Header image by Nate Piekos, via Twitter
Today, September 1st, is the fourth annual Letterer Appreciation Day, named in recognition of legendary letterer Gaspar Saladino‘s birthday. Letterers are easily the unsung heroes of the comics world. Writers and artists get all the credit from fans for a book’s success, and even many publishers don’t bother naming letterers when they announce a comic’s creative team. The best letterers are often so good at their craft that their work goes unnoticed, while bad lettering can absolutely ruin an otherwise great comic.
To celebrate the occasion, and to recognize creators who are often overlooked, the staff of The Beat came together to name and gush over some of our favorite practitioners of the art of comics lettering. This list is sure to leave off some favorites, so we invite our readers, fans and pros alike, to sound off in the comments with your favorite letterers.
Trashed, My Friend Dahmer, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio
I think this may be a bit unorthodox because Derf is known more for his cartooning, but lettering is an essential part of his oeuvre. In fact, Derf is an Eisner-award winning letterer (for 2016’s Trashed), which makes his work in the field essential to study and appreciate. Derf’s letters bend, stretch, and expand in singular ways not found in many other comix; he is a master of this critical piece of cartooning. The key ingredient that makes Derf’s lettering work is its maximalism. He wants you to know that a sound is not just a sound, but a key character feature. Sound effects are, of course, a focus, but within Derf’s lettering are elemental emotional tones that create color within reader’s minds. –AJ Frost
Amazing Spider-Man, Incredible Hercules, Daredevil
I first became aware of Joe Caramagna back in 2010 when he reached a spectacular milestone lettering 100 consecutive issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Considering the 3x a month schedule, not an easy feat! Without a doubt though, Caramagna is a master at comic book sound effects. My personal favorites are the hilarious onomatopoeia effects that began during his stint lettering the Incredible Hercules book. However, his lettering on Mark Waid’s acclaimed Daredevil run is where he truly shines and is incorporated into the storytelling on the same level as Will Eisner’s The Spirit. –Taimur Dar
Black Hammer: Reborn, Bang!, The Umbrella Academy, The Me You Love In The Dark
The prolific Nate Piekos has been behind the superb lettering of comics for basically every major publisher, in addition to video games, films, ads, and more. He even creates and letters his own webcomics. One of my favorite examples of his comics lettering is his elegant conversion of Wendy Pini’s handwriting from classic ‘80s Elfquest style, preserving the look and feel for the recent Elfquest: The Final Quest. His talents in creating atmospherically powerful fonts have also won him awards for horror and sci-fi lettering, while last year’s Ringo Award for best letterer highlights his all-around skills. But what stands out to me most are his generous contributions to the community: I first encountered him via his beautiful, versatile free fonts that he provides for indie work (at Blambot.com), and he has an already-popular lettering book out in October. He’s a talent and he lifts up other letterers… what more could you ask for? –Kerry Vineberg
Conan the Barbarian, Iron Man, Ghost Rider, Superman Smashes the Klan
It’s impossible to condense the incredible lettering career of Janice Chiang into just a few hundred words. With more than 69,000 pages lettered (as of 2017) and work that transcends recommended age ranges and genres, Chiang has consistently delivered impactful lettering in kids’ comics, horror books, and everything in between. Her credits include creating a unique word balloon for Ghost Rider as well as lettering the 2021 Eisner Award-winning Superman Smashes the Klan. In addition to working in both hand-lettering and digital techniques over the years, Chiang has also turned her vaunted abilities towards conveying meaning in non-comics spaces: her impeccable printing has also graced signs she produced in her capacity as a community organizer. Without question, Chiang is a lettering legend! –-Avery Kaplan
S.W.O.R.D., Excalibur, The Joker, Ringside, The Banks
If you’re a comics fan, you’ve probably already been won over by the work of Ariana Maher! As one of VC’s Digital Letterers, she is behind multiple Marvel comics each week – and she nails each and every one of them, no matter how many “character-unique” word balloons there might be! In addition to Marvel Comics, Maher has lettered books for DC, Image, TKO, Dark Horse, and many other publishers, as well as webcomics for Hiveworks. 2021 has been a busy year for Maher: she received a GLAAD Award for her work on Empyre: Aftermath Avengers and her work appeared in both Marvel and DC’s Pride one-shots. On top of all this, she regularly shares information on how to navigate comics (including the business elements) via her very clever Twitter handle, @CommentAiry. If you’re looking for an up-to-the-minute example of her incredible work, I recommend picking up either Demon Days: Cursed Web #1 when you visit your local comic shop this week, or Crush & Lobo #4 next week! –-Avery Kaplan
