BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
Tom Orzechowski is one of the premiere letterers in the comics industry. Orzechowski's been in the industry over thirty years - through many changes and advances. He currently works on a handful of comics for several publishers including Dark Horse, Marvel, and DC, but isn't sure how long that will last. With all the changes to digital lettering and "in house" lettering, Orzechowski thinks freelance lettering may soon go the way of the dinosaur ...
THE PULSE: We'll start out easy, was printing your best subject in school?
ORZECHOWSKI: No! With a name like mine, I lost patience early on.
THE PULSE: Did you ever think that when you were forced to practice printing over and over again that one day you'd be using those skills to letter comics?
ORZECHOWSKI: Well, the comics in the late ‘50s, when I was a little kid, didn’t have any credits except for the pre-Marvels, signed Lee+Kirby and Lee+Ditko. A few years later, a neighbor kid and I noticed that the Kirby who drew Fantastic Four had also drawn Fin Fang Foom and all those great monster comics. That was the start of it for me, really. Then Marvel added credits and the focus became more than just the characters. The look of FF kept changing in those first couple dozen issues, and hey, look, there were different inkers all the time. It was quite a revelation for an 11-year-old. A few years later, when John Costanza started lettering for DC, he was uncredited, but I had an eye for new styles and he stood out. In a way, though, I was also building toward what you’re doing. In my teens I edited a zine that carried industry news, and also lettered the comics strips that ran in the back. I’m sure I believed that in some way I’d
find work with DC or Marvel, like we all did, but at the same time I didn’t seriously expect it.
THE PULSE: When you started in the comics industry, how did you letter comics? Were computers used at all by publishers or was it all "hand-done?"
ORZECHOWSKI: The only computer in comics then was Brainiac. The state of the art in 1973 was steel nibs and ink and correction paint. For me, lots of correction paint. A couple of bucks worth of supplies got you started.
THE PULSE: How tough was it to master the skill of hand lettering comics? How did you "learn" to do that?
ORZECHOWSKI: At the ‘68 con in Detroit, when I was 15, I met some very talented young artists and joined their comics club. They were producing that news zine I mentioned. At the time I was drawing in the edges of my notebooks, but I gave up on it when I saw what they could do. But! None of them wanted to do the lettering, so I took on that job. At the urging of one of the guys I modeled my lettering on the Flash Gordon strips of the 1930’s. This got me looking at everything from the ‘30s, movie posters, advertising and what not. Meanwhile, Zap Comics was coming out, and Robert Crumb’s title work was clearly derived from the brush techniques of that same era, the ‘20s and ‘30s. This was great! I bought everything of his I could find, at the same time as the DCs and Marvels, and developed an approach based on all of it. Then, a writer for my own zine sent me a type catalogue, and I was struck by the realization that printing type had to be hand-drawn in the first place. Here were the lessons in printing that I’d missed in grade school.
When I joined that club a lot of us were about 15, but a few guys on the fringes were a little older... Rich Buckler, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Mike Vosburg. The zine work I lettered for them got my name into print. The relatives were very impressed!
Tony Isabella, who I knew from the 'zines, was hired by Marvel editorial in ‘72. He soon got me a job doing lettering retouch on the earliest FF and Thor, Hulk, Spider-Man and Daredevil stories, for British release. Little things had to be modified. “Check” became “cheque,” that sort of thing. Also, the anti-Communist references had to be modified. So, at a distance, I got to work over Lee, Kirby and Ditko when it was all brand new. Very cool.
Within a few months, our boss Sol Brodsky saw that I didn’t do well under supervision, and suggested I work at home. I was lucky to be doing a job that no one else wanted, or he might just as well have fired me. By then I was doing some lettering for the black and white monster magazines. One of my first, for Monsters Unleashed, was on one of the first stories written by Chris Claremont, a couple of years before X-Men was relaunched.
The old connections paid off when Rich Buckler pulled me over to letter his Black Panther (Jungle Action) issues, and Starlin very kindly got me his Captain Marvel. I wasn’t getting the top books, but these were more fun. When Uncanny X-Men came around, I had enough of a rep as a new projects guy that I was able to grab the odd issue, and then the series.
