We arrive at the end of the journey undertaken to discover the world of lettering in comics with a round of questions to the literary writer par excellence in the panorama of American comics: the American Todd Klein. His name needs no introduction: he was the letterer of Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman and is the professional who made the art of lettering famous in the comics of many publishing houses but especially those of DC Comics.
With Todd Klein, the customization of the voices and sounds inside the balloons has reached high levels of professionalism and, for Lo Spazio Bianco it is an honor to host it on its pages.
Hello Mr. Klein, welcome to the pages of Lo Spazio Bianco.
First of all, a bit of history and we’d like to ask you: when and with which comic (if it was a comic) did your career as a letterer start?
My first paid lettering job was a Star Wars parody for SICK magazine (similar to MAD) called Star Bores, five pages. It ran in issue #118 dated December 1977. I did it for the writer/artist Dave Manak directly. (I met Dave while working at DC). My first DC Comics lettering work was a twelve pages Lois Lane story in Superman Family #187 dated February 1978. My first lead or full-length story was for the first issue of DC Comics’ Firestorm dated March 1978.
How did you get involved with this often unfairly overlooked aspect of comics? What was the step that transformed your passion into a profession?
I was a comics fan from childhood (I was born in 1951). I went to art school for two years, but did not finish and did not find a job in art, though I did work at an air conditioner manufacturer making installation manuals, which gave me some training in commercial art. In 1977 I decide to try to find work at one of the New York City comics publishers. I assembled a portfolio that included sample comics pages I did completely myself, including lettering, but they weren’t well done. In the summer of 1977 I applied for work at Marvel and found none. I applied at DC Comics and, while my samples were not good enough to get work as an artist, I was offered a job in the production department, which I was happy to get. My tasks there included doing paste-ups of letter-columns and corrections on finished comics pages to get them ready for printing. That included lettering, so I gradually learned how to letter as part of my job, with help from fellow production artist John Workman. The pay was not much, and nearly everyone on staff there did some kind of freelance work at home too. I tried many things, but decided I liked lettering best, and that became my main freelance work.
In the beginning, have you ever had a reference letterer, some professional you looked to for inspiration?
John Workman was my first role model for style, but I also loved the lettering of Gaspar Saladino and he was another whose lettering and logos I studied and tried to copy. I also learned from the work of John Costanza and Ben Oda while making corrections on their lettering at my job, and elsewhere I admired the work of Tom Orzechowski and Jim Novak at Marvel Comics.
There are various currents or schools of lettering in the world of comics, some internationally famous. For example the American one, in which the letterer is responsible for the arrangement of the balloons as well as for the lettering as such and in which therefore there is a real artistic contribution to the entire work on comics. Or the Italian one – I always speak of the serial of course – today increasingly closer to the US one but in which, until a few years ago, the balloons were sometimes affixed by the same penciler and the letterer just had to fill them. Which do you think it is the most effective?
It’s always best and most effective for the same person to create the lettering and the shapes it goes into. That can be the artist, or it can be the letterer. There are situations where that’s not convenient or even possible, but it’s the best way. Imagine you are given clothes to wear that are the wrong size, either too big or too small. You may be able to wear them, but it will not be comfortable. It’s the same when fitting letters into shapes that someone else has already made.
Have you ever received suggestions from the penciler on where to place the balloons, even with sketches on the comic page? If so, do you follow those directions or do you prefer to decide more freely the position of the balloons in the panels?
When I started lettering at DC, most of the artists wrote all the lettering on the page in pencil, artists like Curt Swan and Kurt Schaffenberger. That made lettering easy, as everyone knew exactly where the lettering would go, and the artists had a good eye for how big it would be and left room for it. Younger artists began leaving out that step, often following the Stan Lee process of drawing from a plot with the dialogue added after it was drawn. Even when drawing from a complete script with all the captions and dialogue typed, artists gave up the idea of writing it on the page, and over time they often lost the knowledge of how much space to leave for the lettering. That made my job harder. Lettering placements were sometimes indicated by the artist, but not always leaving enough room. Editors at DC became the ones who made placement guides for lettering on photocopies of the pencilled art. Sometimes they worked well, sometimes not. I followed them when they worked, did what I thought was best when they did not.
Onomatopoeias: in Italy they are usually the work of pencilers, while for example in the USA they are the task of letterers. In your opinion, do these graphic elements belong more to the sphere of drawing or to the lettering one?
Here we simply call them sound effects. I usually like it when artists put them in, as they can do it in their own style. When working on pencilled art, I would follow what the artist did if it was there. Many American artists didn’t add anything in the pencil stage, so then it was all up to me. Most artists I worked with liked my sound effect styles, and were happy to let me do them.
The letterers are to the world of comics as sound engineers and sound directors are to that of cinema, if you pass me the analogy. It is your job to give voice to the characters and also to differentiate those voices, obviously from a graphic point of view. In this sense, have there been comics that have put you in trouble from a lettering point of view? And what is the work you are most proud of that contains your characters in the balloons?
I agree with your analogy, lettering in comics is the sound track, though the sounds are in the mind of the reader. Using different styles for different characters is something that should be done sparingly to avoid it becoming a distraction and taking the reader out of the story. When writers ask for too many styles, I tell them that. There has to be a good reason for a special character style or it shouldn’t be there. The first time I was asked to use a lot of styles was on Starstruck by Elaine Lee and Michael Wm. Kaluta, which I did for them directly. It was first printed in Spain, then in Heavy Metal in America. Many of the styles there were for captions representing different written sources and characters. It was challenging, but I enjoyed it. It was a good testing ground for my later work on Sandman.