Write It In Blood, Engineward, Count, Next Door
— Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou (@HassanOE) August 17, 2021
When it comes to lettering, the devil may be in the details – and few people are paying as close attention to the details as Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou! To confirm this fact, one needs only glance at his Twitter timeline, which is reliably filled with thoughtful and precise examinations of a few of the word balloons being included in whatever project he might currently be lettering. In addition to his comic lettering, Otsmane-Elhaou also imparts his voluminous knowledge to those who are interested in honing their own craft, or are simply curious to better understand the mechanics of comics, through his YouTube channel, Strip Panel Naked. And as the Eisner-winning editor of PanelxPanel, Otsmane-Elhaou regularly plies his lettering craft to comics criticism… and comics criticism never looked so good! –-Avery Kaplan
Spicer was a key figure in the rise of independent comics as the publisher of Graphic Story Magazine all the way back in the ‘60s. His contributions to the rise of undergrounds and creator-owned comics are still little recognized today, but his lettering is better remembered. He got his start at Western comics in 1967 but went on to work for Dark Horse (Concrete), Another Rainbow, Fantagraphics, Viz, and many more. He was something of a “Disney Specialist” though, with a distinctive, pleasing lettering style that was a joy to look at all on its own, and flawless placement to allow the story to flow.
You can see why the exacting Paul Chadwick wanted Spicer’s lettering for his book: I’ve always thought that lettering functions as a design element as well as storytelling, and Spicer’s style meshed perfectly with Chadwick’s.
Spicer was definitely a go-to guy for Disney stuff, however, given his start at Western. I worked with him several times at Disney Comics back in the day and I was always excited to get his pages in as they were such a pleasure to read – even when the pages were crammed with way more dialog than they should have had! –-Heidi MacDonald
Action Comics, Friendo, Finger Guns, Bunny Mask
With work that ranges from gritty and bloody like Bunny Mask to lighthearted fun like Elvira and Bettie Page, Taylor Esposito’s strengths are his versatility and clean, easy-to-follow choices. Balloon placement and figuring out who is talking are never issues when he’s on a book, making the pages flow for fluid storytelling. His font choices are typically spot on with each character’s voice, and sound effects are powerful without overtaking the page. Esposito is also the lettering teacher at the Kubert School, helping upcoming professionals hone their craft for a new generation of proficient, quality lettering. –Deanna Destito
The Walking Dead, Invincible, Deadly Class, Fire Power
Rus Wooton is probably best known for his long-time lettering stint on The Walking Dead comic, but Wooton’s reach also extends to other Image books such as Invincible and Monstress. Wooton’s style becomes part of the artwork; his choices seamlessly fit into each panel without jarring the reader from the story. The best lettering is often the lettering you don’t notice, and that may be the case for the hundreds of pages you’ve read without realizing who the man behind the font was. –Deanna Destito
Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War on Terror), Night Business, The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd
Career letterers are a criminally underrated part of the mainstream comics production process, but there’s a certain magic you can only get from cartoonists who letter their own work. It’s a crucial part of Benjamin Marra’s appeal, whose work possesses a handmade quality that’s unmistakably the vision of one man’s vision (even if he has been known to collaborate with other creators, like writer Joe Casey on Jesusfreak). Marra’s comics can be difficult to recommend, or even describe, to the uninitiated, but Marra’s warts-and-all lettering drives home the grimy charm. How do you begin to describe a comic like Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. (One Man War on Terror) without sounding like a lunatic? But Marra’s lettering is perfectly in-sync with the rest of his singularly idiosyncratic style, knowingly aping the vibes of an over-stimulated teen doodling bombastic violence and over-the-top sex in pre-algebra class. –Gregory Paul Silber
Resonant, Harley Quinn, Nightwing
You can’t talk about letterers without mentioning Deron Bennett. Bennett and his lettering and design company AndWorld Design are responsible for some of the best balloons and layouts in the industry, including books for DC, Marvel, Vault, Boom!, IDW, and so much more. Because Bennett understands the art and how a comic should be built, his letters are creative, attractive, and part of the visual experience on the page. His regular nominations for the industry’s top awards are a testament to his professionalism and talent. –Deanna Destito
