A new generation of letterers — my generation — began entering comics in the 1970s. What set us apart from many who came before was that we didn’t view working on comic books as a stepping stone to more prestigious and potentially lucrative work like comic strips, advertising, illustration, or fine art. We loved comics, we were readers and fans, and that’s where we wanted to be. Leading the charge was Tom Orzechowski, whose finely-crafted lettering I first saw at Marvel in the early 1970s. The example above is from perhaps his best-loved Marvel work, on X-MEN, a series where his unique title skills and elegant calligraphy, as featured on PHOENIX, were an important part of a very successful franchise. I’ve known Tom for many years, and I interviewed him by email in 2020 to help fill in details of his career. Quotes from that appear below.
Thomas Paul Orzechowski was born March 1, 1953 in Detroit, Michigan. He began reading comics when he was five. Tom wrote:
Most of what I saw were DCs…ACTION, DETECTIVE, BLACKHAWK, HOUSE OF SECRETS, JERRY LEWIS. What really caught my eye, though, were the Atlas monster and suspense comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko. DC’s covers were so dull by comparison.
Tom started going to the Detroit Triple Fan Fair when he was fourteen, in 1967.
It was $4 per day, which put a big dent in my budget. Their stated focus was on comic strips, films, and fantasy literature, and they had programming. But, all I cared about was the dealer room, which was about the size of a large living room. I bought a few Charlton hero comics and THUNDER AGENTS issues.
The following year, Tom joined the Fantasy Fans Comicollector Group and worked on their fanzine, the Fan Informer. Tom said the art in the club was better than what he could do, so he gravitated toward lettering, which no one else wanted to do. In addition to copy-editing their scripts, he was soon editing the zine. It was a talented group, many of whom would go on to pro careers in a few years, including Rich Buckler, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Mike Vosburg, Greg Theakston, Arvell Jones, Keith Pollard, Terry Austin, and Mike Netzer. Tom also met future pro writer Tony Isabella through some other fanzine work he did. That happened because he’d had a fan letter published in a Marvel comic with his home address. Tom earliest comics work was a logo for Spidey Fan, a southern California fanzine in 1967. Tony Isabella was hired as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics in 1972, and in late December he called Tom, who reports:
Tony called my folks’ house on December 26th, 1972, and my mother gave him my work number. My hospital job as an x-ray attendant was part-time, but paid double-time-and-a-half on holidays, so I worked all the holidays. I got the call in the break room: “Come to New York in the next week and you’ll have a table to work at in the bullpen. Otherwise, they’ll put an ad in the paper.” I went to my supervisor, told him that I had a get-here-now job offer at Marvel, and that it was awkward because I wouldn’t be able to give him two weeks’ notice. He stood up, pointed to the door, and said emphatically, ”GO.” I arrived at JFK a week later: January 2, 1973. Took a cab from the airport straight to the office. The job was such a royal pain that the great-looking young woman who’d been doing it, upon learning I was there to take it over, kissed me on the mouth. Welcome to Marvel, kid!
Above is an early story lettering job by Tom at Marvel. The title and balloon lettering are not much like his later work, he was still finding his way. Tom was hired to make lettering changes on a line of British reprints Marvel was starting, where American spellings had to be changed to British ones. Tom told me:
The gig was actually freelance, but I was given a drawing table in the office while I learned the job. My duties soon included lettering retouch on the black and white mags. The first was SAVAGE TALES, featuring Barry Smith’s two final Conan stories. The line expanded to half a dozen titles very quickly. For VAMPIRE TALES #6, I lettered my first Chris Claremont script, which is when we became acquainted. Those black and white mags ran original stories, but also ‘50s suspense and horror reprints with art by people who would have been familiar to the fan audience like Syd Shores, Carmine Infantino, and Bill Everett. The story title designs were low-key by ‘70s standards, so it became my job to draw bold new ones. By May, I was sufficiently good enough to be lettering some stories, uncredited, on the black and white books [which never had lettering credits], while still doing the British retouch as well. I believe the TOMB OF DRACULA #11 pages came to me then. I was terrified. They were so delicate, in a pencil technique that resembled ink wash. It took me in the range of four hours per page. Also at this time, my immediate boss, Sol Brodsky, told that I didn’t need to come in every day, but could work from my flat. Soon, I was busy enough to give up the Brit reprints in favor of CAPTAIN MARVEL, as arranged by Starlin, and BLACK PANTHER, as arranged by Buckler. Other color books began coming to me as well, though rarely sequentially.
