Interesting Nonetheless

Our friend Ken Parille has joined us again with a fascinating column that begins with lettering and winds its way into Roy Lichtenstein. 

When I started reading Marvel comic books in the 1970s, I was baffled by the lettering. While it didn’t appear to be typeset, the dialogue, narration, and sound effects looked too perfect to be done by hand. I was sure that the letterers must have had some help — maybe a weird mechanical device controlled their fingers as they worked. How else, I thought, could they form the thousands of words in a comic book’s balloons and caption boxes with such precision and consistency? Years later I learned — with some amazement, and a little disappointment — that no strange machines were involved. Letterers typically used a plastic “Ames Guide,” T-square, and pencil to create reference lines for words inked freehand. Like the artists who drew a comic’s pictures, letterers worked on pages much larger than the book’s printed size. When the original art was photographed and reduced during production, guide lines and other imperfections vanished, leaving behind only the letterer’s calligraphy.

I especially loved the lettering in Marvel’s early superhero comics. Often done by Artie Simek or Sam Rosen, it looked much stronger than other companies’ text, giving the characters’ already bombastic pronouncements an even greater sense of drama.

Yet I had the impression that, of all the people involved in comic-book production, letterers were considered the least important, not only by fans, but by the companies who hired them. In some of the story credits he wrote, Marvel’s Stan Lee would praise the art (and his own scripts) as “daring” or “vigorous” and then make a joke about the letterer, whose name always appeared last: “lettered with a soggy penpoint by S. Rosen.”

After reading many credits like this — and noticing that letterers regularly went unnamed in other companies’ comics — I got the message. In the comic-book production hierarchy, lettering took last place.

Kind of a slow comics news weekend as near as I can tell, so I'll just leave you with this Tom Spurgeon interview with cartoonist Joe Decie.

7 Responses to Interesting Nonetheless

  1. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Is it not possible to leave a comment on Ken’s post? Didn’t see the function.

  2. Dan Nadel says:

    Ken prefers not to have comments open on his posts, but you can leave it here…

  3. Ryan Holmberg says:

    For Ken: I am always happy to see well-argued critiques of Lichtenstein’s design sensibilities. Setting comics people’s “resentment” of Lichtenstein aside, even art historians cannot make up their mind about Lichtenstein. On the one hand they say it’s not about the composition, it’s about the appropriation and what it means to the history of modern painting (mock brushstrokes, stippling, scale, machismo and melodrama, reflexive commentary on modernist visual experience). But then you often find them saying in the next breath, oh, Lichtenstein changed this and that trifle, this proves that he had an eye for composition, in fact he probably had a better sense of composition than his sources. They want him to be conceptual and post-technique to set him up for the 60s but yet can’t let go of technique because it means leaving him vulnerable to comparisons (like yours) to comic book artists on the grounds of composition. It seems to me art historians should take a different tack, and embrace the fact that Lichtenstein had an awful eye and sense of design (look at the garbage ab-ex Disney drawings he did beforehand, and the stilted Chinese landscapes he did later), say that it doesn’t matter if his lines are dead and his lettering is poor, and say instead that he was radical in the sense that Duchamp’s readymades or the Pictures generation were, like a Richard Prince or Sherry Levine who couldn’t yet let go of the handmade.

  4. Great post

    Here’s an interesting page about Roy Lichtenstein, comparing the original comic book panels to his finished work

  5. Ken Parille says:

    Thanks, Leonard. And thanks, Ryan.

    Ryan, I agree with your assessment, in particular about the ways that art critics and historians have talked about L.’s changes to his sources; looking at his lettering alongside the source text reveals some odd design choices that are hard to explain away in terms of his ‘ethos.’ I wondered if many critics avoided analyzing the lettering in any detail precisely because the way he approaches it is difficult to justify, especially with the inconsistent spacing, cramped letters, erratic letterforms, jammed-in punctuation, etc. I like some of his work, I just think, like you, that his sense of composition is not always so great. His value lies elsewhere.

  6. Briany Najar says:

    Lichty’s usp was ersatz naivete.
    That’s why the lettering looks like a child’s work and all the dynamic pressure (eg, the forceful bearing-down of Spence’s diagonal) is neutered.
    Comics aren’t emulated by him as much as used to prompt a fantasy about them as some kind of idiot-savant work which somehow – humbly, artlessly and without Romance – articulates.
    His chosen market was ready for him – it had reached the requisite levels of smug, disillusioned, knowing desperation.

  7. Briany Najar says:

    Oops – not Spence, but Novick.

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