Interview by Paul D Houston
I first started getting into comic books in the mid 1980’s. While in the beginning, I gravitated to the four color superhero comics that sat on the stands in my local grocery store or corner store, it wasn’t long before I began to go to comic book conventions and discover the black and white comics movement that was just starting to explode. Comics have always combined two of my three favorite things, art and reading (music was my other love). I really didn’t care if they were printed in color or black and white, they all read the same to me. When I got my first job at the age of 12, as a paperboy, I started earning about $20 bucks a week. Half of that would eventually, always be spent on comics. I would buy the latest issue of Fantastic Four in full color for 75 cents, but I would also then spend $2 for an issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, printed in glorious black and white, if I could find it.
And the more I read, the more I noticed comics were decidedly a male oriented industry. It was predominantly, a big fucking boys club! Wether it was the fans, comic book store owners, the characters in the comics or the creators themselves, it was a male dominated industry. I was one of three children and the only boy, my three sisters were as independent and creative as I was. I never really comprehended why there weren’t more women in comics? And oh, how I daydreamed, I could someday talk to a girl my age about everything happening in comics... But it was what it was and I carried on as kids tend to do.
Fortunately, the 80's with that indy comics explosion, a lot of women came onto the creative side of things. Slowly at first, but then eventually quite noticeably. From Wendy Pini and her book Elfquest, to Cat Yronwode, who co-published Eclipse comics to Roxanne Starr who lettered and helped to design, Flaming Carrot Comics. With the indy comics, came a diversification of subject matter and a more diverse audience.
FLAMING CARROT COMICS published by Renegade Press was a comic book that kept catching my eye during the 80's. After ignoring it for quite a while, I finally plunked down $1.70 for it and brought it home. I was looking for something new and different and I wasn’t disappointed. Immediately after I finished that latest issue (If I remember correctly my first Flaming Carrot comic was #11), I was kicking myself for not picking it up sooner. It was one of the most wonderfully bizarre things I had ever read (and still is to this day). And, Roxanne Starr was the letterer and eventually it’s editor.
Roxanne would eventually go on to become one of the pioneers of modern comic book lettering. She was one of the first to transition from hand lettering to computer lettering, making her own fonts and using them in the comic books she lettered. Roxanne was not only a comic book letterer, but a visual and graphic artist in her own right. She knew what she was doing and it was obvious. Her style stood apart from other letterers of the time and even in my young age, I took notice.
Roxanne, how exactly did you get into working on comic books? Were you a fan who transitioned into professional comics work, or was it just a job at first? And why lettering? I’ve always been curious how a career in lettering comics gets going?
It started as just a job, a way to make some extra money. I never wanted to work as a comic book creator until then. I always liked comics as a medium.
As a child, I had no interest in superheroes. I read stuff like Nancy, Hot Stuff, Katy Keene and Archie. I liked Katy Keene a lot. It was an Archie spinoff that featured paper dolls and their clothes. By the time I was about 8, I lost interest in comics altogether. I didn't pick up another comic book again for about 10 years, when the Undergrounds appeared in the 1960's. I read them back in the hippie days. The worlds of Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton were fascinating – a kaleidoscope of creativity, which intrigued me.
I met Bob Burden in the early 1980's and became his letterer. Bob was at the tail end of the Undergrounds. I think the Flaming Carrot oversize #1 is considered an Underground. It's listed in the Underground price guide. I had come to Atlanta to work in advertising, but things weren't going as planned. I was bartending and planning on going back to NYC. When I came on board, the New Wave Era was just beginning.
After the Undergrounds, there was a nuclear winter for a bit and then the Indy, New Wave comics came along such as Cerebus the Aardvark, Love and Rockets and Flaming Carrot. It was great to be there for all that...to see that happen...to just see it bubble up out of nowhere.
You are acknowledged in many places, as being one of the people who helped to launch the computer lettering era, how did that zeitgeist happen, at least as far as your part?
I was one of the first, yes. Bob bought a Macintosh back then because, when it came to graphics, Mac was far superior to IBM. There was no contest. The computer cost a lot...$7,000 or $8,000 but it was worth it.
I went to art school when computers were still in their infancy. Before computers, everything destined for publication was manufactured photographically. Designers were totally dependent on a dinosaur piece of machinery called a stat camera.
At first I thought digital lettering for comics would be a bad idea because it would make the artwork look too stiff. Any given letter looked exactly the same every time it appeared. Then a MacIntosh font editing program called Fontographer became available.
Fontographer is a program which allows a typesetter to create 2 or more variations of the same letter. This feature makes comic book lettering appear to be hand drawn. Fontographer 5 is the latest version.
