The Rise of Digital Lettering, Part 6

Chris Eliopoulos, 2012, photo by John Lamparski

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, followed the trend a few years later. Chris Eliopoulos began working at Marvel in 1989, and was soon lettering many of their titles by hand.

From THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #17, May 1991, pen lettering by Chris Eliopoulos, image © Marvel

When Marvel began moving toward an all-digital workflow, Chris was one of several letterers who began creating and using his own digital fonts to keep getting work at Marvel and other publishers. In 2014, Chris told me:

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.

From BACKLASH #12, Sept 1995, digital lettering by Chris, © Image Comics

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 also used his fonts at other publishers like Marvel.

From ULTIMATE X-MEN #20, Sept 2002, digital lettering by Eliopoulos, image © Marvel

In 2002, then Marvel president Bill Jemas, who preferred mixed case lettering on all comics as seen in the example above, asked Chris to put together a studio to produce 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 was soon handling most of Marvel’s lettering, and continues to do so today. VC has a staff of about a half dozen letterers. Some who have worked under the Virtual Calligraphy name in the past and currently are Joe Caramagna, Cory Petit, Rus Wooton, Dave Sharpe, Randy Gentile, Clayton Cowles, Joe Sabino, Travis Lanham, and Ariana Mahar. All their lettering is with fonts created by Eliopoulos for Marvel, as far as I know.

Jon Babcock, 2014, from his Facebook page

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.

From THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #371, Late Dec 1992, pen lettering by Babcock

Jon remembers creating his first fonts in 1993. He told me,

The first time I used my fonts, I hated them in print and revised everything.

From JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #513, Oct 1997, digital lettering by Jon

Jon may have been the first Marvel staffer using Fontographer, and his digital fonts were very similar to the lettering of Tom Orzechowski rather than what he’d been doing earlier. In 1994 or 1995 he gave digital lettering training sessions for other Marvel staffers and letterers. In 2014 he told me:

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. Despite these efforts, much of the Marvel lettering work went to Comicraft for a few years starting in 1996, then to Virtual Calligraphy. Jon has continued to do digital lettering for various publishers.

Janice Chiang, 2009, and her hand lettering from LIFE WITH ARCHIE #13, Oct 2011, image © Archie Comics

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…

From DEMON DRIVEN OUT #3, Jan 2004, image © DC Comics

…but in the past years she’s gradually picked up more digital work from various publishers, as seen above, has done hand lettering for Archie Comics, and has worked for Papercutz and Storm King Productions. As Janice told me when I saw her in New York in 2014, “We are survivors.” You can read more about her career in THIS interview, and I’ve written much more about her lettering HERE.

Kurt Hathaway with a sample of his pen 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 remembered in 2014:

I joined Image Comics just after their first titles hit the stands. My first book for them was YOUNGBLOOD #2. In ’93 or ’94, when I was at Image, I discovered Fontographer and put my first font together. 

From GHOST RIDER ANNUAL #1, Oct 1993, image © Marvel

The first job I recall doing with it was GHOST RIDER ANNUAL #1. The editor was Fabian Nicieza. I brought the job 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.

TrollOnceaHero1_1994

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 [1999], 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 and others. I’ve written more about his lettering in THIS article.

Todd Klein and Tom Orzechowski, Dallas Fantasy Fair 1990, image © Lawrence G. Beck

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 mainstream professional lettering credits date from Marvel work in 1973, where he soon blossomed into one of their best letterers, especially on 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. While Tom remains a strong champion of hand lettering, he was also an early user of computer lettering, especially on Japanese comics translated for the American market he worked on in the early 1990s. In 2014, Tom remembered:

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.

From NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WING #1, Nov 1988, © Viz Comics

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.

From ORION #6, July 1993, Dark Horse, early version of Tom’s font

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.

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

Susie Lee, 2014, and panel from OH MY GODDESS! #41, April 2012, Dark Horse, lettered by Lee with Tom’s font

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. In 2014, Susie said:

My first job for Tom was the last chapter of Masumune Shirow’s ORION. 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. 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 continued to use it 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.

