Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: With the popularity of computer-based fonts, is the lettering profession dying?
John Workman: Only in that it’s left a lot of people out in the cold. DC and Marvel have both gone one step further than what I thought would happen. They aren’t just using computer lettering… they’re doing in-house computer lettering. So they have a bunch of people there who do the lettering for them. It’s economically good for them in one way. They were spending a huge amount of money sending artwork by way of FedEx to the letterer, and then from there to the inker.
Now some of it is done where it’s scanned in and sent to the inker by way of the computer. The inker can then print it out as non-repro blue and ink it and then send it on to the company either in the form of the original art or as a scanned image. In either case, the lettering is done at the company and ultimately added to a scan of the black-line art. There are advantages and disadvantages to it, but the big disadvantage is that the lettering has a bland look to it. There is one guy up at DC… Jared Fletcher… who worked on The Spirit, and he really went above and beyond the call of duty with what he was doing. It looked not exactly hand-lettered, but it was more individual than other lettering. The guy really knows what he’s doing. I admire what he’s doing with computer lettering.
But it is still type, really, when you think about it. I became aware of the limitation of type years ago. There are things you can do with it, but… well, I remember that at Heavy Metal I was very proud of an interview with Francis Ford Coppola. When we printed it, I set things up so that the first part of it was hand-done, and then it went into type, and I played with type throughout the whole thing, but still it’s so limited… what you can do with that. I know there was a thing that Dell Comics did back in the early ’60s, when they gave some thought to getting rid of letterers and just setting everything in their comics in type. They had in-house typesetting for their paperbacks and things like that, so they thought they might as well take advantage of that and set type for the comics. They did a six-month test wherein they took a handful of comics and typeset those rather than hand lettering them. And, you know, the sales on every one of them went down. Because it really affected the look of the whole thing.
CB: Yes. I’m sure you’ve seen the same examples that I have, but back on Steve Ditko’s early Blue Beetle run at Charlton they were using a mechanical method to letter with something called the Typositer machine and they literally at various points had to do a dash and finish the word on the next line and it was a dramatic example of how important good lettering is to the visual experience of a comic book.
Workman: Harvey Kurtzman hated the Leroy lettering at EC. There were this guy and his wife who had worked for Bill Gaines’s father and did all the Wonder Woman lettering. It was all Leroy-lettered. It’s a type of mechanical lettering that’s done with a sort of a stylus, and all the letters have no difference between them. It was used a lot in drafting. But here it was in comics. I actually kind of liked it. I thought it gave the EC’s a unique look, but part of that was the fact that this fellow and his wife would do only the lettering itself.
The titles, the sound effects, and the balloons were done by the individual artists, so you’d get these beautiful brush balloons done by Wally Wood where he didn’t ink it with a pen. He used a brush. Then there’d be a big, drippy Graham Ingels balloon and the sort of free floating wonderful things that Al Williamson did. That uniform lettering actually helped to magnify the individuality of the artist’s style. But Kurtzman hated it. When he got a little say in things up there he brought in Ben Oda to hand letter the stuff that he worked on.
CB: Frank Springer told me a great story about Ben. He said that Ben must not have slept and he had the keys to the places of a lot of the artists and he’d show up at all hours of the day to knock out a few things and Frank said, “Perhaps it’s a good thing Ben’s not with us anymore because he probably could have written a tell-all that would have had all of us heading for the hills.” (Mutual laughter.)
