COMIC BOOK YETI: Thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave, Clayton! If you have any other jobs other than lettering, what is it you do?
CLAYTON COWLES: None! I’ve been lettering full time since 2009, with the occasional foray into drawing when the chance arises.
CBY: What are the comics that influenced you and made you want to work in comics?
CC: My early favorites were comic strips: Calvin & Hobbes, Tintin, and The Far Side. When I decided I wanted to make comics for a living at the age of 14 (what a precocious little scamp I was), I was reading Exiles, Ultimate Spider-Man, and back issues of (Uncanny) X-Men. Joe Madureira and Jim Lee were my favorite artists at the time. It’s because of them I letter comic books.
CBY: What do you enjoy most about lettering?
CC: That’s a difficult question to answer. There’s very little about it that I don’t like, and the stuff I don’t like is the stuff that comes with many other jobs: Long hours, tight deadlines, difficult collaborators, and so on. But it’s a fun job that I can do from home, and even after twelve years in the business, I’m still challenged. All of my collaborators are growing, and I have to grow with them, which keeps things interesting.
CBY: What is something you wish the average comics reader (however you want to define that) understood about the art of lettering?
CC: In my experience, the average comics reader of today is pretty in tune with lettering and how it works. Comic readers are a smart bunch of people. But to those few who aren’t in the know, I guess I’d say that lettering is a real job that takes drive, skill, and talent to execute well. On the surface, it looks like a job anyone could do, but, well, there aren’t that many of us for a reason.
CBY: What do you think is the biggest misconception about what you do as a letterer?
CC: Most people have no idea that lettering is a job that people do. Does that count as a misconception? Aside from that, it’s assumed I do everything by hand, and I have to sheepishly tell people that I mostly use fonts…created by other people. I’m no Superman.
CBY: Hand-lettering or digital, what tools do you use to letter comics?
CC: I work exclusively in digital, but once in a while, I’ll draw a sound effect by hand, using my trusty Wacom tablet. Practically everything is done using Adobe Illustrator, with a mighty arsenal of fonts, brushes, and pre-made balloons and tails across dozens of templates.
CBY: Can you take me through the process of how you go about choosing a font/lettering style once you become involved in a project?
CC: After giving the art and script a thorough look, I dive into my arsenal of fonts and balloons. I choose three to six fonts that both match the mood of the writing and the texture of the art, and pair them with different balloons and strokes. I letter one or two panels (or sometimes an entire page) with the chosen balloons and fonts, and send the samples to the rest of the team for analysis. Sometimes the team has design ideas of their own (like they want specific fonts or caption styles), and I’ll incorporate those too.
CBY: From a letterer’s perspective, which qualities do you most want to see in your collaborators to lead to a successful collaboration?
CC: Communication and respect. I’m not sure how to elaborate without sounding like a grumpy old man, except to say all of my current collaborators are really good at both of these things. Tell us what you want, appreciate the time and effort we put into it, and pay on time.
CBY: Are there any typical hand/wrist injuries letterers are prone to and do you have methods to combat injuries due to repetitive tasks/overuse?
CC: I know carpal tunnel is a thing others have had to contend with, but I haven’t had that yet. I’ve thrown out my lower back a couple of times, and I developed a consistent shoulder pain a couple of years ago, both of which I went to physical therapy for (and still do, on occasion). My eyesight is also declining, and I’m taking eyedrops to help with that. Plus I’ve reduced my workload/screentime over the last year and a half to slow the descent. I’m fine, people. I’m FINE.
CBY: Is there a letterer, no longer working today, that you think never got the credit/recognition they deserved and which of their comics should CBY readers check out?
CC: I vote for Bill Oakley. He lettered many titles throughout the '90s, including Action Comics, Avengers, Starman, and Lobo. His work is just perfect. The text is legible, the sound effects are dynamic, and the balloons have a lot of text and plenty of breathing room, which is really difficult to pull off. He was really consistently good, and I can’t point to any specific issues, so I recommend looking him up on ComicVine and choosing whatever grabs you.
CBY: Is there a letterer that is still lettering today that you think doesn’t get enough credit/recognition and which of their comics should CBY readers check out?
CC: I could write at least a dozen names here, but I’ll highlight Becca Carey, who works on Radiant Black and Batgirls (among other things). Whether it’s her digital/hand-drawn SFX or dynamic balloon designs, there’s always something in her work that makes me smack my head and wish I’d thought of it first.
CBY: Which of the comics that you lettered are you most proud of or means the most to you and why?
CC: There’s so much I want to include here. Bitch Planet, DIE, and Redlands were my favorite jobs while I was working on them, and I’d be very happy if any of them came back to life. Also, my inner child is very pleased to be lettering Batman and X-Men. It’s pretty cool to say I work on those two books, and they’re fun to work on, to boot.
CBY: From when you first started lettering comics to today, how would you describe your growth as an artist and, in that time, has the comic industry’s perception of lettering changed?
CC: I’m far more confident now. I worry less, I don’t hesitate to try new things, and I’m far more willing to hold the line if there’s a creative disagreement (though some might say I’ve always been a stubborn mule of a lettering man). But I started lettering when I was 21, and now I’m 34, so I’m not sure whether to call that artistic growth or plain old growth as a person.
I think lettering is seen more as an art form now. More letterers are recognized for what they contribute to their books and are treated as creative equals to the rest of their team, which is a nice feeling. More digital letterers are nominated for industry awards now too. I was thrilled to see Deron Bennett, Aditya Bidikar, and Rus Wooton receive Eisner nominations last year, and in the past, we would be lucky to see even a single digital letterer receive a nomination.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
CC: Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo, Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama, and Excalibur: The Sword is Drawn by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis.
CBY: What current projects are you working on that CBY readers should pick up?
CC: I don’t want to leave out any of my collaborators, so I’ll just list everything, and you, the reader, can choose whatever strikes your fancy.
For DC, I’m working on Batman, Batman ‘89, Batman & Catwoman, Batman: Killing Time, Black Manta, Human Target, Supergirl: The Woman of Tomorrow, and Wonder Woman: Historia.
For Image, I’m working on Adventureman and Ordinary Gods.
For Marvel, I’m working on Alien, Captain Carter, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, Devil’s Reign, Eternals, Immortal X-Men, Legion of X, Secret X-Men, Star Wars, Strange Academy, Venom, Warhammer 40K, X-Men: The Trial of Magneto, and regular X-Men.
Last, but not least, I’m lettering Shadowman for Valiant.
I’m also lettering a book for a Substack newsletter that I’m very excited about, but I can’t talk about it yet. Keep your eyes peeled.
CBY: Wow! When do you sleep? Also, I’d love if Marvel came out with a series that was called Regular X-Men. What’s your favorite comfort food?
CC: Ladies and gentlemen…THE BEATLES!
CBY: Thank you very much!
CC: Thank you!