The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 6


Chris Eliopoulos, Michael Heisler and Jon Babcock, recent photos found online.

The gradually increasing presence of digital fonts on comics from many publishers was catching the attention of those who made their living hand lettering for the medium, and some responded by making fonts of their own. Image comics, particularly their WildStorm studio led by Jim Lee, were encouraging letterers to use fonts for their all-digital workflow by 1994. Marvel Comics, at first resistant to that idea, began following suit a few years later. In recent correspondence, Chris Eliopolous remembered:

My first font was made by someone else. My father knew this guy and he used Fontographer and made up a font based on my hand lettering. This was around 1991. I wasn’t totally happy with it, so I bought Fontographer and started playing with it myself. I eventually tweaked the font to something I could work with. Looking back now, it was absolutely horrible, but it worked well-enough. I think the first work I did on the computer was with WildStorm.


Chris Eliopoulos lettering on THE STAND comics adaptation, 2008, © Stephen King.

Chris doesn’t remember the title where his fonts first appeared, but it was probably some time in 1993, and he was lettering entire books for WildStorm digitally by 1994. Chris used his fonts at other publishers like Marvel, and in 2002 then Marvel president Bill Jemas asked Chris to put together a studio to handle a large part of the Marvel Comics lettering. Chris was already getting some help with his workload under the name Virtual Calligraphy. He expanded that at Jemas’ request and his studio now handles most of Marvel’s lettering. VC has a staff of about a half dozen letterers. Some who have worked under the Virtual Calligraphy name are Joe Caramagna, Cory Petit, Rus Wooton, Dave Sharpe and Randy Gentile and all their lettering is with fonts created by Eliopoulos.


Some recent digital lettering by Michael Heisler for STAR WARS #3, Dark Horse.

Letterer Michael Heisler moved to San Diego, CA in May of 1992 to work for WildStorm as well, 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. 


Lettering by Jon Babcock from JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #513, Oct. 1997, © Marvel.

Jon Babcock’s earliest lettering credits are from Caliber Press in 1991. He joined the Marvel Comics staff in the early 1990s, hand lettering for them from late 1991, and remembers creating his first fonts in 1993. Jon told me, “The first time I used my fonts, I hated them in print and revised everything.” Jon may have been the first Marvel staffer using Fontographer, and in 1994 or 95 he gave a training session in it for other Marvel staffers. He remembers:

The basic idea was “we need to create a system wherein you all retain your identities as letterers and can approach each page in a similar way to how you do now.” That started with how to scan in letters and how to build fonts, and only Janice Chiang was able to get past that into how to put pages together in illustrator. It was tough because we were all overworked at the time with hand lettering, and this was like school on top of that.

Others attending the training sessions were Michael Higgins, Bill Oakley, Jack Morelli and Phil Felix. Most developed their own fonts at some point.


Janice Chiang, 2009, and her hand lettering from LIFE WITH ARCHIE #13, 2010.

Janice Chiang’s lettering career began at Marvel Comics, working in the bullpen, with a few credits in 1975, and lots more as a freelancer from 1981 on. She worked prolifically at Marvel, DC and other companies until the mid 1990s. When Marvel switched to an all-digital workflow in 1996, Janice’s computer fonts were not enough to keep her in favor, and her workload dwindled, but in the past years she’s gradually picked up more digital work from various publishers, as seen below, has done hand lettering for Archie Comics, and is now working for Papercutz.


Janice Chiang’s digital lettering from JOHN CARPENTER’S ASYLUM VOL. 1, 2013.

As Janice told me when I saw her in New York this year, “We are survivors.” You can read more about her career in THIS interview.


Kurt Hathaway with a sample of his hand lettering from 1993.

Kurt Hathaway began freelance lettering for DC and Marvel Comics in 1986. In the early 1990s he moved to California and as he remembers:

I joined Image Comics just after their first book hit the stands. My first book for them was YOUNGBLOOD #2 [cover dated July 1992]. In ’93 or ’94, when I was at Image, I discovered Fontographer and put my first font together.  The first job I recall doing with it was GHOST RIDER ANNUAL #1 [dated Oct. 1993].  The editor was Fabian Nicieza. I brought the job in to Marvel to deliver it.  As we talked about the computer in lettering, he mentioned that Richard Starkings was doing the same kind of thing.  Fabian showed me some pages Starkings had done. Turns out we were using similar techniques–with a difference. I was printing out the balloon copy only on sticky paper, sticking them on the art, then inking the balloons around them. This was to simulate real lettering as much as possible for the inker.  This would be on penciled boards.  Later, if I got inked boards, I’d ink the balloons around the copy on the sticky paper, cut them out and paste them down. Richard was pasting down full balloons on the penciled page.


Kurt Hathaway font from TROLL: ONCE A HERO #1, 1994, © Image Comics.

What I don’t recall is why I didn’t use it on an Image job right away.  Probably since Image was my bread and butter at the time, I wanted to make sure it would work before I used it there; to make sure the inkers weren’t complaining, and it wasn’t a disaster. It worked and I started doing all my books that way.  I liked the consistency (I was never crazy about my hand-lettering).  It took a while for me to get fast. Finally, I went all digital about 15 years ago, and that was another learning curve.

Kurt did lots of work for Image, DC Comics and others, and while pursuing a writing and film career continues to letter for Avatar Press.


Todd Klein and Tom Orzechowski, Dallas Fantasy Fair, 1990.

