Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Tribute to Ben Oda

Ben Oda is my favorite comics letterer of all time.

I have not been keeping that a secret. Here is an archived post from the 2007 infancy of The Hayfamzone Blog had me proclaiming from the mountaintop the excellence of Mr. Oda's handiwork, plus more. I additionally invited everyone to help themselves to a free download of Odaballoon, a wonderful computer font created by Mr. Oda's family and featuring a design based on the gentleman's beautiful hand lettering. I continue to use Odaballoon just about every single day and I repeat my invitation to you to use the link above to download the freeware for yourself.

Ben Oda was called away from this world in 1984. I had forgotten until just recently that a wonderful tribute to Ben Oda saw print in the DC Comics that were cover dated June of 1985. Written by editor Andrew Helfer, this wonderful article has been out of print for far too long. Up above you can see how the page appeared in the printed comics, and I consider it an honor to re-present to the world this informative and reverential memorial to a gifted craftsman:


      You probably never thought twice about Ben Oda. He was never interviewed by the fanzines. He was never the guest of honor at a comics convention. Fans never begged him for his autograph. The spotlight never touched him. And there's probably a very good reason for that. Ben Oda was neither writer nor artist nor comic book creator. He was just one of the hundreds of people who put the finishing touches on comics. Ben Oda was, to put it simply, a letterer.
      But Ben Oda had a fan club. An exclusive group. We kept its very existence a secret. Instead of calling it "The Ben Oda Fan Club," we called it DC Comics. To us, Ben was not only our favorite comic book letterer; he was also our favorite human being. And when he passed away a few weeks ago, we all became acutely aware of a space in our lives that would never again be filled.
      Ben Oda was one of an ever-dwindling group of comic book professionals - the "old timers." He worked on comics in their infancy, through their heyday, and right into the present. In the forties, his distinctive lettering style graced the pages of Jack Kirby's early work. In the fifties, when Harvey Kurtzman needed hand-lettering for his now-famous EC war comics, Ben was the man he asked to do it. He was a letterer for the Chicago Tribune and King Features Syndicate, regularly turning out pages of Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie, The Phantom, and others too numerous to mention. And until mere days before he left us, Ben was also the most prolific letterer working at DC Comics.
      Those are the facts - they're easy to tell. What's harder to explain is the way Ben touched us all - every day of his life.
      Among other letterers, Ben was the acknowledged master - I remember Tom Orzechowski's delight over being introduced to him some years ago; and Bob Lappan literally studied Ben's work with a comprehensiveness that Ben found both flattering and confusing. He never quite understood why anyone would give his work a second glance - as far as he was concerned, his job was simply to make the writer and artist look as good as possible.
      And that's exactly what Ben did so well - twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, or so it seemed. Ben would come into the DC offices every day at four-thirty in the afternoon (you could set your clock to it) with a staggering number of lettered pages. If you had a book that had to be lettered overnight, you just gave it to Ben. Truth to tell, we took him for granted. He was the ultimate pinch-hitter, and he got the DC team out of more than one deadline jam. But, like most pinch-hitters, he seldom received the praise he deserved.
      And as much as we'd all like to believe otherwise, Ben was no speed demon. He'd work long hours, sit hunched over his drawing board late into the night, all to meet what he undoubtedly felt was a personal commitment to a friend. Sometimes, in his desire to please and help out, he would push himself too far, and the strain would show. Often, the results were hilarious. Once in a while, Batman might "fight a wart on crime," and Superman might be referred to as "The Man of Seel." We'd laugh together over Ben's occasional blooper, and seldom think about the sleepless nights he'd put in just to get the job finished. Again, we took him for granted.
      But when the job was finally done, Ben would sit himself down in one editorial office or another and just shoot the breeze. This was when you got to know and really appreciate Ben. He could talk about practically anything - World War II and his time in the service (he was a paratrooper, a spy, and a part-time baseball player), his memories of comic book pros he'd worked with in the past, his family, the performance of various players on his Monday night bowling team, and the current state of the comic book field. All his stories and opinions were delivered with such a keen sense of humor that you couldn't help but laugh.
      But there was more to Ben than just that. When Ben told a story, he became a kind of Japanese Will Rogers, a homespun humorist with a shy smile that could melt ice. Dozens of wrinkles etched into his face, laugh lines mingling with the ones that simply come with age, Ben often seemed like an ancient yet human sage, always aware of the humor in life, and enjoying every minute of it. You had only to talk to Ben to see that this was true. His eyes would sparkle with life, and in an almost mystical transference, our eyes would sparkle too.
      And perhaps, when all is said and done, this was the most wonderful thing about Ben - his uncanny ability to make us smile, to make us laugh, to lift us out of our late-afternoon doldrums with a simple anecdote or tall tale - to simply be Ben. These were his gifts to us, these were the things we took for granted, and these are the things we will miss the most.

Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Bill Draut, Marvin Stein, and Ben Oda (seated)


At 2:05 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Ben's work was so appropriate and understated that he was nearly invisible on the page, which of course was his job. As my fanboy eyes became more sophisticated I was amazed at how often I noticed him, and how far back in time he had worked with so many people I admired. This guy was highly sought-after in all the best circles.

A defining thing I noticed before I even had a name for him was his simple and effective approach to story titles. They caught my eye first in Creepy and Eerie, and then I realized I'd seen 'em in the EC comics... and then, a few years later, there they were when Julie Schwartz began editing the Superman books. No muss, no fuss, no nonsense, just subtle variations on one key approach. The style was deceptively simple. When I was in a hurry, I could approximate it. If I took too long, I blew it.

On a personal note, it was funny that Helfer mentioned me in this piece. At around the same time, Dick Giordano wrote a similar note that appeared in the DC titles, and likewise mentioned my brief meeting with Ben. It happened while I was in their offices, talking with Helfer about an Atari Force graphic novel, and was then my only job for them. Meanwhile, I'd been attached to Marvel for nearly a decade, but my awards for work on the X-Men didn't even get me a nod in the Bullpen Bulletins. How it is that I didn't start working more often for DC is one of those imponderables.

At 4:16 AM, Blogger hayfamzone said...

Please let it be noted that the previous comment was written by Mr. Tom Orzechowski. Tom emailed me his recreation of a comment that he thought had been scattered to the wind before he submitted it, but in fact the original comment did find its way through the Blogger labyrinth. Everything except his name, anyway. Thanks for writing it twice, Tom!

At 3:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to read Creepy and Eerie in the 60s and I'd read the artists' names etc and always see Ben's name...being a kid it never occurred to me he was Japanese...he was superb and I liked his work very much...Warren should've done an artist profile on him as he did with the others..


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