Briefly, it works like this…
Take the word “BOOK.” If the 2 “O's” don't look exactly the same, a reader will look at that word and believe instinctually that it was NOT computer generated. The first diagram that appears when working in Fontographer is the keyboard itself. If you touch any key on that keyboard diagram, you get a screen for drawing the character itself. A pre-existing font, more often than not, is used as a template for the new one and appears as a ghost in the background. The version of Fontographer that I used employed an early Illustrator program to do the actual drawing.
After you have all the characters drawn that you will use for your new font, you tweak all the tracking, kerning, and other font characteristics.
How do you feel about the lettering in comics today?
Today any artist (or writer) can do their own lettering with a computer. Whether it is hand lettering or digital lettering, some of it looks good and some of it doesn't. And what I mean by “looks good” is that the reader doesn't notice it. As soon as a word balloon or caption is noticed, the letterer has made a mistake of some kind and I don't mean the misspelling of a word. I mean something much more subtle.
For example, a seriffed “I” should principally only be seen in the case of the personal pronoun “I”. Otherwise, no. “in the heat of the night...” looks best when the first letter of that sentence is a sans serif “i”.
And what I mean by “looks good” is that the reader doesn't notice it. As soon as a word balloon or caption is noticed, the letterer has made a mistake of some kind and I don't mean the misspelling of a word. I mean something much more subtle.
Who are some of your favorite Letterers, today?
There are so many comics on the internet these days that never even get printed on paper, I'd have to spend a very long time coming up with a list of my favorite letterers. And more often than not, the letterer and the artist on that comic are one and the same.
Will there be another revolution as far as comic book lettering goes? Or is this the best it gets?
Something else will come around. Maybe something like 3-dimensional text that floats through space. Holograms. Bob was guessing that holograms would be the next big thing in entertainment since the 80s.
Do you have a preference when reading comics, hand lettering or computer generated?
Nope. As I mentioned earlier, manual or digital, if the lettering is noticed something was done wrong.
During your busiest times as a letterer, more women started to come into the field as professionals. What got that ball rolling?
The Indy comic book world was sometimes somewhat judgmental of women artists, women letterers and writers, women publishers, etc., etc., etc. It was a Man’s World by and large.
Some people may have turned up their noses at Bob who was pretty much always open-minded, progressive and cool about any women working in comics. Not hiring someone because of their sex or sexual orientation would never even occur to him. And when he ran across such judgment he would "school people" rather than butt heads now and then. Scold people for "ungentlemanly" behavior or being "churlish". I don’t believe there was any organized effort to keep women out, and there weren’t a lot of women looking to get in either.
There are probably a few women out there besides me who owe their break in comics to Bob. He always valued what women thought and he would talk about how Frank Capra would run all his scripts past his mother. Bob always liked to run scripts past females for review. He wanted to make sure “his ass wasn’t hanging out” and he always asked my opinion on coloring. He thought women had a good eye for color. That's what Bob did with me and others. It was nice to have your opinion regarded.
Bob always liked to run scripts past females for review. He wanted to make sure “his ass wasn’t hanging out”
You're most famously attached to the work by Bob Burden for FLAMING CARROT COMICS, is that the comics work you are most proud of or perhaps it was BIG NUMBERS, or your work with Brian Michael Bendis or something else? I know I am asking you to choose favorites, but you’ve been a part of some outstanding comics and I’m wondering if there is a special place in your heart for any particular comic or series?
I'm proud to have worked for Bob and Alan and Brian, but none of this work was done for free. I also got paid for lettering many more books. On the other hand, there's a special place in my heart for the little bit of lettering I did for Craig Hamilton, whose “Peter Pan” project for Tundra (Kevin Eastman's company) was cancelled when many of the pages went missing.
Any insights whether we’ll ever see another issue of FLAMING CARROT? This longtime fan, would love to see another issue, somehow someway.
Yes. There are more issues in the works. Not just Flaming Carrot but Dynamite Girl and The New Mysterymen. Also, check out hitmanforthedead.com.
Currently you are the owner of FLAMING FRAMING, a very specific frame enterprise, featuring unseen, unique pieces of the Flaming Carrot artwork by Bob Burden in hand made folk art style frames. How did that get started?
I consider what I do “suburban folk art”. I started “crafting” about 10 years ago just for fun. I was always cutting and pasting in the old pre-computer days of my art career. And it's nice to do things hands on, not all in Photoshop and Illustrator. In the beginning, I decorated wooden boxes with panels
from damaged old comics and stuff I had found in the “freebies” stacks at the comic book store. Bob came up with the idea of decorating frames for original art by comic book illustrators.
Any advice for the up and coming comic book letterers?
Develop a sense of balance, space and form. Hustle and flow it. Make words inviting to the eye. Not perfect but… more than perfect. And not just graphically. You should also take into consideration the meaning of the words – the meaning and magic. Emphasize what needs to be emphasized. Be like an actor who punches up and tones down emotions to suit the story, not just follow the words on a page.
Roxanne Starrs Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/roxanne.starr.3
Flaming Framing Website: https://www.facebook.com/flamingframing/