Smith continued to use his fonts on BONE and related spin-offs, helping preserve his unique style, and in 2012 Nate Piekos of Blambot reworked the fonts for Jeff, updating and improving them. Those custom fonts are not for sale.

JG Roshell and Richard Starkings

John “JG” Roshell and Richard Starkings of Comicraft, 2007.

Born and raised in England, Richard Starkings began working for Marvel UK, the British division of Marvel Comics, in 1984, first as a freelance letterer, then as a staffer in a variety of positions, ultimately as a Group Editor. While on staff he continued to do freelance lettering for the company as well as 2000 AD and others. The first lettering credit I’ve found in the Grand Comics Database is a nine-page story in CAPTAIN BRITAIN #4 dated April, 1985.


From BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE, 1988, © DC Comics, Inc.

From his early hand lettering days, Richard is probably best known for lettering the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE, a dream project for him. As the release date of the book was March, 1988, the work was probably done in 1987. In 1989 Richard relocated to America, working for a brief time in New York, then moving to Los Angeles. He continued to do hand lettering, mostly for Marvel, and in California began to work with graphic design programs like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator on Macintosh computers. Richard had seen the computer lettering being done by David Cody Weiss and John Byrne, and at the San Diego Comicon in 1991 he talked to Byrne about how he was doing it. Later that year he bought Fontographer and, with encouragement from Marvel editor Marc Siry and help from “super genius Rand employee, Neil Sofge,” Richard created the first computer font based on his hand lettering, Letterbot. Richard remembers he worked on the font one day a week for about a year with Sofge.



Richard recalls the first full book and series he used the font on was this one, with issue one dated Oct. 1993, though “there were some shorts in MARVEL SUPER- HEROES that preceded that.” Starkings lettered stories in issues 9-14 dated from April 1992 to Oct. 1993. Somewhere in there is the first appearance of his fonts.


From MARVELS #1 dated Jan. 1994, © Marvel.

In December, 1992, Richard hired John “JG” Roshell (then Gaushell) to work with him on his growing comics lettering business. In a 2000 interview with Martin Strong, JG remembered:

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 actually designing type really just fell into my lap. After I graduated, I was doing freelance design work, and a friend of a friend of my girlfriend 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. Richard Starkings had been a hand-letterer in England and the U.S. for a couple of years, and had purchased his first Mac and created a basic font of his hand-lettering. I started working for him in the winter of ’92, inputting the type for low-selling books like CAGE and HELLSTORM. Pretty soon he 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 MARVELS #4 dated April, 1994, © Marvel.

In recent correspondence, JG told me:

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.


Comicraft™ Logo by Starkings and Roshell, 2002.

By 1993, Starkings and Roshell were calling their lettering studio Comicraft, a name Richard came up with, and their workload was growing. The founding of Image Comics in 1992 provided them with a new market closer to home, and Image books often needed quick turnaround on both lettering and coloring.


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 recent correspondence, 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 and Good Lord how my memory fails me from there. 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 1/3 of the titles were all-digital, with plans in place to go completely all-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 lots more 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 by Studio Daedalus, © 1993 by Andre Kuzniarek.

In 1993 the first commercially available font with the look of comics hand lettering arrived on the market, Whizbang from Studio Daedalus. There’s very little information about the font available online.


First classified ad for Whizbang in COMICS BUYER’S GUIDE, thanks to Maggie Thompson for the search and the scan.

It was apparently designed by Andre Kuzniarek and is copyright 1993. The first advertisement I know of was in the July 30, 1993 COMICS BUYER’S GUIDE, as seen above. I haven’t found any early examples in printed comics, but I know there are plenty out there.


Here’s a larger sample I found online of the Bold Italic version, which suggests to me it was scanned from printed comics rather than original hand lettering, but that’s just a guess. The style reminds me of the work of letterer John Costanza, though he once told me he had nothing to do with it.


For comparison, here’s some of John Costanza’s hand lettering from THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, 1986, © DC Comics, Inc.


John Costanza, 1983, photo from Comics Interview #5.

John Costanza is a popular and prolific letterer whose first 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.


I’ve been unable to contact John to ask him about it, but here’s a sample from CAPTAIN AMERICA #444, Oct. 1995, © Marvel. One thing to notice 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. This is the earliest printed example I discovered, but Costanza lettered a huge amount of comics, so I’m sure there are previous ones out there. John Workman recalls seeing signs designed by Costanza on a Mac computer and pasted into his art in 1988 (but using standard commercial fonts). Italian letterer Diego Ceresa corresponded with John about his font in 1992 after reading about it in a DC newsletter. A sample of John’s font in a letter to Diego dated Oct. 1992 shows he was certainly using it by then. More research is needed to find the first use of John’s fonts. Costanza continued to letter many comics by hand, as well as drawing comics in cartoon style for DC’s Warner Brothers cartoon titles, Disney Comics and SIMPSONS comics. He retired a few years ago.

Whizbang was quickly bought by many comics creators and companies, especially small ones, and was soon being seen everywhere. Many letterers hated the look of the font, 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 (I can’t remember the name). 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!


We started selling Comicrazy [above] commercially at San Diego Comic-Con in [the summer of] 1995, then released a few more (Zoinks, Clobberin, Phases and PulpFiction) around Christmas of that year. (Comicrazy © Comicraft)

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 currently letters comics like ASTRO CITY digitally, and has moved into publishing with the Starkings-written title ELEPHANTMEN.


Dave Lanphear, with some early hand lettering samples, 1994.

Dave Lanphear began lettering for Malibu Comics in 1992. He told me recently:

In 1993, Albert Deschesnes and Edd Hendricks offered to digitize my hand-lettering to make a font the Malibu Art Department could use to do digital edits. Tim Eldred, Patrick Owsley and myself all demurred, though. We saw that as a prescription for trouble. A year later I was working at Comicraft. In 1995 or 96 I began making fonts for them starting with CCForked Tongue (I initially drew it for lettering I was doing by hand in EVIL ERNIE comics), and a calligraphic one for Jae Lee’s series, titled CCHellshock.

Dave went on to letter many comics for Marvel and other companies at Comicraft, and later was the in-house letterer and font designer for CrossGen. He continues to freelance for various companies. Dave is an example of the talented letterers employed by Comicraft in their boom years of the late 90s. Comicraft’s lettering output has declined considerably since then.

Next time, font creation by letterers increases in the mid 1990s. Other parts of this article and more that might interest you can be found on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.

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