WHEN LETTERING BECAME A PROFESSION

From L’il Abner by Al Capp, March 11 1936, © Capp Enterprises Inc., image courtesy of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library

As the twentieth century progressed, comic strips became a larger and more profitable business. Publishers like William Randolph Hearst bought strips for their own line of papers, but around the country and the world other newspapers and their readers were clamoring for them, and newspaper syndicates were launched to act as agents, licensing and distributing successful strips to as many newspapers as would pay the licensing fees. King Features, one of the earliest, was begun by Hearst to distribute the comic strips he owned. By the mid 1930s there were 130 syndicates offering 1,600 features (including comic strips) to more than 13,000 newspapers. Comics creators were paid a fee by the syndicates for each paper their strip appeared in. This was lucrative for artists with popular strips. The rare creator who owned his work, like Bud Fisher, could do better, but many artists made good money. This allowed them to hire assistants to help with the workload. Sunday comic strips were often a tabloid-sized page, about 10 by 15 inches printed, with the original art sometimes twice that size or more. They were time consuming, but at least there was a week to create one.

From Mutt and Jeff © Bud Fisher, July 3 1923, image courtesy of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library

With the success of Bud Fisher’s daily Mutt and Jeff, newspapers increasingly wanted daily comic strips too, and as the century progressed, syndicates asked for six daily strips and one large Sunday strip each week for most features. Some creators, like George Herriman on Krazy Kat, were up to the task, but it was a workload few artists could handle on their own. Syndicates who controlled a strip could hire one artist for the Sunday page, another for the dailies. Even then, those artists might hire assistants to keep up with deadlines. Successful strips where the artist was in control also often used hired help. In that way, making comic strips became divided into specialties. The strip creator, whose name was on it, might only pencil the strip, or just the main figures, hiring assistants to pencil backgrounds, ink everything, and do the lettering, one of the easiest parts of a comic strip to delegate. Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff added a Sunday page in 1918, and Fisher became increasingly dependent on assistants after that. Some that are known are Billy Liverpool (the pen name of Myer Marcus), Ed Mack, Ken Kling, George Herriman and future children’s book author/artist Maurice Sendak. We don’t know who did what exactly, but it’s very likely assistants were doing the lettering. Fisher lost all interest in drawing the strip in the 1930s, and he was wealthy enough so he didn’t need to. Starting in 1932, Al Smith became the main artist, and he continued on Mutt and Jeff until 1980, an amazing run of 48 years. (Thanks to Alex Jay for much of that research, and more on later assistants.)

From Joe Palooka by Ham Fisher, Sept 24 1932, © McNaught Syndicate, image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Other strips undoubtedly followed the same course. Many cartoonists who broke in as assistants were able to use their connections and talent to launch their own strips, often to the dismay of their former bosses. For instance, Al Capp worked as a “ghost artist” or secret replacement for Ham Fisher (no relation to Bud) on the strip Joe Palooka starting in 1932. In 1934 he launched his own strip, Li’l Abner, which angered Ham Fisher. When Li’l Abner became successful enough for Capp to hire assistants himself, he made no secret of it. They included Andy Amato, Harvey Curtis, Walter Johnson and legendary artist Frank Frazetta. Again, we don’t know who was doing the lettering, but it’s likely many Capp assistants did some. Keep in mind that on new strips, or less successful ones, it was usually the artist doing the lettering.

From Prince Valiant by Hal Foster, Jan 1 1939, © 1939 King Features Syndicate, Inc., image courtesy of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library

Often lettering was considered an entry-level job, something for the new hire, the aspiring cartoonist, to do while learning the craft and working up to more creative tasks like inking and penciling. Many artists started that way. There may well have been lettering specialists on comic strips in the early 20th century who liked that work and stuck with it, but whose names are not known or recorded. Chronologically, the first lettering specialist whose name I’ve learned is Charles F. Armstrong, Hal Foster’s letterer on Tarzan and Prince Valiant. Armstrong was the letterer only on those strips beginning in 1931. Though he did other kinds of lettering for advertising, and he did it well, he was happy in his role as Foster’s letterer, and they were good friends. I’ve written about Armstrong HERE.

From Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff, Sept 25 1936, © Tribune Content Agency LLC, image courtesy of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library

The second lettering specialist whose name I’ve learned is Frank Engli. He began working on the strip Dumb Dora for his friend Bil Dwyer as letterer and sometimes penciler and inker in the early 1930s, and met Milton Caniff at that time. Caniff admired Engli’s lettering, and in 1936 he and studio-mate Noel Sickles hired Engli as their full-time letterer. Engli wrote, drew, and lettered two short-lived strips of his own, and also did advertising lettering, but most of his career was as the uncredited letterer for Milton Caniff on Terry and the Pirates, and then Steve Canyon. I’ve written about Engli HERE. If there were regular letterers on other popular strips in the first few decades of the 20th century, I haven’t found evidence of them.

From THE FUNNIES #23, July 19 1930, © Dell

Newspaper comic strips were a huge success in America, and many were reprinted in book form in varying sizes and formats from the early years of the 20th century on. In 1929, The Funnies began weekly publication in the same format as newspaper Sunday comic strip sections: unstapled tabloid-size sheets, selling for ten cents, later five cents. It contained all new material, and was the first American comic book to do so. I haven’t found any scans of interior pages, but the Grand Comics Database has the first issue indexed, and the format was one or two features per tabloid page, like a newspaper Sunday comics section, filled out with text pages and puzzles.

From THE COMICS #9, Aug 1938, © Dell

The only creator name I recognize in that first issue of THE FUNNIES is Boody Rogers, a cartoonist with a humorous style who assisted others on newspaper strips until he launched his own, Sparky Watts, in 1940. Above is a sample of Rogers’ work from a later Dell comic. He did his own lettering, which I think looks good. THE FUNNIES ran 36 issues, sometimes weekly, in 1929 and 1930, but doesn’t seem to have caught on with readers, or perhaps The Great Depression did it in.

From FAMOUS FUNNIES #1, July 1934, © Easter Color Printing

After experiments with giveaway comics and one-shots by publishers Dell and Eastern Color, FAMOUS FUNNIES began appearing monthly on newsstands in 1934 in a smaller size, 7.75 by 10.5 inches, reprinting newspaper Sunday strips. Most strips were simply reduced in size from larger tabloid newspaper versions (which Eastern Color also printed for newspapers), making the lettering hard to read on some. There were advertisements and text articles, but with the strips already in hand, they were easy to produce, though the book didn’t start turning a profit until issue #12. Each issue had about 60 pages to fill, so it was only a matter of time before inventory of available comic strips would run short, but there were lots of strips out there to license. Young, aspiring comics creators saw an opportunity, though, and beginning with the second issue, a small amount of new material was also included. This series lasted as mostly strip reprints until 1955, paving the way on newsstands for other comic books.

From POPULAR COMICS #6, July 1936, © Dell

Dell was right behind Eastern Color with comics like this one, again mostly newspaper strip reprints, but this issue featured a single page feature by one of those aspiring young creators who would go on to a lifetime in comics.

From POPULAR COMICS #6, July 1936, © Dell

Sheldon Mayer had begun placing stories in comics in 1935, and in 1936 he started a series featuring the somewhat autobiographical character Scribbly. As with all such early efforts, Mayer did everything, including the lettering. It works well, with an appealing header, a variety of lettering sizes, musical notes, and sound effects.

From NEW FUN, THE BIG COMIC MAGAZINE #1, Feb 1935, National Allied Publications, image © DC Comics

In 1935, NEW FUN was the second American comic book to contain all new material, including some by Sheldon Mayer. Bucking the trend of FAMOUS FUNNIES, publisher and creator Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s first few issues were tabloid size like THE FUNNIES and 32 pages. Later the company’s titles would shrink to the more common smaller size and increase in length to the usual 64 pages. Who was filling these pages? Often it was young artists hoping to break into comic strips using comic books as a stepping stone. Even in the early days, it wasn’t easy for comic book publishers to find enough new material to keep their titles on schedule, or for artists to keep up with the demands of the volume of material needed. At first, most features were a single page or less, like a Sunday comic strip, but soon longer stories were helping fill those pages. It was a heady time for young creators, and careers in comics were being made. In the next few years National Allied would add new titles, the number of reprint titles increased, and all-new material competition began arriving from other publishers.

From ACTION COMICS #1, June 1938, image © DC Comics

What really blew the lid off the comic book craze was Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. From his first appearance in ACTION COMICS #1, he was a hit with readers. Major Wheeler-Nicholson’s publishing company, always on shaky financial ground, had been taken over by Harry Donenfeld by the time Superman hit newsstands, and even he did not have much faith in the character at first. His editors kept the costumed character off the covers of some early ACTION issues, but when sales figures began coming in, that quickly changed, and comics history (and comics lettering) would change with it.

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

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