COMIC BOOK YETI: Jim, thank you for joining me in the Yeti Cave. If you have any other jobs other than lettering, what is it you do?
JIM CAMPBELL: It’s pretty much all lettering, all the time! I occasionally do a bit of logo design, or some production/pre-press work, but it’s usually still comics.
CBY: What are the comics that influenced you and made you want to work in comics?
JC: Like many British people my age, the answer is 2000AD. I discovered American comics in my mid-teens (back when specialist comic shops weren’t a thing over here — titles would appear intermittently and almost at random in newsagents*) but I was determined that I would work in comics from, I don’t know, maybe eleven or twelve.
Back then, I thought I was going to be a writer, or an artist, but I realised that I was too slow at the first, and not good enough at the second, to make a living at it. The thought of being a letterer didn’t enter my head until many years later, when I was working as a graphic designer and realised that a lot of those skills could be brought to bear on lettering comics digitally. *Note for US readers: newsagents are sort of a general store in the UK. Largely, they specialise in newspapers and magazines, as the name would suggest, but also stock drinks, snacks, confectionery and tobacco products. They were everywhere back in the '70s and '80s!
CBY: What do you enjoy most about lettering?
JC: Usually, the simple pleasure of being the first person to read an issue of a good comic. It doesn’t exist as a comic until the lettering is finished and there’s a huge amount of satisfaction in seeing a collection of words and pictures transform into an actual comic in front of your eyes.
CBY: What is something you wish the average comics reader (however you want to define that) understood about the art of lettering?
JC: TBH, I’m not sure it’s important that the reader understands lettering at any real level, any more than it’s important for someone watching a film to understand what, say, the Sound Editor does. As long as the finished product is having the desired effect, that’s all that’s required.
I’d quite like the “lettering is easy now it’s all done on computers” trope to die in a fire, however. If digital lettering was easy, then there would be no bad lettering… and thirty seconds with a Google image search will prove that isn’t true!
CBY: What do you think is the biggest misconception about what you do as a letterer?
JC: There seems to be a common belief that we type this stuff up…some people even think we’re responsible for dialogue choices. Neither of those things is true!
What we do do, however, is make literally dozens of informed design choices on every single balloon, caption and sound effect. We’re trying to serve the tone of the story, the style of the art with our choice of font and balloon style. Placement affects pacing and readability. Getting any of these things wrong can affect a book disastrously!
CBY: Hand-lettering or digital, what tools do you use to letter comics?
JC: I’ve been dabbling in hand-lettering recently. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve come to like the Kuretake Bimoji Fude Brush Pen a great deal. The ultra-fine is great for dialogue — firm enough to give a controlled stroke, with just enough flex to give a bit of variation where required, and the fine brush has just the right amount of extra thickness for bolds. I don’t think I’m ready to hand-letter a whole book yet, but it’s been a fascinating process.
Digitally, like the vast majority of pro letterers, it’s Adobe Illustrator almost exclusively. Occasionally, I’ll hand draw sound effects, and that’s either Photoshop or Clip Studio Paint.
I’m also currently figuring out a hybrid digital/hand lettering technique, which is coming along nicely — that’s being done in Clip Studio.
CBY: That‘s fascinating. Can you take me through the process of how you go about choosing a font/lettering style once you become involved in a project?
JC: There are three basic considerations. First: how wordy is the script? If it’s light on dialogue, you can choose a font that likes a bit of room, but if it’s copy-heavy then you’re automatically going to lean towards one that’s readable at a relatively small size, preferably with narrower characters so blocks of text will use the space efficiently.
After that, it’s down to the tone of the story and the look of the art. If the story is serious, or frightening, then you’re not going to want a font with a ‘jaunty’ look. If it’s a kids’ or a YA book, you’ll want something that reads well in both upper and lower case, because the target audience vastly prefers upper/lower lettering.
If the art is slick, with a clean line, you’re going to want a font that reflects that. If the inks are scratchy, or brushy, you’re going to want to try and catch some of that character in your choice of font.
CBY: From a letterer’s perspective, which qualities do you most want to see in your collaborators to lead to a successful collaboration?
JC: Honestly, I think everyone, writers, artists, editors, should try to letter a few pages themselves, just as an exercise. It’s difficult to look at words in a script and instinctively understand how much space that’s going to take up in a balloon or a caption. If you can develop a feel for that, then the script and art will account for the needs of the lettering (not the letterer!) and the book will be better for it.
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?
JC: Get a decent chair! Be prepared to spend money on it. The vast majority of my career, dating back to my graphic design days, has been spent slouched in front of a computer in cheap chairs and I’ve ruined my back as a result. It’s taken a lot of time, and no small amount of money spent on physio, to reverse even some of that damage.
Observe best practice: get a decent chair, arrange your workspace so you’re not slouched/hunched. Take regular breaks. Google up some basic stretching exercises and do those several times a day.