Detective Comics, The Flash, Out of Body, Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter
Best known for his work on DC books such as Detective Comics and The Flash, Sal Cipriano has also worked with smaller publishers such as Aftershock and most recently AWA Upshot. Cipriano deftly handles books filled to the brim with dialogue and effects, never detracting from the art. His choices in font and colors always complement the rest of the page, never interfering with visuals. Instead, the balloons and sound effects enhance the page for a complete reading experience. –Deanna Destito
The Uncanny X-Men, The New Mutants, Spawn
If you’ve read Chris Claremont’s X-Men run (especially Days of Future Past) or any of the Spawn comics from the series’ first six years then you’re probably well-versed in the lettering work of Tom Orzechowski, whether you knew it or not. Orzechowski showcases that rare ability to make text-heavy pages flow unobtrusively with the action while making key pieces of dialogue feel as if they were genuine manifestations of the characters that uttered them. It’s one of the things that made my younger self fixate so much on Spawn. In fact, it’s still one of the things that define the comic for me after all these years. –Ricardo Serrano
Heavy Metal Magazine, Haunt of Horror, Hellboy
Master of horror Richard Corben typically lettered his own work and there’s an undeniable feeling of classic EC Horror nostalgia and continuity in it. From Haunt of Horror to Shadows on the Grave, his approach to lettering made the text a natural extension of the horror on display, giving it balance and texture as it developed. Corben’s use of scroll-like narration boxes and crooked lettering to capture the sounds of a shambling corpse or an ancient god played up the terror in his stories quite beautifully, and it truly did alter how one would ‘hear’ the things that came out of the shadows in his comics. His methods allowed for a rich exercise in imagination and it made for some truly terrifying storytelling. –Ricardo Serrano
Assassinistas, These Savage Shores, Little Bird, Grafity’s Wall
Aditya Bidikar is a name at the top of my list of the best letterers in comics, his work is the perfect synthesis of digital and hand-crafted. Controlled variation makes the words fit together where they should, dialog can flow and breathe while maintaining a continuous structure, tracks for the story to run on. Natural, programmed, gives comics the look of tomorrow. People say if lettering is good, you don’t notice it. I think that Bidikar’s lettering strives to go unnoticed while vying with equal intensity to be felt. I feel it. You can count on him to match a book’s tone with thoughtful, powerful work, stuff that elevates the entire read. –Arpad Okay
The Mighty Thor, Doom Patrol, Orion, Static Shock
This guy. Total legend. John Workman’s actual lettering is clear, bold, businesslike maybe and pulp definitely, with a touch of sword and sorcery, heavy metal, magic tome. However, nobody but nobody brought sound effects to the foreground like Workman. His thick and blocky text strips were a zipper of letters pulled up across the art, sealing scene and sound together. Talk about people who establish the aesthetics of comics, Walt Simonson’s Thor without Workman is no longer what we think of when we think of Thor. Imagine what Workman and Jim Starlin would look like (you don’t have to, it’s called Cosmic Odyssey, with Mike Mignola among others). I could wax on forever about different books with incredible John Workman lettering in them, so let me cut it off with that he frequently worked with John Paul Leon and those two are real magic. –Arpad Okay
Manga is a tricky subject to bring up regarding lettering. The Hard Case Crime version of Eldo Yoshimizu’s girl gang masterpiece Ryuko that I read had a letterer, and it was Amoona Saohin. Though I haven’t seen (much of) Yoshimizu’s original letters for the dialog in Ryuko, his sound effects have been preserved as well as translated in the English version, and holy shit. Yoshimizu has a boldness as a letterer that would make John Workman blush. He doesn’t have as distinct a style, a recognizable hand the way Workman does, but that’s because the sound effects match their source as well as go big. A clean sound of a car shifting gears paired with the shaky rumbling noise of its engine. Or the gunfire could be done in leopard print to match the outfit of the killer pulling the trigger. Yoshimizu is wild. His stuff is all over the page, all over the map. He’s trying to get you to experience the sound as a reader and I love it. Must be seen to be believed. –Arpad Okay
Who’d we forget? Let us know who your favorite letterers are in the comments!
Edited 9/2/21: An earlier version of this story erroneously credited letters on Ragemoor to Richard Corben; Nate Piekos is the actual letterer for that series. The Beat sincerely apologizes for both the error and the irony.