A Lettering Sampler © Todd Klein, 1993.
I arrived at my first San Diego Comic-Con in July of 1993 with this print to sell. It’s something of a diatribe in favor of hand lettering over type, but despite what the print says, I had been using computers for some time, just not for lettering. I’d worked with very primitive computers in a non-comics job in the early 1970s, and in 1984 bought a KayPro II primarily for writing. It had no graphics capability at all, but when I needed lettering that looked just like typing, I could print out and paste down type from it. I considered getting the first Apple Mac computer instead, but at the time didn’t think I would use it for graphics, and the KayPro was cheaper. Like other letterers, in the early 90s I’d been watching the development of comics fonts by David Cody Weiss, John Byrne and Richard Starkings with interest, and came to believe it was the wave of the future, and one I should be surfing myself. I met JG and Rich of Comicraft at that 1993 San DIego con, as well as other letterers like Bill Oakley, and discussions of computer fonts for lettering were rampant and sometimes heated. More on that later.
Todd Klein at the San Diego Comic-Con, 1994.
By the following year I was working on DEATHBLOW for WildStorm, and they were pressing me to create fonts from my hand lettering and supply them with digital lettering files for their all-digital workflow. I was coming around to the idea, as the book was always late, and often I would have to stay up all night to finish it so I could Fedex the lettering to California. I knew I had a steep learning curve ahead, but felt it would pay off later with time savings, once I got going. I think it was at San Diego in ’94 that I asked Richard if he would make fonts for me I could use on DEATHBLOW, and we agreed on a price. Some time in the fall I lettered up a bunch of samples for JG to scan and create the font from. Rich cautioned me not to be too precious about it, but just do the lettering as I would any other, and give them lots of each letter and symbol to choose from.
Late in 1994 I purchased my first Mac, the original Power Mac with a whopping 1GB of disk space, as well as an Apple LaserWriter printer and Apple scanner. I also bought Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and lots more software would soon follow. Despite the time it took to learn it all, I found the world of desktop publishing fascinating and fun. I think it was January of 1995 when the above floppy disk arrived from Comicraft with my fonts on it. Rich had named my dialogue font “Todd Klone,” which I thought was quite funny, and it’s remained so ever since. I had Fontographer version 4.1 on hand, and I was soon under the hood of my fonts figuring out what JG had done, making lots of tweaks on the letter shapes, and creating new fonts of my own, using the Comicraft ones as a model. I knew I needed some display fonts for sound effects and titles, so created several of those, and many more fonts over the next years.
Here’s part of the hand lettering I did to create an upper and lower case font, all lettered the same size I would have done it on comics art. Display fonts were lettered larger, but dialogue fonts work best with all the quirks and flaws of normal hand lettering rather than a more “perfect” and careful version.
By early summer of 1995 I felt I was ready to tackle an entire issue of DEATHBLOW, and these are some samples lettered with my fonts from issue 20 dated Oct. 1995, the first book I lettered completely on the computer. It didn’t look entirely like my hand lettering, it lacked spontaneity and the display fonts were more regular and rigid than what I’d have done by hand, but I felt it was close enough. And the computer made doing effects like white lines on black and drop shadows easier. I’d already been using my display fonts for cover lettering for DC Comics, but DC wasn’t keen on digital lettering yet, and those had to be printed out and sent in to DC for scanning.
I snuck my fonts in at DC here and there where it made sense, as in the examples above from the same page. The caption at left is hand-lettered, the one at right is my font. I think it’s a pretty good match, and I doubt many readers noticed, maybe none. Using the font at right, I could reverse it myself, white letters on black, to make sure it would look good when printed. DC held out for mostly hand lettering until 2003, when they made the transition to an all-digital workflow, and hand lettering was no longer wanted. Until then, I continued to do hand lettering for them, while also lettering books digitally for Image, Marvel and others. Gradually the percentage of my hand lettering work dwindled until, by the late 2000s it was nearly gone. Today I think the only publisher still regularly using hand lettering is Archie Comics.
