We continue with our interview with long time comics letterer Clem Robins. You can read the first part of the interview here.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: Has the advent of computerized production improved or made things worse for your line of work?
ROBINS: It’s made it worse. In many ways it’s made comics better, but it’s made my line of work worse. We are expected to make corrections where they used to have staffs in production doing. The rates have been lowered. All of the rates have been lowered. The dirty little secret of the comic book industry for years was that if you wanted to be creative you could be a penciler or an inker or a writer, but if you wanted to make lots and lots of money, be a letterer or a colorist, because once you learn how to do it, it was like having a license to print money.
That all changed, but what the hell? That’s technology. I have no objection to that. In the 1700’s when somebody built a machine that made stockings and the 1600 or so women in England who, as a stay at home job made stockings, they and their husbands wanted to start riots, they wanted to break the machine, they wanted to hang the guy who built the machine, they said, “This is going to destroy our industry,” you’ve heard this before?
CB: It sounds similar to the old buggy whip analogy.
ROBINS: Well, within 10 years, instead of 1600 people in England making stockings, there were something like 100,000 people in England making stockings, and everybody could now afford stockings. You could say handmade stockings are better, but they’re not better if you can’t own them.
CB: That’s right.
ROBINS: Computer lettering usually looks awful. I kind of like how mine looks and how Todd Klein’s looks and a few other people; like Rob Lee at DC does it pretty well. Jared Fletcher at DC does it pretty well. There are others, but for the most part it’s dead looking, but on the other hand anybody can get a comic book lettered. Badly, but it can be done. There was a wonderful band out of Los Angeles in the 80’s called Wednesday Week. I was a DJ at the time and played the album a lot. I thought it was terrific.
I got to be friends with the lead singer of the band, and one of the things that bugs her a lot is that now with computers anybody, absolutely anybody, can make a CD. She feels that it dilutes the specialness of actually being able to make an album, and maybe she’s right, but I think these things always work out for the best. Technology always enriches life in the long run. Maybe in the transitional times people suffer, but in the long run, it’s better.
CB: I would tend to agree. Moveable type certainly created a sea change back in the day.
ROBINS: It certainly did. Are we better or worse for having books? I would cheerfully submit that we’re better.
CB: Yes, indeed.
ROBINS: Calligraphers can’t make a living any more.
ROBINS: That’s why God made McDonald’s, so they’d have jobs to do.
CB: Well, in looking back over 3 decades worth, is there anything that you’d have liked to have done that you haven’t had a chance to do yet? Did you ever have a desire to write or pencil?
ROBINS: Well, I wrote a book, but that’s a how to book on drawing the human figure. No, I think I made the right call. I wish I had trained harder as a painter. I’m working very hard at that now. I’m doing some good work, but I wish I’d done it when I was in my 20s or my 30s. As far as doing things differently as a letterer, I wish I had been more coachable, and I wish I had listened or sought out the advice of other people. Todd Klein did. One of the reasons Todd’s stuff is so good is because he was on staff at DC for two or three or five years and he paid attention to what people needed and to what they wanted, and he found ways to give it to them.
When Todd started out he wasn’t all that hot, and then in 1979 or 1980 Todd could do Gaspar better than Gaspar could. If you look at that Marv Wolfman/George Perez Teen Titans thing you can see it. Todd was playing Gaspar. That’s what he was doing. It was funny to see it, because he went beyond that shortly thereafter, but he’s been able to do these things. For one thing he’s a very talented guy, but for another thing he had a great deal of respect for the industry, for the artists, and he wanted badly to find a way to get them the best work he could. What would I have done differently? I think I’d have tried to be more like Todd. But I have no complaints. The funny book industry has been very, very nice to me. Very nice.
CB: It seems to continue on. You’re still finding work quite obviously.
ROBINS: Yeah. It’s good work. The wacky thing about this is that it really has nothing to do with who you are, but if you get on a book that’s respected then you’re sort of associated with it. Preacher, for example, had a very bizarre ending which I, as an extremely devoted Christian found very hard to take, but it was still one of the best read comic books ever done. Very, very well drawn. It was just brilliantly done.