Workman: You’ll have to talk to Irwin Hasen. He’s got a great story about that exact thing with Ben. Bob LeRose told me a story about the time when Bob used to work for Johnstone and Cushing and an 18-year-old Neal Adams was there doing wonderful stuff. Ben lettered a lot for them, and Bob was once awakened by a phone ringing at 3 in the morning. It was Ben, who’d been locked in the building. He’d stayed in there and was working, and he couldn’t get out. So Bob drove into town and rescued Ben. (Laughter.) Ben was also an incredible athlete. He was, I guess, almost a professional level bowler. His sons made part of their college tuition by bowling, they did so well. He was also very good at basketball. He was about my height, 5’6“ or 5’7“ and I remember one time the DC guys were in Central Park and we were playing a warm-up baseball game. It was Steve Mitchell and me and Bob Rozakis and Jack Harris and all these guys in their 20s, but the two best athletes on the team were Ben Oda and Bob LeRose, both of whom were in their 50s. It was really something to see.
CB: That’s the first I’d ever heard of that. Wonderful. Speaking of legendary letterers, did you know Gaspar at all?
Workman: Just to say hello to him. He’s my all-time favorite letterer. I’m in awe, looking at his stuff. It’s got such personality and bounce to it. I’d see him up at the office and we’d say hello. I didn’t know him well, but I always admired him.
CB: It seems that when you were hand lettering, and perhaps still do to a certain extent, if it wasn’t too terribly copy heavy how long did it usually take to crank out a page?
Workman: The average is close to an hour. There are 15-minute pages and half hour pages and there are two-hour pages. I remember working on a Vertigo book a few years ago and it averaged 500 words per page, which is something like twice or just over twice the normal average and I decided to letter it in italic because I could go a little faster that way. I’d also found out…I don’t know who had done these, but a lot of the Justice Leagues from back in the 60s were lettered in italic. And I thought, “Who did that? Why did they do that? It works.” So I went back and took a look at them, and I found that the lettering moved the story along faster. It made it work better somehow. I would never have thought of that, but when these Vertigo ones came along with 500 words to a page I went ahead and did them in italic, and I thought it worked well.
CB: You’d need any kind of advantage on something like that.
Workman: I’m working on a thing right now with Tommy Lee Edwards and Jonathon Ross. Jonathan has been a critic and a TV host and all that, but he’d never written a comic before. He loves comics and he put together that “In Search of Steve Ditko“ documentary for the BBC.
CB: I saw that.
Workman: I really enjoyed that. And Tommy, with the artwork that he does, is a big believer in having the lettering. in place. Walt has said this, too. When I would send artwork back to Walt that I’d lettered, he’d get it and he’d say, “Ah. Now it looks like comics.” Because before the lettering was added, the art was a group of individual illustrations. Both Walt and Tommy really feel that the balloons and the placements of them are very important and that the lettering should be there when it‘s time to ink the pencilled art. The situation shouldn’t exist that after the artwork is all done, the balloons are just sort of tossed on top. I certainly agree with that.
Back to the thing that we’re working on right now… as I said before, Jonathan had never written a comic before, and he got, not really verbose, because everything that’s there in terms of the dialogue and the narration needs to be there. But there’s a lot of it. But it’s good, solid writing and when people buy the book, they’re not going to sit there for five minutes and blow through the book. It’s going to take some time to read, and they’re going to get their money’s worth just for the amount of reading material alone. It’s been interesting trying to make it all work well and not look squeezed. I found myself having fun with it. It’s really a joy doing the stuff. It’s well written and not redundant and overwritten. Everything that’s there should be there; there’s just plenty of it. I wasn’t sitting there grousing while I was lettering it, because it’s just been so enjoyable to do, even though it did take longer than most comic pages do.
CB: I see where you were honored with a Harvey recently. Congratulations on that achievement. Was it for a specific project?
Workman: That was for another Tommy Lee Edwards thing. He and Mark Millar, a wonderful guy and a really good writer did a book for Marvel called 1985. It was set in 1985, but on a real world where the Marvel characters were comic book characters, and the Marvel world and this real world overlapped in the story. I’m not really describing it as well as it should be described. It was a wonderful book, and Tommy did this fantastic artwork, and the writing was good and solid, and… anyway, I got the Harvey award for the lettering on it. I knew I was nominated, but I didn’t expect to win. Cathy and I thought about going down to Baltimore for that convention, and then we changed our minds. Then the convention people called us and said, “Can you come?” By then we’d set up other things. I didn’t think there was a chance of winning the award, but it was nice to get it. It’s a thing where other people in the business are voting on it and there’s something wonderful about that.
