Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: You began your professional career about 30 years ago, is that correct?
Clem Robins: The first job was in January of 1977, so it would be 31 years ago, going on 32.
CB: Who hired you for that first job?
ROBINS: A man named Paul Kuhn at Gold Key. I showed my samples all around town. I’d moved back to New York City from Nebraska in August of ’76 and I made up some samples and showed them all around town. I went to Gold Key, I went to Marvel, I went to DC and they all liked them, but there was no room for anybody, so I got little jobs around town. I worked as a paste-up artist and I ate starvation meals. Then in January Paul Kuhn at Gold Key expressed some interest so I came in and he gave me a Dudley Doright story to letter. I think the rate, and obviously this was the new person’s rate, but the page rate was I believe $4.00 a page, which seemed like a lot of money to me.
So I did the story and brought it in. There was another editor there named Al Weiss and Al looked at it and said, “Beautiful it’s not, but I think we can use you.” Definitely it was not beautiful. I get weak in the knees when I look at some of the stuff I did back then. But they gave me another story. The second one I think was the one Arnold Drake wrote. It was a Heckle and Jeckel story. It was very funny. I didn’t know it was Arnold because there were no credits on these things, but I lettered that and I asked the editor who wrote this and it was Arnold Drake. I guess Arnold was pretty much blacklisted out at DC ever since he tried to unionize the writers and artists there. Arnold went to his grave wanting to do that. He still believed that was something that needed to be done. Those guys make a fortune if they’re any good. So that’s how the whole thing started.
CB: How exactly did you settle on the specialty of lettering? I presume you took some art training at some point.
ROBINS: I was going to the Art Student’s League and here is what I thought: I thought I didn’t want to spend my life in comics. I wanted to be a serious painter. I still do. And I thought if I did something like penciling it would exact such a huge claim on my energy and time and sense of aesthetics that I would just end up being nothing but a penciler and I’d never do any good painting. So lettering seemed like an easier way to go. What I didn’t know at the time is that it takes about 15 years to become a decent letterer. Certainly it takes at least 5 years. It’s not something small, it’s not something easy, it has its own sense of aesthetics and they’re not easily learned.
You know what I was? I was somebody that appreciated and loved the goofiness of the known letterers like Gaspar Saladino, and what I didn’t understand at the time was the sheer discipline that underlay all that goofiness. I’m going far afield of your question. You asked me why I got into lettering. I got into lettering because I thought it wouldn’t exert so huge a drain on my legendary creative resources. (Chuckle.)
As I got into it I just thought it was a hoot. Gold Key got rid of me after about two months when I refused to letter a story for them which I thought was in very questionable taste, considering the book was intended for very young children. I wonder sometimes if I should have just kept my mouth shut. But a week later DC finally called me and gave me work. It was a World’s Finest story. It was drawn by Trevor Von Eeden. Do you remember him?
CB: I’ve heard the name but I’m not super familiar with his work.
ROBINS: He’s a young guy. Younger than I am. At that time very young. I think he was in high school and also black. I think he was from the West Indies and for his age he was very, very good. It was a Black Canary/Green Arrow story written by Gerry Conway and penciled by Trevor and I forget who inked it, but I was in a figure drawing and human anatomy class at the Art Student’s League at the time so I got these 10 pages and I brought them in and showed all my classmates. My teacher, who was an exquisitely well-mannered Boston patrician and probably the best artistic anatomy teacher this country has ever had, until I started teaching it, of course, he took the page and he used it in his lecture and he pointed out the gluteus medius and the tensor of the fascia lata.
It was a real hoot seeing the stuff and bringing it in. I remember there was one sequence in that story where Black Canary…boy, I wouldn’t mind seeing this again as long as I didn’t have to look at the lettering; I think it was in this — no, it was a Spider Woman story a couple of years later, that’s it. But Trevor drew it; Spider Woman is going undercover. She’s trying to find something from a criminal element, and although it’s not spelled out, she’s clearly dressed like a whore, including the hot pants and the fishnet stockings, and the way Trevor drew the story, instead of using spiraling lines to indicate the fishnet stockings going over Spider Woman’s thighs, he just wrote the word “sex” over and over again. Very subliminal. I don’t know if you remember this but there were these books that were floating around at that time about subliminal messages and erotic pictures put into ice cubes in Scotch ads and stuff like that. Have you ever read any of these things?
ROBINS: Subliminal seduction. I guess this was Trevor trying his hand at it, but the inker — Mike Esposito, I think — didn’t waste his time with that. He turned those things into spiraling lines. I can’t believe I remember all this. In that first story, the Black Canary thing, Trevor used some kind of a gummy, non-repro blue pencil on that story and it repelled the ink and so it made my stuff look even worse than it would have otherwise. To think they gave me work. They put up with a lot, bless their hearts. Bob Rozakis, who I think you interviewed, didn’t you?
