Richard Starkings hand lettering

Bought It for the John Workman Lettering

Update August 12, 2016

This article originally saw “print” on August 11, 2016 under the title, “Bought It for the Richard Starkings Hand Lettering.”

The problem with that headline is that Richard Starkings didn’t letter it. I know that now because Richard Starkings told me so.

It’s a funny story how we got here, and entirely my fault.

I originally wrote this article about John Workman’s hand lettering. I even teased it in the Pipeline Newsletter as being about Workman. I had remembered buying this page in part for the lettering, and it was the only Workman page I owned at the time. In the hours before I published this article, I did a last second look-up on to make sure I had my facts right.

The CBDB told me the letterer was Richard Starkings.

ComicBookDB misidentifies John Workman's lettering as Richard Starkings

I did a quick panic and rewrote the piece, figuring my memory was backwards. I do like Starkings’ “Hedge Backwards” font, and owning a page of his hand lettering in that style is something I’d love to own. But I don’t. I had even gone back and renamed the images so they didn’t include “workman” in the file names, which might prove one day confusing.

This is a John Workman page, after all. He was the regular letterer on this series at the time this -1 issue came out.

I looked up the Hedge Backwards font on Comicraft’s website, since I know it’s the one based on Starkings’ hand lettering. I found a couple of glyphs that looked a lot like the handwriting on this page. (The “S”, in particular.) So I had a second point of “confirmation” that didn’t quite hold enough water, as it turns out.

Lessons to be learned:

  • Don’t trust your memory.
  • Don’t trust an internet based resource.
  • Dig deeper into my longboxes to find the original comic. I’m not sure where it is, which is why I didn’t do that in the first place.

I’m reverting this column to a previous saved-but-unpublished state, where all the references are to John Workman’s lettering style, which happens to be similar and possibly an influence on Starkings’ style.

Thanks to Richard Starkings for taking this all in good humor, and my apologies to John Workman, who I never should have doubted for a minute.

Now, back to the original version of this article:

“The Incredible Hulk” #-1 Original Art

This is a page of original art drawn by Adam Kubert, from “The Incredible Hulk” #-1.

Original Art The Incredible Hulk #-1 by Andy Kubert


It’s from Peter David’s legendary run on the title, after the likes of Todd McFarlane, Dale Keown, and Gary Frank had had their memorable runs.

I love Kubert’s art, especially with some of the more creative panel layouts he’s done in books like “Ultimate X-Men.”  His work here is inked by another artistic master, Mark Farmer.  I know I’ll never be able to afford an Alan Davis page, so owning a page inked by Farmer is about as close as I’m going to get.

But I didn’t buy this page entirely for Kubert’s art, nor for David’s story.  The thing that made this page a Must Buy for me is John Workman’s lettering.  I wanted a sample of that in my collection from a book I enjoyed.  This fit that bill.

How Does Workman Do It?

Workman, of course, lettered Walter Simonson’s legendary (there’s that word again) “Thor” run, and has been a major influence on letterers of all stripes since then.  Take a look at the early lettering Robert Kirkman did on “The Walking Dead” and you’ll see the influence clearly there. It’s an influence Rus Wooton still carries on the title to this day.

Studying this page, I saw something that surprised me. It’s likely something that all letterers do, but that I never noticed before. It has to do with the way Workman draws his letters. Like all classic hand lettering types, he took out his trusty Ames Guide and drew out all the parallel lines to guide the words in a straight and even set of lines. Those light lines are still visible on this page of original art.

But look even closer. I’ll enhance the image so you can see the guidelines a little better. On the actual art, it’s much more subtle:


John Workman lettering sample

(Hmm, wonder why that second balloon didn’t knock out the border line, too?)

Check out where the letters fit in those lines. They’re NOT perfectly even. To the last generation of comic readership where everything is computer lettered and every character sits on the exact same invisible bottom line, that must be shocking. Sloppy, even.

The Ames Guide creates guidelines that John Workman, who has been lettering comics for something like 40 years now, can draw right through. He doesn’t rely on them, specifically. He’s not worried that every pen stroke ends exactly on one of those guides.

It’s almost more impressive that he does hit those lines as often as he does. The top crossbar on the “T”s, for example, sit on those top lines, except that they have a little slant that lifts them up and to the right. That’s the lettering style, so it works.

Check out the diagonal stroke at the bottom of all the “R”s. No two are exactly the same length or angle. When viewed at printed size, they look identical, but they’re not. You just need to zoom in a bit to see it.

That kind of imperfection is what makes a good hand letterer so much better than a computer letterer. Computer letterers have been looking for ways to mimic those imperfections for a long time now. The closest they come is that there’s two sets of glyphs for each letter. The “S” is different depending on whether you tytpe it with a shift or not.

This is another shortcoming of mixed-cased lettering. You can’t have two glyphs for each letter. That’s why so many mixed-case fonts look so boring and repetitive. There’s no life to them because there’s no variety.

Human imperfection gives hand lettering a life that computers haven’t been able to replicate.


Look Even Closer

Here, I’ll highlight the lettering guideline in blue so you can better see where the final letters go:

John Workman lettering guidelines

It’s “imperfect.” “THE” is slightly oversized in the guidelines, reaching both up too high and down too low. Look at “GOVERNMENT.” The “ERNM” is well below the line. “ENT” seems to be dead on it. “G” is both above AND below. Again, that kind of ‘random’ margin for error (within reason, of course) is what makes it look so good. It feels more natural than computer lettering, which will always land perfectly on those lines, if that’s how they’re designed to from the start.

The way the letters clump together makes me wonder if that indicates where Workman took a break in lettering. Did he letter “GOV” first, then movie his hand across the page a tad before writing “ERNM,” before another break to adjust his hand before the final “ENT”? It’s interesting to me that there are clumps of letters that line up in the same way like that.

Glorious Imperfection

Workman is a master of his art, and influences everyone who’s ever lettered after him.  Yet he’s wonderfully imperfect.  Not a machine.  Not a ruled-line follower or a line clinger-on.

That is the lost glory of hand lettering.  A craftsman like Workman could draw attractive, stylish, legible lettering that isn’t 100% consistent, and it can be amongst the best in the business.  And unless you zoom in and stare at it — which no readers actually do — you’d never notice these things. You’d think it all looks consistent and legible, and that’s all that counts.

Don’t even get me started on how he knocks out the panel that the balloon butts up again.  I LOVE THAT! (Though I do wonder why the second balloon in the above example didn’t knock out the panel border.  That seems like a natural spot for that.)

I love this page, as much for Workman’s contribution to it as Adam Kubert’s and Mark Farmer’s. The best comics work when all the creators contribute their best, and that’s what this page represents to me. There’s not a weak spot on this page.


One Last Thing

John Workman ringing phone sound effect

I love the ringing phone sound effect in the background. You know it’s in the background, because the special effect is placed behind everything else, instead of just being three little “RING” sound effects piled high and to the side. It adds a new layer to the art that way.

Also, look at that third panel again. Check out the long tail between the first two balloons. That long tail helps to emphasize that Banner is listening to the person talking at the other end of the phone line. It’s a deliberate pause that’s shown with the long connector between balloons. There’s a rhythm that’s created in the way dialogue is separated into different balloons. This is just one of those tricks.

Lettering has so many subtle tricks that I don’t think people ever see…

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)