Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Letterers of Charlton Press

Over the years Charlton has been typecast and even maligned for their use of typeset, as opposed to hand lettering, in a majority of their comics. This purview has been a mainstay for decades, prompted by a cadre of fans who have derided and marginalized the company. To sway minds at this point might be a tough hurdle to overcome, especially when pros, including Dick Giordano during his editorial tenure, often satirized the procedure (credits read: "Lettering: A. Machine"). My intent is to provide a more balanced account by revealing the actual efforts of Charlton's unsung letterers, and in doing so, give them the recognition they deserve.

The multi-talented Jon D'Agostino penciled, inked, lettered, and may have even colored the cover to Li'l Genius # 42, January 1963.     

One of Charlton's most prolific letterers, Jon D'Agostino, was also an accomplished artist, inker and colorist. This skilled craftsman often drew stories in Charlton's humor line and embellished the pencils of Charles Nicholas, Dick Giordano and Pat Masulli, to name a few. His handiwork also appeared on covers and he likely designed many of the logos for the company. In addition to his work for Charlton, D'Agostino's credits include art and lettering for Marvel from the 1950s to the 1980s (credited in early issues of Amazing Spider-Man as "Johnny Dee"), Story Comics, Western/Dell and nearly 30 years illustrating Archie's line of characters.

Jon D'Agostino drew himself, along with editor Pat Masulli in My Little Margie's Fashions # 1, February 1959, where the title character visits the Charlton offices. 

According to Todd Klein, a talented letterer in his own right, the above page is likely that of Editor Pat Masulli. Bill Molno pencils; Rocco Mastroserio inks; Joe Gill possible script, Battlefield Action # 17, December 1957. Todd has contributed greatly to identifying lettering styles and his blog is highly recommended:   https://kleinletters.com/ 

Early Charlton work by Charlotte Jetter, accompanying the Bob Powell-drawn story "Insincerely Yours," Sweethearts # 26, September 1954. 

Charlotte Jetter was another extremely talented letterer. Originally paired with her husband, art director and artist Al Jetter (who also lettered) at Fawcett in the 1950s, Jetter's credits outside of Charlton include working for DC and numerous assignments at Marvel in the 1970s. Jetter's polished, attractive style enhanced Charlton's stories and covers for over two decades. 

Charlotte Jetter's calligraphic skills graced hundreds of Charlton comics; her pairing with Steve Ditko was always aesthetically pleasing. "The Dog Howls for You!," Joe Gill script, The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves # 26, June 1971. 

Herb Field's lettering was recognizable by the large capital letter he began captions with. Captain Atom # 84, January 1967. Dave Kaler script, Steve Ditko pencils, Rocco Mastroserio inks. 

 Field lettered the debut issue of Hercules (October 1967) scripted by Joe Gill and drawn by Sam Glanzman.

Herb Field's credits date back to 1946 at the Sangor studio. He went on to letter stories for Better Publications, Fawcett, Nesbit, Stanmor and DC. His Charlton efforts appeared in the mid-1960s, including work on Steve Ditko's revised "Blue Beetle", Captain Atom and  "The Question."
Bob Agnew's understated lettering complimented Steve Ditko's art on "The Question" back-up from Blue Beetle # 4, December 1967. Dialogue by Steve Skeates (as Warren Savin).   

Another example of Agnew's lettering, from World of Wheels # 17, October 1967. Writer/artist Jack Keller illustrated the adventures of Kid Colt Outlaw at Marvel for years but being a car enthusiast found Charlton more to his liking, since the company had that corner of the market covered.    

Bob Agnew's career in the comic book field appears to have been a brief one, baring any undiscovered information (and I'll be sure to report/update it here). His credits in Jerry Bail's Who's Who of American Comics extend from 1967-68, working for Marvel and Charlton.    

Ray Burzon lettering; Steve Skeates script; Henry Scarpelli art, Abbott and Costello # 5, November 1968.  

Ray Burzon was the least polished of Charlton's "regulars," but advantageous to the company as a dependable worker who could grind out pages. In Alter Ego # 107, Fall 2012, Artist Tony Tallarico recalled: 

"I had a friend of mine, Ray Burzon, who was an art director at J. Walter Thompson. He lettered a lot of my stuff." 