CB: I did.
ROBINS: He parceled out the lettering projects at DC. Jack Adler was, I guess, the head of production.
CB: You told me once that the scripts you typically see are not necessarily the ones that say the pencil and ink team would see. Something to the effect that what you see is sometimes just the tip of the iceberg.
ROBINS: Hmmm. Well, back then it was much more like an assembly line job. If it was full script the writer would write it in such a way to tell the artist what he wanted and give it to him and in some cases, once the penciler had done his job the writer, particularly if he was on staff, like Bob Rozakis was, might look over the pencils and re-write his script to suit.
Now today it’s very different. Today, because lettering is digital, if they want to change something; instead of having people on staff to re-letter it, they feel free to re-write everything after it’s been lettered, and except in very rare cases, the letterer has to re-letter it. At times it’s been a nightmare in that regard, but it’s certainly added to the quality of the writing in comic books. You can’t get around that. Anyway, you do Silver Age, but all that’s fresh in my mind is what I’m doing today. I do a comic called 100 bullets. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it.
CB: Not yet. I’ve seen it, but haven’t picked it up.
ROBINS: It wins a gazillion awards. The artist doesn’t speak much English. He lives in Argentina. He’s very good. You look at these scripts for it and the art direction is so minimal it’s ridiculous. The writer has been very generous with all of us, letting us just do our thing. So the artist will often completely bypass the art direction of the script, but you’d really have to see it to understand what I’m talking about. Now with Marvel method scripts, it was what you see is what you get. That was mostly what I was doing. When I started at DC I seemed to be the catch basin for everything Gerry Conway wrote. He was very facile, he was very fast. I’m guessing, but I’d say it probably took a day for him to write a script.
That’s the thing about the Marvel method. Although Stan Lee made all kinds of claims of it being uniquely creative, it was really something done to save time so that a small number of writers could write a large number of comic books. So Gerry was very copy heavy and because of that and because I was the new guy on the block and I wasn’t very good I seemed to end up with all his stories and they were publishing a gazillion books at the time. Some of them you really wish hadn’t been published.
They were putting out all this stuff around 1977 and then they had the big DC implosion in 1978 and everything fell apart. Bob Rozakis called me to tell me the bad news that I was losing all my books and I said, “That’s okay, I just moved to Marvel anyway.” (Chuckle.)
CB: When the implosion happened was it just simply a matter of too much crap thrown up on the wall and nothing was sticking, or a business decision or do you have any insight into it?
ROBINS: I have no insight into it, but I’m sure if you contacted Bob Rozakis again he could tell you all about it. If sales were not awful, I don’t know why they weren’t. A lot of this stuff was just dreadful. I think it was just a terrible time in the history of the medium. The same sort of thing actually happened in 1968 and 1969. They introduced a whole bunch of books, gave them a lot of fanfare and none of them really sold very well. The Hawk and the Dove, The Creeper, Angel and the Ape. Do you remember that?
CB: Yeah, that’s right. Some of Bridwell’s stuff.
ROBINS: Yeah, Secret Six. They all got canceled within a short time. I think it was like that here only more so. And they were in the process I think of losing their audience. I don’t know why that happened. I’ve seen in some of these other interviews you do people speculating on why the kids are not reading comics.
CB: There seems to be no lack of conjecture, but not a lot of consensus overall. I’ve heard everything blamed from video games to cell phones to all of the above to just flat-out lousy product, or as you said, just losing the audience. I think one of the things you stressed to me more than once was that you felt that writers were given undue clout over editors.
ROBINS: Let me put it another way for you: You’re about my age. I’m 52 and you’re 45?
ROBINS: So you weren’t reading these things in the 60’s, but I guess you’ve made up for that. You read a lot of the 60’s comics.
CB: Very much so.
ROBINS: In general, at least at DC; I don’t know what Stan was like at Marvel, but at DC, editors were tyrants. Now they could be nice tyrants, like Julie Schwartz, or…I can’t think of any other nice tyrants. Editors were tyrants, and they had a lot of clout, and they knew what they wanted, and they got it. Today editors are certainly not tyrants. With very few exceptions, most of them are extraordinarily nice people, especially at DC. They’re nice people and you want to treat them nicely, and so the nature of the relationship between the writer and the editor I think has changed.
And you can’t argue with the fact that the writing is better now, at least as an adult looking at these things. It’s better, but what the hell do I know? I don’t read comics. I work on them, but the books that I do for Vertigo, DC and Dark Horse; the Hellboy books, the writing is very good for the most part. Very craftsman-like. They’re not afraid to leave you asking questions. They’re not afraid to really challenge the hell out of you. But these are comics for adults. If my kids were school age, they’re all grown up now, but if I had kids I couldn’t imagine them reading 100 Bullets or Black Orchid or Preacher or any of these other things. Another thing is that the Comics Code really has become a joke.
