10 Greatest Comics Letterers

All right, let's get one thing straight up front. When you see my picture by these top ten lists, that means these columns are (*HEAVY SIGH*) my "humble opinions." So if you'd rather take the "top ten letterers list" of some mouth-breathing Webscrawler who thinks Gaspar Saladino is a kind of mouthwash, you go right ahead. It's a free country. For some people.

10. Bob Lappan. Andy Helfer describes Bob as "the letterer of choice for writers who write too darn much." (And that's just about all writers, come to think.) Whether it's rhythmic, sophisticated dialogue, an outburst of ideas, or giddy, cornpone chatter, Bob's balloons always put the script neatly to one side and gives the art room to stretch. Lappan has such control that he can make his hand-lettering smaller still for stage-whispers. His may be the quietest lettering in the comics field.
Why He Doesn't Win: Bob is an unbeatable letterer when it comes to packing words in and keeping 'em readable. He's merely very, very good at everything else. Nothing to sneeze at, but most of the people on this list have several well-developed talents.

9. Walt Kelly. Excuse us if our reproduction sucks-- it's the secretary-treasurer's fault. It's still good enough to show several of the things that made Kelly the best letterer in American comic strips: the creative type of use for individual characters, the bouncy, fluffy balloons that serve as perfect counterpoint to the artwork, and the artful use of boldface, which underscores the characters' Southern accents.
Why He Doesn't Win: As clever as Kelly was, lettering was only a small outlet for his talents. Several other innovators higher on this list were more innovative than he was, including...

8. Goscinny. You've probably never heard of Goscinny, mostly because you're an ugly American who wouldn't know a good foreign comic if it ran up and snapped shut on your hinder. So swallow your cultural shortcomings and take my word for it. Asterix rules. In addition to having bouncy, fun, cartoony lettering that has the slightly "plump" feel of the artwork, it has the most politically incorrect lettering in comics: you can tell a character's nationality simply by the fact that he speaks in the Greek alphabet or a Gothic font or Egyptian hieroglyphics. Blame Goscinny. Or praise him, depending on your level of PCness.
Why He Doesn't Win: Goscinny's letters were generally pretty large, which made it difficult to actually say anything of substance in Asterix. Not like there was a whole lot of risk of that anyway, but I generally prefer my letterers to be a little more versatile.

7. John Workman. Workman stomps on every rule there is in comics lettering. His sound effects and titles are remarkably simple. But his "standard" letters are all over the place, his big balloons eat up the backgrounds, his letters are wider than they are tall-- and insanely, his style works-- at least when the artist he's working with is one of those lazy "bigger is better" types who averages two panels a page and calls it "ahhht." Nobody can make art-"work" like that not suck, but John-boy makes it suck a lot less.
Why He Doesn't Win: As letterers go, John is like a bucking bronco. His letters have a raw energy, and that's great when there's space for it. But the number one rule of comics is: TELL THE GODDAMN STORY. Truly "great" letters are the "lowly" ones that can fit neatly into a small space, give the art room to breathe (where there is art), and still read nice and easy. The top six guys all have this ability.

6. Tom Orzechowski. Orz's early career reminds me of the stupidest line in The Matrix, but I mean that in a good way. You know when they've got Neo jacked in to the "chop-socky B-movie" program, and two of the other guys says he's been in there ten hours? They're training this guy to take down a military-industrial complex of sentient machine life that turns human beings into AAA batteries, and how do they praise his performance? "He's a machine," they say.
Orz's hand-lettered work looks like that. Like every letter is as close to being an exact geometric shape as Heisenberg's law of uncertainty will allow. He was the human font. (His lettering was also almost as condensible as Bob Lappan's.) These days, computer lettering makes a lot of balloons look sterile and dead, but Orz's experience lets him make them beautiful. Maybe it's okay to be a machine in the war against machines. After all, even the humans in the first Terminator movie needed a lot of mechanical help to pound Arnold into aluminum siding.
Why He Doesn't Win: In the end, though, Orz still has a very narrow stylistic range. You can't say that about any of the top five.