So I lettered all the issues of Preacher and Transmetropolitan and Hellboy and Fly and 100 Bullets. Some of these things are just very well done. It’s a pleasure to be associated with them. And some less so. I’ve known some people that were a pain in the neck and I think inkers are way underappreciated. I’ve seen some pencilers routinely…not many, but it seems some, the pencilers who were the most irresponsible, the ones who month after month the inker saved his or her ass, by covering for the fact that the penciler couldn’t meet a deadline. It’s those pencilers that always seemed to me to be least appreciative of what those inkers were doing for them.
CB: The Vinnie Colletta’s of the industry.
ROBINS: I don’t think Vinnie is a good example. Joe Giella, I think is a good example. Stan Woch is a good example. Rodney Ramos is a good example. Jose Marzon, who inked “Y, The Last Man,” is a good example. A lot of times these guys had to fix the artist’s drawing mistakes. I’ve done it. I inked a comic book in 1990 I think it was and we drew a lot of stuff. You had to, because the perspective was wrong or the eyes were placed in the wrong place or something like that.
I think they’re way underappreciated, and underpaid, too. I’m a letterer. It takes me anywhere from a day to two days to do a comic book. If you’re an inker, particularly with the level of detail and craft that they demand of inkers these days, which is very high, if you’ve got a monthly, you’re married to that monthly. It’s not unusual for it to be 10 hour days, 7 days a week.
ROBINS: Some guys can pace themselves really well and it’s just like a job, but a lot of times with penciling and inking, you’re married to that thing. So if you’re the inker on a book, and it lasts 60 issues and then the series ends, unless you’ve been pretty aggressive about marketing yourself, you’re suddenly unemployed. And I’ve seen that happen to inkers more than anybody else. That’s tragic to me.
CB: Poor payment for what they accomplish.
CB: What can you tell me about sound effects?
ROBINS: They’re different based on what’s going on. The good letterers were able to pick up on that. Batman might get hit on the head and it might say “Bonk!” Or Jerry Lewis might get hit on the head and it might say “Bonk!” But they’re not the same “Bonk!” They all require a different kind of a “Bonk!” That’s true of sound effects and it’s also true of the lettering itself. There’s a personality response on the part of the letterer to what he’s doing. This is the part of lettering that a computer is blind to, and the only way you can make headway in being responsive is in designing type. It’s very difficult to do. It takes forever, but I love it. Designing type is the thing I like the most.
CB: You said you had a story about inking.
ROBINS: I inked a book in 1990. I was supposed to ink a mini-series for a small company and found I could have been pretty good at it if I’d stuck with it, but in the time it took me to ink the book I could have made four times as much money lettering, so I got out from under that.
CB: That dovetails with what you said earlier about how colorists and letterers, at least back in the day, did very well comparatively speaking.
ROBINS: I’ve also done courtroom drawing for television off and on since 1982. It’s a lot of fun. I started doing that when…I left school kind of abruptly and went to Boise, Idaho, just on kind of a whim and I didn’t have much money and thought I could get a job doing paste-up or something. There was no work doing that, so I thought maybe the local TV stations might need someone to do graphics or layout for them, so the first one I called I got the news director.
He said, “No, we don’t need anyone to do that, but we’re looking for someone to cover a trial and make pictures for us. Can you do that?” When you’re asked a question like that…well, to begin with I’d wanted to do that all my life. I thought it would be one of the coolest jobs imaginable. So I said, “Sure, I can do that. I’ll bring in my samples.” So we set up an appointment and I had practically no money, so I bought a pack of typing paper and a fountain pen and on the way to the meeting with this guy I sat in a coffee shop and drew pictures of the other people at the coffee shop and those were my samples. Have you ever seen the movie “The Falcon and the Snowman?”
CB: I think I have, but it’s been ages.
