Among other similar triumphs, letterer Joe Caramagna has recently become the most prominent letterer in Amazing Spider-Man history, having now worked on over 100 issues of Marvel’s flagship title. Not just content with Spider-Man, however, Caramagna also works on Marvel titles as diverse as Avengers Academy, Daredevil, Captain Marvel, Uncanny X-Men and New Avengers. Simply put: if you’ve read Marvel, then you’ve read Joe Caramagna.
Not just a letterer but also a novelist responsible for a new series of Spider-Man all-ages books, the perennially unrustled Caramagna has had a pretty incredible career so far – and he’s also written Darkstar! What a career. I spoke to him about life as a letterer, techniques and design, and ‘crunch time’.
Steve: How did you first get into work as a letterer? Is the first step joining a studio, or did you find your own way in?
Joe Caramagna: Back when I was a student at The Kubert School, Marvel was putting together an in-house lettering department, and was looking for an intern. My lettering teacher, Hy Eisman, who is still at the school by the way, recommended me for the job, and I interviewed and got it. Up to that point, I only knew how to hand-letter, and Dave Sharpe and Paul Tutrone were really great in showing me how to do the job digitally. Years after my internship was over, a friend of mine, Buddy Scalera, introduced me to Chris Eliopoulos. I showed Chris some samples and basically begged for a job and wouldn’t take no for an answer, haha.
Steve: Once you take on a book, who do you work most closely with? Writer, artist, editor?
Joe: I work closest with the assistant and associate editors, actually. We’re the guys (and gals) in the trenches together, most days. I do interact with writers quite a bit – some more than others – but very rarely have interactions with artists at all. Except on Twitter where we all get together and badmouth our editors. I’m kidding!
Steve: What do you think your role is in developing a comic book? What’s the most important thing for a letterer to do for a particular comic?
Joe: I think the role of the letterer is to make sure the story is told as clearly as possible. For me, story trumps all. More than design, more than style, it’s the story. And it has to do its job well without drawing attention to itself, which seems like a paradox, especially when trying to get the reader to really hear and feel sound effects; but it’s true. Good lettering can’t make a bad comic book good, but it certainly can make a good comic book look bad. Others have their own philosophies about it, but that’s mine. And I usually stick to it by keeping things as clean and as simple as possible.
Steve: How do letterers find work on a consistent basis? Do you rely on networking and recommendations, or do companies offer you contracts guaranteeing work?
Joe: The same way you get any kind of work, I suppose – by asking editors for it. Sometimes an editor will ask me to letter his or her book, which is very nice, and makes me want to do an even better job. I’m lucky that I work for Virtually Calligraphy, and Chris Eliopoulos puts a lot of trust in me, which really helped me establish a good reputation. VC letters almost all of Marvel’s books right now, so I get the opportunity to workmon a lot of books.
Steve: How do you choose font? Do you change your style depending on the tone of the book? Would a funny Spider-Man story use a different lettering style to, say, a gritty Batman comic?
Joe: I definitely change my style depending on the book. If you look at an issue of DAREDEVIL next to one of my issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, you might not know they were lettered by the same guy. Same goes for PUNISHER. When I letter Spider-Man, I tend to use more colorful bursts and sound effects, because that matches the tone of the character. Especially when done by Dan Slott and Humberto Ramos. I tone it down a bit when Stefano Caselli draws Spidey. Punisher comics are a lot more serious, and the lettering reflects that. On Daredevil, first Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin, and now Chris Samnee, all have such classic styles that I keep the lettering as “classic” as possible.
Steve: Do you approach the comic page-by-page, or panel-by-panel?
Joe: Title by title, issue by issue, page by page, panel by panel. I try to keep in mind that everything is part of a larger whole, but every panel has its own job to do in service to the story.
Steve: It seems to be a repeated phrase that you only notice lettering if it’s done badly. Do you see common mistakes crop up often in lettering? How much of it is subjective?
