jack kirby

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!

Comics: The Ring Of The Nibelung

Written by Roy Thomas. Drawn by Gil Kane (w/assist by Alfredo Alcala). Lettered by John Costanza. Coloured by Jim Woodring. Edited by Andrew Helfer. Published in 1989-90 by DC Comics.

Summary: A squarebound, four-issue mini-series adapting Der Ring des Nibelungen, Richard Wagner’s epic musical drama, aka the Ring Cycle, based on Norse Legend and the German epic poem Nibelungenlied.

Read more about Der Ring des Nibelungen on Wikipedia. (Saves me writing a synopsis!)

The Ring has also notably been adapted in comics form, at much greater length and more faithfully to the Wagner source, by P Craig Russell in 2000; and of course, there is the two-part 1924 silent movie by the great Fritz Lang, Die Nibelungen. The Thomas & Kane version is perhaps not so different from their work on various Conan projects—it has an old school adventure comics feel. If you like those books as much as I do, you won’t see that as a drawback.

The Ring Book 1
Epic Kane art from THE RING Book One.

One of the key visual differences from the older Thomas/Kane comics would be Jim Woodring’s painterly colours. Jim is, of course, a well-known underground cartoonist, but from the mid-to-late 1980s he also worked for the Ruby-Spears animation studio, at the same time as did Gil Kane. Woodring, I believe, did get to work on some of Kane’s conceptual drawings for R-S (as well as some of Jack Kirby’s), either as inker or colourist or both, and this connection was likely the reason he got this gig for DC Comics, which was his first mainstream comics credit.

(Side note: I used to own the original art for a conceptual drawing Kane did during his R-S period, which he’d inked himself and which was hand-coloured, possibly in marker. I emailed Jim to ask if the colouring was his; he promptly replied that it wasn’t. Maybe Kane did it himself. I digress.)

Jim’s colour work is pretty interesting here. It’s a little more “bright” than you’d expect from a DC book of the period—a deceptively simple yet artsy feel well-suited to fantasy, which Kane no doubt appreciated a great deal, being famously critical of mainstream conventions. Personally I think it makes Gil’s work look a little more cartoonish at times, but it does fit the subject well enough and gives it a more unique look.

The Ring Book 3
Gil Kane at his best from THE RING Book Three.

Gil’s work is, overall, superb, and the best visuals in this series are amongst his very best work, period. But it is a little inconsistent. To be fair, there are major mitigating factors. While working on this series, Gil got sick with lymphoma (which would plague him on-and-off for the rest of his days), which necessitated a bit of uncredited inking assistance from Alfredo Alcala (also a Conan stalwart, not to mention another Ruby-Spears alumnus) (I’m unsure if Alfredo inked any of Gil’s R-S work—though it’s very likely—but he did ink lots of Kirby’s stuff). It’s been said a number of times that Alcala only assisted on Book Four of this series, but IMO while I see little trace of his hand in Book Three, I’m sure he is nominally present in Book Two (see below). He does a reasonable job of suppressing the full extent of his own, florid style and emulating Gil’s trademark forthright inking, but it’s not a perfect match… better than I’d have expected, though.

The Ring Book 2
These panels, especially the third, show traces of Alfredo Alcala’s work, from THE RING Book Two.

I love the visuals in this series. It’s worth it for the drawings alone. Luckily, Thomas does a great job with the script, too—Roy’s real niche has always been fantasy more than superheroes, I think, even though he has done some excellent hero work (the Kree-Skrull War arc in Avengers may be his pinnacle)… his best work on Conan is unsurpassed in the comics adaptations. The Ring isn’t quite up to those peaks, but it’s very good.

Of interest to Thor fans, too, would be the Norse Mythology link. Wagner naturally used the Germanic variants, so one-eyed Wotan is of course one-eyed Odin, and Donner is not meat from a kebab but none other than Thor himself—brother of Wotan’s wife, not his son! The differences are curious and fascinating, but it’s easy to spot who the various folks are. (Similar fun can be had from reading of the Roman variants on Greek mythology.)

The Ring is a pretty typical fantasy adventure, really, but it does have adult themes which are not spared in this deluxe, mature readers format—Gil gets to draw naked breasts for the first time since his work on Blackmark in the early ’70s, and the ill-fated lovers depicted in book two (“The Valkyrie”)—Siegmund & Sieglinda—are long-lost twin siblings who don’t think twice about their union when they realise their true relation.

The Ring Book 4
Title page art from THE RING Book Four.

If you haven’t seen this series, it comes highly recommended! There was a TPB collection which is now OOP; buying the individual issues may be cheaper.

While I’m here: I’ve owned a number of Gil Kane originals over the years… currently, I own this (signed!) splash page layout for Savage Sword of Conan #8, which I think is pretty neat.

Savage Sword of Conan 8 pg1
Gil Kane original layout art for page 1 of “Corsairs Against Stygia”, SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN #8, 1975.