Another early lettering job from Tom. The vertical and gradually more shaky title lettering is a nice touch. This series is where I first saw and enjoyed Tom’s work. Here’s what Tom told me about his lettering tools, learning process, and getting work assignments at Marvel:
From the start, my friends made me aware of Speedball nibs. Later, at Marvel, John Romita Sr. showed me how to hone the nibs on a knife sharpening stone. During the ’80s, at Lois’ suggestion, I used an Osmiroid India-Ink Sketch Pen, which held a refillable ink supply. It saved a lot of time. Surprisingly, neither Danny Crespi nor Morrie Kuramoto, veteran staffers and letterers, said a word to me about my work, though it had to have been coming to them for corrections. Roy Thomas, then the editor (the term Editor-In-Chief wasn’t used before Shooter), commented to me that my black and white story titles “looked too much like underground comics.” I took that as a personal victory! Danny may have been prompted by Roy to offer me some guidance. He did offer to teach me to letter the covers, a job that had been increasingly his for a few years. “You don’t want to keep lettering all those pages,” Danny said. I replied that I LIKED lettering all those pages. And so, idiotically, I turned down the chance to learn at the right hand of the master. On the other hand, I then followed my muse. My eventual approach might have been very different had I taken Danny up on his offer. In the ’80s, when Bob Harras edited the X-books, I lettered their covers for a couple of years, always with Danny in mind. During Roy’s stewardship, Sol was production boss for the Brit reprints, and the black and white books. John Verpoorten handled the color comics. It was they who handed out the assignments at that time. The people below Roy were proofreaders, not true editors (Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, Don McGregor). A few years later, during Shooter’s tenure, the place was organized along the same model as DC. So, Roger Stern, Al Milgrom and a few others were responsible for all assignments on the half dozen books they each controlled. Following John Verpoorten’s death, Danny Crespi became in-house traffic manager. He supervised the office flow, but did not make assignments.
I next saw Tom’s work in comics from a new independent publisher, Star*Reach. Tom wrote:
Mike Friedrich had been an established writer for a few years at DC when he shifted over to writing for Marvel. In the office one day in July ’73, as I was burning out on life in New York, Mike introduced himself. I was familiar with his work at DC and on IRON MAN, where he’d already written a script for Jim Starlin. Mike suggested that I join a small group that was soon to be moving to northern California. His upcoming Star*Reach comics project was to be creator owned, which attracted Steve Englehart, Alan Lee Weiss, Frank Brunner, and Jim Starlin to this rather audacious proposal. Mike pointed out that none of us were from New York in the first place, so here was an excuse to try another part of the country that might be more to everyone’s liking. Surprisingly, it was as easy at that. We all moved west in a matter of weeks. Work on Star*Reach began in the fall of ’73.
I loved the Star*Reach books, the first place I saw work by Steve Leialoha and Frank Brunner, among others. I admired Tom’s lettering there as well. Friedrich continued to publish sporadically through the 1970s. While living in the Oakland and Berkeley area just east of San Francisco with various collaborators and housemates, Tom was still doing lots of lettering for Marvel. He said:
I lettered Mike’s books IRON MAN, KA-ZAR, and WEREWOLF BY NIGHT as well as random issues of lower-rank Marvel books, including GHOST RIDER. A Marvel staffer told me years later that it was astonishing they continued to send work my way, once I left town. I assume that my lettering, though still very rough, was acceptable enough, and that it was easier to keep me on than to break in someone new. My lettering was done in ink over the penciled art. I would then send those boards by Special-Delivery Mail to the inkers. Special-D Mail took as long as five days to cross the country. But, a lot of pencilers lived far enough from Manhattan that they mailed the work rather than coming into the office. So, a few days to the west coast didn’t really take that much more time than mailing to Brooklyn. Plenty of time was built into the production schedule to accommodate unaccountable postal delays.