Joe: I guess it’s as subjective as anything else, but to me, if it looks wrong, then it is wrong. There are some “rules” that I have for my own work that I see broken in other comics all the time. Of course my own rules aren’t for everyone, but if I’m reading a comic, and some bit of lettering sticks out like a sore thumb, then it’s wrong, no matter what rationale the letterer might have for doing it that way. The “but that’s my style” defense always makes me cringe.
Steve: Conversely, what do you think marks good lettering?
Joe: Like I said before, it has to best serve the story. That’s pretty much it. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all saying that my lettering is always good. Far from it. I’m my own worst critic.
Steve: How long does it take you to complete any given book?
Joe: Anywhere between a few hours and a full day. Some books are much easier and much harder than others.
Steve: Lettering tends to be the last addition to a comic script. Doesn’t that mean you’re always working at the very end of a deadline? Isn’t that a bit high-pressure?
Joe: There is a lot of pressure, particularly on Fridays which is when we send the books out to the printer. But I actually love it. Fridays are exciting. In sports terms, I think I’m more of a playoff performer and am at my best in crunch time, which is why I like to keep myself very busy. I do my worst work when I don’t have much to do.
Steve: What’re the most difficult aspects of lettering, as a job?
Joe: Every comic comes with its own set of challenges. Sometimes the artist doesn’t draw what’s in the script or draws characters out of speaking order and I have to find a way to arrange the balloons in a way that makes sense. Sometimes it’s deadline pressure. Sometimes there are a lot of revisions after the fact that can really deflate your morale and make the job really difficult.
Steve: Which letterers do you consider to be at the top of their game right now? Which comics do you think showcase the importance of lettering?
Joe: I was really happy Chris Eliopoulos won the Harvey Award for Best Letterer because I think he’s been hands-down the best letterer in the industry for a number of years now. And I’m not just saying it because he’s my boss, haha. I think a lot of guys do a lot of things well, but Chris does everything well. As far as individual comics go, like I said, every issue comes with its own set of challenges, so it’s hard to say.
Steve: What advice would you give people who are interested in becoming a letterer?
Joe: Actually study what professional lettering looks like. Try lettering a comic book page, then hold up a Marvel or DC book next to your work and try to figure out why they are different. Keep trying until your work looks like the Marvel or DC book, I’d even go so far to scan a comic book page, then use Adobe Illustrator to actually letter directly over the existing lettering on that page to get a feel for what has to be done to achieve that professional look.
If you want to get into lettering because you think it’s the easiest way to break in, guess again. Each letterer can letter multiple books per month, more than any artists or writer can work on every month, so letterers aren’t in as high demand. And all of the letterers I know have studied art and design in college and are talented painters and illustrators in their own right. It’s going to take a lot of talent and hard work to pry work away from those guys. You have to be among the best of the best just to have a shot at breaking into comics that way. As they say, if it were easy to do, then everyone would be doing it! And if reading this last paragraph motivated you rather than discouraged you, you’re already on your way. Good luck!
Steve: Finally – what other projects do you have coming up? Will you be writing any more all-ages novels for Marvel?”
Joe: Yes! Parents can find my first two Amazing Spider-Man novels, “Behind The Mask” and “Vulture” at book sellers everywhere, but Vol 3 “Dr. Octopus” will be on sale in mid-October, and Vol. 4 “Sandman” will be on sale in mid-November. They’re written with young readers in mind, but there are some easter eggs in them for longtime Spidey fans as well.
I also wrote Marvel Universe Ultimate Spider-Man #8 on sale November 28th, in which Spider-Man fights a dragon! Yes, a giant, fire-breathing DRAGON!
I also have a creator-owned project that I’ll be announcing in late October that I’m very excited about, and I think a lot of comics fans, young and old will be excited about it too! Follow me on Twitter @JoeCaramagna or friend me on Facebook to find out more!