An Interview with Jim Campbell – Letterer of comics (Department of Monsterology out October 16th)

Jim Campbell is a Letterer of comic books with a large range of credits to his name. He has his own blog, Jim Campbell: Man of Letters, where he offers advice to novice letterers as well as giving his views in his own frank way.

I first came across Jim Campbell in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine. He co-created Inspectre with Kev Walker, sharing the writer credit with Kev Walker who was also on Art duty. Inspectre debuted in Megazine 3.23 in November 1996, part 4 of a little known Dredd story ‘America’ was also in that issue. It ran till Megazine 3.33 in September 1997.

I’ve most recently read his lettering in Hoax Hunters and Vampire Vixens of the Wehrmacht. I’ve also previewed issue 1 of Department and Monsterology by Gordon Rennie & PJ Holden which is published by Renegade Arts Entertainment in October.

Jim currently letters for the likes of Image, Dark Horse and Renegade Arts Entertainment. His credits range from fanzines to tv tie-ins and creator owned projects. He is the letterer to the stars (and PJ Holden).

Semple: How long have you been lettering comics?

Jim: I hand lettered my own juvenile efforts back in the distant mists of pre-history. The first things I lettered digitally were a couple of strips for the Action tribute fanzine Violent! back in — God — 1999, I think. I dabbled off and on as a hobby, doing it for small press until I started getting paying gigs until one day — right around my 40th birthday — I realised that I had as much money coming in from lettering in the next six months as from the office job I detested so I just thought “To hell with it” and quit my job.

Semple: What do you think the key principle is to good lettering?

Jim: You’re serving the story. Above everything else, you’re serving the story. If the lettering makes you think “cool lettering” then it’s bad lettering just as much as if it makes you think “that’s terrible lettering”. A massive BOOOM sound effect should make you think “cool explosion” and not “what a great sound effect”.

Semple: Artists need to give enough space in the panel for the lettering to fit, do you find some artists forget that from time to time? Have you had times when writers have simply put to much dialogue in?

Jim: All the time! However, there are lots of tricks to get round it — you can often nudge the odd line of dialogue into the panels before or after the one where the script has it, for example. Occasionally, and I mean probably less than one book out of every twenty I letter, I have to punt a page back to the editor and tell them I just can’t fit it all in.

Semple: Reading in the Western world goes from left to right, the first speaker in comics is traditionally therefore on the left. I’ve seen a few occasions where the artist hasn’t followed this convention, does that cause difficulties?

Jim: Yep. Basically, it makes for ugly lettering, the less dead space the artist has left, the more speakers or more balloons there are, the harder it gets. All you can do is shrug and get on with it. And occasionally flip the entire panel in Photoshop. 🙂

Semple: I assume that the modern way of lettering, by computer, is in many ways similar to the traditional method, still requiring the same skills of knowing where to place the balloons or captions. Which way, given a choice, would you prefer?

Jim: Hand-lettering is HARD. Really, really hard. You get more flexibility with digital lettering you can move the balloons around, re-balance the text to try and best fit the available space, but you inevitably lose character. Most of the letterers who used to hand letter don’t seem to miss ink and whiteout and ruling guides onto the paper. Some — notably Tom Orzechowski — really miss the physical connection with the page and the letter forms. Someone should pay Tom to hand letter comics for the rest of his life. Some, like Clem Robins have made it their ongoing personal mission to make their digital lettering look as much like hand-lettering as possible.

Semple: The majority of lettering is in all capitals. What are the main perils for a letterer with this?

Jim: I much prefer all caps lettering to sentence case. The only pitfall is the dreaded ‘crossbar I’ which can creep into the lettering if you’re not careful.

Semple: Sound effects… Some artists insist on doing their own while some are happy to leave this to the letterer. Do you have a preference?

Jim: I love doing sound effects. A good sound effect in the script is like a Christmas present from the writer to the letterer! That said, a sound effect that I do will never integrate with the artwork as well as a nicely-drawn one added by the artist themself. I usually have the artist-drawn effects of Dave Gibbons, Alan Davis and Arthur Ranson in mind when I letter.

Semple: Lettering seems to me to be a very artistic process, can you draw and have you ever considered illustrating a comic?

Jim: I can draw, but the pictures that come out of my hand are so far from the image that starts off in my head that I find the process very frustrating. For that reason, I’m also very slow — if I attempted to make a living from drawing, I’d starve!

Semple: You are perhaps lesser known as a writer, You co-created The Inspectre for Judge Dredd Megazine with Kev Walker. Have you had anything else you have written published that I’m not aware of?

Jim: Really only my other co-creation with Kev — Dæmonifuge for Games Workshop’s Black Library, which was really Kev’s baby but was a huge amount of fun to work on. I remain surprised that Kev hasn’t written more. He really should. I have a few ideas of my own that I somehow just never seem to find time to firm up into a pitch-able form. Maybe one day…

Semple: Who has inspired you in comics lettering?

Jim: I’m pretty sure it was Dave Gibbons lettering his own artwork for Dan Dare when I first started reading 2000AD that got me to notice lettering from an early age. Dave got his name on the credits twice, which just seemed incredibly cool when you were 10. I adored Steve Potter’s 2000AD work, which I think was much-overlooked, and, of course, the inimitable Tom Frame. I’m going to stop now, for fear of creating a massive list of every letterer I’ve ever admired or nicked something from!

Semple: Is there any artist you’d particularly like to letter for that you haven’t so far?

Jim: Oh, God… that would be a LONG list. In the last couple of years I’ve got to notch up credits on a lot artists I admire. I’ve never actually lettered Dave Gibbons, although I did letter some of Madefire’s Treatment Tokyo which he created I didn’t work on any art that he’d drawn. He and I also contributed to Mark Millar’s Superior Charity Special, but there was no dialogue on Dave’s contribution! Pretty much any artist from my formative period reading 2000AD — Ezquerra, McMahon, O’Neill, Alan Davis, Ian Gibson (Cam Kennedy and Ron Smith are sadly retired now).

Semple: Is there a character you’d love to have a credit for lettering a strip?

Jim: Batman. Dredd… I’d letter anything that got me a 2000AD credit, to be honest!

Semple: What haven’t I asked that I should have?

Jim: Can’t think of anything — these were a pretty good bunch of questions! 🙂

Cheers!

Jim

****

Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed Jim, much appreciated.

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