ROBINS: Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton. I think it came out in 1981, but it was about a traitor; a guy who sold some secrets to the Soviets named Christopher Boyce. He was convicted and then he escaped from jail and did the most intelligent thing you can imagine. He started robbing banks with his friends. This while under a life sentence for treason. He was finally caught in Boise and it was a very high profile trial and that was what they needed me to cover. They actually had another courtroom artist, but this news director’s hobby was firing people. He just loved to fire people, and so he wanted to get rid of this woman who was doing the pictures for him and that was why they hired me.
I was happy as a clam. After being in Boise for three days not having work and running out of money and all of a sudden I was going into the courtroom and my name was on television every night. That was great. I don’t know if it’s still true, but at that time Idaho was rather well known for its white separatist movement in the upper panhandle of the state. A lot of these goons would get caught and their trials would be very highly publicized and they’d send me in for those. So I got to know all these Neo-Nazis.
CB: (Chuckle.) Friend of the famous and the infamous.
ROBINS: Yeah, and I got curious because I don’t trust the media, even though I’ve been a part of it for all of my professional life. I decided to find out what these people have to say for themselves. I’m pals with everybody. So I met the head of one of the more prominent groups. It was called Aryan Nations and I said, “Look, I’d like to hear what you have to say. I’m open to hear anybody’s story. Can I interview you some time?” He said, “Sure.” So we made arrangements for me to visit their headquarters. Idaho is a huge, huge state. This was about 20 years ago. I think it was fall of 1988. So we made arrangements for me to go and visit this guy. It was about 450 miles north of Boise, not far from the Canadian border. I drove up there and discovered that the panhandle of Idaho is one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth. It’s just breathtaking, especially in the fall.
I got up there and stayed in a motel and I called the next morning and asked if the appointment was still on. He said, “Sure,” and he gives me really good directions to get there. It was about 15 miles outside of Coeur d’Alene. So I pull up there. I don’t know what to expect. I come to the entrance to their property to an unmanned guard tower with two signs on it. One said, “Whites Only,” and the other one says, “Welcome Aryan Warriors.” Now I’m pretty sure for reasons that will become obvious that I wasn’t Aryan, but I’m reasonably white, so I figured that’s okay. I came in and found the head office of the Aryan Nations, which proved to be a double-wide trailer and went in. The man’s secretary was also his wife and told me to have a seat.
The waiting room was walled with books that you could purchase for your home study. I came in a bit early, so I looked at some of the books and saw some about Jews being evicted from every country in Europe and why and books about this and that. But the best one, and I actually ended up buying a copy, was a book called, “The Hitler We Loved.” It was a picture book of sentimental photographs of Hitler doing various things. Playing with children, visiting troops at the front, his romance with Eva Braun and all these books had very indignantly written captions on them, like, “This is the man they call a monster,” while he’s pinching a little child’s cheek or something. (Chuckle.) Apparently he was this really swell guy, but then it’s time for my appointment. This guy’s name was Reverend Richard Butler.
As far as I know he’s still alive. He sits me down and I’m all set to ask him some questions, but he just wanted to talk, and I think he was touched that someone working in television actually was willing to listen to him. But once he got going, you couldn’t stop him. He explained to me their belief system. He said they had no violent desires to hurt anybody and I knew that wasn’t true because I’d seen secretly video-taped coverage of him at a Klan meeting urging the death of various groups of people. Then he got into religion and he explained to me the forming and creating of man in Genesis 1 applied only to the Aryan race and that all other races were not descendants of Adam. So I asked who they were descended from. He explained that the other races are what they call mud people. Have you ever heard this before?
CB: I think I did on a talk show once.
ROBINS: It’s an accurate term as far as this being the way they talk. I was writing a book at the time which I never finished, but it was going to be a cheap, trashy detective thriller, and this is really why I wanted to interview this guy, because it was going to be set in Idaho and I wanted to use white separatists as a red herring to distract the reader from realizing who the real villain was. But when I tried to write dialogue to put into these white separatist’s mouths they all sounded like Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes.
