In 1867 William J.D. Keuffel and Herman Esser, both German immigrants, began selling drawing materials, drafting supplies and surveying equipment in New York. By the early 1930s they had trademarked the Leroy name and products in the U.S. and Canada, which were intended to be used by draftsmen, mapmakers and architects on their drawings and diagrams. The device above is a Leroy Scriber, which uses various size templates having capital letters, numbers and basic punctuation, all on one side for small letters, on two sides for larger ones. Some templates include lower case letters. They also made specialized templates for things like map symbols. The original pens were small and open at the top. You put ink in with a dropper, probably often. All the templates I’ve seen use the same block letter sans-serif alphabet patterned after what draftsmen were already doing by hand.
In my own set, the scriber looks different, but works the same. Instead of the original pens, I used Faber-Castell TG-1 technical drawing pens without the long handle. They fit in the pen socket perfectly. Above are other templates. The tail pin runs along the wide horizontal groove at the bottom, the tracer pin goes into each letter as you need it, and as you guide the tracer pin through the shape of the letter, the pen makes the same shape in ink on the paper. The arm holding the tracer pin is adjustable, producing slanted letters with the same template. You vary the line width using different pens.
It’s a slow and time-consuming method of lettering. You hold the T-square firmly in place with one hand while keeping the template against the top edge and sliding it to the right position with the other to ink each letter. Correct spacing comes by trial and error while watching the ink pen. It took me at least four times as long as regular freehand lettering. I lettered one story with it, and vowed to never do so again! (I made a font from it.) As with most things, if you practice enough, you’re bound to get faster and better at it. That’s what happened to Jim Wroten.
James Oscar “Jim” Wroten Junior was born October 24, 1914 in Baltimore Maryland. His wife-to-be and future lettering partner Margaret E. “Skippy” Scott was born there July 8, 1915. They met and dated, but after graduating from different high schools in 1932 and 1933 in the Great Depression, employment was hard to find. Jim’s uncle located a job for him with Keuffel & Esser in Morristown, NJ around 1935. He worked as a salesman, and became their best Leroy lettering demonstrator, often featured at trade shows. He continued to work for them into World War Two. In 1937 they married and Margaret joined Jim in New Jersey. In an interview with Bhob Stewart on his Potrzebie blog for September 8, 2011, Margaret said, “Jim was the best Leroy letterer around. He taught me how to do it. I liked working with him, and I happened to like Leroy lettering. I think it’s a very fine kind of lettering.”
The creators of Wonder Woman were writer William Moulton Marston and artist Harry George Peter, who probably met in New York through mutual interests in women’s suffrage. All-Star Comics publisher M. C. Gaines hired Marston as a consultant, then asked him to create a new series with a female superhero, which became Wonder Woman. Marston’s choice for artist was H. G. Peter, and Marston and Peter handled the production of all the Wonder Woman stories themselves. Peter had a studio at 130 West 42nd Street in Manhattan, but by early 1944 they shared rented space at 331 Madison Avenue and 43rd Street with the name Marston Art Studio on the door. Like the Shuster studio handling all Superman stories at first, and Bob Kane’s studio producing all the Batman stories, the Marston Art Studio turned in complete, finished stories, but that arrangement by contract lasted longer for Wonder Woman, at least until Marston’s death in 1947.
Wonder Woman stories used Leroy lettering from the beginning, and at first I thought they were all lettered by the Wrotens, but that didn’t explain the poor skills shown in early stories. On the page above, the lettering is done with a single size template and all slanted, suggesting the letterer might not have known how to adjust the tracer pin to regular letters, though that could simply have been a style choice. For emphasis, a few words are underlined, and in two spots larger bold words are hand-lettered, as are the exclamation marks. Space between letters in each word is fairly consistent and readable, but spaces between words vary a lot. The hand-lettered initial capital A in the first caption is a nice touch, but in the second panel the caption border almost touches the lettering, and the lettering layout and line breaks are poorly done in places. This doesn’t seem like the work of K & E’s best Leroy letterer. I think at first H.G. Peter did the Leroy lettering himself (perhaps he had learned it for other projects), and once Wonder Woman was ongoing, it was also done by his assistants. Jill Lepore, in her book The Secret History of Wonder Woman (2014 Knopf Doubleday) quotes Marston’s wife Elizabeth saying the Marston Art Studio office manager Marjorie Wilkes Huntley helped with inking and lettering on Wonder Woman. In Les Daniels’ book Wonder Woman: The Complete History (2000 Chronicle Books) he says while Peter penciled the stories, covers and strips and inked the main figures, he was assisted by a series of female commercial artists. It’s likely they also did lettering. Perhaps Peter saw Jim Wroten demonstrating his Leroy skills at a trade show, or possibly Wroten called on Peter as a K&E salesman, and his skill prompted Peter to offer him work. In the Bhob Stewart interview, Margaret Wroten said, “Our studio was in Doc Marston’s office. We were on the 12th floor. The art studio where Harry G. Peter worked was upstairs, on the 13th floor.” The Wrotens joined the Wonder Woman team in 1945, after Jim quit his job with K&E to letter full time, with Margaret helping. “That’s how we started.”