Tom’s calligraphy is on display in this story title, and his balloon lettering is beginning to take on the style it would have for most of his career, but it’s not quite there yet. Tom wrote:
I was lettering AVENGERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and DR. STRANGE for Steve, and CAPTAIN MARVEL, then WARLOCK for Jim. In addition to the books already named, I became Roy Thomas’ letterer on INVADERS, and SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN. STAR WARS would follow. Marvel continued to send me random issues of their second and third tier books. X-MEN #94 was among them. My workload was now heavy enough that I hired my first assistant, Frisco Del Rosario. He didn’t continue into comics work, but instead became a notable chess player and editor of Scholastic’s chess magazine. Life in Berkeley was just the thing I needed. New York City was a nonstop business office. Berkeley was a place of learning, with leisurely bookstores and cafés. I bought an armload of cheap Dover editions of old calligraphy manuals, century-old European theatrical posters, and Hollywood movie posters. This was the start of my education.
By 1977, my work with Englehart and Starlin had dried up, and there wasn’t enough from Mike, or Roy, to provide a steady income. So, I made an exploratory trip back to New York. A chance meet-up with Chris Claremont led me to letter X-MEN #105. Better, it gained me the work on MARVEL PREVIEW #11, which featured a Star-Lord story by Chris, drawn by newcomers John Byrne and Terry Austin. When Dave Cockrum gave up penciling X-MEN a year later, this art team took over. I began lettering the book nearly every other issue, starting with #108.
My move back to Manhattan was a year later, in August of ’78. In the interest of regular work, and because I was on X-MEN half the time anyway, I convinced its editor to let me have it full-time. My work, while improved, was still not very Marvel-looking, so most of my assignments were on side projects: anthology stories for Epic Illustrated magazine, stand-alone Marvel Graphic Novels, and the non-canonical WHAT IF.
The title on this story is beautifully designed in the style of the Tarzan newspaper strip logo, above it, and Tom’s balloon lettering has almost reached its mature style.
One of Tom’s most memorable lettering design choices was the brushed border on the balloons for Dark Phoenix. His letters are now very even and most fit into a square space. There was little of the stylized shapes common in comics lettering at the time, it was more of a classic sans-serif alphabet with just a hint of the thick and thin lines from Tom’s slightly wedge-tipped pen points. His other balloon shapes were also very regular and symmetrical. The generally small size of the lettering helped Tom fit in lots of text, which was particularly handy on scripts by Chris Claremont.
One of Tom’s most memorable story titles, and also probably his largest word balloon! The creative team of writer Chris Claremont and letterer Tom Orzechowski was consistent, so even when the penciler and inker team changed, the book had a strong feeling of continuity. Tom’s reputation as one of the best letterers in the business was firmly in place. Tom said: My favorite part of the X-Men books was designing story titles.
While still busy at Marvel, Tom began working for other independent publishers starting with Eclipse in 1979. Tom wrote:
I’d met Dean Mullaney at a comic shop in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1979. The owner of the shop had told me that, at the end of the month, his customers were looking for more books to buy: that is to say, he felt there was enough fan money to support another publisher. Mullaney had noticed it, too, and was contacting the fan favorites to see who had new projects in mind. The first Eclipse publication, the SABRE graphic novel by Don McGregor and Paul Gulacy, had probably already come out by then. Since I was up for non-Marvel work, I agreed to letter Craig Russell’s book.
That led to other collaborations at other small publishers like this one with Thomas, Russell and Michael T. Gilbert. The title here is another large balloon with well-crafted letters. Tom wrote:
By ’81, New York City had defeated me once again, and I moved to San Francisco. Eclipse and Marvel remained as clients. Mike Friedrich gave up on Star*Reach Comics, though, and became a rep for creators as well as properties, such as Elric. I handled the lettering for that character’s Marvel graphic novel as scripted by Roy Thomas and illustrated/colored by Craig. I continued as it became a comics series, originally for First Comics and then for Pacific Comics. Roy continued doing the adaptation for Michael T. Gilbert’s pencils with Craig’s inks and colors. At that same time, for a year or so, National Lampoon carried a sardonic Prince Valiant-style strip that Craig drew, and which I lettered as well. My approach to title design was not in sync with Marvel, but did suit the more eccentric attitude of Eclipse. So, I did about half a dozen logo designs for them and lettered a few series. By the mid-‘80s, the X-Men had spun off into several titles and special projects, and, increasingly, I focused my time there.