ROBINS: So more than anything else, I wanted to hear how these people talked and what they wanted and why they wanted it. I just wanted to hear their story. So he tells me their story all right. So supposedly there are real human beings who are the Teutonic people, the Aryans. There are mud people, who are all the other races; Orientals, African-Americans and so forth and then there’s one other group, and that’s the Jews. I guess I should give you my mea culpa here. I’m Jewish. So this is very interesting to me. The Jews, he explained to me, are the direct descendants of Satan himself.
As he’s explaining this to me I tried to ask him questions, but he wasn’t too interested in questions. He wanted to talk, but I realized…if you’ve ever read the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John, there’s a very heated dialogue between Jesus Christ and the group of Pharisees who later on would be responsible for his torture and execution. Jesus told this group of people, “Ye are of your father, the devil.” And that must have been where he got this thing. He was extrapolating that to all Jews.
ROBINS: This is why, I guess, according to these people; and I don’t know what this has to do with comic books, but I guess this is why they had such an animus toward Jews. So I’m sitting there and he’s pouring out the secrets of his heart to me and he doesn’t realize he’s talking to anti-Christ.
ROBINS: But it was all very interesting and entertaining. I wish he’d let me ask him questions. But after about an hour and a half it started to get pretty tedious and there was no end in sight. It didn’t seem like there was a waiting list of people who had appointments with him and he could have gone on all day.
So I began to get a little bit tired of it and I wanted to find some polite way to excuse myself, so I said, “Sir, could you give me a tour of your property? I’d like to see it.” He said, “Sure, great idea.” So we get up and he tells his wife to hold his calls and he puts on his overcoat and we for the door. As we head to the door, there’s a group of fellas, part of the group getting ready to go out hunting Elk, which is kind of a manhood ritual in that part of the country.
CB: I grew up in Eastern Washington, so that rings true.
ROBINS: So we chatted with them for a little while and then he takes me on the tour. He shows me his house, he showed me the guard tower, he showed me the other guard tower which vandals had blown up; he showed me the church where he preaches. He shows me all this stuff and then he has one more thing he wants to show me. He leads me to the woods. There’s a path into the woods and we walk on this path and it’s an October morning.
It’s beautiful. The sky is clear and there’s a bracing coolness in the air and Douglas Firs and Ponderosa Pines are rising up around us and the birds are chirping and it’s just breathtaking and I don’t know where the hell he’s taking me. We walk a couple hundred feet down this path and it opens up into a clearing, and in the clearing the grass is neatly trimmed and what are there in the center of that clearing, but a bunch of picnic tables. He gets really quiet. He just looks at this beautiful scene and whatever’s on his mind, this is serious shit to Reverend Butler.
“This is our sanctuary, son. This is where we come when we want to visit with each other. We’ll have a picnic with our families and talk about the challenges we face in the ministry. Do you know why this is our sanctuary, son?” I said, “No. Why?” “Because this is the only place left in America where no Jew has ever set foot.”
ROBINS: Now ask me the question.
CB: Did you say anything at that point?
ROBINS: No. I got my ass the %$# out of there and I’ve never been back.
ROBINS: Now you know why the white separatist movement in America has never gotten very far. It’s because I defiled their sanctuary. A lot of mud people and anti-Christ’s owe me.
CB: (Laughter.) The irony is flowing across the floor.
ROBINS: So that court sketching is really a lot of fun. It really is. Especially arraignments, which last about 15 seconds on average. You’ve got to be really clever to cover an arraignment. I’ve ridden down in elevators with suspects just to try to memorize their features. I did a trial of some abortion clinic bomber a couple of years ago who was caught in Cincinnati and I covered it for a local station and then CNN bought the drawings after that, so I made a lot of money for practically nothing except having fun.
CB: Nice. Who would have thought of that as a sideline?
ROBINS: It’s great. The people that do it full time…I don’t know if there are any of them left, but I know one woman who did it for NBC who probably made as much money as I did when lettering was at its highest. It’s a good gig. I’d do it and pretend I was Domier. It’s the same kind of drawing style, except he was much better at it.
