A letterer is a member of a team of comic book creators responsible for drawing the comic book's text. The letterer's use of typefaces, calligraphy, letter size, and layout all contribute to the impact of the comic. The letterer crafts the comic's "display lettering": the story title lettering and other special captions and credits that usually appear on a story's first page. The letterer also writes the letters in the word balloons and draws in sound effects. Many letterers also design logos for the comic book company's various titles.
By the time comic books came of age in the 1940s, the huge volume of work demanded by publishers had encouraged an assembly-line process, dividing the creative process into distinct tasks: writer, penciller, letterer, inker, and colorist. By the late 1940s, it became possible to make a living just lettering comic strips and comic books for artists, studios, and companies that didn't have the time or desire to do it in-house. The career of freelance letterer was born, and by the 1950s, letterers such as Gaspar Saladino, Sam Rosen, and Ben Oda were crafting full-time careers as letterers for DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and King Features.
Letterer and logo designer Ira Schnapp defined the DC Comics look for over thirty years. He designed or refined such iconic logos as Action Comics, Superman, The Flash, and Justice League of America, while also creating the distinctive appearance of DC's house ads and promotions. (Schnapp also designed the infamous Comics Code Authority seal, which was a fixture on comic book covers from all major companies for over forty years.)
Starting in around 1966, Schnapp's classic, art deco-inspired look was replaced by the pulsing, organic style of Gaspar Saladino, who redesigned DC's house style for the counterculture era. Gaspar became the cover letterer for all of DC's books throughout the 1970s, and even "ghosted" as Marvel Comic's "page-one" letterer for much of the same period. Gaspar's work became so iconic that various independent comics publishers which sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s – such as Atlas/Seaboard, Continuity Comics, and Eclipse Comics – hired him to design logos for their entire line of titles.
From the 1930 through the 1990s (with a few exceptions), the letterer plied his craft on the same page drawn by the penciler. (The penciled art was then inked after the letterer has completed his work on the page.) At DC Comics during the "Silver Age" of the 1960s, pencilers were required to "rough in balloons and sound effects" for the letterers to later go over. An accomplished letterer was able to adapt his or her style to the style of the art for that particular book.
The evolution of desktop publishing powered by computers, especially those made by Apple, began in the 1980s, and started having a gradual impact on comics lettering soon after. One of the first users of computer-generated lettering was writer/artist John Byrne, who made fonts from existing lettering. (Incidentally, Byrne made use of existing lettering by other artists, such as Dave Gibbons, without their permission. Now Byrne uses a computer font based on the handwriting of letterer Jack Morelli – with Morelli's permission.) Another early user of computer lettering was David Cody Weiss.
Computer lettering really started making an impact with the availability of the first commercial comic book font, "Whizbang" (created by Studio Daedalus) around 1990.
In the early 1990s letterer Richard Starkings and his partner John Roshell (formerly Gaushell) began creating comic book fonts and started Comicraft, which has since become the major source of comics fonts (though they have competition from others such as Blambot).
But Comicraft was not the original source for computer lettering in comics. Several independent letterers had been creating their own fonts since the 1980s. Many of the projects this lettering appeared in fell beneath the radar, but one of the comic books was very popular at the time. This comic book was Flaming Carrot Comics, lettered by Roxanne Starr.
In deference to tradition, at first computer lettering was printed out and pasted onto the original artwork, but after a few years, as comics coloring also moved to desktop publishing, digital lettering files began to be used in a more effective way by combining them directly with digital art files, eliminating the physical paste-up stage altogether. Wildstorm Comics was ahead of the curve, Marvel came around a few years later, and DC held to traditional production methods the longest, but now nearly all lettering is digitally applied.
In the early years of the 21st Century, the mainstream American comics companies moved almost exclusively to in-house computer lettering, effectively ending the era of the freelance letterer. Chris Eliopoulos designed the fonts for Marvel's in-house lettering unit, and Ken Lopez did the same at DC.
