COMIC BOOK YETI: Tom, thank you so much for joining me here in the Yeti Cave. If you have any other jobs other than lettering, what is it you do?
TOM NAPOLITANO: Full time letterer, which includes a lot of graphic design and production duties. Then I’m a part time colorer for Tales of the Night Watchmen and, with the same team, colored backup stories in Savage Dragon #259-261. I also do some comic artwork.
CBY: Nice! What are the comics that influenced you and made you want to work in comics?
TN: There were always comics in my house, a lot of digest Archie Comics and MAD Magazine, which my mom loves to collect. And then a great deal of kids comics based on tv shows I watched like Count Duckula and when the show was on I’d get a bunch of the The Batman Adventures comics based on BTAS. And from a very young age I liked to draw and write stories and made a lot of comics just for myself and forced my parents to read. But I don’t remember going to comic book stores often until I was a teenager, hanging out in the store as my friends battled in Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments. That’s around the time I picked up Batman: Hush, I think specifically #609 with Batman, Catwoman and Poison Ivy on the cover. That’s when I got the collector bug and bought a ton of Batman back issues. But it was also the first time I really paid attention to story credits and realized the amount of people that work on each issue and it got me thinking that there’s a lot of jobs in comics and I could be one of the names. Funny enough, seeing Nick J. Napolitano’s name in all the books, as VP of something or other, really put the idea over that I could also one day work in comics. Years later I’d be in his office being taught how to letter.
CBY: What do you enjoy most about lettering?
TN: I really love the routine. There’s something calming about waking up in the morning, sipping a cup of coffee, and setting up pages to letter for the rest of the day, or knocking out some corrections. Then by noon, when I should be warmed up and awake, I really get to work on those balloons and booms.
CBY: I should have called this series “Balloons and Booms”, I love that. What is something you wish the average comics reader (however you want to define that) understood about the art of lettering?
TN: This is probably more of a wish to critics rather than a reader, but, a lot of the time when lettering is mentioned it’s at the end and treated separately as the other talents are and sometimes get boiled down to “they had nice bolds.” My wish is that lettering and writing would be critiqued together. There is so much opinion on writing that it’s surprising that the vehicle used to communicate much of the writing isn’t factored into it. The writer and letterer work very closely, or through editors, to marry the dialogue with the art. For example, a dialogue heavy book can be a smooth read or a slog to get through based on how well a letterer can pace and place it.
CBY: That’s an interesting and important point. What do you think is the biggest misconception about what you do as a letterer?
TN: My mother’s biggest misconception was that the balloons were already on the page and I only put the dialogue in them. To be fair, sometimes true when working on a translated comic, but definitely not true 99% of the time.
CBY: Hand lettering or digital, what tools do you use to letter comics?
TN: Digital lettering. I was schooled in hand lettering but admittedly lacked the aptitude for it at the time. I use an iMac, a Cintiq, with Adobe’s Illustrator, Photoshop and Indesign programs and printer/scanner. I still use ellipse guides to hand draw balloons on the Cintiq when designing new balloon styles. And so much reference material; art books, design books, comic books, The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering.
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?
TN: When I get the script and art, preferably the color art but most often it’s black and white, I choose a page with the most variation of elements, i.e. locators, captions, dialogue etc. I immediately try to figure out the design for those elements, focusing mostly on the balloon and tail design before choosing a font. The artwork helps dictate the direction I take with designing the stroke, shape and personality of the balloon.
Once I have a few options I then pick a few fonts that I believe works well with the shape and enhances the personality of the balloons and artwork. Legibility is always the top priority.
I then letter a few panels and choose from there. If it’s a tough call I’ll letter a full page twice with two different designs to make my final judgment, sometimes sending them to editorial/creative team to weigh in and make adjustments.
Most recently, I worked closely with editorial and the new creative team to redesign the Catwoman lettering. We went through several rounds trying out and expanding upon different elements such as using mixed case or using all-caps or a mixture of the two. You’ll see the final results starting with Catwoman #39!
CBY: From a letterer’s perspective, which qualities do you most want to see in your collaborators to lead to a successful collaboration?
TN: As a general rule of thumb, everyone should be kind and, at the very least, polite. But mostly I want to see very good and honest communication. A lot of the least fun gigs are the ones that don’t immediately give a clear deadline. It’s a bummer to hear last minute Friday night that I’m expected to work the weekend. Plan better, shit happens, at least give a heads up earlier in the week so I don’t drag my boogie board out for the weekend.