CB: I know of the one book you’ve published, but have you done any other writing?
ROBINS: Nothing that’s been published. I like to write. I’m probably better at that than anything else, but I haven’t proven it by making any money. My sister is a writer, or did I already tell you that?
CB: I thought you’d said she was an editor.
ROBINS: She has been an editor. She’s been all over the place. She was an editor at Acclaim for about three years, but when she was about 19, she’d read enough regency period romance novels that she knew the formula back and forth. So she figured, “I can write better than this stuff.”
So she wrote a manuscript and it was published and led to contracts and she gave up the regency romances after a while. She wrote a book that was on the New York Times list of the ten best science fiction books of the year 2001. It was called “The Stone War,” and it did very well. She also cooked up a series of mystery novels starring a woman in Victorian England somewhere around the 1700’s or early 1800’s. She’s a detective, but being a woman, she has very limited access to society to roam freely and to do her investigations, so she had to dress as a man.
She wrote three or four books of that character and I’m not sure what she’s up to next. What writing have I had published? I was one of those geeks that wrote to Julie Schwartz’s letter column in the 70’s. I realized how to get these things published; what kind of thing Julie liked and so I wrote them. I found it was so easy that I started writing letters under various names and sending those in, too.
ROBINS: In at least one issue of something, from like maybe 1971 or 1972 where I had two letters published in the letter column and they expressed different opinions. There used to be a bulletin board at Marvel when I was on staff and it was called the embarrassing fan letter bulletin board. So many people that worked in the bullpen or the freelance pool had written letters to the editor earlier and a lot of them were incredibly stupid, especially my own, and so you had letters on the bulletin board from Klaus Janson or other people. What else can I tell you here? Lettering went all digital, but as we speak I’m preparing to do my first hand-lettering job I’ve had in years.
CB: Was it specified as being done by hand?
ROBINS: Yes. Actually it’s a card for some executive at Time-Warner who’s leaving and it was done up as a comic book page, and unlike real comic book pages it’s not only going to be hand lettered and hand inked, but it’s also going to be colored right on the board. So whoever this guy is, they’re pouring a lot of money into saying goodbye to him.
CB: True custom work then. Last time we talked you were also starting to go into effects and how they worked or didn’t work so well in a computer medium.
ROBINS: It’s kind of funny. When you’re hand lettering, you’re trying to make this stuff as neat as possible. You want every letter of the alphabet to look exactly like itself no matter where you see it. Then I got on computers and that lofty goal can be achieved by a chimpanzee. Because of course the nature of computer type is that it’s all uniform. So I have gone bonkers in the last five years trying to defeat the perfection of computer lettering to make it look funky.
CB: Give it some character.
ROBINS: It’s not just giving it some character, it’s giving it some flaws; giving it kind of an organic look. If you’re lettering; if you’ve got a pen in your hand and you are about to letter, say the word “act,” the lower part of the “c” in the word “act,” the letter “c” being a semi-circle, that lower part is going to extend farther to the right than the upper part. You won’t even know you’re doing it. But you’re doing it to compensate for the fact that there’s this hollowed out space on the left side of the “t.”
So you just do that kind of stuff. If you get a master, like Gaspar, and you take a magnifying glass to it, you see that kind of thing all the time. In type that’s referred to as contextual ligatures and it’s really the next big thing in digital type. When I do a book on computer, it’s almost impossible for the same letter “e” to appear more than once in a block of copy. I don’t know if anybody notices this stuff, but I notice it. I work very hard at it. But getting back to sound effects, they have to carry the mood of the story. I think we talked about that.
ROBINS: Earlier we were talking a little about the Legion and Jim Shooter’s work on it along with Curt Swan.
ROBINS: Swan knew how to make characters look like they were thinking and emoting. Everybody became kind of introspective. Edmond Hamilton was writing some of them and you had these marvelous stories. Did you ever review “The Legionnaire Who Killed?”
CB: Oh, yeah. Star Boy.
