Talking Comics with Tim: Todd Klein
Todd Klein is a letterer with a level of talent, success and acclaim that is only exceeded by his modesty. That’s the perspective I took away from an email interview I recently conducted with him. I’m not even going to bother offering some concise bio blurb on the man–he has such a rich history, it’s just best that you go here to read up on him. On with the fun.
Tim O’Shea: As of 2006, you noted the following metrics: “From beginning freelance work in 1977 through the end of 2006 I’ve lettered over 48,000 pages of comics, as well as over 5,400 covers and designed over 820 logos.” Have you tried to keep track of your pace since 2006?
Todd Klein: In 2007 I added 2013 pages, no covers and 8 logos. In 2008 I added 2102 pages, 12 covers and 10 logos. That kind of information, for those who want it, is available on my website’s Klein Lettering Archives pages.
O’Shea: In the case of long-term collaborators, like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, in what ways do they utilize your unique skills to elevate their narrative?
Klein: Kind of a hard question for me, asking them would probably give a more accurate answer. From my end, I can say they know my work well and what I can do, know that I don’t shy away from a challenge, so I think they pretty much trust that I will give them something that works no matter what they ask for.
O’Shea: Speaking of Alan Moore, can you talk about what kind of design work (in addition to lettering duties) you are doing for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Volume III): Century?
Klein: Yes, I work closely with Kevin O’Neill, so it’s really more of a collaborative process than I had with some of the design work I did for the other America’s Best Comics titles. Kevin has great layout ideas, but usually leaves things like type choices to me. For the covers, Kevin comes up with the art on his own, and I put together the trade dress (titles, logos, prices, UPC code, etcetera) in Adobe InDesign for the publisher, Top Shelf in this case. I also work with Kevin on the title pages at the front of each issue, and on the text pages at the back. There will be six of those in each issue this time. For the text pages, Alan decides what he wants to write, consulting with me on length, then sends the script to me and Kevin. I lay out the text to see how much room there will be for pictures, and send that to Kevin, who creates art to fit. Finally, I assemble the art, lettering, and design pages for each entire issue in InDesign for the publisher. When we get to the collecting them in hardcover and trade paperback, I’ll work with Kevin on any additional material and new covers for those.
O’Shea: I’m embarrassed to say while I recognize and respected your work for years, at first I had no knowledge of the work of one of your major influences, lettering master Gaspar Saladino. And yet, if I look at Wikipedia and sample a number of your blog’s posts where you discuss his work, it’s fairly apparent I SHOULD have known and recognized his name. Why is it his name recognition is not on par with some of his DC contemporaries of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the editors and creators?
Klein: Well, probably because Gaspar is essentially retired, I don’t think he’s had any new lettering work published since about 1999 or so. He doesn’t have a website or other online promotional arena, and comes from a generation where creators usually didn’t think or talk much about the work they were doing other than as a job to earn a living. There’s a fine series of articles about Gaspar on the website Dial B for Blog that I recommend to anyone interested in his career. It’s a good overview.
O’Shea: Do you think letterers and their craft have gained more respect in the 1990s and 2000s?
Klein: Hard for me to say. It’s always been an area of interest to only a small portion of comics readers. Perhaps with the expansion of online sites about comics, who need to keep generating new content, it gets more attention than it used to.
O’Shea: Understanding lettering is something that takes a trained eye, one that I clearly lack. I realized this when reading your recent post about Tom Orzechowski where he said: “so I’m doing titles with a Simek/Rosen kink, and sfx somewhere between Rosen and Costanza”. This may be hard to describe without examples, but how can one teach themselves to recognize the styles of Simek, Rosen or Costanza?
Klein: I understand, and it is hard. Being in the field myself, I look at the work of other letterers more closely than most would, and I had a great advantage working on staff in DC’s Production Department for ten years, where I saw the work of hand-letterers active then first-hand, on the artwork, and often had to imitate it to do lettering corrections. All I can say is, the more closely you look, the more you’ll see those small differences of style.
O’Shea: Your first major work for DC was Firestorm #1–because of the significance have you always had an affinity for that character?
Klein: Seems like yes would be a politic answer, but I can’t say I do because I haven’t worked with the character that much. It was kind of a fluke my getting that first issue, an act of desperation on someone’s part I’m sure, and I wasn’t really ready for a job of that size, just did the best I could with it. The first project where I really felt I was making a major contribution and coming into my own was on “Starstruck” by Elaine Lee and Michael Wm. Kaluta, first published overseas, then in Heavy Metal magazine around 1980, then by Marvel and Dark Horse. I didn’t letter all of the series, but the work I did on the original chapters that made up the Marvel Graphic Novel were a breakthrough for me, as Elaine and Michael asked for all kinds of different styles, and really called on me to collaborate with them. It was good training for Sandman.
O’Shea: I was pleasantly surprised to find out you are also a musician–are there any plans to do release some new songs in the near to long term? On a related note, do you listen to music while you work? If so, what are some artists you are currently enjoying?
