Q & A with Todd Klein: Letterer Extraordinaire
Posted September 28, 2009on:
High Five! gets a lot of traffic from casual comics fans; I know because my mom comments on every third entry. While most fans are surely aware of the issue I’m about to riff on, the less initiated may not be:
You love Todd Klein. You may not know it, but you do.
Did you like The Sandman? What about Fables? The Dark Knight Strikes Again? The Invisibles? Kingdom Come? Promethea?
Todd Klein lettered all of them. Neil Gaiman may have given Morpheus his words, but with those now-iconic wavy black speech bubbles, Klein gave the Sandman a VOICE. He’s been in the comics business since 1977, back when penciling, inking, lettering – everything – was still done by hand. In the late eighties and early nineties when the comic production process became more & more computer based, a lot of letterers cried foul and refused to work digitally. Most of them aren’t working now. Todd Klein, on the other hand, made hundreds of font sets based on his lettering styles and wholeheartedly embraced the new technology. He is one of the the most sought after letterers in the business – and after you’ve read enough comics – one of the most recognizable.
In the assembly line that is modern comics production (writer, penciller, inker, letterer, and somewhere in there, an editor gets involved), the letterer is by far the most unsung member of the creative team. A letterer doesn’t just scribble some words into pre-drawn speech balloons (though I’m sure it happens that way sometimes); the letterer lays out the speech & thought balloons in a logical manner – and in a wordy, complex comic by a writer like Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman, presenting the dialogue and inner monologue in an intuitive progression is no small feat.
Not just bubble placers & fillers, letterers usually design and place sound effects too. Sound effects in comics are odd, you don’t necessarily notice them unless they’re crappy or just not there at all. But where would Wolverine be without “SNIKT!”? Where would Spidey be without “THWIP!”? And where would ‘SNIKT!’ and ‘THWIP!’ be without good letterers? It can be easy to get wrapped up in the story and the “oh sh*t!” moments and miss the fact that you’re not just reading a book, you’re looking at a piece of artwork – and I don’t mean just the pretty pit-chers. Lettering gives characters a voice, bubble design and placement paces the story, sound effects set the mood, and all of this is done by the guy you probably forgot about.
But we didn’t! In fact, we conducted a little Q & A with Mr. Klein, who was kind enough to take time out of what must be a pretty busy schedule to answer our questions.
High Five!: We all know that you started out “in the pit,” as it were, at DC in the late seventies. Could you talk a little about your comics career before you landed the DC gig?
Todd Klein: Well, that’s pretty easy: I had none! I was a long-time comics reader and fan, had spent two years in art school, but was never good at drawing people, which is kind of a prerequisite for becoming a comics artist. I did prepare a sample story when I applied for the job at DC, you can see the first page here, but the best thing about it was the lettering, which I always had an interest in, though that was my first attempt at comics lettering.
High Five!: After doing your time on the assembly line at DC, you went freelance. You’ve worked with all the top names in the industry. Was there ever a moment that you felt overwhelmed or more intensely challenged than usual by a project?
TK: I can’t say I ever felt overwhelmed, and I enjoy challenges. Some projects are more challenging than others, certainly. Working on “Starstruck” with Michael W. Kaluta and Elaine Lee early in my career was the first time I was asked to do lots of different lettering styles, and that paved the way for what I did on “Sandman,” but it was all fun. Some assignments end up taking much too long, and one tries to learn from that. On the other hand, some go quicker than expected, so it evens out in the long run.
High Five!: When lettering went digital, you were one of the first to embrace the concept of computer lettering. You’ve covered a lot of the finers points of the subject on your very extensive website. Do you feel that lettering “loses something” when it is digitally rendered?
TK: There are many differences between the processes of hand-lettering and computer-lettering, both have their good and bad points, both can be done well or poorly. I do sometimes miss the physical process of hand-lettering, but then when I get the occasional assignment to do that way, I struggle because I’m out of practice, and it takes way too long!
High Five!: Beautifully drawn words paired with beautiful artwork is far from a new concept. I honestly believe there’s a possibility that centuries from now, scholars will look at certain comics the same way we might look at medieval calligraphy and illumination today – do you feel there’s a connecting thread between the two?
TK: I certainly felt one when I did hand-lettering. Typewriters replaced practitioners of fine writing in the business world decades earlier, but there were always artists and craftsmen needed for signs and decorative text of one sort or another, and there still are, even though much of that need is now filled by computer fonts. You can find artistic and decorative hand-lettering out there if you look for it, though.
High Five!: Sound effects are an often overlooked aspect of an overlooked art. Who has the biggest influence on sound effect design & placement, or does it vary from project to project?
TK: My approach is usually to try to match the style of the art if I can. Gaspar Saladino was great at that, and I always looked to him for inspiration. Sometimes editors or artists have particular styles they prefer or don’t like, so that’s a factor. And working on the computer, I have a set of my own sound effects fonts I turn to most of the time, and a few other commercial fonts I also like.
High Five!: You’ve mentioned Gaspar Saladino as a major influence more than once, what other letterers would you recommend taking a look at?
TK: For hand-lettering: Tom Orzechowski and Dave Sim come immediately to mind, lots of others worth looking at, but if I try to list them all I’ll leave someone out. For computer-lettering, I look at font creators rather than letterers using the fonts created by them, and John Gaushell of Comicraft, Nate Piekos of Blambot, and Rian Hughes are all doing fine work.
High Five!: You worked with JH Williams III previously on “Promethea,” and you’re working with him again on “Batwoman.” Obviously, working with Rucka is a very different experience than working with Moore – how has your previous work with Williams influenced the book?
TK: When I work with JH, it almost doesn’t matter who the writer is, I’m working with JH, and he and I are in close contact. He lets me know what he wants, and I try to give it to him (or tell him it’s impossible occasionally). Jim has very specific ideas about everything that goes on his pages. Dave Stewart (the colorist on Batwoman) and I are along for the ride, and trying to keep up!
Thanks again to Mr. Klein for taking the time to answer some questions for us. Check out kleinletters.com; the site is chock full of in-depth lettering information as well as cool stories from Todd’s 30+ years in the comics industry. Be sure to check out the blog as well, it includes some fascinating logo studies. Mr. Klein has also created some awesome limited edition samplers, working with the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, JH Williams III, and Alex Ross – the samplers are signed, hand numbered, and at $20 a pop, a totally affordable piece of awesome.