From DEATHBLOW #20, Oct 1995, © Image Comics

Like others, I had been watching the development of digital lettering and comic book fonts by David Cody Weiss, John Byrne and Comicraft. I came to believe it was the wave of the future and one I should be surfing myself. I met Richard and JG Roshell of Comicraft at the 1993 San Diego Comic-Con, as well as other letterers, and talk of digital lettering was rampant. The following year, I was working on DEATHBLOW for the WildStorm studio at Image Comics, and they were pressing me to begin working digitally. I contacted Richard and asked if I could commission Comicraft to make a few fonts for me, and we agreed on a price. I lettered a bunch of samples for JG to scan and create the fonts in Fontographer. Later in 1994, I purchased my first Mac computer, the original Power Mac, as well as an Apple scanner and printer. In January 1995, I received the fonts from Comicraft, which Richard called “Todd Klone,” a name I found funny and kept. I had also bought Fontographer and was soon under the hood of my new fonts figuring out what JG had done, making tweaks on the letter shapes, and before long creating new fonts of my own for things like sound effects and titles. I continued to make fonts regularly over the next ten years, building up a library of over 100 fonts. DEATHBLOW #20 was the first issue I lettered digitally using my own fonts, and over the next ten years my workload gradually shifted from mostly hand-lettering to mostly digital.

The 1990s were time of turmoil for letterers in comics. Once digital lettering became possible, it was just a matter of time before the comics publishers adopted it. An all-digital workflow offered many advantages for them, saving time, expense, and materials. It also offered flexibility for reprints in other languages they hadn’t had before. Image and Malibu were early adopters. In 1996 Comicraft became essentially a digital production department for Marvel, and most of their hand-letterers were forced to change with the times or move on. DC held out until 2003, and at that time pushed out letterers who wouldn’t or couldn’t go digital, like Gaspar Saladino. Of the older companies, only Archie Comics retained the original methods for another decade or so before switching some work to digital lettering, though hand lettering is still being done there. Artists, and especially inkers, generally hated digital, as they had more to draw and ink once the lettering wasn’t on the art. That also hurt their sales of original art to comics fans, who preferred the pages with lettering. Letterers and colorists who wanted to stay in comics had to step up and buy expensive equipment and software and learn how to use it. Letterers had to create their own fonts or use commercial ones, making their work less likely to stand out from the crowd. Much anger was directed at the pioneers of digital lettering, especially Comicraft. Alan Moore once said:

You can always recognize a pioneer — he’s the one lying face down in the dirt, pointing the way, with arrows in his back.

Todd Klein and Clem Robins, 2014

Clem Robins began lettering for DC Comics in 1977, around the same time I did. In 2014 he told me:

I bought Fontographer around 1997, but didn’t put together a font for a couple of years, maybe 2000. The first time I used it in something that got published was in 100 BULLETS #34 [May 2002, DC Comics]. Thirteen years later, I’ve got six different exclamation marks and six different question marks in my body copy fonts just to introduce variety. I’ve grown to love digital lettering. I think the work I’m doing now on a computer is far better than anything I ever did with a pen. Anyway, you can’t fight City Hall.

Lettering sample by Clem Robins using his own font

Clem goes to great lengths to make his fonts look like hand lettering by adding many variations of each letter, something made easier today with more advanced font formats like Opentype, where substitutions of alternate pairs of letters, or even whole words, can be automated. Clem’s fonts preserve the uneven lines and edges of pen lettering, something other font makers often get wrong. He continues to letter for DC, Dark Horse, and other publishers. I’ve written more about his lettering in THIS article.

John Workman and Frank Thorne, 2010

John Workman began drawing and lettering comics in the 1960s, and has had a long and celebrated career. He continues to letter some comics by hand, but has also devised an unusual approach to digital lettering. He uses a Wacom tablet and stylus and draws the letters digitally over scans of the art. 

From TURF #1, April 2010, © Image Comics
From TURF #2, June 2010, © Image Comics

In the samples above, the lettering for TURF #1 was done the traditional way on paper. For issue #2, he used the Wacom tablet. I find it hard to tell the difference. In 2014 John told me:

The trade-off is that the lettering I do with the Wacom takes longer than someone typing a comic font. It takes about the same time as lettering on the art.

