Interview with Todd Klein

Working at DC Comics, 1979. Photo by Jack Adler

Working at DC Comics, 1979. Photo by Jack Adler

Todd, since I began my career in lettering you’ve been not only a source of inspiration, but a source--a veritable fountain--of knowledge on the craft. Your website, blog, and co-authored book The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics (essential reading for the budding letterer) combine to make one hell of a master class. It’s clear you’re passionate about the profession, but I’ve got to ask; have you ever fallen out of love with lettering?

If so, what brought you back?

I’ve always liked and been interested in hand-drawn lettering. My mother’s father worked with hand-drawn or painted letters in several ways: sign painting, calligraphy and engraving. These were all side-line jobs he did in addition to his main full-time job working for Mack Trucks. As a child, he gave me some Speedball pens and ink, with some alphabets he’d drawn for me to copy. Later, when I discovered Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” I became enamored with the Elvish alphabet Tolkien created, and often imitated it. Tolkien’s own signature uses a very similar style, and I stole it for my own professional signature, which was pretty easy, as our names share many letters.

When I began lettering comics, I found the same enjoyment in doing that hand-made work as I had with calligraphy. Later, in the 1990s, when I began doing digital lettering, much of that particular pleasure was lost, except when I was creating my own fonts from letters I drew. However, by that time, I was finding it harder to produce large amounts of lettering by hand due to some arthritis pain, so the gradual transition worked out well for me, and I never really got tired of lettering.

Is there anything you letter by hand today? Or maybe some title/logo work that starts off on paper and gets digitized along the way?

Yes, logo designs often begin with hand-drawn sketches that I scan and trace with Adobe Illustrator. I haven’t lettered a comics page by hand in a few years now.

You began lettering comics in 1977 and watched the industry go from all the lettering being done by hand to almost all of it now being done digitally. What do you think of the current state of lettering and where do you see it going from here?

There are many fine comic-book fonts available from ComiCraft and Blambot. If I did not have my own, I would probably use them. There are many letterers doing good with with those fonts, but also many inexperienced users whose work is not good. The ability to tell the difference comes with practice and experience. Unfortunately, there are now far more people who want lettering work than there is available work, which puts downward pressure on pay rates and encourages letterer abuse. I don’t see that situation improving any time soon, nor do I see any solution for it.

Do you think that digital lettering has led to the increase of letterers, or the downward pressure on pay rates?

Yes, it makes it easier for anyone to get a result that’s at least readable in most cases, a process that took a lot more effort and practice for hand-letterers. Doing digital lettering WELL takes more effort and practice, but the starting point is further along. This encourages more people to take it on, and creates more letterers pursuing each potential lettering job.

Those of us in this profession live and die by deadlines. There are companies and editors and books that can sometimes be very demanding time-wise. Revisions are often expected to be turned around quicker and quicker. How do you handle it? Do you have set working hours? Just say no?

Yes, I generally have set working hours, starting around 7:30 AM, breaking for exercise and dinner around 3PM, and if needed another hour or two in the evening. I will work later in the afternoon to meet a rush deadline if I have to, but try to avoid that. Most editors are doing the best they can with the deadlines they have, and we work things out between us.

Were deadlines any easier before the days of digital lettering?

Not really. In my younger days, I was more willing to work longer hours and even all night on occasion, but that gets old, and now I won’t do that. At almost 67, I am willing to say no to impossible deadlines.

Do you think saying no has ever led to you losing future work? What would you say to someone just getting into lettering that may be uneasy saying no?

This is something you have to learn and decide for yourself. In my case, I have a long track record to back up any decision I make, and the confidence in those I work for. No, in my case, I don’t think it has led to losing future work unless it was work I didn’t want anyway.

You’ve earned a few awards over the years. Were there ever times you doubted yourself? Times maybe between the accolades, or before, when you questioned your abilities? If so, what kept you going?

One thing I believe is that, to continue to improve, you have to be your own harshest critic. When I look at my own work, I see the things I wish I had done better. That doesn’t mean I hate what I’ve done, just that I will never stop trying to do better, and keep looking for ways to make that happen. Awards are great, but never something I aspired to, and I’m always surprised when I win one.

If you could only give one piece of advice, be it for lettering or life, what would it be?      

Find work you enjoy doing, and learn to do it well. Always strive to do it better. That’s the best entry into a successful work life.

If you’re new to lettering you should go to Todd's Site: