• Columns 

    The History of Comic Lettering: 1990 to Present

    By | April 23rd, 2014
    Posted in Columns | % Comments

    In the final installment of our three part look at the history of comic lettering, we’ll be examining the rise of computer-assisted techniques. Like nearly all other areas of modern life, new technologies have completely altered the comic landscape, reducing previously unimaginable tasks to basic processes which can be done quickly and consistently. With the benefit of hindsight, you might think advantages of lettering programs would have been immediately obvious and happily embraced. You’d be wrong. While the adoption of new technologies was inevitable, there were a few key players whose efforts accelerated the change.

    The first comic work to be lettered digitally was most likely a “Shadow” graphic novel by David Cody Weiss in the 80s. A few other books experimented with computer-based fonts, such as Michael Saenz in “Shatter” and Pepe Moreno with “Batman: Digital Justice,” but they had very deliberate computer themes. At the end of the decade, John Byrne was experimenting with digital fonts based on handwriting from other creators. Since he didn’t get their permission first, this caused a little bit of trouble. The attention prompted Jack Morelli, a staff letterer at Marvel, to discuss computer lettering with Byrne. In exchange for Byrne designing a font based on Morelli’s work, Morelli agreed to let Byrne use the font himself.

    A few years earlier, in 1989, a veteran letterer for Marvel UK named Richard Starkings decided to move to America in search of a fresh start. He arrived in New York with intentions to stay only a few weeks on a friend’s couch. While there, a Marvel US editor he knew offered him some lettering work. The assignments kept coming, leading him to put off his further travel plans and obtain more permanent housing. At first, he was intimidated by the American work pace – he was regularly expected to pick up between fourteen and twenty pages at 6pm and have them completed and returned by noon the next day. The rate did not allow him to produce high quality work, which he found frustrating. He began taking short cuts, such as using oval stencils to make balloons quickly, despite having made vows to himself earlier that he would never do so.

    About a year later, he decided living so close to the Marvel offices was a problem. He moved to Los Angeles and found a job at a company called Graphitti Designs. Two important things happened to him there: he learned how to use a Macintosh computer, and he lived with a roommate who had a carpentering business called “Proudcraft.” At this time, he was still doing occasional work for Marvel and Vertigo. He encountered by chance some of Bryne’s digital lettering in an issue of “Namor” and knew it was the future. Starkings met Bryne at the next SDCC show and asked him some technical questions about how to get started with computer lettering. With the help of Marc Siry, Starkings learned to use the necessary software.

    Over the course of another year, Starkings worked to persuade Greg Wright, the Marvel editor who had been loading him with work in New York, to let him try computer lettering. He finally received permission for the “Punisher / Wolverine” one-shot, but Starkings was still required to print off his letters and paste them onto the art the same way hand letterers did. It wasn’t until the advent of digital coloring a few years later when the industry took full advantage of the digital aspect and applied the letters to art files.

    As work accumulated, Starkings was unable to handle his workload alone. At first, he hired assistants to take care of the basic parts of production – typing the script, cutting out the words after they were printed, and running finished work to the FedEx office. Soon, volume rose to a point where he couldn’t do all the design work himself anymore. The first additional letterer to his studio was John “JG” Roshell, who had just graduated with a bachelors degree in design from UCLA. JG hadn’t intended to get into comic work, but it paid the bills while he “pursued dreams of rock guitar stardom.” Part of being the assistant meant he had to answer the phones. When he asked Starkings how he should do so, Starkings remembered his old roommate’s business and said “Comicraft.”

    Continued below

    This was in 1992, and the start of the digital revolution probably would have been a big topic among comic fans if it weren’t for another huge development at virtually the same time: the founding of Image. While Image likely stole some of their spotlight, Comicraft could not have asked for better timing. In an effort to put out the best possible comic books, Image was offering better page rates to experienced letterers. This created a vacuum of sorts at DC and Marvel, where editors found themselves scrabbling for letterers who could make the books look nice and process them at a higher volume than ever before. Marvel’s “Sleepwalker” and “Hellstrom” were the first issues to carry the Comicraft name. Eisners and awards from Wizard and the CBBG soon followed, and the digital age had arrived.

    Traditional letterers quickly took notice. Remember how Starkings found Byrne at SDCC to ask about getting started with computer lettering? The exact same scene played out again two years later, except this time it was Todd Klein seeking Starkings. Comicraft supplied Klein with a few fonts to use while he learned how to create his own.

    In October of 1994, Vincent Connare, a designer at Microsoft, saw some comic programs for children which used had word balloons filled with Time New Roman font. Feeling this was inappropriate, he set out to design a new font. In another case of a designer not seeking permission of the creators he’s copying, he based it on Dave Gibbons and John Costanza’s lettering in “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” respectively. He called it Comic Sans. It has been included as a standard font on most computers for almost 20 years, and has seen widespread use. To the chagrin of designers and others who pay attention to this kind of thing, the child-like letters have been used in some very inappropriate settings, prompting a strong backlash.