THE PULSE: Prior to computer lettering, was the larger special "effects" type lettering was that done by letters or did the artists draw them in? If you did a "special effects type" of lettering, how did you design it?
ORZECHOWSKI: Everyone assumes that the artists design the titles and sound effects. Barry Windsor-Smith is one of the few who actually does work out his own titles, back to his time on Conan. Except for Gene Colan, who roughed in some of the sound effects, it’s always been the letterer who did, well, all the lettering. Titles. Sound effects. Balloons.
I was living in California by the mid ‘70s. While Marvel’s production boss and cover letterer Danny Crespi was developing a tight, attractive house style, I was 3000 miles away and buried in design books. Since X-Men didn’t overlap the rest of the Marvel Universe, I figured there was no reason not to draw influence from calligraphy, record jackets, old movie posters...everything except comics. The logo I did for Wolverine is based on ‘30s elements, and I’m proud to see it’s one of the few old ones still in use. Designing a logo is probably a lot like designing a costume, to catch the tone of the character while pulling some unexpected elements together.
THE PULSE: What were some of the toughest parts of hand lettering to master? Were there any particular letters or symbols that gave you trouble?
ORZECHOWSKI: Letter “X” is the toughest. Seriously. I‘ve probably drawn “X” more often than anyone in the history of written language, and half of them were lousy. After that, numeral “8” is the one that will give you nightmares. Letters “J,” “R” and “S” will show the most variety. I’d bet money I spotted the letterer on the ‘40s stories in the Black Canary Archive by his “J”s. I’m sure it was Gaspar Saladino, who later worked on all of the late ‘50s DC hero revivals for Julie Schwartz.
THE PULSE: What have been some of your favorite projects to letter? What about each made it such a treat?
ORZECHOWSKI: Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men was the top of the stack for me. There’s no way to describe how it felt to watch those characters evolve under one writer for such a remarkably long spell. Considering X-Men, all the annuals, then New Mutants and Wolverine, I lettered something on the order of 6,000 pages of Chris’ scripts over a couple dozen years. X-Treme X-Men and MekaniX just added another 750 or
Spawn continues to be fun. My title was Copy Editor for most of the first six years. Some of the scripts I received were just rough drafts, which left me to second-guess it at times on Spawn and Curse of the Spawn. This didn’t extend to the dialogue in Spawn, though. Todd McFarlane never got the credit he deserved for his way with dialogue.
The manga packaging outfit Studio Proteus has kept me busy since their first project, Nausicaa, in ‘89. Appleseed, Dominion, and Ghost in the Shell forced me to stretch a lot since they’re so sound effect driven. Right now I’m finishing Ghost in the Shell part 2, entirely digitally. The sound effects used to be draw with pen and ink and lots of correction paint, right over the original Japanese effects. Now I’m using a Wacom pen on a graphics tablet, in Illustrator. Thankfully, Shirow has deleted the sound effects layer, so I’m just left to match his attitude without having to cover all those impossible Kanji. Even that taught me a lot about how far the letters can be exaggerated without losing readability. Fonts can never match the feeling.
THE PULSE: How do you pick which upcoming projects you want to work on now? What influences your decision - besides the monetary aspects?
ORZECHOWSKI: No no no no, we don’t get to state preferences, not in any way that matters. Last year, Joan Hilty said I’d get either Scooby-Doo or Looney Tunes. I was glad when the assignment turned out to be Scooby, since it’s less sound effect intensive. After a while, she gave me Looney as well. That one turned out to be more fun, BECAUSE of all the sound effects. It’s a lot more time consuming, but there’s nothing like Porky Pig going nuts after trying to be polite to Yosemite Sam. To answer your question, I put my hand up for the fun books and hope for the best.
THE PULSE: Do you still hand letter or do you use the computer now?
ORZECHOWSKI: It’s been over a year since I’ve picked up a pen. Even then I was losing the knack, as the majority of my work had been digital for a couple of years. The fine motor control slips if the muscles aren’t in continual use.