CB: I was going to ask you about that. It seems to me that if I’m picking up on what you were trying to convey that in its own perverse way it had a major impact on how well the stories used to be written back in the day.
ROBINS: If you had somebody real smart, who knew how to imply stuff, then it really did. Did you ever read Doom Patrol? Particularly in its later issues after Rita and Steve got married?
ROBINS: Even when I was 11 years old reading that, there was no question in my mind that there was a very sexual relationship between these two people. It was there. You just didn’t see it, but it was there. You saw it in the way that they looked at each other. You saw it in the subtext of the things they’d say to each other, and this was while they were battling alien monsters and stuff like that. It was just good. I doubt if Arnold Drake appreciated the constraints he had to work under, but I think they sharpened him and disciplined him.
CB: You mentioned that both he and John Broome really stood out as writers in your mind…
ROBINS: In my opinion, yeah. Drake more than Broome, but Broome…well, you look at some of those old things he wrote. It was great craft in the way he would shape a sentence. That story you tore apart, “Hate of the Hooded Hangman?”
CB: (Chuckle.) Oh, yeah…
ROBINS: Read that sucker again. It was one of the most perfectly written and drawn comic book stories I’ve ever seen. Beautifully, beautifully done. Broome was very good and I’m sorry I never got to work on any of his stuff. He either left the business by the time I got in or I just wasn’t getting his books. Or was he fired along with everyone else in 1968?
CB: I know that he kind of went on that sabbatical abroad. If I may shift gears a little bit, you told me once that Gil Kane was a lot of the reason you became an artist and became involved in comics ultimately. I was wondering if you’d elaborate on that.
ROBINS: DC is reissuing a lot of the old stories in black and white.
CB: Yeah. The Showcase Presents series.
ROBINS: Yeah. I’ve looked at some of those. Now there are holes in Gil’s draftsmanship, especially when he inked his own pencils. Gaping holes in it. He was self-taught, and the stuff ain’t perfect, but I like what Stephen Grant wrote in his eulogy for Gil. I believe he said that the comic page could not contain his designs. It was just too huge. Arabesques. Just great diagonal movement. Some of this stuff is just beyond freaking belief. I think he was just fabulous. Stan Lee has called John Buscema the Michelangelo of comics. That’s overselling him a bit, but if you want to talk in those terms, then Gil was the Rubens of comics. He composed in such a fashion that he kicked you through the story. He was irresistible. I would have to say the all around best comic book artist who ever drew breath is Joe Kubert, or maybe Alex Toth, but below that you’ve got some marvelous, marvelous people. When I started studying anatomy, I saw some of the things that Gil had been doing with the human body and respected him so much more.
Just for fun, take a look at the rib cages on any of his super hero characters. There was an incredible sense of volume in them. People think anatomy is about muscles, but the great draughtsmen are much more passionate about bones. They learn the bones from every possible angle. They’re the basis of any kind of construction of the figure. Look at those damn rib cages. Look at the knees. Look at those fantastic hands. Look at the heads. A lot of times, modern comic artists make people’s heads look like action figures, or even like balloons. When Gil drew the human head, it was clear that he understood the structure of the human skull, from any possible angle. I teach figure drawing at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and the biggest reason I make my students learn anatomy is that it tells you, in advance, where the surface of the body is hard or soft. You draw a line differently if it is describing a surface underlaid with bone, or with muscle, or with fat. And you see all that stuff in Gil’s work, especially when he inked his own pencils.
He was an interesting guy. It was impossible for Gil to be neutral about anybody. He either liked you or hated you from the day he met you, for no apparent reason, either. But he liked me and you would know if Gil liked you. Gil would have liked you, too, if he were still in the picture. You would know if Gil liked you, because he would never call you by your name. He’d call you, “My boy,” or “Sonny-boy.”
CB: That’s charming.
ROBINS: I’d call Gil every once in a while, because I worked on a book for him at Malibu. I got his phone number and it was like talking to God, for me. He’d keep you on the phone for two hours just talking about everything. A fascinating conversationalist. He was great. There was a period of time in the late 60’s where I believe he was trying to get out from under a marriage and so he was trying to pull together a fierce amount of money just to get rid of his wife and he was drawing too damn much at that point. It became very formulaic, but then he really got his mojo back in the 80’s and 90’s and did marvelous work. I was very proud of him. Somebody else who really got to me was Carmine Infantino. A great designer and a marvelous story-teller. Look again at “The Hate of the Hooded Hangman.” There’s a scene early on in that where the Hangman character has just won a wrestling match or is in a wrestling match and the crowd is jeering him. Does that ring a bell for you?
