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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 other strips out there to license, and beginning with the second issue, a small amount of new material was also included. The series lasted as mostly strip reprints until 1955, paving the way on newsstands for other comic books.
In 1935, NEW FUN was the second American comic book to contain all new material. 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.
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 No. 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.
Jerome “Jerry” Siegel was born October 17, 1914 in Cleveland Ohio. Joseph “Joe” Shuster was born July 10, 1914 in Toronto, Canada. In 1924 his family moved to Cleveland where Joe met Jerry in high school and the teenagers began their long collaboration, beginning with a science fiction fanzine. Siegel and Shuster first prepared Superman as a comic strip and tried for several years to sell it that way before turning to comic books as a last resort. Meanwhile, starting in 1935, they had become regular contributors to the comics of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson with features they created like Doctor Occult and Federal Men. Siegel wrote the stories and Shuster did the art, but they had a hard time making a living at it, until the success of Superman. That meant the lettering was probably all done by Joe Shuster.
Here’s a sample of Joe Shuster’s lettering, pretty standard for the time, easy to read, and effective enough, but nothing special.
The lettering in the first Superman story, which had been prepared first as a newspaper strip a few years earlier, is just the same, and also by Joe Shuster. But Joe had poor eyesight, and when Superman was a success, and National (DC) Comics demanded more and more stories about him, the Siegel and Shuster Shop was born, and assistants were hired. The shop worked out of the pair’s home town of Cleveland, Ohio. Comics historians have identified some of the assistants in the Cleveland years as Paul Cassidy, Dennis Neville, Wayne Boring, John Sikela, Leo Nowak, Hi Mankin and Ed Dobrotka. But who was doing the lettering? Probably several of the assistants lent their hands to it.
The earliest Shuster assistant so far identified as a letterer is Paul Lauretta, who lettered and inked most of the Superman stories in ACTION COMICS issues 6-10. In the sample of his work above, the lettering is similar to that of Joe Shuster, though the letter “A” is rounded at the top. I’ve written about Lauretta HERE.
In January, 1939, Siegel and Shuster’s original dream of a Superman newspaper strip became a reality when National (DC) Comics made a deal with the McClure Syndicate. Siegel wrote and Joe Shuster illustrated with help from his growing studio, including his brother Frank Shuster, who became the regular letterer of the strip, and many comics stories as well, beginning in early 1940. Frank’s style is distinctive and professional, with regular letters that mostly fill a square shape. His letter R is particularly memorable, having a very rounded right leg that often doesn’t connect to the left leg, and his work improved the overall look of the Superman pages and stories he lettered. I’ve written about Frank beginning HERE. He lettered the Superman newspaper strip and comics stories until about 1943, when he was drafted into the Army. His main replacement was Ira Schnapp, beginning a busy career as a full-time letterer for National/DC Comics. Ira was older, and was not drafted like so many other young comics creators.
In ACTION COMICS issues 28 to 34, the Superman stories are illustrated by Hardin “Jack” Burnley. Born January 11, 1911 in New York, Burnley was the first artist contracted directly by the publisher and not Siegel and Shuster to help fill their Superman needs. He began as a sports cartoonist for King Features, and started selling single-page sports fillers to DC in 1938. When the company hired him to work on Superman, and other characters later, all his comics were lettered by his sister Elizabeth “Betty” Burnley Bentley, born August 2, 1916, the youngest of the family’s four children. Betty wrote about that period in a short essay for Robin Snyder’s newsletter The Comics! Volume 14 no. 10 (2003):
My brother, Jack Burnley, asked me in 1939 if I would like to do the lettering on the Superman cartoons he was illustrating. I had never done lettering before, but I do have artistic talents, so I was interested in giving it a try. Jack was pleased with my efforts, so I went to work for him in his apartment and I also kept up the files of material that might be useful. I never worked for Detective Comics [DC] nor met any of the [other] artists and writers, but I did hear stories of them and know their names. After a while, Starman and Batman were added to the lettering assignments. This all turned out to be a fun job for me in many ways. Jack has a very extensive collection of Jazz records that we listened to as we worked. My other brother, Ray, had joined us and was inking some of the backgrounds. Jack’s wife, Dolores, provided treats from the kitchen and so we were a family group and it was very pleasant working there. So it went for about three years. Then World War Two was going on and I felt that I should contribute something to the war effort. I regretfully stopped working for Jack, became a draftsman in a Defense plant and helped to design experimental planes for the Navy.
In that same issue of The Comics by Robin Snyder, Jack Burnley remembered:
My sister, Betty Bentley, did all of the lettering in my comics work from late 1939 until the end of my Starman series in September, 1942. She had considerable artistic talent but was untrained and had no interest in pursuing an art career. Her lettering was straightforward, aimed at complete legibility, with no stylistic flourishes.
The lettering on that first story is a bit stiff and uneven as Betty learned on the job, but three issues later, the lettering had settled into a professional groove that matches her brother’s art well. If anything I think it’s better than the Joe Shuster model she was probably told to follow.
So, even though comic books were considered the lower-class stepchild of newspaper comic strips, they were providing steady work, financial success, and even professional careers as letterers for a few. At the same time, Howard Ferguson was following a similar career as the letterer for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, beginning in 1940. I’ve written about Howard starting HERE. Brothers Sam and Joe Rosen were also getting started in the early 40s, and Ed Hamilton took on most of the lettering at ACG. There were plenty of others finding regular work as letterers, some known to us, some unknown. The idea of a freelance letterer working independently for a wide variety of clients was a few years away, but by 1950 that was possible for letterers like Ben Oda, and continues to this day, though of course with digital lettering being the main method now rather than pen and ink. A few comics creators still do their own lettering, but chances are good your favorites have all the words added by a professional letterer, and most are now receiving credit for their work, as they did not for the first few decades of comics.