Where the "comic book font" came from

Superheroes are mass culture, but comic books
are niche. Tens of millions of people saw Captain America:
Civil War, but this past May, Marvel only sold 177,000
copies of Civil War II. But if you took Marvel’s opening credits
and replaced this with this,
even the people who’d never touched a comic book page..would notice. Everybody knows the “comic book font.” How could there be a universally recognized
font for something that, for a half century, was written by hand? Is it a font at all? How is that possible? These fonts are made by people called “letterers.” And their work shows how hundreds of lettering
artists can come together into a single recognizable style. And how we, as consumers, then manage to get
it completely wrong. If you go to a comic book store,
you can see comics that were gloriously lettered by hand,
like this 1964 issue of Thor. (Yes, it was a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby production.) And they worked with Artie Simek. Artie probably gave Thor this epic WHOOM. Letterers place and draw expressive dialogue
bubbles like this one. But in Artie’s day, they also hand wrote
every word in a dialogue bubble. And a lot of practical conditions shaped the
artistry of the letters. “What I think of as comic book lettering
is 1960s Marvel comics. They were mainly lettered by two guys: Artie
Simek and Sam Rosen. For me, they kind of nailed it.” That’s John Roshell, who founded Comicraft,
a comic book font company, with Richard Starkings. They’re letterers and writers, and they
make fonts like this one and comics like this one. The fonts they design imitate a style that
formed out of necessity. That style came out of the newspaper world
and newspaper technology. Early comics like “Little Nemo,” which
came out in the 1900s, started to develop a style that was readable on cheap paper. You can see it forming in this bubble — it’s
all caps, like a comic book font, but it’s somehow…wrong. As time went on, that changed. “Certainly early on, comic strips and comic
books were lettered by the artist. As they gained popularity, that’s when the
production model started to get split up, basically to meet the demand. The letterer was probably just somebody in
the office who had good handwriting, who could do it fast enough.” But the form’s limitations shaped the style
that emerged across the industry. Most letterers used an Ames guide like this
one to create their lines, which meant each letter hit the same height and, more likely,
hit middle in the middle of the line. These letters became kind of squat because
they’re really trying to hit the lines on the top and bottom of the guide. That led to generally rounder Os
and fatter As with lower crosses. Earlier letterers also used a Speedball Nib
pen or a technical pen. These things here: they’re nibs. They determine a letter’s shape, and an
artist could use any type they wanted. But a lot of the time, they chose nibs that
gave them a consistent stroke width. Compare this “Loki” to one that shows
up in Times New Roman. Now look at the Times one. It has a skinny base on the L, a very narrow
O at the top, and all sorts of other little details where the stroke width varies. Arti Simek’s Loki, however, has a really
consistent width to it. The quality of the pages also influenced the
style that letterers chose. Here’s that 1964 Thor next to Thor from
2016. Just look at the difference between the pages. Today’s glossy Thor can handle all sorts
of letters, but 1964’s couldn’t. Letterers wrote in all caps to compensate. Look at this ad from 1964’s Thor. The ink is blotchy and hard to read. All caps helps fix that. And see how the tail on the y and g forces
that whole line to be longer? All caps helped letterers fit more dialogue
into less space, and keep it clear on lousy paper. Other rules emerged too. Never cross an I, unless it’s by itself,
always italicize and bold for emphasis — and all of them were made to make comics printed
on bad paper easier to read. Consistency also mattered in case another
letterer jumped in to finish a page or fix up a typo. And all those constraints and choices created
the handwritten style we recognize. But today to call it handwriting would be
lying. Richard Starkings, who runs Comicraft with
John Roshell, was frustrated with the work involved in lettering. This is the Killing Joke, it’s a classic,
controversial 80s comic that’s been reprinted in deluxe editions. And Richard Starkings lettered it. Starkings
had an experienced letterer’s appreciation of detail. He was frustrated by the work involved in
lettering, and an industry that knew that computers were the future, but wasn’t willing
to go there just yet. There’d been earlier attempts to standardize
fonts in comics — most famously a publisher called EC comics
used a guide to trace every letter, and the result ended up looking kind of mechanical,
like type. Other publishers played with type too. But Starkings and Roshell led the charge into
digital fonts. “For a long time we had things our way because
there were a lot of technophobes in comics. There were a lot of people who didn’t want
to change. Those people have grown old and there are
people in their 20s editing and designing comics now, and they expect you to have every
font in our library and then some.” Today, companies like Comicraft and competitors
like Blambot make fonts that letterers can download and then work with in programs like
Adobe Illustrator. They still make the bubbles and design the
text — they just don’t use ink to do it. But those companies don’t just sell one
“comic book font.” They sell a ton. And that’s because the idea of a “comic
book font” is a mistake in the first place. The general public only really became aware
of fonts with the rise of personal computers. This chart shows the appearances of the word
“font” in books from 1960 to 2000. We can see Helvetica, and Arial, and Futura
because our computers have trained us to look for them. Some fonts came with our machines or condensed
in the document cloud. We notice them. We see these tiny differences. There have always been hundreds of “comic
book fonts” too, attuned to the idiosyncrasies of the artists who used to letter them. But most people, just like me, haven’t been
trained to see the nuance in their work. Comics fans and letterers do. “That’s a Todd Klein R. Different letterers
have their letters of the alphabet that are kind of their signature.” “Dave Gibbons, his D and his G, his G is
almost a six, it’s a real loop around on itself.” Even Richard Starkings has a quirk — a jagged
hook on the S that always stands out. As technology allows for variety and ease
of use, creativity continues to flourish, even if handwriting gets digitized. Comics like Klaus can use color with abandon,
and artsy comics like The Joyners are able to experiment with all kinds of fonts without
worrying about cheap paper reducing readability. The “comic book font” is a starting point
— an idea we keep around because it shows the verve of comics. Within that style is the variety of different
artists and designers, expressing a key element in every story. And maybe even some of those superhero movie
fans will notice it. So in addition to identifying a letterer by
their handwriting, sometimes you can spot one by the style of their bubbles. John Workman is famous for creating word bubbles
that jut right into the gutter of a page, and it creates a really distinctive style
that’s easy to spot.