CB: It sure does.
ROBINS: Look at how he drew that crowd. You can almost smell their sweat, and their cigars. Look at how he designed that page. And then when I got into the business and I’ve lettered four or five of Infantino’s stories; you wouldn’t believe what those pencils look like. It’s just a mare’s nest of scribbles. How anybody could possibly pull an image out of that I don’t know, but this is the way he worked and why there was such an energy and flow to his stuff. I guess when you interviewed him he said that Frank Giacoia was his favorite inker?
CB: Yeah. That was the one he specified.
ROBINS: I think Joe Giella was a better match, but that’s my opinion. Can you imagine that? Drawing something in pencil and not only surrendering it to somebody else who would do the actual reproduced drawing, but not having a choice as to who that person is going to be?
CB: I never thought of it that way. That would have to be frustrating in large measure for some of these guys. Carmine never came out and said so to me, but I was under the impression that he didn’t like the way Murphy Anderson inked him.
ROBINS: I would have to agree with him on that. Murphy made Carmine’s stuff behave. It was like breaking a horse. He filtered the energy out of it. Murphy Anderson is a great craftsman. You can’t get around that. I believe it was Monet who said it’s very difficult to do even a bad painting. Anybody who has been a penciler or an inker has paid a huge price for what he does. That stuff is not easy. And it’s time consuming, and it’s brutal. The deadlines. All of that. So I don’t badmouth anybody.
CB: One last thing on Gil before we move on. You mentioned you had the opportunity to paint his portrait once. How did that come about?
ROBINS: I believe it was in the Comics Journal that there was a two-part interview with Gil and I heard a rumor they were going to take that and make a book out of it and so I called Gil and said, “Can I paint your picture to use as the cover for this thing?” So he sent me a photograph. The photograph was taken in the 70’s. Gil looked nothing like that at that time. He’d lost his hair, probably due to the chemotherapy, but this photograph of him taken 30 years ago was what I used for a watercolor painting, and I sent it to Gil and I was very nervous.
I mean, I’m sending artwork to Gil Kane. I had a good friend at the time who was a pretty hot penciler and inker at DC and I asked Gil what he thought and Gil said, “This guy’s the worst artist I’ve ever seen in all my life.” So Gil was pretty forthcoming in his opinions. So anyway, he called me back when I sent this, and his hat was in his hand. He said, “Is there any way, sonny-boy, I can have this once it’s used for the cover of the book?” What the hell am I going to say to Gil Kane?
CB: Oh, sure.
ROBINS: And he sent me a piece of original art with some western strip or something like that. So, yeah, I painted his portrait and was proud to do it.
CB: You didn’t keep any kind of a copy I don’t suppose?
ROBINS: No, I didn’t particularly like it. I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the photograph I worked from. I hate working from photographs.
CB: I imagine it makes it kind of hard.
ROBINS: Well, if you’re talking about serious painting it is very difficult to work from a photograph. The things a painter looks for are not the things that the camera sees, and I’m talking about a realistic painter. The things that make a painting work are not the same things that make a photograph work. So you have to guess about a lot of things working from photographs. And this print wasn’t really that great an image of him, but it was a stock photo that was used for years. So yeah, I painted Gil’s portrait. It was nice.
CB: What in your opinion makes a good letterer?
ROBINS: I know it when I see it. The great ones, and the good ones…Tom Orzechowski is a great letterer. Ben Oda was a great letterer. Todd Klein is a great letterer. Sam Rosen was a great letterer.
CB: What’s his name? Saladino? (Chuckle.)
ROBINS: Gaspar is the best there ever was. I’ll quote Orzechowski, from a post he wrote on a letterer’s blog only yesterday: “Gaspar Saladino was the best we will ever see. Top of the stack. He. Got. It. Absolutely.”
The great ones had a sense of style to what they were doing. But the great ones and the good ones; good ones being guys like me, Milt Snappin, Irving Watanabe; the ones that were good and the ones that were great all had a sense of cleanness about what they were doing. The same thing that happened when he designed type. If you look at a block of text, if it’s in a good typeface, or if it’s well lettered and if you look at that block of text from a distance, it will fuse into a kind of gray, and it won’t be a spotty gray, it will be an even gray. Do you know what I’m talking about?
CB: I think so.
ROBINS: If it’s spotty, then it’s calling attention to itself. It’s kind of a hard thing to describe. There’s a Vermeer painting called “Allegory of the New Testament.” Have you ever seen it?
CB: It doesn’t ring any bells.