Letterer Tom Orzechowski got into comics through fandom, working with aspiring artists like Rich Buckler, Jim Starlin, and Al Milgrom beginning in 1968. His first professional lettering credits date from Marvel work in 1973, where he soon blossomed into one of their best letterers, especially the X-Men titles written by Chris Claremont. I admired Tom’s work there, and on Mike Friedrich’s STAR*REACH independent titles, so when we met in 1990, we had lots to talk about. In 1992 Tom began a long, celebrated run on Todd McFarlane’s SPAWN for Image Comics, and more recently hand lettered Erik Larsen’s SAVAGE DRAGON. While Tom remains a strong champion of hand lettering, he was also an early user of computer lettering, especially on the Japanese comics translated for the American market he worked on in the early 1990s. Tom remembers:

Toren Smith co-created Studio Proteus, an early manga translation and production company, in 1987-88, with translator Dana Lewis. Their plan was to acquire licenses for Japanese series, and provide translated and lettered material to existing U.S. publishers.

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NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND #1, Nov. 1988, Viz, hand lettered by Tom.

NAUSICAA was their first project, and [the first two series Tom lettered] ran from about ’88 to ’90. It was text heavy and sound effects intensive, and it was Toren’s suggestion that I consider developing a body copy font to help speed things along.


As Tom worked on a PC, he used this software rather than Fontographer.

I believe it was in 1992 that I bought my first computer, a PC, to run the rather primitive Publishers’ Type Foundry software. It took a while to coordinate the font output with the Windows/DOS programming (via Windows 2.85) and actually print out a specimen sheet. I think it took a third version before I had something halfway acceptable. I tweaked that font family a few times over the next half dozen years, and [Tom’s assistant] Susie Lee contributed her own version to the ongoing process.


An early version of Tom’s font on ORION #6 dated July 1993.

Over the years, I’ve come up with half a dozen different fonts…my standard book font, a looser one evocative of the prevailing look of the ’70s, a fairly deco style that suggests the look of the Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant pages, a looser version of that one, a whispery one, and something disjointed & frantic. There’s also a rather understated sound effects font that works well in most situations because it’s bold and doesn’t draw attention by being overly quirky. I didn’t begin using my fonts extensively until returning to Marvel in 2000, and held off using it on SPAWN for a few years after that. The look always struck me as too rigid, and I was too busy to begin a new one from scratch.

 The digital work has never been as enjoyable to me as the feeling of pen and ink. There’s a possibility of page design in our hands now, though, as the newer generations of pencilers don’t leave the tops of the panels essentially empty for our use. I find a lot of pleasure in balancing the priorities of script and art while placing the text and sound effects, approaching the page as a unit rather than as a set of discrete panels. When there’s an opportunity to work by hand, though, I’m right there.

Some of Tom’s work can be found on his WEBSITE.


Susie Lee in a recent photo.

Tom has worked with other letterers over the years, including his partner Lois Buhalis, sometimes working as Task Force X at Marvel, to keep up with his workload. In 1993 he hired Susie Lee to assist him. Susie remembers:

My first job for Tom was the last chapter of Masumune Shirow’s ORION [as shown above]. The font was already in use. I’m reminded of a time I had to hand-letter a speech balloon for lack of bold letters and that didn’t go over so well. I believe that’s what lit a fire under me to learn the software and create a complete font family with the glyphs he already had. Basically if Tom didn’t hand letter it, the font was used.


From OH MY GODDESS Volume 41, April 2012, lettered by Susie Lee with Tom’s font.

Tom had a sheet of vellum with hand lettering that he used to build his font. The glyphs of the original font were traced rather crudely and didn’t hold up very well in higher point sizes, so I retraced the letter forms. By the time I finished, Fontographer 1.0 (for Windows) was available and I generated Tom2K with that. Tom allowed me to use Tom2K on all of my Studio Proteus work and I still use it to this day on OH MY GODDESS! The version I’m using is probably not the most recent version of Tom’s font. I’m pretty certain that there’s a later version of it that Tom’s still poking at.

Susie’s work can be found on her Studio Cutie website.


Thom Zahler and a sample of his computer lettering from Claypool’s ELVIRA.

Thom Zahler began hand lettering in 1992, and he told me recently:

I started digitally lettering in 1995, maybe 1996. I had a copy of Fontographer, and created by first font from a scanned version of my lettering. I remember constantly refining the shapes and especially the kerning on them. I used it on the Looney Tunes and Tiny Toons stories that I did that year, the Promethean Comics work I did, and all the Motown Comics stuff. I believe I started by pasting or printing on label paper the lettering alone and then doing the balloons by hand. This seemed to keep the balloons organic and helped me when I had special effects lettering, like bursts and chunky alien effects.The font had upper and lower case, bold and italic. I even had some alternate character sets so when I had two E’s together, I could make them look different. I called it “FontZee”.


Thom is now best known for LOVE AND CAPES, the series he writes and draws for Image, where he uses Comicraft fonts. He said, “The volume of lettering I did was never so great that people really attached my particular style to me, so no one minded the switch.” LOVE AND CAPES is © Thom Zahler.

While hand lettering continued to be used in comics, it was beginning a gradual decline. Throughout the comics world, letterers were developing their own fonts, or investing in commercial ones to stay in business. I’ll continue next time with my own entry into the world of font creation and more. Other chapters of this article and further articles you might enjoy can be found on the COMICS CREATION page of my blog.

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