John feels his method works for him because it maintains the humanity in his lettering better than a font could. I’ve written much more about John’s lettering in THIS article.

Jim Chadwick and Ken Lopez, 2018

As the 2000s progressed, more changes came to the comics lettering field. When DC Comics went to an all-digital workflow in 2003, letterer Ken Lopez joined the staff to help oversee a new in-house digital lettering group.

From MARC SPECTOR: MOON KNIGHT #14, May 1990, hand lettered by Ken Lopez, image © Marvel

Ken had begun his comics career at Marvel in 1986 in the bullpen, and soon was doing lots of freelance for the company. He switched to DC Comics in 1994, and once on staff, created new fonts for the company’s staff letterers.

From SUPERMAN: RED SON #1, June 2003, digital lettering by Ken Lopez

Ken helped get DC’s in-house lettering department started, managed by Nick Napolitano, and for a few years they were lettering many DC titles, but over time those staff letterers went freelance, and while there are still a few DC staffers who letter, most DC titles are once again lettered freelance, now with digital fonts. Some current letterers who came through this process are Travis Lanham, Phil Balsman, Rob Leigh, Steve Wands, Jared K. Fletcher, Sal Cipriano, Taylor Esposito, Dezi Sienty and Carlos Mangual. In the long run, publishers have found that lettering by freelancers is more cost-effective, though having a few staff letterers helps out in a deadline crunch and for last-minute changes. Ken Lopez and Nick Napolitano continue to work on the DC Comics staff as far as I know. I’ve written more about Ken’s lettering in THIS article.

Pat Brosseau, 2020, from his Facebook page

Letterer Pat Brosseau is an example of the kind of varied career path some letterers needed to take in the last two decades to remain in the business. Pat began hand lettering for a number of companies in 1985.

From HELLBOY: WAKE THE DEVIL #3, Aug 1996, Dark Horse, image © Mike Mignola

In 2000 he had fonts made from his hand lettering by Comicraft, and used them on some projects, but continued to hand letter books like HELLBOY. In 2004 he joined DC Comics as part of their in-house lettering department and worked there until 2012, using fonts licensed by DC, as well as the in-house fonts created by Ken Lopez.

From BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #4, Oct 2020, lettered by Pat with his font, image © DC Comics

In 2011 Pat had new versions of his fonts made by Blambot’s Nate Piekos, and since then has used them as a freelancer again for a variety of companies. Through being flexible, Pat continues his long lettering career today. I’ve written more about his lettering in THIS article.

Nate Piekos, 2020
Blambot logo ® by Nate Piekos

In 2002 Nate Piekos entered the scene with Blambot. Piekos began lettering and designing fonts in 1998 for his own work.

From X-MEN: FIRST CLASS #1, Nov 2006, digital lettering by Piekos, image © Marvel

Today, Blambot offers a wide variety of digital fonts in many different styles, rivaling the scope of Comicraft. Both companies have broadened their catalogs by developing custom fonts for artists, letterers, and intellectual property owners and putting those fonts on sale with permission. They also do custom fonts that are not for sale, and continue to letter comics too.

One thing the ready availability of commercial comic book fonts has brought into the market is a flood of new would-be letterers. As with many things in comics, it’s harder to do well than it looks, but plenty are trying, and with commercial fonts, any attempt is likely to at least be readable. This has produced a buyer’s market and lowered rates for lettering substantially, making it harder to earn a living as a comic book letterer. Those with good track records for quick turnaround, accurate work and flexible schedules find it easier to keep getting the work they need, but it’s a much trickier career path now than it was in the past. The ease of making lettering changes has also led to letterer abuse. Some writers and publishers now think it’s okay to have a first-draft script lettered, then have it all redone later, sometimes more than once, without paying the letterer for those rewrites. Letterers today are expected to be able to handle all areas of comics production, essentially becoming the conduit for producing print-ready final comics work. Again, this is something often not compensated for financially.

Progress is always a trade-off, and it’s rarely reversible. Hopefully the cream will rise to the top, and those doing the best lettering work will be rewarded with more of it and more pay for it, as well as the acknowledgment and praise of their employers and the rest of the comics industry. Hopefully. If you’re reading this, perhaps you can be part of that better future for letterers and for comics.

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

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