ROBINS: Go to Google and look it up. It’s a very lovely picture. Vermeer was in many ways the greatest painter who ever drew breath. In the picture this woman is in ecstasy over something she’s just read in the New Testament, and there’s this copy of the New Testament on a pedestal next to her and its open so there’s a huge amount of text on it. Vermeer managed to just suggest all that text with a patch of gray. The picture is at the Metropolitan museum. I’ve looked at it many times. It’s just gray. But it’s such a good gray. It’s such an appropriate gray for the place in the image that you totally buy into it. You accept it as text. Same kind of thing coming from the opposite direction.
Anyway, what makes a good letterer is that cleanness. It’s very, very hard to achieve and takes a whole lot of time. Other good letterers were Danny Crespi at Marvel. He was a very good letterer. Morrie Koramoto at Marvel was also very good. I think John Costanza was a great letterer. Willie Schubert is a great letterer. Some are very cool and they stand back and they try hard not to draw attention to themselves. That’s where you get a Ben Oda or certainly Artie Simek and to a lesser extent Sam Rosen. But for one it was just party time and that was Gaspar. It was a party, but it was a very elegant little party. And the other thing about how they used to make comics but don’t anymore; not at Marvel, where the script wasn’t written until the pictures had been drawn, but at DC where for the most part artists worked from a script where everything was laid out for them to do, if there was a title, or a sound effect, or even the balloon shapes, the artists were expected to rough those in for you. So when you worked on a DC book, and you did sound effects, quite often those sound effects had been penciled in by the artist.
Going back to Gaspar, if you look at his work on…who are the great designers? You’ve got Carmine. You’ve got Gil Kane. You’ve got Joe Kubert. I think Gaspar lettered one issue of Doom Patrol for Bruno Premiani, and these are all just great, great illustrators. If you look at the sound effects in those different guy’s stuff or you look at the balloon shapes, or the titles; yeah, Gaspar did them, but Gaspar took his cues from these great designers. That’s why titles looked different in Green Lantern than they did in Flash or differently than they did in the Kubert war books, or anything like that. So it was very nice. It was a nice relationship between letterer and artist. They were more subservient, but in a very healthy way. It was very nice. The lettering and especially the sound effects just had a more organic relationship with the artwork.
CB: Was the lettering one of the final phases in the production?
ROBINS: The classic way of doing it at DC was script and pencils, then lettering, then inks. In the 80’s and especially the 90’s I saw more and more of my own work that was practically never getting original art to letter on. It was all done on overlays and this was done because the pencilers were always late. So if the penciler was two weeks late getting the story in, then rather than send his art to me, they Xeroxed it and got the artwork to the inker immediately so the inker could save the penciler’s butt like they always seemed to end up doing.
So in the meantime I would letter on vellum overlays over Xeroxes and then they’d have these poor coolies in the production department who would have to paste up the lettering on to the artwork. But that was then. Today almost all of it is computerized, although Tom Orzechowski is getting to do some hand-lettering. So that’s the way it was done then. Today, sometimes I’ll have to letter pencils, sometimes I letter over fully inked artwork.
CB: I was thinking of what was, to my mind, for the era, the most unique thing when Carmine Infantino would have those gesturing hands on each of his caption boxes. I thought, “Okay, how does this all fit together?”
ROBINS: Well that’s an example of what I was talking about before. The letterers did what the artists wanted them to. So if Carmine would scribble in those hands, they’d be indecipherable to anyone except the inker. Those hands would emerge from a caption box and the letterer would undoubtedly rule the caption box, but then the inker would ink the hand coming out of it. So when you would see that, one letter writer would call that “Helpful Hands.” When you saw “Helpful Hands” in an Infantino book it was lettered by Gaspar, but Gaspar did not ink those hands. That was the responsibility of the inker.
CB: Okay. I was wondering about that because it’s almost like there’s an overlap there in responsibility and I wondered, “Okay, who trumps here?” (Chuckle.)
ROBINS: I didn’t understand or appreciate, because nobody explained it to me, how important this was; this taking cues from the penciler. There was a war book I did in, I think, 1978 that Jerry Grandenetti penciled and then inked it. I lettered it and I saw all these sound effects and the shapes that Jerry had indicated and I thought, “These are stupid. I’ll do it my way.” The damn thing had to be re-lettered, and I never got work off that editor again…until he became President of DC comics. (Mutual laughter.)
CB: It seems to me you made a comment once that Julie Schwartz was somewhat underwhelmed with the first job you did for him.
ROBINS: Well, the first job I did for him was also the last job I did for him. I just didn’t understand. I thought Julie, of all people, should love me because I’m pretending to be Gaspar. But Julie didn’t buy work from Gaspar because it was crazy, he bought work from Gaspar because Gaspar was so damn good he could get away with anything. So I was a libertine without the discipline, and I didn’t understand it at the time. So, yeah, it was when Julie was editing Superman or one of the Superman books, and Curt Swan drew it. It was very, very well drawn and Julie didn’t like it and I didn’t blame him one bit.