Another unusual and memorable title by Tom.
Tom’s title on this story is reminiscent of early 20th century sheet music, showing continuing exploration of lettering styles from earlier eras. The lettering credit is to Buhalis and Orzechowski. Tom wrote:
Lois [Buhalis] and I were introduced in ’83 by a friend who knew I was looking for an apprentice. She had done hand-lettered signs for a science fiction con, and had read comics her entire life. Before long, she moved in. Thirteen years later, we married. No sense in rushing into these things.
Another great story title by Tom, and I envy his chances to work with Barry Windsor-Smith.
In 1988, Tom and Lois began working for Toren Smith’s Studio Proteus, lettering English translations of Japanese manga, which were published by Viz, Eclipse, Innovation and Dark Horse over the next few years. It was that workload that convinced Tom to begin creating his own digital fonts, covered in THIS article. Meanwhile, he needed further help, and formed his own studio called Task Force X. Tom reported:
It made sense to tutor a group of apprentices. They got a background in calligraphy, and full access to my reference books in order to make it clear where I was coming from. The group included Lois, Irene Kerth, David Cody Weiss, Kevin Cunningham, Molly Kiely, Tomoko Saito, Angeler Tripajayacorn and Susie Lee. For the Task Force X gigs, I did titles, copy placements, balloons and sound effects. The dialogue was done by whoever came by that day. The system ran for about two years.
Five of those apprentices, Buhalis, Weiss, Cunningham, Saito and Lee, went on to their own careers lettering comics.
Another fine title page and some cover lettering by Tom for the X-Men franchise, toward the end of his time on it. Writer Chris Claremont left in 1991. Tom wrote:
The X-Men brand had been my only Marvel gig for so long that I didn’t know any other Marvel editors. After half a year post-Claremont, though, it just didn’t sound like “my” book anymore. So, I quit, while wondering, “what will I do now?” Fortunately, a few weeks later, Todd McFarlane called to tell me about the new company that he and several of the top-selling Marvel artists were forming. He had me in mind because I’d lettered his first comics work seven years earlier, in COYOTE #11! The fact that I’d spent years lettering Marvel’s top-selling book was also a factor. I don’t recall that he knew I’d quit, so the timing was almost poetic.
Todd faxed me a pin-up style shot of Spawn and asked me to design a logo. The character looked midway between Batman and Dr Strange, so I played to that attitude: physicality, crossed with the unexplainable. My final Uncanny X-Men issue was #287, cover dated April 1992. Spawn #1 was May 1992.
Tom created unique balloon and caption styles for the main character…
…as well as the villains for the series. He has remained the Spawn letterer ever since. Tom said:
Todd’s approach was rapid-fire and high-stakes from the start. His cast of characters ranged from the comfortable to the despairing. I was encouraged to be expressive with the dialogue stylings, and to insert sound effects at will. It’s been an enviable working relationship.
Tom copy-edited McFarlane’s scripts, and by issue #5 was being credited as the book’s editor. I think his contributions helped make the book the best of the Image Comics lineup. It’s a working partnership of impressive longevity, the title is still being published today, and has topped 300 issues, with Tom lettering every one except issue #44, lettered by Lois. This lengthy run on a single title has won him an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Tom has worked on countless other projects for a variety of publishers I haven’t room to cover here, including DC Comics, Dark Horse, Image, and even a reunion with Chris Claremont at Marvel for a while in 2008. His logo design work has been sporadic, but always admirable. A few more examples are below.
Tom continues to be held in high regard by fans and readers as well as his fellow letterers like myself. We first met at a comics convention in 1990, and have spent time together at a number of others since. He’s always good company and fun to talk to about lettering and comics in general. Long may it be so.