Talking with Richard Starkings and John Roshell of Comicraft
Richard Starkings and John Roshell founded Comicraft in 1992. Since then, the company has provided lettering for many comic books, and its collection of more than 250 font families has become a mainstay of the comic book lettering industry.
Founder Richard Starkings is the Eisner and Eagle award-winning creator and writer of HIP FLASK (with Ladrönn) and ELEPHANTMEN (with Moritat, Boo Cook, and Axel Medellin), now in development as a major motion picture. He has also written comic strips for DOCTOR WHO MAGAZINE, THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS, and TRANSFORMERS. He lives in Long Beach.
John Roshell has lettered thousands of comic pages for Marvel, DC, and other top publishers; created hundreds of logos and fonts for the likes of AVENGERS, DAREDEVIL and ANGRY BIRDS; designed book collections and websites; and, with writer Starshine Roshell, co-created two boys who have no interest in comic books whatsoever.
We talked with Rich and John about font design, that elusive concept “the comic book font,” and more.
So if you wouldn’t mind, for those readers who may not be comic book geeks, could you give us a brief history of comic books and the practical and aesthetic evolution of their lettering?
Rich: Brief?! Ha! I think it’s true to say that comic book lettering evolved out of necessity. It was cheaper and easier for comic strips in newspapers to be lettered with a pen than for them to be typeset by someone not directly involved in the creative process.
The bold, UPPER CASE style that slowly became the norm was necessary so that letters could be easily read and didn’t fill in due to the inevitable dot gain of ink on cheap newsprint.
Exclamation marks at the end of sentences became the norm, in order to ensure that readers saw the period at the end of each sentence, which might otherwise disappear due to poor reproduction of the art in print.
John: It’s kind of funny that those limitations still define the look of comic lettering, even though they no longer apply! Digital tools have expanded the options, but the principal goal is still to tell the story as effectively as possible.
Sometimes that means grabbing the reader’s attention, and sometimes it means being invisible. Navigating that push and pull to keep the reader engaged is what the best letterers do, no matter their tools.
In his video for Vox, Phil Edwards raises the question: Is the so-called “comic book font” a font at all? When you’ve got multiple letterers out there with multiple different styles, how would you guys define the phrase “comic book font”?
Rich: For casual comic book readers there’s no real conscious awareness of different styles of comic book lettering.
Recently a comic book commentator who has what I’d consider an expert eye waxed lyrical about my pen lettering on a page of artwork he’d bought; in fact, it was lettered by another well known lettering artist—who I’d consider to have quite a markedly different style.
I think “comic book font” generally refers to an upper case style of lettering that is clearly made with ink using a pen nib or technical drawing pen.
They only occasionally include lower case lettering, and sit in white-filled balloons on pages of comic book art. I’m sure that if you showed comic book-style lettering out of context, some people would be hard-pressed to identify it as a comic book font.
John: It’s funny how the closer you look at anything, the more infinite variations you will discover!
Pen letterers’ styles change with the types of pens used, the way their hands naturally form each letter, and who taught or influenced them. When I create a font from someone’s lettering, I choose from dozens of slightly different As, Rs, and Ss.
Every decision I make in the assembly, cleanup, and fine-tuning affects the final font. I’ve created two families based on Richard’s pen lettering (Hedge Backwards and Richard Starkings) that ended up having a completely different look! So I feel like there’s still an infinite number of “comic book fonts” left to be made.
John: Well, I’m sure it has a lot to do with the fact they lettered the majority of the comics I grew up reading!
When I look at their work now, I see a relaxed confidence in their pen strokes that just says, “I know what I’m doing, I’m getting the job done, and I’m having fun doing it.” And that still inspires me.
Rich: Artie Simek and Sam Rosen are two of my favorite letterers, also. They had such iconic styles; between them, they created the look of Marvel Comics lettering in the sixties.
They were the masters of creating atmosphere with soft rounded or ragged titles and sound effects… and they rarely used rulers, because the deadlines they were working too probably didn’t allow that kind of finesse!
Later, letterers like Tom Orzechowski, Steve Craddock, Bill Nutall and Tom Frame created more precise looks in their lettering that brought comic book pages alive in whole different ways.
But, generally, I think they had a little more time to get their work done.
Tell us about Comicraft. What was the inspiration behind starting your company, and how did it become what it is today?
Rich: I was working primarily as a pen and ink lettering artist over here in the States, and I realized that it was almost impossible for me to get projects that allowed me the kind of time I needed to make a healthy living and feel proud of my work.