If there was anything that I could change about my relationship with DC when I started out, it’s that I wish I had been mature enough to ask more questions and get more feedback, and I wish that they had been more proactive in training me, but for some reason certain people liked my work and assumed it was okay, and then didn’t monitor me until I had made some bonehead mistakes. I can’t believe I’ve survived. (Chuckle.) A particular Wonder Woman story I did, because Gerry Conway had written it, and as I mentioned before I was the catch basin for everything Gerry wrote. He’s one of the producers now on one of those Law and Order shows.
CB: I think I remember you telling me that once. That was an interesting transition, although it seems like he’s not the first writer to make the leap into television. I think Cary Bates has done some of that as well.
ROBINS: Has he? Brian Vaughn, who was a very big Marvel writer, and of course he wrote a book for Vertigo called Y The Last Man.
CB: Oh, yeah, quite the legendary tome, although I’ve not read it.
ROBINS: He’s one of the producers on a show called Lost, which, if you’ve never seen it, you and I are the only ones.
CB: (Laughter.) I did watch it for a little bit and lost interest after a while.
ROBINS: Anyway, I did this Wonder Woman story; I did a bunch of Wonder Woman stories, but in this case I don’t know what I was thinking. I think I was thinking that it would be real cool if all my horizontal strokes became diagonal. And when I started doing it I thought, “Wow! I’m a genius!” So the letter “E” has got one vertical stroke and three horizontal strokes; well those horizontal strokes weren’t horizontal any more. I made them diagonal and thought, “Wow! This is really, really cool looking!” So I lettered this issue of Wonder Woman that way and the damn thing was published and Jack [Adler] called me up and he sounded sick. He said, “This issue of Wonder Woman cannot be read.”
This was an important book because I think the T.V. show was on at the time. So, youth. They shouldn’t hire 20-year old guys to letter their comic books. That’s the moral of the story. Now it’s all done on a computer so anyone can letter a comic book. Now this is sacrilegious, but I think I’m a better letterer on the computer than I was as a hand-letterer. If you letter on a computer…well, my sound effects were probably better as a hand-letterer, but nine tenths of it is designing type. Designing type is a fascinating procedure anyway.
But all the goofiness and fun, and at the same time rigidity and discipline that a comic book needs to have, that has to be built into the way you design type, and it takes quite awhile to learn how to do it. I’ve got some bells and whistles in my operation over here…well, in a block of copy; just a paragraph, what letter is going to appear most often?
CB: Hmmm. S?
ROBINS: E is the most common letter of the alphabet. So when I started doing this stuff on computer it began to drive me crazy that in one speech there might be fifteen identical “e’s.” So I cooked up a way to defeat that. I’m very proud of this and it’s not entirely finished yet, but I can send you a block of copy where no two “e’s” are identical, and I don’t have to do anything to make it happen, it’s all in the design of the type.
Anyway, I look at this stuff and I think my stuff is better now. I was cleaning up the studio yesterday; I try to do that once every fifteen years, and I ran across this issue of Preacher from 1999 done by hand, and I looked at it and looked at the stuff I do now, and I’d have to say my computerized stuff looks better than my hand lettering did.
CB: Well, I know I was sure impressed with your work on the Hellboy issue I got on Free Comic Book Day that I’d told you about, and it looked to me like it was hand drawn.
ROBINS: Bless your heart. That’s what I try for. Thank you very much.
CB: I don’t have the most discerning eye, but I was genuinely surprised when you told me it was done on the computer.
ROBINS: Mike Mignola is a very interesting guy to work for. He wants things done a certain way, and if you’re smart, you don’t argue with him. He’s got his own sense of aesthetics. A lot of things he likes I thought were idiotic, but the customer is always right, so I started doing things his way, and in many ways I think it’s made up for my stupidity when I was starting out at DC and ignored the layouts provided to me by the pencilers. He’s got a good design sense and I’ve tried to accommodate him. He’s very challenging to work for, but it’s even harder for the colorists. Dave Stewart has won all kinds of awards for his coloring on Hellboy. He deserves every bit of it.
CB: (Chuckle.) Not an easy task, huh?
ROBINS: Mike is a very nice guy. I like him very much. That was not a slur against him. If you work for David Selznick, you do things David Selznick’s way. If you work for Barack Obama, you do things the Barack Obama way. If you work for Mike Mignola, you do it Mike’s way, and he seems to know what he’s doing.
CB: The character is going strong. No question about it. Back when you were still doing things by hand what were your favorite tools of the trade?