Trust me on this… it’s far better to get this right from the start, compared to trying to undo a couple of decades of lousy ergonomics.
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?
JC: Jeez. There’s a question. Pretty much anyone working in US comics in the Silver Age. Those guys (and girls!) were almost uniformly brilliant. The late Gaspar Saladino is widely regarded as the Letterers’ Letterer. Check out his brilliant work on the Morrison/McKean Arkham Asylum for a relatively modern example of his work.
I was always very fond of Bob Lappan’s quirky lettering that added so much to Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire/Hughes’ glorious incarnation of Justice League, and to the criminally underrated Helfer/Sienkiewicz/Baker run on The Shadow.
CBY: Arkham Asylum is brilliant from top to bottom, that’s an excellent example. 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?
JC: Jeez. Another tricky one! A lot of these people are friends of mine — if I make a list, I’m gonna get emails if I miss anyone out!
With the proviso that practically everyone working professionally in the field deserves more recognition than they get, I’m going to plump for Aditya Bidikar. He appeared on the scene relatively recently, but he’s quickly established himself as one of the most thoughtful and creative letterers in the business. If you haven’t been reading James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds’ Department of Truth, you really should. Aditya is killing it on that book.
CBY: Yes, Department of Truth! Also his work on Blue in Green. Which of the comics that you lettered are you most proud of or means the most to you and why?
JC: Hah! “Which child is your favourite?” You’re really going for it with the impossible questions!
Everything I’ve done with Michael Moreci has a special place in my affections. One of my earliest lettering jobs was on one of his earliest projects, and we’ve worked together on and off ever since. There’s a comforting familiarity to that, a level of trust that only comes from a decade-long association. Plus, Mike’s one of the nicest guys inside comics, or out. We’ve just wrapped the final issue (#25) of Wasted Space, for Vault, which has been such a wild ride that I genuinely teared up when we reached the finale. If you haven’t been reading it, go and get the trades ASAP!
Also, BOOM’s Giant Days, by John Allison, Lissa Treiman and Max Sarin. My longest continuous run on a book — 55 issues and three specials, about 1400 pages all lettered by me! There’s a reason why it won two Eisner awards, for Best Continuing Series and Best Humor Publication in its final year of publication. It’s a wonderful book that everyone should read.
Lastly, and more personally… the names of John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra are probably not so well known to US readers, but they’re not far short of UK comics Lee & Kirby (only without the acrimony!). Sadly, Carlos died in 2019, leaving a new strip from him and John (Spector) unfinished. The two episodes that were completed were published in a special tribute publication from 2000AD and John asked if I would letter those episodes. An honour I can’t even begin to articulate.
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?
JC: Doing this day in, day out, for a dozen years, it’s hard to see growth in your own work. Occasionally, I have cause to revisit something I did a few years back and although I’m often mortified by some of the choices I made at the time, I’m generally happy to note that I wouldn’t do many of those things now… so that’s growth, I suppose!
Slightly depressingly, I don’t think much has changed in the industry’s perception (and treatment) of letterers in the decade or so that I’ve been at this. I think a lot of reviewers pay a little more attention to lettering these days but, other than that, very little (including page rates) has changed during that time.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
JC: I’m just going to cop out and pick three of my favorites, rather than grapple with the question of which books are ‘important’.
A complete run of the Moore/Bissette/Totleben/Veitch/Alcala Swamp Thing (great lettering by the indefatigable John Costanza and amazing colors from Tatjana Wood throughout).
The whole Morrison/Case run on Doom Patrol, still one of my favorite things in comics, ever. Worth taking a moment to appreciate the way the inimitable John Workman’s lettering contributes to the off-kilter tone of the book as a whole.
Finally, a place holder for the whole of John Wagner’s decades-long work on Judge Dredd (frequently with Alan Grant) and artists too numerous to mention. I’ll go for Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files Vol 5. It runs to 400 pages and, no word of a lie, there isn’t a bad story in there. Just stone cold classics back-to-back, delivered by a cross section of the finest artists in British comics. Largely lettered by the late, great Tom Frame in his unmistakable style.
CBY: Fantastic choices! What current projects are you working on that CBY readers should pick up?
JC: And we’re back to my favorite child again! I’ve been incredibly fortunate in recent years — literally every book I’ve worked on, and am working on, has been one I love. So much variety, and such great quality that it’s impossible to choose.
Let me put it this way: if you see my name on a book, know that I loved working on it, enjoyed it as a reader, and you should probably pick it up, even if it’s not the sort of thing you’d normally read. Especially if it’s not the sort of thing you normally read.
CBY: What’s your favorite comfort food?
JC: Does gin and tonic count? :)
CBY: I’ll allow it. Thank you very much!
JC: You’re very welcome, and thanks for asking me!