In Wonder Woman stories of 1941 to early 1945, the lettering remains all italic, as above. The spacing of letters in words and spacing between words is variable and uneven. It reads fine, but look at the word SMUGGLED in the first balloon, which has extra space between the GL and ED, while SECRET in the second ballon is crammed together to fit even though there’s extra space between the words on that line. Readers wouldn’t have noticed these things, but they add an unconscious sloppiness to the lettering to my eye.
Suddenly in issue #41, the lettering is much improved. It’s regular rather than slanted, emphasis is added with a different, bolder pen point, and letter and word spacing is consistent. Exclamation points are done with the Leroy template. I think the Wrotens took over with this issue, and on WONDER WOMAN with issue #13.
This page from that issue has the improved lettering I credit to the Wrotens. I believe the balloon and caption borders were added by the artists after pages were lettered.
The lettering on this page of art is beautifully done and seems error free, but the balloon at lower left has pasted-on lettering, either a correction or a script change. The last line has fallen off.
A closer look at two panels. While I don’t think Leroy lettering is a good choice for comics, the Wrotens certainly did it well. Working in the same office, one floor below Peter and his assistants, would certainly have made things easier for everyone. Peter was 61 when he started working on Wonder Woman, but he and his studio produced a large volume of work. In 1945, when the Wrotens began, Wonder Woman was appearing in every issue of SENSATION COMICS, COMIC CAVALCADE, and in a short-lived daily comic strip as well as her own title, all lettered by Jim and Margaret Wroten. All-American Comics merged with its sister company, National (DC) comics in 1946.
William Moulton Marston had others scripting for him at times, and after his death in 1947 that continued for a short while, but DC soon gave the writing assignment to editor Robert Kanigher instead, and he continued to write Wonder Woman stories for many years. Artist Harry G. Peter was replaced on covers in 1949, allowing DC to give the character a somewhat more modern look there, but he continued to draw all the interior stories with his assistants nearly until his death in early 1958 at age 78. The lettering on this late Peter story has fine Wroten lettering. The word HEADQUARTERS in the caption is on a replacement piece that’s taped on. AMOUNT in the balloon below is also on a patch. The Wrotens were busier by now, and perhaps errors were more common.
In the Bhob Stewart interview, Margaret said: “We got started doing Wonder Woman, and through that we met Mr. [M. C.] Gaines and did work for him because Doc Marston and Mr. Gaines were good friends.” Gaines was the co-publisher of All-American Comics, and when that company merged with National/DC, he was bought out, and started his own comics company, EC, standing for Educational Comics. He continued to employ the Wrotens for some of his titles like LAND OF THE LOST. Margaret said they were also picking up work from other publishers like Fox and Hillman, and their Leroy work there in the 1950s is easy to find.
They also lettered other newspaper strips after the Wonder Woman one ended, like SILLY MILLY and DEBBIE DEAN. The strip above features Jim Wroten as a character!
M. C. Gaines died in 1947 in a tragic boating accident, and his son William “Bill” Gaines took over the comics publishing business. Bill inherited a small line of Educational Comics aimed at children. He decided to go a different way, changing the company name to Entertaining Comics, and by the early 1950s was publishing horror, science fiction and crime comics with graphic content that parents hated but readers loved. Through those changes Bill Gaines continued to employ the Wrotens. Bill Gaines said in a 1983 interview for The Comics Journal (Fantagraphics): “I kind of inherited the outfit. My father, when he did Wonder Woman, used Leroy lettering by a guy by the name of Jimmy Wroten. How the hell he got involved in comics I don’t know, but it suited us very well. My father was using it on everything.” Not quite true, but Bill Gaines did use the Wrotens on many of his new stories.
Most EC titles were edited and written by Al Feldstein. His stories were laid out on EC art paper with the panels and lettering penciled in by Feldstein, but usually no art. Those went to the Wrotens, who lettered them before the artists drew anything. Bill Gaines said, “Al was a script-oriented person, although he is an artist — and a pretty good one. When he started writing, he was more interested in the script than the art. Because Al used so many words we found we could do it more clearly with Leroy lettering.” The first page of each Feldstein story followed the same plan as the one by Wally Wood above. The top area was left open for the artist to design the title, and Wood’s is excellent.
The Leroy lettering was almost always at the top of each panel, and the artist put in the panel and balloon borders. The Wrotens were using a wider range of Leroy template sizes, and their emphasized words were now bold, slanted, and larger than the rest. Large initial capital letters also began each caption.