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?
TN: I think a few injuries are pretty typical to desk based work. Carpal tunnel, back pain, eyestrain, headaches. I wear a carpal tunnel wrist guard whenever I work now, I grip the stylus too tightly and it helps me hold back. For the eyestrain and headaches, I sometimes wear blue light blocking glasses or turn on night shift on the computer. Not technically an injury from work but after I was in the back seat of a car that got rear-ended I get lower back pain when I work too long sitting down so I’ve been using a standing desk for years now. And then because I hold my arm up for long periods of time because I use the Cintiq and stylus I get neck and shoulder pain. Really the only way to combat that and everything else is rest and stretching. Take a break or breakdown. STAY HYDRATED!
CBY: All good advice. 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?
TN: I’m gonna give Robert Clark Jr. a shoutout for this. He still works bossing other letterers around but I don’t think he gets much time to letter. And check out his work in DC’s Brightest Day.
CBY: Oh nice. I was a big fan of Brighteast Day. 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?
TN: I don’t know if he does or doesn’t get enough recognition but I’m gonna go with Clem Robins with his work on Vertigo’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Clem’s worked on a billion great books but I was reading this run like a year or two into lettering and it slapped me with the epiphany that digital lettering can get so damn close to looking hand done and completely shifted my personal goals with lettering.
CBY: Which of the comics that you lettered are you most proud of or means the most to you and why?
TN: What initially comes to mind is Batman: Last Knight on Earth. I for some reason look at that run as this make or break moment for me. I had worked on big books before but I felt more pressure on this one. And it was one of the few books where I actually appreciated my own work at the end of the day. Does that make sense? Usually I’ll find something to be negative about in my performance in everything I work on but on that run I’m confident in my own head that I did everything right within my ability at that time.
CBY: That makes total sense and that was such a great series. 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?
TN: I’ve been lettering since 2015, about 7 years come February, so I’m not sure if I’ve been around long enough to have really witnessed a change in the industry’s perception of lettering. I think I’ve inherited a time where digital lettering has been gradually getting more respect for its craft since the migration away from hand lettering. Which is probably because so many letterers have used social media to educate curious fans and creators about our efforts. For instance, I myself didn’t know all the work and retouching that goes into Manga translation lettering until I read discussions and saw process videos on Twitter.
When it comes to my growth, it’s kinda boring and obvious but I’d describe it as maturing a lot. Starting out I made decisions based on how cool I thought a font was or how rad an effect I could come up with was instead of figuring out what serves the story and artwork. I saw a letterer write, I think Nate, “if it works in black and white, it works.” I’d like to think I’m living that mantra now. I make it work first, then flourish.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
TN: This probably is already in comics museums but the story “Ten Minutes” from Will Eisner’s The Spirit is definitely in there. I was introduced to the story while attending SVA and I’ve loved it ever since, such a lovely use of pace to enhance the storytelling. And every letterer should check out The Spirit for its famous use of type design.
Also, probably already in a museum is Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson’s Swamp Thing. My mom must’ve introduced me to the comics as a kid when the 90s tv show came out and I’ve been in love with Bernie Wrightson’s work ever since. Later I’d come to appreciate it for Gaspar Saladino’s contribution to one of the most perfect logos ever made.
And I’ve never read it but my friend has been talking about it nonstop lately and I’m convinced Marvel’s run of ROM: Spaceknight should take up an entire museum.
CBY: What current projects are you working on that CBY readers should pick up?
TN: Oh dang, I’m going to feel bad leaving out anyone but at DC Comics I’m lettering DC vs Vampires, Catwoman, The Joker, Justice League Incarnate, Wonder Woman: Evolution!
You should be picking up We Have Demons on Comixology. Depending on when this is posted, the last issue is coming out soon and then Dark Horse will have it in print around March 2022.
Also, check out Paradigm Drift by Andrew Scott and a bunch of talented artists. I believe it’s available on Gumroad and Kindle.
Then keep an eye out in 2022 for Valiant’s Eternal Warrior: Scorched Earth, which will be my first work with the company. And I’m lettering a secret project that I think will be coming out by Image which would also be a first for me!
CBY: DANG! That’s a lot of cool comics. What’s your favorite comfort food?
TN: Grilled queso blanc tacos on flour tortillas. (Specifically from Park Slope’s Nuevo Mexico.)