ROBINS: That was one hell of a story. Have you read it? Do you remember it?
CB: I sure do. It’s been on the list to do one of these days.
ROBINS: You ought to. There’s only one piece of action in the entire story, and that’s the opening sequence where, in self-defense, Star Boy kills this guy. The rest of the entire story is talking heads and it is so compelling and so beautifully paced it’s ridiculous. The Legion was a hell of a book once Swan got on it and he made people appear to be actually thinking and having emotions. Then Shooter walks into this thing and you’d never seen anything like it. It was just so damn good. Even though Swan didn’t draw the first Shooter story, it was…you interviewed him…
CB: Shelly Moldoff.
ROBINS: Right. But all these guys, including Swan, who’d been drawing for ages, they were working off Shooter’s layouts because they just worked so damn well.
CB: It’s remarkable how gifted the man is and in my opinion the stories are still pretty strong.
ROBINS: He’s a very visual guy and most writers are not. Some of the best stuff I’ve seen in comics, particularly in recent years, has been stuff where there’s been a very close relationship between the artist and the writer. In situations like that the writer doesn’t have to tell the artist very much. The artist knows what the guy is going after. You don’t follow 100 Bullets, but 100 Bullets has a very inscrutable, huge storyline, and very difficult to understand. There are so many characters and they all have their own secret agenda and Brian Azarello is the most inscrutable writer you’ve ever seen.
He doesn’t care if you’re going to be confused by something you’ve seen for five years. I’m somebody who should really know what’s going on with 100 Bullets because I see the manuscripts every month. The manuscripts tell you nothing. The visual style on that is 100% Eduardo Risso. That’s been a nice thing. It’s ending. We just finished issue #98. It’s going two more issues. That’s been a nice situation. Brian Azarello really wanted a team of people that he could just trust, and the same people, with the exception of the early issues, which were colored by somebody different than Patricia Mulvahill; Grant Goliash I think, but we’ve been able to really groove together, even though I’ve never met most of them, and he believes he’s safe in our hands and we trust him and it’s been nifty. I’m going to miss it.
CB: I bet. That’s really a long-term project. Is it a monthly or a bi-monthly?
ROBINS: It went bi-monthly for a short period of time. At the time we also did that “Broken City” storyline for Batman that was in ’03 or ’04, but short of that it’s been monthly. For a while when Brian was writing “Loveless,” it was bi-monthly. It’s monthly now. Buy a copy. You won’t understand one word of it. It’s funny. The person responsible for getting it green-lighted was Paul Levitz. The people at Vertigo didn’t want to do the book. The editor did, but the people above him did not. It was Levitz, eventually, who green-lighted it. I don’t think it’s made that much money because sales have been lousy for the last five years, but it gets smashing reviews and they keep wanting to make a movie out of it or a Showtime series.
CB: I was going to say, I’ve run across it in a couple of critically acclaimed editorials or some such thing, so obviously it’s getting attention.
ROBINS: It’s received a lot of attention, but all things come to an end.
CB: It’s nice that you’re affiliated with it.
ROBINS: Yeah, which with a dime will get you a cup of coffee. It is very hard to stay afloat in this racket these days.
CB: Where do you see yourself in the future?
ROBINS: I’d like to do more painting. I’d like to be able to sell more paintings. That’s where I see myself. The industry has been very nice to me. If I’d known when I was 21 when I got into it that I’d still be doing it at age 52 I’d have been very non-plussed, but it’s been very good to me. I’ve been able to support a wife and children. That’s been nice, although my wife now makes more money than I do.
CB: (Chuckle.) So you’re a kept man.
ROBINS: No, no. I make almost as much money as she does. She’s the one who drives around in the BMW. But I’ve got a pretty good life here. I can keep up with my comic work on about 25 hours a week and spend the rest of my time painting. So that’s been nice. I’ve met very few people in the industry that I didn’t like. Very few. Of course other than the occasional stints on staff I didn’t see people that much. But they’ve shot very straight with me and I’m very happy with what I’ve been able to have.