From time to time in this column, we like to pivot the spotlight and shine it on folks who perhaps haven't received their proper
This week, we aim it at a group of comic book creators who are easily the most-overworked and, for the effort they put in, probably the
most-underpaid. Their work is by no means invisible; it's right there in front of every comic reader, comprising a significant portion of nearly
Still, they are often not treated very well and their contribution is often overlooked and undervalued...and by now, you've probably
guessed that I'm talking about either letterers or colorists. Well, this time, it's letterers. I'll get to colorists in another
They also serve, those who sit and letter. Over the years, I've admired the skill of folks like Howard Ferguson, Artie Simek, Sam
Rosen, Joe Rosen, Abe Kanegson, Rome Semen, Jon D'Agostino, Ray Holloway, Gaspar Saladino, Irving Watanabe, Joe Letterese, Ed Hamilton and many
others. Lately, we've seen terrific lettering from a new generation that has included Tom Orzechowski, Todd Klein, Bill Spicer, Stan Sakai,
John Workman, Bill Yoshida, Ken Bruzenak, Bob Lappin, Jim Novak, Steve Haynie, Bob Pinaha, Carrie Spiegle and many more, just to pick some names out
of a pile of unfiled comics to my right.
There are also a number of artists who have lettered their own work, seamlessly incorporating the words into their pages — Alex
Toth, Pat Boyette, Don Simpson, Jim Aparo, and Dave Sim, to name five. It isn't just the style of lettering so much as the way each panel is
composed with the balloons figured into the over-all design. Conversely, bad lettering can despoil good art.
Often, the problem is not so much bad lettering as bad placement. Many comics are created via a system called "Marvel method,"
wherein the dialogue and captions are written after the panel is composed. This procedure has its advantages, at least for some creators on
some strips. It also has a few drawbacks, one being that the guy who designs and draws the panel often has no idea, and no control, as to where
the lettering will go. It is usually spotted by a writer or editor who may or may not have any sense of composition.
I'm not going to mention any names here, but I believe that some of the best writers in the business are among the worst at balloon
placement. They put the balloons where there's space, with little regard for preserving the artist's panel design. When a balloon or
caption must overlap a body, they mask off parts of the character in a way that loses the sense of the figure. Often, when the action in the
panel is going from right to left, they place the balloons to lead the reader's eye from left to right, thereby negating the sense of movement that
the artist is attempting to establish. (In fairness, some artists make these mistakes, as well.)
Usually, letterers receive the art in the pencil stage. They put in the lettering, then pass the art along to whoever is going to
finish the drawings. The placement of the balloons is generally indicated on the pages, and a script is included, specifying the actual
Most start by ruling pencil guide lines onto the art. Guide lines are often inscribed using a little plastic device called an
Ames lettering guide, although some letterers have invented their own templates, and some prefer to "eyeball" the spacing of their guide lines.
The late Frank Engli, who lettered Milton Caniff's newspaper strips (and others) for decades believed that lettering read best when there were tiny
variations in the line spacing, so he ruled his guide lines in without measuring.
Books on how to draw comics often give you "standard" specs for lettering sizing and spacing, and guide lines they say one should
follow. These may be good starting points but that's all they are. Just as not every letterer achieves the same line weights with the
same pen point, not every letterer will achieve the same result with the same guide lines. You have to experiment and find out what's right for
Some letterers prefer not to pencil guide lines onto the page, feeling it messes the artwork and takes too long. Instead, they
rule guide lines in ink on a piece of acetate, then tape it down onto a light table (a drawing board with a sheet of glass in it, with a light
beneath, often used by animators). Then they can place the art over the acetate and see the guide lines through the paper, the way you'd see a
drawing you were tracing. This eliminates ruling lines and makes it easy to reposition the guides, just by sliding the artwork up or
down. It doesn't work for art on heavy, non-translucent illustration board, and many don't care for the glare of the light table, but it works
well for some.
Then it's a matter of putting in the copy, usually using a good, black India Ink that will not smear or go gray when the pencil is
erased. Some letterers use dip pens with the pen-point of their choice; others have experimented with fountain pens and found one that works
for them with permanent ink. Again, this is a matter of individual preference.
When mistakes are made, they're fixed by either whiting out the error or pasting over it. Letterers and inkers have had enormous
struggles to find just the right white paint for this purpose, and to keep it thinned to a useable consistency. Lately, some of the new
formulas for Liquid Paper and like products have simplified their lives.
And that's really it to the "tech" end of things. Beyond that, it's a matter of studying and developing the artistry. Most
letterers develop a basic style for their caption and dialogue lettering ("body copy," some call it) and have a repertoire of styles for sound
effects and story titles. Some even keep files of interesting typefaces — and not just from other comic books — to inspire
Lettering not only requires skill with a pen and a sense of design, it also requires a vital work ethic, a strong wrist, good spelling,
and the ability to juggle a half-dozen jobs at the same time.
Of these, spelling is probably the least important. Most letterers average two or three mistakes per page, not because they can't
spell the words but because they're paying more attention to shaping and spacing. Just as a typist often has no idea what he or she is typing,
letterers drop words or otherwise err in transcription. This is why proofreaders were invented, and why most comic companies have someone
around who can do lettering corrections.
The most important skill, not counting design sense, is probably that strong wrist. I usually do the fixes on comics I write,
just to make sure they get done, but when I have to letter an entire story...well, forget it. You can see the words get shakier and shakier as
things progress. After two or three pages, it looks like Kate Hepburn lettered the thing on a bobsled. I have to stop and massage my hand
after every third consonant.