Speaking of which, what were the difficulties you met lettering Sandman?
In the first issue of Sandman, the main character has a very unusual presence: he’s a helpless prisoner who says very little and conveys less. Dream clearly needed a unique style, writer Neil Gaiman asked for it, and I gave him one. His white-on-black lettering was not actually lettered that way by me, but was lettered normally (black on white), then a reverse or negative photostat was made of the lettering in DC’s production department and pasted over my lettering for each of Sandman’s balloons. This was editor Karen Berger’s idea. I was against it. You see, I’d worked in DC’s production department for 10 years previous to this, and I knew that the reverse stats would vary greatly in quality, sometimes being too dark and hard to read, sometimes being too light, with the letters running together, also hard to read. And it was often the case. It did certainly make the character’s “voice” distinctive, though, and in the long run worked well and I’m glad I was overruled. As the book went on and many other unique and iconic characters were introduced, Neil asked for unique lettering styles for them. When it made sense to me, I did what he wanted, and before long we had a large cast with a variety of styles, but it happened slowly. There were times when I would ask Neil, “Is this a continuing character, or will it appear only once?” That would help me decide how complex to make the lettering. It didn’t always work, some characters that Neil thought would appear only once turned into regulars, and I was stuck with their difficult styles. In all, I loved the writing on Sandman, and it’s my favorite comics work that I’ve done.
Has it ever happened to you to adapt an existing lettering into balloons, such as in translated foreign comics – Can you explain to our readers the difference – if there is a difference – between this and creating a completely new lettering?
I have rarely done this. In the late 1970s I did some lettering on translated stories for Heavy Metal. There the existing balloons were usually larger that what I needed, so it worked out pretty well, I just centered my lettering in the spaces. When I was lettering stories by Don Rosa for Gladstone comics, he had to draw in the balloon shapes and add extra space for foreign translations. I received the art with Don’s balloons and lettered to fit the spaces as well as I could. When the balloons were too big, as they often were, I made new smaller balloon shapes and extended the art to them, but always on separate paper, as the English language version would only be used by Gladstone. Creating the lettering and shapes at the same time is always easier and usually looks better to me.
Today the lettering is made entirely digitally, however the “artisanal” component of this working aspect has not disappeared and can be found in the creation by various letterers of original fonts that are sometimes also marketed. In your case, what troubles did you met working digitally? What tools do you currently use to make lettering?
I resisted digital lettering for a long time, preferring to it all by hand, but in the early 1990s I could see that digital lettering was the wave of the future, and I thought it was a wave I should be surfing. I had met Richard Starkings and John Roshell of Comicraft and in 1994 I asked them to help me make my first few fonts from my hand lettering. They did that for a fee, and I bought my first Mac computer and taught myself to letter on it. I studied what Comicraft had done from my hand lettering and used it as a model to make corrections on those fonts and to make many more fonts for myself. I’ve created over 100 fonts that I use exclusively on my own lettering work. I don’t sell, lend or share them. I feel that gives my digital lettering a more personal and unique look. Lettering is done in Adobe Illustrator over scans of the art, either pencils, inked art, painted art or finished colored art. Adobe Photoshop is often used to deal with art files and scans. Adobe InDesign is used when I have to produce an entire finished product or do design work, which doesn’t happen often. Fonts are created using FontLab Studio.
What advice would you give to someone wishing to pursue the profession of letterer?
My advice would be: don’t try to make a living as a letterer! These days, largely due to the ready availability of comic book fonts from vendors like Comicraft and Blambot, there are far more letterers than there is work for them. That keeps rates too low, and leads to abusive work situations for letterers. If you are a writer and artist who wants to create the entire comic yourself, learning to letter is then a good idea, but I hear many horror stories from those trying to survive on lettering for others.
What are you currently working on? What will be an upcoming comic that will have your lettering?
I am mostly retired from lettering comics and not doing much of it. I recently finished lettering the Books of Magic series for DC, and have lettered a few short Batman stories for an upcoming new series of Batman: Black and White issues.
My main job right now is working on a book for Abrams Comicarts: The Art and History of Lettering Comics. The publisher plans to release that in the fall of 2021. I also spend a lot of time researching and writing articles about letterers for my blog.
On my website: kleinletters.com I have signed prints for sale, some entirely my work, some collaborations with artists and writers including Alan Moore, Alex Ross, J.H. Williams III, Mark Buckingham, Bill Willingham, Shawn McManus, Steve Rude, Dave Gibbons and Gene Ha. More information can be found there.
Thank you very much for your time, Todd!
Interview conducted by mail in November 2020
From 1977 to 1987, Todd Klein worked permanently at DC Comics carrying out various duties, including that of writer for comics such as House of Mystery and Green Lantern. He then obtained from the editors the task of writing The Omega Man for a year, until its closure in 1980. Having completed his work on the magazine, he decided to definitively abandon writing to devote himself full time to lettering, which was less demanding for him. From 1987 he became a full time freelancer, collaborating with both DC and other publishers. In this period he establishes a partnership with Neil Gaiman, taking care of the lettering of works such as Sandman, Black Orchid, Death and The Books of Magic. In the second half of the 90s he collaborates with Alan Moore on his run on the character of Supreme and then on the America’s Best Comics line, created by Moore himself for Wildstorm Comics, until 2006. In 2002 he writes and partially letters the book The DC Comics guide to coloring and lettering comics, published by Watson / Guptill in 2004. Since 2016 he has handled the lettering of the Black Hammer series by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston, published by Dark Horse Comics.