CB: I’m sure it would carry a lot more weight to be recognized by your peers. At the risk of re-plowing the ground, I know Todd Klein recently covered some of your logo designs on his blog, but I wondered if you’d describe the process just a little bit.
Workman: I remember that the first logo I did for DC was a re-working of the Action Comics logo and I thought, “Great Scott! I’m destroying something iconic here.” But I kept as much of the feel of the old one as I could. Generally what happened back then was Sol Harrison or Joe Orlando or someone would come to me and say, “We want you to do a logo for this or that,“ and they usually had a rough version of their logo idea, and they would hand me that rough and I would kind of stick with what they had, but try to add my own style to it.
Some of the logos that I did, and I think it’s mentioned on Todd’s blog, I considered to be “holding logos.” They were something we’d use maybe for just an ad, but they wouldn’t really be on the final book. There were several of them that I did that they’d say, “Oh, yeah, this is fine,“ and those logos wound up on the final book. Then there were a few that I did that I just thought were horrible. I’ll have to partially blame Joe Orlando for this one, but there was a Swamp Thing logo. On Swamp Thing the sales were dropping and Joe figured, “Well, a new logo will jazz things up a bit.” What he came up with… and I followed his rough on that… was something like a 1950s flying saucer comic, and it was just totally inappropriate for Swamp Thing, I remember hoping that when Joe saw my finished version, he’d throw it in the trash. Then they used it and I always felt bad about that. I didn’t think it served the character well.
CB: Well, how could you ever improve upon that original one that Gaspar did? I sure wouldn’t have wanted to try it. (Chuckle.)
Workman: I don’t think there’s ever been a logo that really, to such a degree, told the story of the character the way that one did. It was wonderful. I felt so bad about being the guy who displaced that one.
CB: Well, I don’t think they’re using it anymore and up until recently I doubt very many knew who got the credit. (Mutual laughter.)
Workman: A wise move to ditch it.
CB: Do you have particular tools you prefer to use for your trade, John?
Workman: I’ve always liked Castell pens. I used to use rapidographs. I’ve tried everything. Speedball pens and all that sort of stuff. By the time I got back here, I was using different types of rapidographs to do most of my lettering. One day, I was walking near the Museum of Modern Art and there used to be an art store there, and in the window, there was a sign that said, “New, Castell PG Pens! Four dollars!” So I figured, “Well, that sounds interesting,“ and I went in and bought a few. Well, that night I was lettering something. I would take work home with me when I was working at DC. Actually, most of the guys did that and made more money doing freelance work than they did on staff. So that night I was lettering a story, and the rapidograph that I was using literally fell apart in my hand. They had a tendency to do that, I’d noticed. I thought, “Well, let’s try one of those new Castell pens that I picked up today.“ I did that, and it worked beautifully. With the rapidographs, you had to sort of hold the pen in one position while the Castells could be moved around, and I really liked them. Of course, they aren’t being made any more.
Workman: I think it’s been at least 10 years now since the last one was made. I’m still finding them around here and there, and I’ve got a ton of them. Maybe enough to last me until I keel over one of these days. (Mutual laughter.) Todd bought a whole bunch of them out of Germany. He’s been using them, too, for a long time. So we’ve got enough for a while.
But that brings up another sad story about things happening over the years. The ink, the paper, the brushes, they’re not what they used to be. I think the best example of this involves Al Williamson. A few years back, he drew and I lettered a Flash Gordon mini-series for Marvel, and it was beautiful. He had penciled it and inked it, and he had sent it to me with the balloon areas open. He’s got such a good knowledge of that sort of thing that it was perfectly exact. It was amazing. I lettered the stuff, and I didn’t have to white out anything. He’d left exactly the amount of space needed, but he’d drawn it on some paper he’d bought 25 years before.