ROBINS: I used a Speedball B-6 point sharpened a certain way that I learned when I was on staff at Marvel comics. At Marvel at that time John Costanza was the hot letterer and some of the things you needed to know how to do if you worked in their bullpen was how to correct John’s lettering and have it look more or less like John did it. So Danny Crespi, who ran the production department, a wonderful guy, he showed me how John Costanza sharpened a pen point and how he held it and I liked the effect very much and pretty much adopted it for my own. The Speedball B-6, sharpened a certain way, can be used for regular words and bold faced words. You just rotate it. So I used that and had a bunch of other points for different thicknesses, for sound effects; screaming, stuff like that.
CB: You told me kind of a humorous story about the FB-6 which was Gaspar’s favorite and you couldn’t get it to work, was that right?
ROBINS: Yeah, I couldn’t, and at the same time Gaspar’s art supplier didn’t sell them anymore and he was hearing rumors that the point was being discontinued, so I went to my art store. I was living in Boise at the time and I bought every FB-6 in the place and sent them to him. He was very grateful. He said he was almost going to have to retire.
CB: So you kept him going there. That’s cool.
ROBINS: I guess. He was already being eased out. I guess his last book for DC was Flash, wasn’t it?
CB: I’m not sure. I know a whole lot of hoopla was made over the Arkham Asylum book, but I don’t know where that was chronologically.
ROBINS: Was that in the 90’s? I think it was the early 90’s.
CB: I’m thinking so. Of course obviously that was a one shot deal rather than a regular gig, but I almost have it in my head for some reason that was one of the last big production jobs that he did and they’ve really praised that one to the rooftops for all the different designs and unique takes he took on things, especially incorporating…as he seems to be a master in doing, incorporating it into the character. The mad, chaotic nature of the Joker.
ROBINS: At the same time, though, if you look at it, look at the discipline in it. It’s all legible and clean. The guy was wonderful. I took over Hellblazer at Vertigo from Gaspar and I heard a story which I confirmed later with Gaspar. When Jamie Delano was writing Hellblazer it was very, very copy heavy, and I don’t know if it was one of Jamie’s scripts, but there was a lot of text in one place and Gaspar just left about half of it out. Karen Berger called him up and asked, “Why did you do this?” “Ah, it didn’t need all those words.”
ROBINS: What do you want? He’s Gaspar. He can do that. (Chuckle.) At Marvel…I don’t know if this is still true, but one of the differences between the Marvel books and the DC books, going way back to the 60’s, is that at Marvel, balloons had to be one shape. They could be an oval, or they could be kind of a rounded oblong. But at DC, if you needed to do it to fit it in, a balloon could be a combination of two or four or seven different curves. Do you know what I’m talking about?
ROBINS: Okay, that’s called scalloping. At DC you could do that. At Marvel, it was absolutely verboten. So when I started doing work for Marvel I couldn’t scallop my balloons anymore and I really missed it because scalloping was something Gaspar did so well and I was still pretending to be Gaspar, but I was a good little boy and I did my balloons the way they wanted me to and then I saw this book that Costanza lettered and there were scalloped balloons all over the place. “How come Costanza gets to do that?” Danny Crespi said, “Because he’s Costanza.” Danny Crespi, has anyone talked to you about him?
CB: Not at all.
ROBINS: Delightful, sweet guy. One of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and that’s going some. There are a lot of very good people in this racket. But he was sort of the godfather of lettering at Marvel. He was a first rate letterer himself and he trained people. Just a terrific guy.
CB: Has most of your time been on staff or as a freelancer over the years?
ROBINS: Very little of it was on staff. I’d been on staff at DC and Marvel both, but just as a temp. In both cases it was working in the production department, usually making corrections on people’s work. I think I worked for maybe three weeks at DC. There was a time at Marvel when I figured if I just took one of their desks there and did my freelance lettering there that I’d be very available for fill-ins on staff and I’d be able to pester them for work. I worked for a few months in the bullpen at Marvel. Marvel was a much more fun place to work than DC. I don’t know if it still is or not, but Marvel was a party. Marvel was goofy. DC was very stolid and uptight. No fun at all.
CB: Sounds like something I read that Alan Kupperberg wrote at his website. Something to the effect that at DC, “This is serious business. Here we wear neckties when we make comic books!”
ROBINS: They all did wear neckties. I wore a t-shirt and blue jeans. Probably just one t-shirt and one pair of jeans. I was pretty poor at the time. I didn’t get paid very much. They didn’t pay very much at Marvel either. But Marvel was a really fun place to work. Everybody should work there. I don’t know what it’s like now. This was when Shooter was running the place. Shooter, who I’ve come to respect much more than I did at the time. He was cold, he was distant, but he was brilliant and very smart. All the funny things happened at Marvel. There was a comic called ROM. I think it was one of those comics based on a toy. So they were going to do a ROM comic book.
