Richard Starkings and John "JG" Roshell from famed Comicraft stop by to talk with the Indy Hunter, J.M. Hunter, about their road to rich text's on The Indy 5 Ohh! Complete with a quick breakdown on JG's process and perhaps some things you didn't know about Richard Starkings!
There was a point in time during the 90's when, reading my comics, I noticed something different happened. No, it wasn't that I realized the girls couldn't really bend that way (I wouldn't discover that for a few more years, honestly), but something else, something more spectacular started to bend. The lettering in my comics started to speak to me even more. Various characters such as Thor and Apocalypse had buoyancy and dread to their word balloons. I could tell where the balloon tails were going even if Gambit was doing a triple somersault into the air while throwing cards and smacking a wet one on a female character. (To my knowledge I don't think he's smacked a wet one on Wolverine yet.)
The lettering and word balloons in my comics started to pop, flair out rather than fizzle, and I noticed that I kept scanning the credit box to see who's doing this crazy awesome stuff with the character's words. Often more than not I'd see, "Richard Starkings and Comicraft" staring right back at me. To this day whenever I open up a comic or any book by any publisher, even small press books, I can't help but look at the credit box to see who's the letterer. I always squint my eyes and flashback to "Richard Starkings and Comicraft" or "Richard Starkings of Comicraft" even.
The point of this barely lucid ramble is: Richard Starkings and his long time partner in design John 'JG' Roshell of/and Comicraft have imprinted their pioneering style and epic standard of lettering comics on my youth and art/designer consciousness that I'll forever open a book hoping to see that now famed credit. The men have changed the industry...no....our whole medium by just being a letterer doing their jobs. You may have read through the book w/o even blinking. That's a letterer's job. My job, thankfully is being the guy who gets to ask Richard Starkings and John 'JG' Roshell questions for The Indy 5-Ohh!
IH: Well Richard, Mr. Starkings, (Sir Richard one day maybe?)
RS: I'll settle for Lionheart. My dad is "Mr. Starkings."
IH: Ok, Mr. Lionheart. Comicraft has been around now for 19 years. Most of us indy creators who are doing our own thing are just hoping to make it to 20 pages, 20 issues, make 20 bucks even! I'm not gonna ask you, (yet), what your secret ingredient to success is, but in 2012 you'll hit the 20 year mark. Can you take us back to that day you decided, "That's it, I'm doing my own thing"?
RS: Although Comicraft's official anniversary is 2012, I started digital lettering on my own in 1991... I hired John JG Roshell a year later and it was his innocent question; "What should I say when I answer the phone?" that prompted me to call our nascent studio, "Comicraft."
I'd been doing my own thing for three years at that point but hiring JG, who still works with me after all these years, was a turning point because he also loved comics and was enthused by the possibilities I was excited by... I'd seen John Byrne's computer lettering in NAMOR and just knew that the industry was heading in that direction. There was incredible resistance at the beginning of the 90's and it would have been easy to yield to that resistance, but JG was right behind me, cheering me on, as determined as I was to open up new paths and lead the way. So it really was a team effort, rather than my own thing -- I had the contacts and the experience, JG had the youth and the know how.
IH: In the last 19 years of Comicraft, you have found yourself in roles other than lettering, switching the hats per se. If it's cool, I'd like to ask you about the different experiences of each role:
RS: Hmm, is that a question? Being a publisher is perhaps the most thankless of all the tasks you've listed here -- I decide to self-publish Hip Flask because I wanted to hold on to my rights. That meant establishing credit terms with a printer and with Diamond. That first issue of Hip Flask sold really well and covered my costs; so when Al Davison, a friend in England, told me he was looking for a publisher for his long out-of-print OGN, The Spiral Cage, I volunteered to publish it. I figured I'd established the apparatus for publishing, so I may as well use it in-between issues of Hip Flask. Over the next couple of years I published a handful of extant but homeless graphic novels created by friends in the business, including the brilliant Strange Embrace by Dave Hine, Skidmarks by Ilya, Kafka and Solstice by Steve Seagle, Gunpowder Girl and the Outlaw Squaw by Don Hudson, Brickman by Lew Stringer and, finally, The Nightmarist by Duncan Rouleau.
I doubt I made a single penny off any of the titles -- initial orders through Diamond ranged from 400 to 850 copies and subsequent reorders would rarely top 20 or 30 copies. I realized that their were just too many titles for retailers to consider each month and the discount for retailers on independent publishers was just too low for them to give me any real attention. The most successful titles in my library, aside from the first three issues of Hip Flask, were Comic Book Lettering the Comicraft Way, which has sold close to 5,000 copies at this point, mostly via Amazon and a small distributor called Partners, and the first edition of Tim Sale Black and White which sold through its 3,000 print run.