When he’d gotten the paper, he’d thought, “Well, this paper isn’t all that hot,“ and he had just set it aside. But 25 years went by and all the paper was so bad and any other paper that he could get a hold of was just useless, so he went and used this 25-year-old paper. Think about that …stuff that he didn’t like very much, by the time those years had gone by was so much better than anything he could have gotten.
CB: I’m reminded of Russ Heath, I think it was, who had one of the same laments when I spoke with him. He said something to the effect that, “If I could get a decent brush that would hold a little ink I’d be so much happier.”
Workman: I used to go into art stores and they’d have the little cup of water there and you’d get your Windsor-Newton brush and dip it in and see if it would come to a sharp point and Windsor-Newton was always a bit expensive, but worth it. You’d find maybe one out of 20 that wasn’t any good and now, the last time I checked anyway, unless they’ve improved things, it was down to about half of them that were not up to snuff.
It’s true of ink, too. I’ve had shared problems with Tom Orzechowski and others when it comes to trying to get ink that works well. It’s changed so much. I heard this story that someone had told me about ink. I don’t know if it’s true. Let me make that clear up front. But someone told me that they changed the formula for Pelican Ink, which I’d been using for over 30 years, because kids were carving into their own arms these designs, and they would pour in Pelican Ink. And I guess… at least at that time… there was a certain toxicity to it. So in order to not become victims of a lawsuit, Pelican changed their ink formula. Again, I can’t swear that’s true. I actually sent an e-mail to Pelican to inquire about it and they said, “Oh, its got to be the paper that you’re using.” But the last two big bottles of Pelican I got were unusable, they were so bad. They were like gray water.
CB: Bad paper. That sounds like a cop-out. I was going to run this by you: If you were to take over one of the current mainstream books and you had your choice, which one would it be?
Workman: Well, Captain Marvel has always been my favorite. I wouldn’t mind doing some Captain Marvel stuff. There is that one kind of oddball one out there, Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam or something like that.
I’ve always wanted to draw a Batman story. This is another thing with me: I really like short stuff. One page, two pages. Up to 8 pages, maybe. Anything longer than that, and I start to get really antsy and I want to move on to something else. I don’t even know if I’d even be capable of doing a full 22 or 24-page comic each month. I’d be able to write and ink one, but I don’t know if I’d be able to actually sit there and pencil something like that.
The longest thing that I did… back in the ’70s there was a fellow named Ed Goldstein who used to work for Archie Comics years ago. He’d gone off to California, and he’d bought up several men’s magazines. Topper, I think was one of them and I can’t recall the others. They were all mostly started in the ’50s when it became evident that Playboy was really raking in a lot of money, and so they were sort of Playboy rip-offs. I did some comics stuff for Ed Goldstein. A strip called “Sindy.” It was a science fiction one, and another one called “The Fallen Angels,“ which was a humor one about these two twin sisters. I enjoyed working on those. They were four pages in each issue. Most of the “Fallen Angel” ones were individual 4-page stories. I did do a 3-parter with 12 pages all told. “Sindy” was a continuing series. I guess I did maybe 50 or 60 pages of Sindy stuff, but by the end of it I was going from one style to another just trying to find something interesting.
This goes back to what we were saying about an artist not really knowing what’s good or bad or what people like or what they don’t. One time, I put off doing one of the “Fallen Angel” things, and I got to the point where I had to get it done. I had something like 24 hours to do it. So in one night I sat down and wrote and penciled and lettered and inked four pages and sent them off the next day, and I thought they stunk. I thought it was the worst drivel I’d ever done, and I expected the editor to kill me. He called me up when he got them, and to my surprise, he said, “This is wonderful! This is the sort of thing I’d been hoping for!” And I thought, “What?” Because I’d thought it was just wretched.