There was an artist, a Palestinian, I believe, and his name was Mike Nasser. First rate draftsman. Really a draftsman. One of the best I’ve ever seen. Mike was drawing an issue of Marvel Team-Up. It was Spider-Man teaming up with Nightcrawler, and Joe Rubinstein was inking it and I was lettering it. Michael was very slow, because he was just a great craftsman. I got the first eight pages and lettered them, and this ROM comic book is being brought into being and Mike Nasser really wanted to draw it, and so he submitted a cover design for it. I’ve never seen it, but apparently it was outrageously bad, or there was something wrong with it. Anyway, he brought the cover design in and gave it to the editor, who I think was Jo Duffy, and I guess Jo shook her head and said, “This is terrible. We can’t use this.”
So Mike writes on the back of it in broken English, “You no like my pictures, I no work for you no more,” and he takes this note and rips it into a gazillion pieces, heads out the door, gets into a cab, heads out to JFK, I guess on his way to Palestine. He has no money and he tries to get on the plane. They won’t let him on the plane, and Nasser just disappeared from off the face of the earth. Maybe they just took him somewhere for a well-deserved rest.
ROBINS: Meanwhile, there’s an issue of Marvel Team-Up that needs to be drawn, and I’d lettered eight pages and I was freelancing, so if I didn’t get work, I didn’t eat, so I was getting pretty desperate, and I walk into the office one day and there’s Mike Nasser sitting at a desk drawing pages of Marvel Team-Up, and I said, “Hey, isn’t that Mike Nasser?” And Al Millgrom grabbed me and steered me as far away as he could and said, “Don’t say anything to him. He’s here. Leave him alone.” Mike managed to draw four or five more pages of it and then disappeared again, so Rich Buckler finished the story. Nasser was looney, but most of the people I’ve dealt with are not. Most are just plain nice people. Professionals, at least in my experience.
CB: It seems like the creative gene makes people a little bit more amicable. I always think back to that comment Shelly Moldoff made to me: “Comic book people are usually good people.” I think I’ve managed to corroborate that with the vast majority of the people I’ve been in touch with.
ROBINS: There’s a humility about people who draw if they’re any good. And I think the reason for it is if you’re going to draw, and draw realistically, you’ve got to cultivate a real respect for nature. A great respect for the creation itself. You see this among painters. They may be a pain in the ass, but most of them that I’ve known are very humble people, and I’ve known some of the best. I do this Tuesday night figure drawing group with one of the hottest portrait artists in the country. A brilliant and psychotic still life painter and a beautiful woman who is a sculptor. Top drawer people, one and all.
CB: You were mentioning Jim Shooter a few minutes ago, and of course you read the interview, but he made an interesting comment. He said that once text gets to be about 40 words in one panel that you were in trouble. Is that a good rule of thumb?
ROBINS: 40 words? I don’t know. I guess I can out myself as a nerd here. At the time that I was doing about 300 pages a month in the early 90’s I felt I had to find a way to keep track of my time so that if nothing else I’d be in a better position to make and keep promises about deadlines. So I started counting words. There’s a very simple and quick way to do it.
When I counted the words and counted the number of characters, then I could estimate to within a half an hour how long it would take me to letter a comic book, and without boring you with the details, I ended up with…boy, you’re going to think I’m the biggest nerd on the planet. I ended up with a database of character counts per page and I found across the board…I was lettering all kinds of projects for all kinds of different writers. The average number of characters on a page, including spaces is about 500. So you said 40 words in a panel?
CB: Yeah, that was what he was suggesting.
ROBINS: So if we divide 500 by six panels to a page you get 83 characters per panel and the average word is, shall we say, five letters, and by golly, it looks like you’re right. Some of these guys really pushed it. Roy Thomas really stuffed the words. So did Bob Kanigher. So did Gardner Fox. John Broome could, but John was a nice lean writer. Anyway, I’d never run across that figure. You say 40 words per panel?
CB: Yeah. He just made that offhand comment that once the text gets to about 40 words in a panel you’re probably in trouble as far as obscuring the background and so forth.
ROBINS: Well consider that Jim, if he’s talking about his experience at Marvel, they weren’t using full scripts, or at least very seldom did. Sometimes they did. So that would make sense because the artist would have to draw his pictures leaving a certain amount of dead space for the copy to go. It sounds good to me. 40 words? All right. I think they had a rule of thumb at Marvel that one quarter of the area in a panel should be reserved for text.
CB: I’d just never heard somebody come up with something like that and I didn’t know if it rang true from your perspective.
ROBINS: Things have changed, too. When it was done by hand, if you’ve got a copy heavy writer like Roy Thomas or Don McGregor or Gerry Conway or Gardner Fox or Bob Kanigher or any of these people, that translated directly into an enormous amount of time, whereas if you got something fun without a whole lot of words then you could play around a little bit more. Now on a computer that is a less onerous task. You can copy and paste into Illustrator and it doesn’t take as long to do, although it’s still pretty difficult.