The 1990s were definitely a era of turmoil for letterers in comics. Once digital lettering became possible, it was just a matter of time before 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. Artists and especially inkers generally hated it, as it meant they had more to draw or ink on the page, once the lettering wasn’t there. It also hurt sales of comics art to fans. Without the lettering, comics art is just pictures, the story is missing. Letterers (and colorists) faced the hardest challenges though, needing to buy expensive computers and software and learn new working methods if they wanted to stay in the market. Letterers also had to create their own fonts, a difficult task, or use commercial comic book fonts, thereby making the work they did less likely to stand out from the crowd. Many feared the changes, and much anger and hatred were directed at the pioneers in digital lettering. 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,” It was true for comics lettering, and there are still hard feelings from the 90s, when some letterers unwilling to go digital, or behind the curve, were pushed out of the business. Others came around later and reluctantly, often at a cost to their ability to find work.
Ken Bruzenak began his career assisting artist Jim Steranko with a home renovation project, and worked his way into comics as a letterer for Steranko starting in 1981. In 1983 he began lettering Howard Chaykin’s AMERICAN FLAGG for First Comics, and soon gained attention and accolades for his clever use of type, and a wide variety of styles. His long association with Chaykin continues today. In recent correspondence, Ken told me:
By 1996 I was using the computer for credits and titles, and occasionally sound effects. I was toying with my own font, but the learning and software curve was pretty steep and I had a slow machine. Chaykin’s CENTURY WEST for Disney Italia (2006) was the first whole book I used the computer on, then POWERS, and everything since. I use Photoshop because it is much more flexible, color friendly, and intuitive than Illustrator. Also, when you crunch down the lettering for shipping, it is essentially rasterized anyway, so why waste the time and eye-strain in Illustrator? I do logos in Illustrator, however, so they can be rescaled more easily if a poster is needed. Basically, I hate Illustrator vectors, but do see their usefulness at times. For the most part, Chaykin designs with the script and sound effects in mind, and he is an excellent page designer, so I can use lettering more imaginatively as a rhythmic device, pacing the way the words are absorbed, and most importantly, keeping the balloons in the background, not sprawling all over the characters and scenery.
MR. MONSTER is still hand-lettered, however, because Michael Gilbert still likes all-in-one comic pages. I hear from him every other year or so and have to dig out the pens and guides, and am always amazed at how much faster the hand-lettering is to produce. It is also more exciting to be part of the process, reacting to the original pencils. Computer lettering is much more sterile, and the font sizes are becoming microscopic for no particular reason than writer’s conceit — just a lot harder to read. And those upper and lower case balloons are sometimes indecipherable. Great way to attract new readers — books you can’t read on paper, and have to enlarge on a Nook or Kindle, completely destroying the page and panel sizing as a format for storytelling.
So, no, I don’t see the computer as having greatly “improved” lettering beyond making it possible for the unskilled to undercut pricing on the talented. It has made comics superficially slicker, reducing the appearance of amateurish ballpoint pen and crude fonts, but it has also made everything tiny and less legible, and easier to second-guess and move balloons around to cover up the art unnecessarily. And yet, I do love the comics format.
Clem Robins began lettering for DC comics in 1977, about the same time I did. His take on digital lettering is more positive than Ken’s. He wrote recently:
I bought Fontographer around 1997, I think, but didn’t actually put together a font for a couple of years. maybe 2000 or 2001. The first time I used it in something that got published was in 100 BULLETS, issue #34 I think. the “Counterfifth Detective” arc. I didn’t use it for the whole story, but I slipped it in on one page, just to see if it would be noticeable when it got published. I chose a page with nothing but captions, so that the mechanically perfect Illustrator ellipses wouldn’t appear, and be so obviously different from the balloons I drew with a pen and a template.
Thirteen years later, I’ve got six different exclamation marks, six different question marks, four different commas and four different periods in my body copy fonts, just to introduce variety. When the whole DC procedure went digital in 2003, we were finishing up a strange Grant Morrison miniseries called THE FILTH. It had been hand lettered, but the final installment was late, and came in for lettering after DC had gone digital. so, much against everyone’s intentions, that last installment was done digitally. I must admit, after all these years, I’ve grown to love digital lettering. I don’t like it on covers or logos, but for interior work, it can be terrific. 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.