I’d worked at Marvel UK in London as an editor and designer, and was comfortable with the idea of working with a team to get stuff done. I’d also been made aware that top Marvel artist John Byrne had developed a comic book font to letter his own work on his book NAMOR. I thought this was the writing on the wall for pen lettering, and was lucky enough to find a couple of friends who helped me create a font using a program called Fontographer.
These friends helped input scripts, so that I could speed up the process of digital lettering. But it wasn’t until I looked for someone more permanent that I came across John, who had just graduated from UCLA with a degree in graphic design. We were working out of the back of my Santa Monica apartment at the time, and John asked me what he should say when he answered the phone.
A friend of mine had a carpentry business he called ProudCraft; I quickly came up with Comicraft, and the name stuck.
What considerations come into play for you when you design a new comic book-style font?
Rich: Originally it was necessity. We had a dialogue font, but no title fonts. Then we needed fonts for particular logos, then we were asked for a specific font for a book called ASTRO CITY.
BATMAN artist Tim Sale wanted one based on his pen-lettering style. Then we made fonts that evoked the lettering of Rosen and Simek… and then John decided we should make twelve fonts a year. Perhaps he can explain that particular rod he made for his own back…!
John: I decided pretty early on, working for Comicraft, that I really wanted to make a living making fonts. And that meant expanding our catalog. So I set a goal of twelve a year, and sold subscriptions in advance, so that I knew I would have to meet it! We’ve achieved that goal every year.
The past two years have also been spent “remastering” another twelve—that is, going back into the catalog and improving and expanding on our early releases.
Requests from customers and clients usually dictate what’s on my front burner, so often I’m filling an immediate need, which is great. When nothing’s pressing, I have folders full of partially completed fonts and letter files and graphics to dig through. Sometimes it’s, “Okay, what’s nearly done that I can wrap up?”
And sometimes I find a file or graphic with only four or five letters that sparks an idea. I’ll get going on it, and the hours just roll by. Those are my favorite kinds of days.
Rich: Enthusiastically! I feel that the names of our fonts should make you think of comic books, whether you use them for fonts or not!
There are also a LOT of fonts out there, so it has become increasingly difficult to come up with unique names. But it’s still a lot of fun to try!
John: We spend a RIDICULOUS amount of time jockeying back and forth on font names, and names for each of the weights. But it’s part of the fun. I feel great when we finally find a name that both totally captures the spirit of the font and sounds like it belongs in our catalog.
How are your fonts used? Put another way, which of your fonts tend to be used in which contexts?
Rich: We see a lot of our fonts on candy and cereal packaging—and toilet paper rolls! I think our customers are looking for bouncy, fun styles. They gravitate to our catalog because we have so many loose-looking character sets that have that pen-drawn feel to them. And, obviously, we are the number one resource for comic book letterers all over the world!
John: I love seeing designers use our fonts in ways I never would have imagined. And I like applying the principles of comic lettering—make it readable and fun!—to creating fonts in other realms, like apps and video games.
The fonts I designed for ANGRY BIRDS have probably been seen by far more people than all the ones I’ve done for comic books. But they came to us because of our comics work, so it all relates.
Of all your designs, do you have a favorite?
John: Whichever one I’m working on at the moment! I love ’em all. Even the ones that don’t sell. ESPECIALLY the ones that don’t sell. Every one of them has an idea behind it that I thought was cool and worth making.
Rich: I’d have to go with ZOINKS because it’s based on the natural way I draw display lettering. I’d add in MONSTER MASH, too, which John created to look very much like sixties comic book title lettering.
What do you think is people’s biggest misconception about you, Comicraft, and/or the work you do?
Rich: I think a lot of people think we letter EVERY comic out there—which is fine, LOL! I also think that people generally think that selling fonts requires little or no work, which is not true at all.
There’s a lot of hard work and thought that goes into it. Anyone who runs an online business knows that there are all kinds of hidden costs involved. Some customers think fonts are expensive, but I always like to remind them that back in the day graphic designers had to buy sheets of dry-transfer lettering from companies like LETRASET at twenty bucks a pop.
When you’d used them up, you had to order more—and more, and more. Pen letterers had to buy ink and nibs and new technical pens and vellum and drawing boards and all that stuff. When you buy a font, it never runs out of letters! Plus, you get a license to keep using it until you die!
John: For a long time, most of my friends thought I drew the comics. But I think people’s daily interactions with computers and screens has created a growing understanding and appreciation for fonts.
Everyone’s aware of them now, even if it’s just “oh, you mean like Comic Sans?” To which I reply with a descending “NOOOOOOoooooo….”