Klein: I’d love to make some new recordings, but never seem to have the time. When work slows down, I pick up the guitar for a few days and start thinking along those lines, but then a ton of new lettering work shows up, and I have to put it aside again. I don’t talk much about what I listen to, as it’s going to make me sound like a fogey, I’m afraid. I haven’t really made an effort to listen to new music in a long time, except by musicians I liked in the 60s and 70s. I listen to classical much of the time, or go back to old favorites like The Beatles, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Donovan, and like that.
O’Shea: You’ve expressed an interest in writing children’s novels at some point down the road. Any chance you’ll be writing some in 2009 or in the near term. Which children novelists do you enjoy and/or consider influences?
Klein: Another thing I wish I had time for. Maybe someday. I have lots of favorite childrens’ book authors. I wrote a guide on the subject that’s on my website in the Books section. Some that come immediately to mind are Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Arthur Ransome, L. M. Boston, Edward Eager, and E. Nesbit, but there are many more.
O’Shea: You have a number of other creative pursuits, I had a blast flipping through your photographs. I had no idea that Jack Adler was also a great photographer, for example. What did you learn about photography from him? Creatively how does the satisfaction gained from photography difffer from satisfaction gained in your lettering work?
Klein: Jack encouraged me, and many who worked for him, to take more pictures. I’d already begun when we met, but didn’t own my own 35mm SLR camera until he helped me pick out a good used one. Unfortunately that camera was stolen a few years later, but I replaced it with one nearly as good. I used it mainly for family gatherings and on vacations, though. In 2003 I switched to the much smaller, lighter and more convenient digital Olympus C-730, and have been using that ever since. I can’t get the same quality of images as with the SLR, but you can’t beat the ease of use and fun of it.
O’Shea: What has been the response to your recent bookmark idea? I really respect the various prints ideas you have with your various collaborators.
Klein: Selling the bookmarks was just an idea for these hard times, so if anyone wanted something signed by me, but couldn’t afford a print, they could get one for the very low price of $1. It’s almost more trouble than it’s worth, financially, but I think a good option. I’ve sold about 40, I think.
O’Shea: In doing the Logo Studies that you post at your blog, do you sometimes get inspired with new logo ideas in the process of studying past logos?
Klein: Unfortunately I don’t get asked to design new logos that often anymore. I’d like to think my Logo Studies have helped me think more about my own process, but I can’t say for sure.
O’Shea: Some of the logo studies seem to require a great deal of research, bordering on detective work, in order to find out the “origin” of a logo. Looking over your various Logo Studies, are there one or two that stick out in your mind as demanding more research than the average ones?
Klein: The DC logos are generally easier because of my long association with the company. I have lots of contacts there, even Paul Levitz gave me some help on one, and I know the history of the company and its logos pretty well. I also have many of the DC Archive hardcovers for visual reference. Marvel is more difficult because there are vast gaps in my knowledge of what went on there in the early years of the Marvel Age, and before in the Timely era. That knowledge seems to be unrecorded or unremembered by anyone still around, resulting in a lot of guesswork. I enjoy the detective work, but run into a lot of dead ends.
O’Shea: How do you decide on which logos to study? You just finished a thorough study of the myriad Fantastic Four logos, what logos are you planning on studying in the near to long term?
Klein: I don’t have a long-term plan, I just choose one I think would be fun to look at, though I am making an effort to balance the DC ones with others when I can. Those usually take more time, though with the Fantastic Four, I kind of gave up on trying to find out some of the designers and just used what I knew already, which I may have to do more of.
O’Shea: When you pick up a comic to read, if the lettering is of less than the professional norm, does that compromise your ability to enjoy the story?
Klein: Yes, probably. I try not to let that distract me, but it does happen. I like to see artists lettering their own work, but on occasion, when it’s hard to read, I have to put it aside.
O’Shea: In the past year or so, you’ve done special edition prints as collaborations with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Alex Ross. Are there any plans to do a fourth print in 2009 with another collaborator?
Klein: I have the next print underway. It will again be with an artist, and I’m waiting to see something from him. I won’t say any more until it’s further along. Plans are made for the next two beyond that, too, though I can’t say whether they’ll come out this year or not, too soon to tell.
O’Shea: In terms of balloon placement, you wrote in one of your How To articles: “When vertical and horizontal rows are mixed, or when angled, round, or oddly-shaped panels are added, extra care must be taken to keep the reader on track, especially when the direction you want them to go moves against common reading practice.” Do you look forward to getting to work with unique layouts that challenge your seasoned balloon placement skills? Does it sometimes demand revision when the writer or artist or editor question if the flow works for them?
Klein: I don’t get a lot of unusual page designs these days, they’ve become less common. I don’t mind them, though they can take some extra time to work out. A more common problem is panels with not enough room for the lettering in the script. There are ways around it, and as a last resort, I contact the editor and cry mercy. Remember, balloon placements are often suggested to me by the editor or artist, which saves me time, and if I see a better way to go, I take it.
O’Shea: You have received multiple awards over the years, but I have to know, was your first reaction when you won “CBG Fan Award for best letterer of the century”–”Well I’ll never win that award again…”?
Klein: It was a strange feeling, as I know the award should have gone to Gaspar Saladino without question. I was flattered, of course, but kept in mind that the voting was probably by a few thousand people at most, probably less.