Clem goes to great lengths to make his fonts look just like his hand lettering by adding lots of variations on each letter, something made easier today with Opentype fonts, where ligatures can automatically replace chosen letter combinations, reinforcing the feel of variety. Case in point, Clem has been lettering HELLBOY since the series’ Volume 6 collection of 2006. Somewhere between Volumes 6 and 9 he made the transition to his fonts, but I can’t tell where!
John Workman began his multi-faceted comics career in the early 1970s as a writer and artist as well as letterer for Mike Friedrich’s STAR*REACH. He landed a staff job in the DC Comics production department in 1975, and began lettering for DC. That’s where we met, and where John helped me get started with lettering in 1977. John continues to letter comics by hand for artist Walter Simonson, as above, and Archie Comics, and has made some surprising adaptations to the digital process. He recently wrote:
As regular on-the-board lettering disappeared, I was bothered by the blandness of not all, but certainly the majority of computer lettering. During those times when I used a commercial comics typeface to letter comics (always the decision of the client) I went in and played with the available typefaces and tried to make them look more natural and human.
Cliff Chiang and some guys from a web-site called “Comic Geek Speak” urged me to cut out the middle man and to start doing hand-lettering on the computer by way of a Wacom tablet. At the time I’d been lettering stuff by hand on vellum at the original art size, basing that lettering on xeroxes of the penciled art. When I got scans of the inked art (down to printed size), I would scan the lettering that I’d done and reduce it to the printed size and then place it digitally on the scans. I found myself going in and “cleaning up” a lot of the hand-lettering that I’d done. It was a silly thing to do in most cases, since I was looking at the letters on-screen at a gigantic size that seemed to highlight wonky elements of that lettering. The same stuff reduced to printed size looked fine without any “fixing.” I was doing the lettering on some short TORCHWOOD stories for Titan, and editor Mark Eden was amenable to me experimenting a bit and lettering those stories by way of the Wacom tablet. It worked well and was faster per-page than the way that I had been doing my “hybrid” lettering.
A word about that…the trade-off is that the lettering I do with the Wacom takes longer to do than someone “typing” a comic font. It takes about the same time as lettering on-the-boards. If you look at the issues of Jonathan Ross and Tommy Lee Edwards’s TURF, I lettered the first issue on the boards using traditional pens and then did the rest of the issues with the Wacom. The later issues may be a bit more “precise” than the first one, but they’re pretty close in their look. That’s because, whether you’re lettering using a Wacom or drawing using it, there is a need to be “deliberately sloppy” in order to maintain a humanity to the work.
Walt Simonson’s new RAGNAROK is lettered on-the-boards in the traditional way. I love it. It’s kind of like walking on a tightrope with no net below. Of course, if I really mess up, there are always white-out and paste ups to save the day. I’ve never created a dialogue/narrative balloon typeface based on my own stuff. Maybe I will sometime, but I’m not sure. I do really enjoy creating logos on the computer. The “TURF” one is an example, as is the most recent “Hulk” logo. I’ve also done story titles using the computer for all the stories that I’ve lettered for the last 14 years or so.
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. 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. Ken continues at DC as their cover editor. The DC in-house lettering program is headed by Nick Napolitano, and handles many of the DC Universe titles, though over time staff letterers have left and become lettering freelancers, so while the DC freelance lettering market shrank in 2003, it has expanded again. Some who have come through the program, I believe, are Travis Lanham, Phil Balsman, Rob Leigh, Steve Wands and Jared K. Fletcher. DC staffers who currently letter for the company include Sal Cipriano, Taylor Esposito, Dezi Sienty and Carlos Mangual.
Comicraft has been supplying a wide variety of commercial comic book fonts since 1995, but in 2002 Nate Piekos entered the scene with Blambot. Piekos began lettering and designing fonts in 1998 for his own work. Both Comicraft and Blambot now offer a wide variety of comic book fonts for dialogue, sound effects and display lettering. Both have broadened their catalog by developing custom fonts for artists, letterers or properties, and putting them on sale with permission. They also do custom fonts that are not for sale.
