Friday, October 21, 2011

Mystery Letterer Revealed

Some things you want to know are easy to find out. Others are not.

If you come across an unfamiliar word when reading you can, of course, look it up in a dictionary. But what if you know a word's meaning but can't think of the actual word? The dictionary would not be useful at all in that circumstance.

Comic Books are universal these days in their practice of giving credit to a story's writer and artist(s) and letterer and colorist. But you know that it wasn't always that way! Most comics in the 1940s and 1950s gave no hint as to the identity of the creative personnel responsible for the stories.

For about a decade now I have been particularly vexed by one unknown individual. The image above is a splash page from 1957's issue #21 of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen. No credits are given. Any fan of Curt Swan will immediately recognize that the pencilling on the page was that gentleman's handiwork, and The Grand Comics Database (G.C.D.) has tutored me that the inker is Ray Burnley. But look at the caption and word balloon lettering. It is striking! The style is consistent and assured and just plain beautiful. All of the early Jimmy Olsen issues are obviously lettered by this same individual, but who could it be? I needed to know!

I tried every which way to get the information. First line of offense: the G.C.D. was unable to help, leaving the "letterer:" field for those issues blank. Second line of offense: online I found a Letterer Index from 2006; it showed samples of various 1950s and 1960s DC Comics letterer's styles but, wouldn't you know it, the one style which that index could not penetrate was shown on a sample page from Jimmy Olsen #13! Third line of offense: I reached out to Todd Klein and Tom Orzechowski, both of them well known to be scholars of lettering as well as expert practitioners themselves, but they too were unable to discern whose style it was.

So what's left for an information seeker to do? No other scholar of lettering leapt to mind, but maybe a scholar of comics in general might happen to possess this particular pearl of knowledge? I wrote to Mike Tiefenbacher and asked if he knew who lettered the early Jimmys. His answer?

"Sure, I know. It's Pat Gordon Sprang, Dick Sprang's then-wife. She started work at DC in the '40s as Dick's letterer, then got work on her own, and was one of the '50s mainstays. If I recall correctly, she worked there through about 1961, and when she left, Stan Starkman was hired to letter most of the books she had worked on for Jack Schiff (Mort Weisinger hired several temporary substitutes, finally settling on production staffer Milt Snapinn as his go-to guy). Again, this is from memory, but I believe it to be an accurate encapsulation of Pat's tenure there."

Well how about that. The moral of this story, if anything, would have to be the following: The way to find out anything you want to know is to ask the person who knows the answer! 

Wikipedia offers the following additional information. Dick Sprang taught his wife Laura A. Sprang to letter and color for comics; she subsequently took on the pen name of Pat Gordon and handled the lettering of most of her husband's stories (and here is a sample of their teaming from 1945). She later branched out and lettered for DC Comics apart from Mr. Sprang's stories. I found this vintage photograph of Pat Gordon Sprang.
Harry Mendryk has been examining lettering styles quite regularly lately over on his Simon and Kirby Blog. Great idea! From his writings I have learned how to recognize 1940s lettering by Howard Ferguson.

 I thanked Mike Tiefenbacher for his help and he answered, 
"Happy to share what little I know about this stuff! (I'm still trying to track down a '40s letterer who did a lot of work for Sheldon Mayer/Julie/Robert Kanigher, whom I've labeled "the Flash letterer." It's possible ALTER EGO has mentioned him in one of the many issues I have yet to read.)"  
If you know who that Flash Letterer might be, let's help Mike out!

After Mike T. revealed Pat Gordon to me as the mystery letterer, my thoughts started unraveling backwards and I realized that I had possibly met her! Back in either 1987 or 1990, the Guest of Honor at the Chicago Comicon was Dick Sprang and I took Little Mick with me to the convention. Mr. Sprang's very pleasant wife was sitting with him at the table the entire day! But it turns out that Dick Sprang and Laura A. (Pat Gordon) Sprang divorced back in 1951 so this was a different lady that I met. (By the way, the white-haired and bolo-tie-wearing Mr. Sprang very generously invited Little Mick to join him at the table and together they drew pictures of Batman for hours!)


At 4:42 AM, Blogger nkatradis said...

Brian, a great investigative story and a successful quest for answers!
Its great that you documented this bit of information - that Dick Sprang's wife was a great letterer for DC Comics. And that she actually lettered Dick's work!
Thank you for sharing it with us!
nick k

At 9:03 AM, Blogger Alex Jay said...

What happened to Laura Sprang?

At 8:05 PM, Blogger La Belle Esplanade said...

That is real investigative journalism. Well done. Thanks.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Mark Seifert said...

Great stuff. Thanks for tracking this down and sharing the info.


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