I don’t know if he’d wanted an underground look to it or what, but I’d churned the stuff out and thought I’d done a lousy job, but the guy loved it. But on a regular series, I really don’t think I’d be able to do that. Maybe if I really plowed in and it was the only thing I was doing. Just with the lettering, being able to jump from one thing to another and back to the first one and changing styles as more pages come in and all, it’s a constant bouncing around from one thing to another, but the artwork….
I did do a thing for Dark Horse back in the late ’80s or early ’90s that I always kind of liked. It was 41 pages spread out over 4 issues, so it was usually 10 pages an issue. I really enjoyed it until about the third part of it, and I was also badly affected by the reaction to it. People seemed to like it, but there was this one reader who just hated it. It wasn’t that they hated the artwork or anything. They hated the character. It sort of affected me badly, and I thought parts of the last episode weren’t up to what they could have been.
I always admired Jack Kirby. I was flown out to Los Angeles to see Outland, which was kind of a minor science fiction movie starring Sean Connery and we were doing the comics version at Heavy Metal. The Ladd Company produced it, and they were really pushing Jack Kirby to do the artwork on the adaptation for the comics version of the film. So I got to meet Jack and Roz Kirby and he was a wonderful, wonderful guy. I expected somebody 8 feet tall based on his characters and all.
Workman: I knew that wasn’t actually the case, but in person we saw eye-to-eye. We were about the same height. We talked about a lot of stuff, and to my great surprise he started talking about something he called “knock letters.” I didn’t know what he meant at first, and he explained that it’s people knocking your efforts in the letters that they write. I didn’t say it, but I thought, “But you’re Jack Kirby! You shouldn’t be paying attention to what some 13-year old kid has to say about the way you draw fingers or something.” It really surprised me that, at that point in his career, he could still be affected by something derogatory that somebody had said about his stuff.
CB: He certainly had nothing to prove at that point. Wow!
Workman: It was a big surprise. But, what a wonderful guy! And Roz was so nice. It was just a great experience, being able to spend a little time with them. We went in then and saw the first half of the movie in color, pretty much finished, and then we were shuttled in a car to another screening room and were shown the last half of the movie in black-and-white with none of the special effects finished. It was just a great time.
CB: It sounds terrific. I saw an interesting notation on your Wikipedia entry. You’ve done a little acting, have you?
Workman: Oh, that was just a hokey little thing, really. My brother was looking around for some work at one point. He’s actually a more than decent actor, and he signed on with this group that did crowd scenes and that sort of thing for movies, and he got a call one Saturday and he then called me up and said, “I’ve got to be in Brooklyn at 9 o’clock.” So I went into New York… to Staten Island… and gave him a ride to Brooklyn. He was to appear in a movie called, Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God. Back by 5. Way too long a title. It’s actually a very good movie. I saw the whole thing later on, and I have it on VHS and DVD. It was interesting to see the machinations that go on in movie-making. We saw them film one sequence 27 times before they were happy with it.
CB: Oh, gosh.
Workman: The scene we were in was just one quick little bit, and we were there from 9 o’clock at night until 5 in the morning, just getting things set up for that. They hauled me into it, too. They needed some more people, and I was there, so they put me in it for this one bit. I’m in it for all of 5 seconds. My brother, though, got a close-up. The camera pans across, and there he is.
It was fun. I’ve always meant to write an article about it, spotlighting the class system or maybe you’d call it the caste system. The big actors had this table set out there with everything imaginable as far as food on it, and one of our little group went over there and was chased away. Then some production assistants hauled us all down to this kitchen where we had pizza. (Chuckle.) It was kind of a “You are here!“ sort of thing.
