The History of Comic Lettering: 1940 to 1990

By | April 22nd, 2014
Posted in Columns | 5 Comments

Adding letters to images, as a practice, dates back centuries. We examined the early methods and the thoughts behind them in part 1. Largely, the work was crudely done by cartoonists who were uninterested in the finer points of letter design and aesthetics, and unwilling to share their meager profits with the people who were interested. When the comic industry exploded onto the American landscape in the 1940s, the demand for new material allowed cartoonists to specialize only on the aspects of creation in which they were best skilled and created a vacuum in certain parts of production. Particularly, it became financially viable to be a freelance letterer.

The earliest letterers were transplants from other industries who followed the work. One of the best of the first wave was Ira Schapp. Who? Oh, just the guy who designed the “Action Comics” and “Superman” logos, among other works which still endure unchanged. Some time ago, Dial B for Blog did a 10 part investigation into Schapp’s life which, frankly, is unbeatable. Give it a look when you have some time.

At DC, there was an editorial mandate requiring artists to pencil rough word balloons and sound effects directly into the interior art. The letterers – such as Todd Klein or Gaspar Saladino – would do their work before the page was passed to an inker who would go over all of it. On covers, the letterers had free reign to place text wherever they thought best.

That wasn’t the only editorial rule for lettering, although the others are harder to pin down. A look through old comics (or reprints of old comics, assuming they haven’t been retouched) will show a trend of bolding every character’s name, every time it was used. This makes little sense in context, since bold was used elsewhere for emphasis, and the fad mercifully faded. The practice was universal enough to suspect it was mandated, although the who, the when, and the why has seemingly been lost to history.

In the 1950s, EC Comics, famed for horror books, chose to forgo hand lettered narration in favor of typeset printing. From a modern perspective, where we’ve been spoiled by computer lettering with thousands of fonts able to be reproduced flawlessly, an EC comic page may not look all that special. At the time, it was actually quite gimmicky and set the publisher apart from other books on the stand. The crisp, professional letters gave the book a more mature look and (by most accounts) enhanced the horror in their stories. If not for the Comics Code which led EC to shutter its doors, typesetting in comics may have risen in prominence and letterers, as we know them today, might be very different. Of course, that can be said about every aspect of comics post-code.

After publication, Tom Orzechowski emailed me this correction:

The ECs were not lettered via typesetting, but rather by Jim and Mary Wronker using an armature system known as Leroy Lettering. It was an engineer’s solution to the need of draftsmen to produce a uniform, legible style for their blueprints. It’s not easy to explain the use of the thing, but it is human-propelled, letter by letter. I learned the use of the thing in order to do dialogue restoration on some EC covers. It’s a lot more trouble than working by hand, but the results are predictable and that was the point of it.

The Wonder Woman stories published until H. G. Peter’s retirement around ’58 were also lettered with the Leroy system. The link between WW, originally a part of All-American Comics, and the Leroy use at EC, was Max Gaines, the original publisher of both. The continuing use of the Leroy system on WW may have been due to a relationship between H. G. Peter and the Wrotens, but I’m only speculating. As the art shifted to Andru and Esposito, the lettering was by Gaspar Saladino.

Technical details for Leroy Lettering can be found here, if you’re interested.

As superhero comics rose to prominence in the 1960s, another lettering practice began to rear its head – every sentence seemed to end with an exclamation point. Not even questions were exempt from this, as the plain question mark was often upgraded to an interobang (?!). A few theories have been floated around by fans over the years – most commonly that paper quality of the time might cause a tiny period to disappear – but the true explanation for the abuse of punctuation comes, in a roundabout way, from Tom Orzechowski.

Continued below

Back then, going from original art to a printed copy wasn’t as easy as putting the penciled image on a scanner. The art had to be photographed, and even then the film wouldn’t be immediately ready to use. By this time, DC had abandoned their practice of putting lettering directly on the art. Both they and Marvel were using a cut-and-paste model, which gave the penciller more time to finish an issue since both the inker and the letterer could work on the page at the same time. This method gave the final page a three dimensional quality and sometimes resulted in visible shadows in the resulting photos. A new member of the comic production assembly line, called a ‘stripper’, would look at the film and do minor touch ups to remove the shadows or any other imperfections. Because he was in a hurry (and the image was small and backwards), periods would sometimes be mistaken for dirt and erased. Hence, periods were to be avoided.