THE PULSE: When did you make the switch from hand lettering to computer lettering?
ORZECHOWSKI: I was among the first to experiment with fonts, in ‘92. The sound effect work on Nausicaa was so demanding that fonts seemed like a way to save time on the dialogue, which was extensive. But the font program was primitive and there were conflicts with DOS, so I did that series entirely by hand after all. Even with fonts in place, by maybe ‘94, it was still a matter of printing out the text blocks and pasting them onto photostats. My first entirely digital work, no hard copies involved, was an Excalibur mini in 2001. By then, of course, some people had been working with fonts exclusively for years.
THE PULSE: Why do you think comics moved generally towards computer lettering over hand lettering?
ORZECHOWSKI: It had simply become possible, is all. In a broader sense, monthly deadlines have always been a problem, and digital lettering allows a book to be lettered off scans of the inks while the book is being colored.
THE PULSE: A lot of publishers are now having a lettering team "in-house." What does this mean to freelancers like yourself?
ORZECHOWSKI: Kiss most of us goodbye. The venerable ole job description of freelance letterer may be about to become history. Sales are low, budgets are tight, and this will cut their cost of lettering by half, maybe more. After this, though, I can’t imagine where any economies will come from. Simplify the coloring, or bring it in-house as well? Abandon the glossy paper? We’ll just have to see.
THE PULSE: How are "in-house" groups like that going to "help" comics - if at all? What does that offer that freelancers don't?
ORZECHOWSKI: No one reading the books will notice any difference, since most of the lettering has been digital for nearly a decade anyway. Chris Eliopoulos designed the fonts for Marvel’s unit, and he’s terrific. Likewise, Ken Lopez at DC. If their staffs are tight, the results will be as good as, or better than, what you’re already used to seeing.
THE PULSE: What projects are you currently lettering?
ORZECHOWSKI: Spawn, who had come to terms with being dead, and who is now wrestling with being alive again. Lobo Unbound, where Keith Giffin takes the series back in a grungier direction. Ghost in the Shell 2, which is incredibly gorgeous. There are a couple of other manga projects on the way.
THE PULSE: With the new policies, what are you no longer lettering?
ORZECHOWSKI: Scooby and Looney. X-Treme X-Men, just as the long-delayed Storm solo adventure is getting underway. The Thing mini by Dorkin and Haspiel had coincidentally ended at the same time as the others.
THE PULSE: What happens next for you? IF there is just "in-house" letters from this point in the game and on ... what do you do? How worried are you about the future right now?
ORZECHOWSKI: I’m hardly the first person to undergo a career change. Do you need an assistant? I can spell and all that. But seriously... no worries. Things continue to crop up. I’ll just miss Storm and Wolvie and the rest of them, but I’ve been through that already a decade ago when I left after the Claremont shakeup.
THE PULSE: What do you think needs to be done to "save" comics?
ORZECHOWSKI: That’s easy! Young readers need to be brought in!
THE PULSE: How do you think comics got to the point it is now ... where the majority of readers are adults and hardly any company is doing anything to change that?
ORZECHOWSKI: We’ve all had this conversation. No single element went wrong, so there’s no easy fix. DC has always published a wide range of books, so that wasn’t the problem. Prices are way up due to high paper costs, low print runs and so on. The fantastic stuff that used to show up only in comic books is now on view everywhere. It may just be that we needed comic books to take heroic fantasy to its present state, and that they’re now irrelevant except as a place to test new ideas, which are then spun into more profitable media. Matrix 3 had super powered guys punching each other out in mid-flight. Thematically at least, I’d say we’ve won!
THE PULSE: What upcoming projects are you working on?
ORZECHOWSKI: DC just sent me a fun three-issue Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy mini, by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. A Byrne and Claremont arc of JLA is on the way. Studio Cutie, a new Manga lettering production company, has me developing some special use fonts. At the same time, though, I’m punching up my Photoshop skills. There are no long term guarantees anymore. On to the next thing.