John Cryer was very nice. He thanked us. We didn’t get paid a penny for it. One girl got up and left. She was there for the money. Lots of the extras were there to add to their resumes so that they could get their Screen Actors Guild card, I guess. One guy told me how he had brought his whole family together to see his debut as a TV actor. He was in a scene in some TV show, and he didn’t have any dialogue, but he would be seen right there with the main actors. Well, the scene came up, and they showed his feet. The camera went by and that was it. (Mutual laughter.)
They all told me stories like that, and about people they’d met and who was nice and who wasn’t. It’s not something I would want to do on an ongoing basis. My brother went on vacation up in Washington one time, and I got a call at my Heavy Metal office asking for him, and I explained that he was on vacation and the caller said, “Well, do you look like your brother?” “Well, we’re brothers.” “How tall are you?” I told him I’m 5’6“. My brother is 5′ even. “Would you like to do a photo shoot with Brooke Shields?” (Chuckle.) So I did this photo shoot with Brooke Shields, but I felt sorry for her. She had to keep changing dresses, and they put me in this silly shirt with fish all over it, and I was supposed to be her boyfriend. She was very nice. Her mother was, too.
But I felt sorry for her, because she’s doing this thing and she has to spend all this time getting her hair changed around and all these different things she was wearing, and she had to wait for them while they did the lighting setup. All this stuff. I know Groucho Marx, when he was in a similar situation during the time he and his brothers were making movies, he read. Dick Cavett once said the most highly-educated person he ever met was Groucho Marx. It was because Groucho was a voracious reader, even though I think he’d only gone through the third or fourth grade. He read constantly. Cavett said that Groucho was more knowledgeable than any college professor he’d ever run into.
CB: Just taking advantage of the dead time. Good for him. So much for the glamour aspect of Hollywood. That was one thing Gerry Conway passed along to me. He said he’d pretty much retired from doing anything for Hollywood anymore and “I couldn’t be happier.”
Workman: Well, when I went out to Hollywood to see Outland and to meet with Jack Kirby, I traveled with Julie Simmons. Her father Matty had made a fortune off of the Animal House movie, and he lived next door to Tony Bennett. So we stayed with Matty and his wife while we were out there. Well, we all went out to a restaurant, and I felt like a jerk because I hadn’t brought a suit or anything like that to wear. But Matty said, “Aw, it’s okay.” So we went to this restaurant and there were Rolls Royce’s out front, and I went in wearing a ratty old coat that my Uncle Bob had given to me years earlier. But Matty was so successful at that time that if we’d all come in naked, they would have seated us.
Workman: But Matty was talking and he said, “You know, if I were your age, John, I wouldn’t even bother with publishing. I’d go straight into Hollywood.” Economically, he was certainly right, but I’ve always been glad that I’ve done what I’ve done, rather than gone off in a different direction. A lot of what I’ve believed in, what I enjoy, it’s kind of a thing of the past. But I think there are still possibilities with comics, and it’s such a wonderful, unique art form. You see a Steven Spielberg movie and it’s Steven Spielberg and a thousand other people working on a movie. But one guy with a bottle of ink… even a bottle of lousy ink… can sit down and come up with great stuff.
CB: Absolutely true. It’s one of the uniquely American forms of entertainment, too, as far as origin. Jazz music and comic books are all that leap to mind. Now at the risk of embarrassing you I thought I’d share a comment about you from Clem Robins: “Twenty-two years ago I got a project to do from an artist named, I think, Tim Sale. It was for Malibu. He sent me a letter in advance of the book, explaining to me how much he loved John Workman’s lettering and why. He gave me specifics of the qualities John had, and which he wanted me to emulate. I did my best, but only John is John.”
Workman: (Chuckle.) That makes me feel so good. I’m still this kid out in Washington in many ways, growing up there in Aberdeen and buying used comics for five cents. Sometimes everyone feels a little sorry for themselves, and when I get to feeling like that I think about whom I’ve gotten to know over the years and the people that I’ve run into, and it’s just incredible to me. I’m still a fan, too.