5. Starkings and Comicraft. If you've GOT to have comic books computer-lettered, at least make sure they're DECENTLY lettered. Much as I would love to raze this company to the ground for forcing talented letterers clear out of the business, I have got to give credit where credit is due. Excepting a few misfires (like those illegible O's in Thor's dialogue in Avengers vol. 3, #1) the Comicraft crew have consistently maintained very high quality, and have permitted any jumped-up hack to put out balloons that look at least semi-professional, usually for only a hundred bucks or so of Daddy's grad school money.
Why They Don't Win: Singlehandedly responsible for, you know, that "sterile and dead" thing, a few paragraphs back.

4. Todd Klein. The king of the "novelty balloon," Todd designed fifty fonts for The Sandman and more for Kingdom Come, Donald Duck, Ka-Zar... in fact, about every comic Todd has worked on long enough bears his distinctive mark somewhere. Todd's a chameleon, but his most distinctive stuff is hand-drawn... the wobbles of the Sandman's white-on-black word balloons, the psychedelic rainbow of Delirium's ramblings, stuff like that there. (If you haven't read Sandman yet, go buy and read Sandman. Like, now. This site will be here when you get back.)
Why He Doesn't Win: There's just one thing that separates Todd from the other three: he's so much of a fine artist, his innovations are practically impossible to copy. That means you can always tell when it's him lettering a book. But it also means he'll never influence the future of the comics medium like these next guys have-- and will.

3. Osamu Tezuka. It's hard to distinguish between letterers and artists in manga. The Japanese language is drawing, in a very real way... and even Tezuka, the friggin' "God of Comics" in Japan, said that he wasn't so much drawing as writing with a different kind of symbol. Still, you gotta give it up for Tezuka. In a country that has unofficial contests to see who can come up with the best sound effect, Tezuka came up with an effect for silence that everybody copied (it's pronounced "SHIIIN," but often translated as "HWOOO." The example shown here shows he was equally good at arranging a few symbols into a sort of geometric gridlock that's very arresting, even if you don't know what the symbols mean.
Why He Doesn't Win: It's really close. But Tezuka was coming from, and giving back to, a culture that has always regarded its letterforms as "art." While he opened up a lot of "new ways of seeing" for the Japanese, he opened up fewer, if still considerable, "ways of seeing WORDS." But a couple of North Americans have plenty to teach us English-speaking savages, if we care to pick them up and learn.

2. Will Eisner. Jeez, where do you START with this guy? Actually, everybody starts with the most obvious: Will always found some new, atmospheric, and appropriate way to include the letters "The Spirit" into his opening sequence. Tax forms with the signature at the bottom, gaslights with the letters reflected, awnings that made a commercial announcement out of them, you name it. He also understood the emotional connections we make with letters better than any man of his time, and devised a number of special lettering effects that others have followed (especially his use of phonetic dialogue).
But the example chosen here shows that there was plenty of "style" even in his ordinary lettering. Look how he orchestrates this sequence: see how relaxed the Spirit's typography looks next to the hasty melodrama of his femme fatale du jour (especially nice is her "teary dissolve" on the word "together.") The combination of ellipses, lack of punctuation, lumpy word balloons, and well-placed words gives the dialogue a rhythm that's comical, yet more "realistic" than any other comic of the time. By the time he was writing "graphic novels," expressive lettering was literally second nature to Eisner, so much so that you couldn't even ANALYZE his style anymore. You just knew it was RIGHT. And so did he, and he does even now.
Why He Doesn't Win: He would have, five years ago. And maybe no one has ever or will ever make more lasting changes in the field. But in the last storyteller, one pupil has matched and finally exceeded the old master.

1. Dave Sim. Novelty balloons. Novelty letters. Balloons that form panel borders. Balloons that fade into crosshatched blackness. "Telepathic" balloons that strike like pointed weapons. Thought balloons that-- get this-- do NOT belong to the character they point to, but belong to a Godlike Creator-Figure TALKING IN THAT CHARACTER'S HEAD. One character with four different internal monologues. I'm only scratching the surface here. Dave Sim has, quite simply, done more with lettering in Cerebus than anyone else has, anywhere. If you HATE Cerebus and want to be a letterer... buy it anyway.

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