Saturday, 25 February 2012


It's doubtless because it's 2000 A.D.'s 35th birthday this week that I've recently found myself thinking back to when I used to be a contributor to the iconic comic for several years, regularly lettering the adventures of characters like STRONTIUM DOG and ROGUE TROOPER, as well as (from time to time) JUDGE DREDD, THARG'S FUTURE SHOCKSNEMESIS The WARLOCK, SLAINE - and a whole host of others.

Unlike the way American comics were mainly lettered in the '60s & '70s - actually onto the pencilled page before inking - British comics had a different system, the lettering being done on what was known as 'patch paper' and then stuck down onto the finished art.  In the case of colour artwork, the lettering was applied to sheets of acetate film and processed separately, so that if the artwork was printed out of sync (giving a blurred, double-vision effect) the lettering wouldn't be similarly afflicted.

Most lettering nowadays, of course, is done on computer, but once upon a time letterers had to mark their guidelines on a sheet of patch paper and letter by hand within the lines.  Some letterers, like BILL NUTTALL for example, used a lightbox, with the guidelines already marked out on that.  He simply placed the patch paper over the box and lettered straight onto it, thereby cutting out having to line each individual piece or sheet of patch.  Sometimes JOHNNY ALDRICH didn't use guidelines at all, but lettered straight onto the patch paper.

Incidentally, patch paper was a generic term for adhesive paper which came in different finishes - matt or gloss - and even in various degrees of finishes.  Too glossy and the ink line got thicker as work progressed (due to the ink spreading out on the surface of the sheet); too 'matty' and the line was too thin, with the penpoint catching on the surface as if it were blotting paper.  One had to have just the right degree of gloss to be able to letter smoothly and quickly without any hiccups. TAC-TIC was the brand name of one paper, and FASSON CRACK-BACK another.

Whether it was done the U.S. or U.K. way, quite a few lettering artists used the 'rolling ruler' device in the above picture, enabling them to mark out enough lines for one or two speech balloons at a time.  I found it too restricting, preferring instead to line a full sheet of patch paper on my STAEDTLER MARS-TECHNICO drawing board (below), thereby avoiding the 'start-stop' approach employed by most other lettering artists. I usually got about four or five pages to each sheet of patch.

I remember one day, as I was lining my paper on the desk opposite STEVE MacMANUS's in the 2000 A.D. offices (Room 2012), legendary letterer TOM FRAME watched me for a moment before asking: "Do you do your lettering on the board?"  I explained that I only measured out the guidelines on the board, preferring to letter the sheet of patch on a flat desktop.  "I wondered," he said, "because the edge of the board would dig into your arm.  It would be too uncomfortable."  I agreed, but pointed out the benefits of being able to do all the guidelines in one go on a complete sheet of patch, rather than bit-by-bit as one went along.  He never bought one though, so I guess he remained unconvinced.

Tom Frame

Speaking of Tom puts me in mind of the ol' bumblebee paradox that bees shouldn't be able to fly because, aerodynamically, they're not best designed for flight.  Tom's lettering was a bit like that.  Actual size, it was too high, too narrow, and a little bit scratchy-looking due to his failing eyesight.  It shouldn't have worked - but, in print, it did, and Tom's lettering is considered by many fans as integral to the 'look' of Dredd's strip as anything else which contributed to it.  Tom's best work though, in my humble estimation, was the innumerable page of lettering he did for various IPC/FLEETWAY publications back in the '60s, before his sight started to deteriorate.

I recall going to a nearby wine bar one evening with Tom and Stevie Mac, as well as SIMON GELLER, ROBIN SMITH, and PAUL AILEY (I think - might be LEATHERLAND), where I watched them play Pool as I nursed a Coke and listened to JIM REEVES on the jukebox.  This was unusual for me, because I usually worked in KING'S REACH TOWER up to at least nine at night, finishing off as many ltg jobs as I could before heading for Victoria Station and my nearly nine hours trip home.  That night, I must've been ahead of schedule, hence my being able to relax for a bit.  When the time came to head for the station, I remember sharing a taxi with Steve MacManus as he was going in the same direction for part of the way.

Sadly, Tom died from cancer in 2006, at the age of 74.  ALAN McKENZIE (a later editor on the comic) had helped him to transfer his lettering fonts onto a computer programme a few years before, allowing him to continue a career which failing eyesight might otherwise have curtailed.  It would be nice if the current owners of the comic, REBELLION, could come to an arrangement with Tom's family for permission to use his fonts on the Dredd strip, thus perpetuating the unique look that graced it for so many years.

Anyway, that's enough rambling from me for the moment. Pick up a copy of 2000 A.D. today - before your future becomes your past!


baab said...

Hiya Kid,
I would just like to add and ask,
When 2000 ad first appeared on the shelves I did not for one second realise that 2000 ad was just around the corner and I would be living in it.
It just did not register with me and it was possibly the early nineties that I kinda had an inkling as to this undeniable reality.

Kid said...

I think you'll find that most readers were the same in that regard. The year 2000 seemed centuries in the future, even 'though, in 1977, it was only 23 years away. Even in 1986 - when it was only 14 years ahead - it still seemed far, far away to me. Amazing to think it's now 12 years ago. How did that happen?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...