(I just wrote two whole paragraphs about exclamation points, and resisted the urge to use one. You’re welcome.)

As Marvel carved a niche for themselves in the late 60s, there was an important visual distinction between them and their Distinguished Competition. At DC, as seen to the right, a balloon could be any shape the letterer needed to fit the dialogue into the panel. This is known as scalloping the balloons. At Marvel, this was forbidden – all balloons had to be the same shape. To facilitate this, Marvel artists would reserve one fourth of their panel area for text, and writers were instructed to keep the text in a panel to 40 words or less. Marvel letterers were ordered to place the balloons on the outside of the panels to avoid obscuring the art. For most panels, this presented no problem. Sometimes, in the case of large panels or scenes with a higher number of speakers, it could pose a challenge to put the balloons against the boarder (but not crossing them, which was also against the rules) and still have it arranged in a way that encouraged the proper reading order. Take a look at the shot from “New Warriors” volume 1, issue 22 below and, without reading the text, try to figure out where in the conversation Nova’s words belong.

In the following decade, there was a shortage of letterers at Marvel. Well, a shortage of good letterers. Editors had several adequate people to use for most of the interior, but not good enough to do the first page with all the credits and title cards for the issue. These were given to Gaspar Saladino instead, who went uncredited for the work. The exact reason for the shortage is unclear, but it was probably a combination of time and money. Lettering has been one of, if not the lowest paying job in comics since the position was created. In 1977, a new letterer was paid $4 per page. At the same time, it takes somewhere between five and fifteen years to become a decent letterer. That’s a long time to work at a job that doesn’t have a great return.

Another additional note from Tom Orzechowski:

Marvel was expanding its range of titles like mad in the early ’70s, just as Artie Simek and Sam Rosen were nearing the end of their careers. So, a lot of new letterers were needed to handle the work of all the new writers and artists. Most of us had no experience in title work, so Gaspar was pressed into service until our skill levels could improve. The beginning rate in 1973 was $5 per page, which I’m told had been unchanged for over a decade.

A big shift in lettering began when Jim Shooter became the EIC at Marvel in 1978. During his nine year reign, he imposed restrictive rules to make comic books look less “comic booky.” He put sanctions on punctuation and effects like bold words, exclamation points, and double-dashes, as well as setting rules on where balloons should be placed in panels. While not explicitly banned, the use of thought balloons and sound effects by a writer were discouraged and could result in less work. The merits of these edicts can be debated, but the general consensus among pros is that they were unnecessarily constraining.

Continued below

There is one very important aspect of the comic letterer to note here: it’s mostly an American and British tradition. In these two countries, artists like Dave Gibbons or Matt Kindt who letter their own work are the exception. In the rest of Europe and in Asia, lettering is almost always done by the artist. In the bonus material for the 1988 “Silver Surfer: Parable” penned by Stan Lee, French artist Jean Giraud (better known as Moebius) said his lettering style flows with his art’s personality. He went so far as to say letting an “outsider” determine the look of such an important part of the product would be “monstrous”. (Read his full remarks here, along with some additional commentary). While this strong opinion may not shared by other artists, the truth that they do their own lettering remains.

Over the fifty years covered here, all of the changes to comic lettering were cosmetic. Their place in the production process changed, and some of the tools in their trick bags were taken away at times, but the task of putting letters onto a comic page was essentially unchanged from 1940 to 1989. Toward the end of this time frame, there were only distant rumblings of a coming revolution. Change was coming, but no one wanted to be the first to really embrace it.

And then Richard Starkings immigrated to America.

To be continued in The History of Comic Lettering: 1990-Modern Day

//TAGS | Lettering Week

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include the Minding MIND MGMT, Small Press Spotlight, and Tradewaiter columns, along with Lettering Week and Variant Coverage. He currently writes history-based articles. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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