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 1986. 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, mainly using fonts created by Comicraft other than his own, ones that were licensed by DC, as well as the in-house fonts created by Ken Lopez. In 2011 Pat had new versions of his fonts made by Blambot’s Nate Piekos, and is now using them as a freelancer again for a variety of companies.
Today new letterers are entering the field who have no experience with hand lettering, and find the idea of putting ink letters on comics art frightening. Most use commercial fonts from Comicraft and Blambot, or other similar sources. I collected a few comments from some of them.
Jim Campbell wrote: Pretty sure it was 1999, after hand-lettering a few strips I’d done for UK small press, I wondered if I could transfer my day-job graphic design skills to digital lettering. I put together my own dialogue font in Fontographer but, in all honesty, it was rubbish! I dabbled for a few years, but didn’t really move into pro lettering until 2008, when I started adding professional fonts to my collection.
Hde Ponsonby-Jones wrote: When I started lettering in 2008, it was after a LONG break from comics. In the early ’90s, I still saw comics that were hand lettered, but by the time I’d started freelancing, digital lettering was the long established standard. I still meet people today who seem oblivious to that fact, or mistakenly regard digital lettering as an inferior option. I learned early on that it wasn’t inferior at all, but another means of accomplishing a task, and another set of tools to get the best out of. As with any new tool set, proficiency with them requires practice.
Martin A. Pérez wrote: I started in 2009, and for real in 2011. I used Blambot free fonts, and learned a lot from Jim Campbell’s blog, as well as reading tutorials by others like Richard Starkings.
Jim Keplinger wrote: I started in 2001 when my letterer upped and joined the Navy. As a writer first, I was very slow in the beginning, editing and reading as I went. In time I learned to be a letterer (thank you Digital Webbing), eventually making my living at it full-time for several years.
One thing the ready availability of commercial comic book fonts has brought to 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 of people are giving it a go. This has produced a buyer’s market and lowered rates for lettering substantially, making it harder to earn a living just with lettering. When I started at DC Comics in 1977, my page rate was $5. Like most comics jobs, freelance lettering has almost always been paid by the page. Lettering rates went up regularly until the comics boom of the mid 1990s, and then began to slide down again. Today I sometimes hear of publishers and creators offering that same $5 per page for lettering and finding takers. On average lettering rates are better than that, especially for those with a good track record, but new letterers are having to find ways to increase their working speed dramatically to make lettering worth taking on.
Does present day digital lettering reflect a general loss of quality since the hand-lettering days? Probably. But the worst lettering using a readable font is better than the worst hand lettering that’s unreadable, so perhaps it’s a wash. Has quality and craft been lost? No doubt. But then, the same thing could be said about the replacement of hand-lettered documents by typewriters in the 19th century. Progress is always a trade-off, and it’s rarely reversible. Hopefully the cream will rise to the top, and those doing the best work will be rewarded with more of it and more pay for it. Hopefully.
Rick Parker in the Marvel Bullpen, 1979, photo © Eliot R.Brown, and 2012.
The move in recent years to reading comics online or on handheld devices? Digital lettering is perfect for that. Need the lettering larger, smaller, or reformatted for different platforms? It’s much easier when the lettering is separate from the art rather than part of it. So, I don’t see hand lettering making a large comeback, though for now it’s still there for those who really want it. For example, veteran letterer Rick Parker has lately hand lettered the work of P. Craig Russell (and his collaborators) on the art for Craig’s graphic adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. Rick has never done any digital lettering, and had been away from the craft of hand lettering comics for many years, but his recent work with Russell, above, looks great. Like the current trend for new music on vinyl records, perhaps hand lettering can survive in a prestige niche market. And some artists and cartoonists that publish their own work still do everything on the art like the old days, and probably always will.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this series, I’ve spent lots of time doing it, and it couldn’t have happened without the help and cooperation of everyone quoted here. I thank each one of the letterers who participated. I also had research help from Maggie Thompson, John Wells, David Hopkins, Rick Marschall, Lou Mougin, Russ Maheras and Patrick Ford. I thank them as well.