33 thoughts on “Where the "comic book font" came from

  1. Phil Edwards: good video on font
    Also Phil Edwards: Why the MCU feels empty (repeat unelaborated points for 9 minutes)

  2. Golden Age comics are easiest to identify by their letters and balloons. Jack Burnley's Starman artwork looks silver age, but the lettering is a giveaway.

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  4. I remember reading Ghost Rider 2099 when I was 9. That font they used really amazed me. It was the first time I ever noticed the fundamental role fonts play in creating atmosphere in CBs. It's like you could listen to the Ghost Rider's mechanical voice. I even tried to copycat that font into my school notebooks.

  5. When I did graphic design my tutor always used to get tetchy if anyone said font.
    Apparently they're typefaces, not fonts.

  6. It's called a typeface not a font. I font is a piece of data that tells the computer what typeface to display.

  7. Hey Ya'll!! what are your favorite or most used fonts that you use and why? I almost exclusively use Calibri light, it has softer more rounded corners that i feel are easier on the eye to read, also feel like it gives it a…i wouldn't say it gives a more informal, but just a less formal vibe, which means i'm free to enjoy it, that what i'm reading is more fictional based. or 4 Ex. say if i'm reading something thats in times new roman, ill usually take it more seriously, because it gives me the sense that its coming from somewhere official (most likely from reading news paper), and thus it must be a more non-fictional read, and thats because I feel like fonts help define the attitude an emotions we have about what were reading as we are reading them; it helps set the stage for the story you are about to delve into

  8. Early versions of 'windows' for computers had a font called, Technical and similar to this comic book style. I don't see that now or anything close to it, even though there are dozens.

  9. I cant Express how much I dont care about the history of font…why the hell did I just watch (and enjoy) a 10 minute video about it?!?!

  10. Then there's the lettering style developed by Charles Schulz, in which he followed the rule that "I" isn't crossed unless it's by itself. Also had a distinctive "jagged hook" on "S".

  11. 0:15 A prime example of "Get woke – go broke"
    Marvel deserved this for all these "ask me about my feminist agenda" horrible comics

  12. It is pretty cool to see the minor differences between letters when hand lettering, even within the same comic book

  13. Y'all are ducking rough on those books. I had a crisis on the fact that I have been realizing recently that comic books aren't worth anything, and they're just books

  14. Am I the only one left hungry for more at the end of the video? I don’t know, it keeps saying “considering there is only one “comic book font” is a misconception but don’t tell us about them at all, they aren’t named, no explanation as how they came to be, just a few specific examples from a few specific artists and even then no explanation for the crooked ‘S’s or anything! A most informative video on the whole but I felt it was incomplete, I was left dissatisfied by its ending.

  15. dude if i hear one more vox video where the narrator pauses… before he states… a fact, im gonna lose my mind

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