Margaret Wroten said, “When we went into the horror comics, the lettering practically took up half the panels. All you were getting was heads, a lot of heads. Bill Gaines was paying $2.50 a page. I’d count the words sometimes and find 400 to 500 words on a page. That’s a lot of words. When it got so terribly heavy, I think we just reduced the size of the template. We had to go down to a no. 140 template, I think, because you couldn’t use a no. 175 with all those words on a page. We got it done. We always got it done. We worked night and day on those things. Many nights we stayed up until nine o’clock to get something out they needed the next day. We delivered and picked up our own work. We tried to proof everything before we sent it down. If Bill found a mistake or made a change, he would mark it in blue in the margin, and then we would correct it. Sometimes when there would be changes or he would want to do something else, we would put [the lettering] on little strips, cut them to fit and put them on with rubber cement.”
Each of the EC artists handled the balloon shapes in their stories differently. Those by Graham Ingels were particularly energetic. In the Feldstein sample, he asked for upper and lower case for the journal entries, something seldom seen in EC stories. Even with different art and balloon styles, the very regular and consistent Leroy lettering by the Wrotens pulled it all together and gave most EC comics a unified look.
A famous story from EC was Bernie Krigstein’s Master Race. He did an excellent dry-brush title. Some of the lettering has been pasted on the art, indicating a script or art change, or perhaps a layout change from Feldstein’s original by the artist. These books were controversial and led to an outcry from parents and the public. The Comics Code, instigated in 1954, was instrumental in putting EC Comics mostly out of business by 1955, and that meant less work for the Wrotens. When H. G. Peter died in 1958, they were no longer wanted as letterers on Wonder Woman either, as DC took over story production and stories after that were lettered by Gaspar Saladino.
Another New York publisher, Gilberton, often used Leroy lettering starting in 1942, as seen above. The Leroy style helped give Gilberton’s CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED line a scholarly textbook look. This example is too early to be by the Wrotens. They might have done some stories for Gilberton, but by the 1950s the company was using artist and draftsman Robert MacLeod for that, as described in THIS article by Alex Jay.
Margaret told Bhob Stewart: “The last comic books we did were for EC, and then Jimmy just got out of it. He went into doing charts, badge cards, formulas for chemical houses and floor plans for trade shows all over the country. We sublet part of the studio during the 1960s.” The Wroten studio remained open until Jim Wroten died on May 28, 1980. By that time they were in Forest Hills, NY. Margaret died on January 23, 2011. Their unusual comics lettering didn’t find new imitators except for creators who were fans of EC Comics and occasionally tried to copy their approach. Today there are fonts made from Leroy lettering, but as a comics lettering choice it has largely passed into history.
One other comics artist, Jimmy Thompson, used a similar lettering style, but is it Leroy? Comparing this work by him to the Wroten examples, I don’t think so. Both are regular and somewhat mechanically precise, but Thompson’s are a bit wider and some letters have different shapes, especially the G, E and R.
George “Jimmy” Orlando Thompson was born October 3, 1907 in Toronto, Canada. He began drawing one-page sports cartoons for Canadian newspapers in 1925. In 1937 he emigrated to the U.S. and drew the comic strip War on Crime for the Ledger Syndicate. He was soon drawing western features for comic books focused on Native American characters, with the 76-page story Red Eagle for FEATURE BOOK #16 in 1938 being one of the earliest. In 1943 he switched to super heroes, working on Robotman and Captain Compass for DC Comics and The Human Torch and The Angel for Timely (Marvel) Comics. He also worked on Mary Marvel and Captain Midnight for Fawcett. After a busy few years in comics, Thompson died on September 16, 1949 at the age of 41, a loss to the field.
Some of Thompson’s super-hero comics use lettering similar to his early work like this Robotman story, though here there’s also a more condensed template used for the large letters HELLO, FRIEND. After some searching, I discovered the source of this style.
Wood-Regan made another type of lettering guide named Wrico, patented 1926, where shapes cut out of a plastic strip could be used to form letters. These shapes look like what Jimmy Thompson was using, and I’ve seen photos of another set for making narrower, condensed letters, as shown in the art. Some letters are made using more than one template shape. For instance, an H was made using the vertical sides of the largest square under the letters HIL above, and the horizontal center line was made using the bottom of the smaller square next to it. Like Leroy, this would have been a time-consuming process, but perhaps one that got easier with practice. Thompson’s lettering looks great. He was clearly a perfectionist even with lettering. Hopefully as he did more of it, he got faster. Thompson also used Leroy lettering on some of his later work at Marvel, and some of his DC stories were lettered by Ira Schnapp, whose very regular hand-drawn shapes are not too far from this look. I don’t know of any other artist who used the Wrico templates, but Thompson clearly liked what he could do with them, and the lettering works well with his very precise art.
Thanks, as always, to Alex Jay for research help.