In addition to his many lettering jobs for Charlton in the 1960s and 1970s Burzon is also credited as working for Dell, Warren and Fitzgerald publications. 

Frank Bravo lettered for Charlton from 1972-75. He also provided spot illustrations in titles, including The Partridge Family. Bravo was credited on The Phantom #'s 60-63, which were reprints of foreign editions. While Bravo and editor George Wildman's names appeared on the splash page, Charton failed to provide the names of the writer and artist. Thanks to the Grand Comic Book Database, though, I can reveal that they are Giovanni Fiorentini and  Mario Pedrazzi, respectively. The Phantom # 63, January 1975.   

Bravo's actual comic book credits are scarce, but his name was listed in The Comic Book Guide for the Artist-Writer-Letterer, a booklet sent as a bonus to subscribers in 1973. Bravo had a distinct style which I suspect will help to track down more of his published work. Image from the Charlton Library blogspot.      

One important aspect of Charlton that distinguished itself from other lines was the freedom they gave their artists, who often produced a near-complete job, at times writing, penciling, inking and lettering, leaving only the coloring to a staffer. This brought a cohesiveness to the finished product that came closer to what the artist envisioned. In the corporate structure of DC and Marvel this was usually not the case (the only Marvel example I can point to is Frank Thorne on the Red Sonja stories he illustrated for Roy Thomas in the mid-1970s). As you will see with the examples I've posted below, the artists who lettered their own work had better control over the composition of a page. They could set the placement of word balloons, captions and sound effects in a much more aesthetically pleasing way; in movie terms they were the equivalent of cinematographer, director and editor. This added an ambiance to the completed presentation.  

For Several years Jim Aparo was one of Charlton's top talents before he was lured away to DC where he spent the remainder of his career illustrating features including The Phantom Stranger, Aquaman and Batman (notably in the long-running series The Brave and the Bold).  Aparo was one of the rare artists who continued to letter the stories he drew at DC. "Wander," Denny O'Neil script, Cheyenne Kid # 67, July 1968.
The distinctive art of Pat Boyette enlivened many a Charlton comic. This illustration was written, drawn and lettered by the artist. War and Attack # 63, December 1967.  

Tom Sutton's macabre splash page art (and lettering). Nicola Cuti script, Wayne Howard colors, Midnight Tales # 2, February 1973.  

Thunderbolt was Pete Morisi's signature character, created during Charton's "action hero line" under editor Dick Giordano. Story, art and, of course, lettering, all rendered by Morisi. Thunderbolt # 52, June 1966. 

Sanho Kim's unique art was a standout at Charlton. Kim always penciled, inked and lettered the stories he wrote (as well as many he didn't). "The Bloody Mermaid," Ghostly Tales # 91, January 1972.    

Although Wayne Howard worked with other writers and inked an assortment of artists, he could compose a complete story for Charlton, as the above example - written, drawn, lettered and colored by him - attests. Midnight Tales # 4, July 1973.   

Joe Staton illustrated comics in every genre at Charlton, often working in-tandem with writer Nick Cuti. His lettering skills usually accompanied the stories he drew, including this cover to Haunted # 12, May 1973.  

Mike Zeck started out at Charlton, working mainly on monster-related titles such as this one-page vignette scripted by Joe Molloy. Creepy Things # 2, October 1975.   

In addition to the war, western and ghost stories he illustrated, Warren Sattler had runs on Billy the Kid and Yang. Attack # 8, November 1972.  

John Byrne was another newcomer who cut his creative teeth at Charlton. He soon moved over to Marvel where he became a fan favorite, illustrating the adventures of the X-Men with writer Chris Claremont. One of his early efforts was on Doomsday + 1.  Page from # 2, September 1975, Joe Gill script. 

Don Newton graduated from having his art showcased in numerous fanzines to securing a position in the comics field. His skill was evident early on, as seen on this page, where Newton and author Bill Pearson paid homage to the classic 1942 film Casablanca, with "appearances" by the cast, including Peter Lorre, Claude Raines and (pictured above) S. Z. Sakall and Humphrey Bogart! The Phantom # 70, April 1976.     

