Comics: The Dying Craft Of Lettering

I no longer mind being called a Luddite. It might’ve bothered me once. Now, it’s become a lazy catchall slur meant to target anyone who has any kind of reservation about technological ‘progress’—because, after all, progress is an unalloyed good which everyone must believe in like obedient cult members.

(The concept of progress, and/or something being progressive, is not, semantically or in actuality, a good of any kind—or a bad of any kind. It’s a neutral idea that can/should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. For instance, in the negative, pretty much every terminal disease is ‘progressive’.)

Anyhow. I was all for digital tech and online stuff back in the day. And by that, I mean 15+ years ago. Maybe you have to be immersed in something for a while to start seeing the dangers properly. Digital has an insidious tendency to slowly, creepingly replace everything it touches with a digital facsimile. Often as not, the craft or physical actuality it replaces gets killed off completely… or, in cases like, for instance, film being made on film, a few stubborn holdouts will keep the organic original alive (Tarantino, Nolan, etc).

In comics there are a number of aspects you could mention, but let’s focus on LETTERING. To be blunt, digital lettering requires no craft. It’s a form of typsetting. And to any digital letterers out there, SORRY—BUT NOT SORRY. I accept that there’s skill in it—but there’s no craft.

To underline this point, take me. Give me one of those Comicraft fonts, some balloon templates, etc, and my work is indistinguishable from anyone else using same to do their digital lettering.

But hand lettering? I’m absolutely terrible at it. I just don’t have that craft. Don’t tell me this isn’t meaningful. Of course it is.

On top of that, digital lettering kind of SUCKS. It’s so damn sterile. Like so many other digital techniques, it largely or completely removes the human aspect. Some professional digital letterers actually do make two or three variants on their fonts so they can try to fake the letter variations seen in real hand-lettering. It’s superficially effective but it’s also a bit crazy and kinda lame—if you want that imperfection, USE YOUR FUCKING HANDS!

The results of hand-lettering require genuine craft as well as a physical interaction between the artist and the art surface. It’s a tactile thing. I don’t understand why so many people are obsessed with removing that component… from just about… everything. If we’re heading for a post-physical world, you can count me out.

Let’s end with some lettering examples. I don’t have my scanner to hand, so I grabbed a couple off the Web and cropped them down a bit. Firstly, one of the all-time greats in comic book lettering is Artie Simek. He did beautiful, bold, clear work, great sound effects, imaginative titles. He’s a gold standard. This is two tiers of page two of Fantastic Four #102 (1970), lettered by Art. The drawings are by Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott; if you didn’t know that, for shame…

Fantastic Four 102

Secondly, two tiers from Fantastic Four: Antithesis #2 (2020). I don’t even care who did the lettering. It speaks for itself. There’s no comparison. A similar case could be made for the colouring. The artwork itself is fine; it’s by Neal Adams & Mark Farmer… this, BTW, was the nearest Marvel Comics came to publishing a half-decent comic in 2020.

Fantastic Four Antithesis

Thoughts? If you disagree, lemme know!

7 thoughts on “Comics: The Dying Craft Of Lettering”

  1. Chrissie,

    I agree completely with the tactile feel of hand-lettering. Nothing can compare. Along with Artie Simek there were so many unique and exceptional letterers in the world of comics, from Howard Ferguson and Ira Schnapp to Ben Oda, Sam Rosen and Gaspar Saladino, to name a very few. They were part of the entire package and added an important layer of quality to the comics they worked on.

    1. Walt Simonson’s terrific IDW series Ragnarok has been undeniably improved by John Workman’s highly creative lettering, although there are strong indications he’s begun using digital versions of his own fonts.

  2. No question Artie Simek is better. I think the British equivalent of Simek was Tom Frame who worked for IPC and 2000AD especially. Had the good fortune to have him do several of my strips before he passed and they’re the best lettering any of my work has ever had.
    I remember a Sweat Shop Talk with Will Eisner that Kirby did in which he said that when he started in comics he was taught to put the word balloons onto the page before he drew anything else.

    1. It’s true the balloons are an important part of the page design, and people like Kirby, and Alex Toth (who was a great letterer), always built them into their layouts & pencils where possible. Pages done that way always work better. The lettering becomes a part of the organic structure of the page… as it should be.

    2. Were these ‘Futureshocks’ for 2000AD, Jasper? I used to pick that up every week back in the 1980s (along with the short-lived Starlord), but gradually switched over to buying collections of the UK strips I liked.

      Sadly, a brief reacquaintance with 2000AD a couple of years ago proved unsatisfying: the Dredd strips were usually decent enough (several serials were drawn by Staz Johnson, one of the better artists in comics today — and an advocate of old-fashioned ink-on-paper, to boot), but too many of the back-up serials were downright dreary, row upon row of talking heads. Needless to say, the lettering was as sterile as the narrative.

  3. It was indeed great to see Adams working on the Fantastic Four, even if Marvel felt it necessary to insert Mark Waid into the line-up. The mini-series itself was entertaining, albeit ultimately inconsequential (mangled as the continuity is these days, this adventure appeared to exist within a bubble created to avoid messing with current canon). Judging from most of Marvel’s recent announcements, Antithesis might be the last gasp of old-style storytelling, as opposed to the company’s present preference for preaching and virtue-signalling.

  4. I suppose one advantage of computer lettering is that the original art doesn’t have balloons and captions stuck on, making it easier to be relettered for the foreign sales market. However, I’m no fan of the perfectly elliptical balloon shapes and, as you say, the rigid uniformity of letters. I don’t think most modern readers will bother too much as long as the lettering is legible and tidy, but it’s no longer the art it once was. You may find the following link interesting:

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