The work ethic is critical, as is that ability to juggle a multitude of assignments with a multitude of clients, every one of whom
desperately needs their work done immediately. Your average letterer does anywhere from five to ten pages a day, but occasionally must turn
around a lot more.
This is a high-pressure job even when the letterer can do one story at his own pace, then move on to the next. Trouble is, it
usually doesn't work that way. No matter how the editor attempts to build lead time into the schedule, it usually comes down to the story being
passed around in pieces.
The letterer usually has to get the pages finished and forwarded to the inker within a day or so...and not just because the job could
be late. Often, the letterer has to get the work done so that the inker will have something to do. Otherwise, the inker will be sitting
with no work — and will therefore be losing money. A busy letterer once told me he was constantly aware that others were depending on him
so that they could make their livings. "If I get sick for two days, some artist may suddenly not have work for two days. If I'm out five
or six days, I could cost him a whole week's income."
So what happens to a letterer at (let's say:) DC is that on Monday he gets in the first six pages of Batman and he letters them
and ships them off. Then on Tuesday he gets in the first ten pages of Flash and letters them. Then on Wednesday he gets in the
first seven pages of Aquaman (I'm picking books at random here) and he letters them. Then nothing shows up for a few days, which means
he's not earning money, which serves to remind him how unprofessional it is to cost a fellow professional work. Then on Saturday, five more
Batman pages show up.
On Monday, he gets the first ten pages of a Superboy story. They're not late but he hurries them out in one day because
he's hoping to take Tuesday off to go to his son's ballet recital. No such luck — because on Tuesday, he receives the rest of the
Flash, ten more pages of Aquaman, the rest of the Batman, and an entire issue of Justice League. And every book is
behind schedule and every book has an inker who is sitting, waiting for pages.
I'm exaggerating but not by a lot. And the maddening thing is that, after the crunch, there will likely come a period when
there's no work arriving, and so no money being earned. That, of course, means that all the work will be coming in at once the following week
and it will all be needed immediately.
There's no way of calculating it but I'd guess that if you tallied who has lettered the most balloons, the late Ben Oda would hold the
record, especially if you included newspaper strips. At one point, Ben was supposedly lettering twelve daily strips, along with all the comic
book pages he did for almost every publisher in and around New York.
He did so much that some editors assumed he had a whole staff back home, trained to letter exactly as he did. This was apparently
untrue. There were family members who helped by ruling guide lines and erasing pages, but the lettering, I'm told, was all by Ben. Every
downstroke of it.
He was uncommonly trustworthy. Jack Kirby used to say Ben was the most valuable employee of the Simon-and-Kirby shop. Irwin
Hasen, illustrator of the Dondi strip, gave Ben a key to his studio. He could depend on Ben to come and go at all hours, picking up the
work and bringing it back when needed, or lettering it on the premises if deadlines got tight. "Ben never once let me down," Hasen said.
I never heard of Ben letting anyone down.
The one time I met Oda, it was at a New York comic convention — either '75 or '76 — and he took the train in on a Saturday
to deliver three (yes, three) pages to Paul Levitz so that Paul could get them to an inker who needed work on Monday. Ben was not there for the
con; he intended to just drop work off and split...and he would have, had I not introduced myself, dropped the name of Kirby, and dragged him off for
a cola and a chat.
I still have the notes I took at that impromptu interview. At one point, Ben demonstrated a point by taking my Flair pen and
lettering a whole line of copy on my pad. Evelyn Woods couldn't read a stop sign in the instant it took Ben to letter that sentence.
The main thing I jotted down was what an enormous fan he was of all the artists whose work he lettered. He also said that, of all
the varied employers he'd had, only one or two had ever treated him poorly. (Which I can believe. There are editors who would swap blood
relatives for one letterer like Ben.)
Later on, I heard a wonderful story about him. Artists are forever cobbling up presentations for newspaper strips they hope to
sell. Many of them wanted to hire Ben to letter their samples, but Ben felt bad about taking money from an artist, especially given how few of
these submissions ever pay off. So he finally established a policy: As long as they didn't need it A.S.A.P., he would letter samples free for
any professional artist. If the strip later sold, he would expect the job of lettering it, but that was not mandatory.
The artist who told me this said it was not a matter of Ben trying to drum up work. "Ben always had all the work he could
handle," he explained. "It was just his little gift to his fellow professionals."
If anyone has eclipsed Oda's record, or will, it's probably John Costanza. His output has been staggering, especially when one
considers that Costanza has simultaneously drawn gobs of funny animal comics for DC, Western and Disney, among others. He is always good and
I'll make one of those nobody-can-disprove-it guesses that, over the last quarter-century, several hundred comics would have shipped late, and
countless artists would have waited for work, were it not for the Herculean efforts of Mr. Costanza.
The other contender for the honor would be Gaspar Saladino, about whom I know very little, other than that he's lettered for DC for
decades, and that artists beg to have him assigned to their pages. His work is crisp and filled with personality, and is sometimes the most
artistic thing on the pages it adorns. Many of the newer letterers have clearly based their own approaches on the fine calligraphy of Mr.
With no disrespect to the many fine letterers I've omitted (and with scant space left this week), I'd like to salute Mssrs. Oda,
Costanza and Saladino for their outstanding work in the great tradition of comic book lettering.
There is, though, a new tradition dawning. Many letterers are now trading in their lettering pens for a Macintosh computer and
Photoshop software. Once upon a time, I would have equated this with the end of civilization as we know it, but I now see it as the lettering
equivalent of Mr. Clinton's bridge to the twenty-first century. Next week, I'll tell you why.
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