Tools and methods
The traditional comic book letterer needs little more than a lettering guide, a pen or brush, India ink, and white paint for corrections. Some situations required the letterer to use vellum overlays on top of the original art.
The lettering in the comics of the controversial short-lived publisher EC Comics was different from other publishers. Its slightly mechanical look gave it a sterile aspect, and helped to define the particular style of sensationalist horror EC was known for. EC's letterers achieved their particular look by using a Leroy lettering set, a device popular amongst draftsmen and architects. The Leroy lettering set consisted of a stylus and a pantographic lettering form.
Most Marvel and DC books are now lettered using a graphics program such as Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop, and a font that resembles hand lettering. Computer lettering provides a lot of technical shortcuts, especially by combining the lettering work directly with digital art files, eliminating the tedious physical paste-up stage altogether.
There are also still comics artists and inkers who prefer to have the lettering directly on their pages. First, it saves drawing time (not having to put art where a big caption will be); and second, comics tell a story, and a page of comics art without the lettering is only half the story.
Long-time letterer John Workman toes a middle ground between traditional and digital lettering. In addition to his "on-the-art boards work," Workman has been electronically hand-lettering by way of a Wacom tablet for such books as Torchwood, Mega Man, Thor, Turf, and "Before Watchmen: Ozymandias".
Awards and recognition
Both the Eisner Awards and the Harvey Awards feature a "best letterer" category. (The Shazam Awards also had a "best letterer" category until the Awards' demise in 1975.) Since the creation of the Eisner and Harvey lettering awards (in 1993 and 1992, respectively), Todd Klein has dominated the Eisner, winning fifteen times, and has come away with the Harvey eight times. Other repeat Harvey Award winners include Ken Bruzenak, Chris Ware, John Workman, and Dan Clowes.
Cartoonists known for the lettering on their own comics:
Companies that provide computer lettering:
- Klein, Todd. "How it all began," Todd Klein: Lettering – Logos – Design. Retrieved July 22, 2008.
- Kimball, Kirk. "The Big Chill," Dial B for Blog #376 (Oct. 10, 2006). Retrieved July 21, 2008.
- B.D.S. Interview with Gaspar Saladino in "Silver Age Sage," The Silver Lantern: A Tribute to the Silver Age of DC Comics (May 25, 2007). Retrieved July 18, 2008.
- Mark Evanier quoted in Brian Cronin's "Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed" #66, Comic Book Resources (Aug. 21, 2006). Retrieved July 20, 2008.
- Kimball, Kirk. "Gaspar Saladino — The Natural," Dial B for Blog #489 (Sept.). Accessed May 18, 2011.
- Kimball, Kirk. "Gaspar Saladino — Atlas Shrugged!" Dial B for Blog #497 (Sept.). Accessed May 19, 2011.
- "Gaspar Saladino," ComicVine. Retrieved July 20, 2008.
- Letterer Clem Robins, quoted in Kimball, Kirk. "Gaspar Saladino — A New Star on the DC Horizon," Dial B for Blog #490 (Sept.). Accessed May 19, 2011.
- Klein, Todd. "Computer lettering," Todd Klein: Lettering – Logos – Design. Retrieved July 23, 2008.
- Byrne Robotics FAQ: Creative Process. Retrieved December 2, 2005.
- Contino, Jennifer. "ABCs with Orzechowski," Comicon.com: The Pulse (Dec. 30, 2003). Retrieved July 17, 2008.
- Burns, Casey. "Squa Tront and Spa Fon (2001)," Casey Burns official website. Accessed May 21, 2011.
- Evanier, Mark. "Lettering part 1," POV Online (Jan. 10, 1997) and "Lettering part 2," POV Online (Jan. 17, 1997).
- Klein, Todd. Todd Klein: Lettering – Logos – Design.
- Thomas, Michael. "The Invisible Art in Plain Sight: A Look at the Art of Lettering," Comic Book Resources (June 9, 2000).
- Ninja Lettering – extensive website devoted to the craft of comic book lettering
- Balloon Tales – the Comicraft studio's online guide to comic book lettering