The plethora of lettering skills by artists and professionals in Charlton's comic book line accentuates the illegitimacy of the: "they were all poorly typed" narrative. There is no doubt that mechanical type was used to a large degree at certain points in their history; management clearly sought to cut costs - but the flip side is also worth exploring.  Editors or production heads at other companies decided who lettered a strip, with no input from an artist (lettering was added after pencils and before inking); accordingly the results - good, bad or indifferent - would be viewed when the comic was published. At Charlton the artist who lettered his stories had a degree of satisfaction over the finished product. It was not complete control (that would only occur with self-published or independent work) but closer to their vision than most corporate agencies allowed.   

Like any publisher Charlton had its positive and negative aspects, but a reliance on typeset lettering was hardly new in the business. Many employed the system before Charlton, including Western/Dell, Gilberton (Classics Illustrated) and the prestigious EC. So why is Charlton singled out?
The talented Jon D'Agostino lettered (and perhaps drew) this house ad for Charlton premiums that appeared throughout their line.

It's high time to celebrate the work of Charlton's veteran talents. Jon D'Agostino and Charlotte Jetter, in particular, deserve the accolades that  many of the more recognizable letterers in the field, including Ben Oda, Gaspar Saldino, Ira Schnapp, Sam Rosen, Artie Simek, John Costanza and Tom Orzechowski, have had bestowed upon them by comics scholars and aficionados. Hopefully this examination will lead to a better understanding and appreciation of the men and women who plied their craft at Charlton Press.         

I'll close with a page written, drawn and yes, lettered (and even colored) by Steve Ditko, from Tales of the Mysterious Traveler # 15, December 1985, the last issue to appear under the Charlton banner before they closed their comic book operation. This also gives me an opportunity to mention Robin Snyder's publications, quite a few of which have reprinted Charlton material, with contributions by Joe Gill, Steve Ditko, Jon D'Agostino, Charlotte Jetter and others. Robin's products are always worthwhile and come highly recommended:  http://ditko.blogspot.com/p/ditko-book-in-print.html




Andrew Buckle said...

thanks for a great blog article about letterers and Charlton, definitely an under-appreciated part of comics but a vital - a badly lettered page can ruin the greatest panels / page in no time.

Anonymous said...

Ray Burzon was NOT affiliated with Union Studio.

"Charlton started off paying better than they ended off. I think I was getting about $26 a page, including lettering. Most of the time I lettered my own stuff, except I had a friend of mine, Ray Burzon, who was an art director at J. Walter Thompson [466 Lexington Avenue, NY NY 10017]. He lettered a lot of my stuff." –Tony Tallarico, Alter Ego # 107, Feb 2012

Nick Caputo said...


Thanks for the kind words, Bad lettering can certainly hurt the finished product.


The information on Burzon working for the Union Studio came from Jerry Bails' Who's Who of American Comics. I assumed it was supplied by Burzon. I'll add the info and quote from Tallarico, though. Thanks.

Mickey Coalwell said...

Union Studio was in Argentina. Neither Agnew nor Burzon were affiliated with them. Bails is in error. Agnew lettered a few romance and war stories at Charlton drawn by Union Studio artists, but that’s all.

Nick Caputo said...


Thanks. I'll make the correction.

バーンズ エリック said...

Thanks for the Charlton article. You always have something interesting to point out about them.

About fans dumping on them for the machine lettering, don't suppose them brazenly calling attention to it would have anything to do with it? I know the Feinstein titles at EC used it, too, but I don't offhand know of them mentioning it in the comics. Charlton, on the other hand, did have credits of 'lettering--A. Machine'. There was definitely a playfulness involved there, but I can imagine the comics fan (as opposed to the casual reader) feeling they were being mocked and hence--conceivably--the creation of a backlash.

Nick Caputo said...

Thanks for the kind words. Yes, Giordano himself mocking the use of typeset lettering clearly led to fans going in that direction as well. I was discussing this point recently with a friend (who also assists greatly in editing my pieces) and decided to emphasize that in the opening paragraph.

Maria said...
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Mickey Coalwell said...

Nick, I just indexed a Surf n’ Wheels issue crediting Rick Keller as the letterer for a Jack Keller story. I guess Jack recruited his son to letter his car stories, since Rick has over 140 GCD lettering credits, though some are reprints.

Nick Caputo said...

Mickey, I believe that Jack did have his son help out in lettering his stories. I'll check into the interviews he gave to see if he confirmed that.

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