    There was one unexpected downside to digital lettering: the proofreading process deteriorated fast. Where scripts had once been reviewed a minimum of three times by editors and their assistants, they were now being checked only once after being lettered – by the writer. This culminated in an infamous incident with “Wolverine” #131 in November 1998 when the word “killer” was accidentally rendered as “kike” by a young Comicraft letterer who didn’t realize the word was a racial slur. The issue was released before a quick recall and a corrected reprint.

    Of course, Richard Starkings and Comicraft aren’t the only digital letterers in town. Another big name in computer lettering – Chris Eliopoulos – has been working in comics since 1989. He started off working in the Marvel bullpen and at one point was hand lettering 30 books a month. In 2003, he founded the Virtual Calligraphy lettering studio with Cory Petit, Randy Gentile, and Tim Wooton. This was the same time Bill Jemas decided all Marvel books would be in sentence-case, and Eliopoulos was a major player in creating Marvel’s house style. The ban on all caps lettering only lasted through 2004, but VC still letters most of Marvel’s books. Eliopoulos’ lettering work load has dropped to about eight books, but he’s filled his time with other comic things.

    Nate Piekos, founder of the one man show called Blam Bot, has been digitally lettering books for Marvel and Dark Horse since 1998. He doesn’t consider himself to be a letterer though – the only reason he started designing fonts is because he couldn’t find enough free ones for online for his comic strip. Over the years, he’s designed an unbelievable number of fonts. He licenses most of them for a fee from his website, but offers some others for free. This has resulted in his letters appearing far outside the realm of comics.

    Branded lettering companies like these aren’t the only available options, of course. Some publishers, like Bongo and IDW, do all their lettering in house with regular staffers like Karen Bates, Shawn Lee, and Chris Mowry. There are also a plethora of freelancing digital letterers like Jaymes Reed, Brian Fies, and Jared Fletcher.

    Continued below

    Even with the proliferation of digital tools, don’t think the traditional ways have been completely abandoned. Many of the truly good computer letterers also know their way around an Ames Guide, and some books are still made in the classic style. The most high profile example is probably “Savage Dragon”, which was hand lettered for it’s first 185 issues – a streak which ended due to a time crunch in 2013. The most common place to find hand lettering nowadays is in web comics, although its effectiveness is sometimes debated.

    Cartoon by Calamity Jon Morris

    Just how different does software like Adobe Illustrator make lettering, though? There are many graphic design skills that transcend the two methods, so you might think it would be easy to switch from one style to another. However, both forms have finer points which are divergent and exclusive. Lettering by hand requires patience and precision which just isn’t needed on a computer with preset fonts and a backspace key. At the same time, a computer offers nearly unlimited options for fonts and effects which can be easily overused by someone without a good measure of self control.

    Creating a font on a computer also requires the letterer to consider things which are done unconsciously by hand. The first step to designing a font is obviously to create the individual letters. Then you scan them, make a few adjustments, and you’re ready to go, right? Nope. Kerning is the important but invisible process of telling the computer how far apart the letters should be. For some letters, this is a no brainer. For others…there are some hard decisions to be made. Consider the following word: SWAT.

    Here it’s been typed out in eight different fonts, blown up in size, and red lines have been added between the letters. Notice how they’re all set so there’s a full one or two pixel gap between the S and the W, but the top of the W and T over lap the A a little. That’s kerning. Here’s the word again, this time all in the same font, but with the kerning adjusted. The top row is the default, for easier reference.

    The first one kerns all the letters so their closest parts are four pixels from touching. The second kerns the WA the same as the AT. The last kerns all the letters the same as the SW. You may choose for yourself which one is the easiest to read (and keep in mind your choice may change as the font grows or shrinks), but do you see how wide the gap is between the W and A in the final example? Depending on how the rest of the sentence were kerned, it could be mistaken for a space and hinder easy reading. Other times, a letterer may alter the kerning for particular words for a specific purpose, such as a sound effect. The impression you get from the two types of crash shown below is probably very different.

    Now, kerning is important in traditional lettering too, it just comes more naturally when done by hand. Speaking of things done by hand, there are some other kerning-related tricks used by letterers who are trying to design fonts that mimic handwriting. Even if you don’t do it personally, you’ve certainly seen some common handwriting shortcuts, like crossing both ts in the word better at the same time or connecting letters like t and h in the word the. These are sometimes included as auto-replace options, and some times as special characters to be used when wanted.

    This brings us to the present day and the conclusion of the history of lettering. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed the look back and/or learned something. If you haven’t already, you can also check out the other two parts to the series. They’ve been researched thoroughly, but if you know some trivia the pieces omitted, please share it in the comments or contact me by email.

    //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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