I made what I now consider the mistake of allowing creators to retain all their rights. Publishing other creators' books made me no profits whatsoever, but some of the creators sold the media rights or made money selling copies of the books I overgenerously comped them (I sent at least 200 copies of each book to each creator). I hadn't thought ahead -- for four or five years afterward I was paying my printer $50 a month per title per month to keep the books in storage. The cost was crippling.
Quite rightly creators focus on their rights, on their ownership of material they've created, and I respected that, and still do. But I was naive and didn't really recognize the obstacles facing small publishers -- or the high expectations that would be placed on me, innocently enough, by the creators of those books. Larry Young, who successfully published a large number of successful graphics novels, including Demo, Last of the Independents and Rock Bottom took a lot of stick for asking for a piece of the rights to properties he published, and it was only after I followed in his footsteps that I realized why a publisher has a right to ask for a return on his investment.
I don't regret publishing. I learned a lot and met Justin Moritat Norman, who drew most of the first dozen issues of Elephantmen, because I published Solstice, which Steve Seagle brought to me because he loved our edition of Strange Embrace, and because of my relationship with Dave Hine on Strange Embrace, I got to work with Dave and later Shaky Kane on Elephantmen.
I often say that the best kind of Image Creator is a former publisher/self publisher. Robert Kirkman self-published long before becoming a pillar of the Image Comics we know today. He and I both know what we gain by working with Image, because we know what we lost when we published our books ourselves.
RS: I love writing Elephantmen, but I'm not sure if I consider myself to be a writer as such. Kurt Busiek is a writer, Mark Waid is a writer, Alan Moore is a writer. I think of myself as the creator and driving force behind Elephantmen. I'm not interested in writing books for Marvel and DC... I feel it's all been done and there's nothing I could do on Fantastic Four or Batman that I can't do on my own title, under my own direction.
I totally respect writers like the ones I've mentioned, because I now understand the challenges involved in creating even ONE comic book every month... It's not easy but it is SO much fun. The initial act of creating stories month after month is very gratifying and the feedback you get from readers makes it all worthwhile.
RS: It can be a lot of fun working with fellow creators on the design and presentation of comic books and trade paperback collections. When you're working with talented folk like J. Scott Campbell, Joe Madureira and Tim Sale, creators who enjoy their work as much as you do, it's almost as much fun as working on your own title. JG is, I think, as much a part of the team on Astro City or Danger Girl as the writer, the colorist or the editors involved... And I think design is an intrinsic and often unappreciated part of the whole package. Unfortunately, it's a part of the package that many publishers undervalue or regard as an area where they can easily cut corners. You get what you pay for!
IH: (And for some old school before the Comicraft years, when you were working on "2000 A.D." and over at Marvel UK,)
RS: I loved working at Marvel UK. I regard it as Marvel College... I learned SO much SO quickly and got to meet and work with some of the top talents in the UK industry at the time... People like Alan Davis, Jamie Delano, Paul Neary, Mark Farmer and young Grant Morrison. Alan Davis in particular was extremely generous with his time and knowledge and got me my first work for DC lettering Detective Comics. Simon Furman and I started at Marvel UK at around the same time and I had a lot of time for his no-nonsense approach to getting things done, getting stories written. A very easy person to work with and a totally dependable workhorse.
It was also exciting to break talent like Dan Abnett, Bryan Hitch and Dougie Braithwaite, all of whom did their first professional work for me on our Action Force weekly. I also got to edit the Doctor Who strip, launch The Real Ghostbusters and three US-style comic books, Dragon's Claws, Death's Head and the Epic title, The Sleeze Brothers. It was a great time to be at Marvel, right in the center of London and I made a lot of great friends and worked with Marvel US luminaries like Jim Shooter, Tom DeFalco, Greg Wright and the Great Archie Goodwin. No regrets whatsoever there.
IH: What's a hobby that average fans may not know about you?
RS: I'm a Buddhist and very active in the Buddhist lay organization, the Soka Gakkai... It's a big part of my life and I was introduced to Buddhism by John Carnell, who wrote The Real Ghostbusters for me and The Sleeze Brothers.
IH: We've seen your creations, such as "Hip Flask "and "Elephantmen," come to life. Do you have any more in store for fans?
RS: Lots more Elephantmen, it's very much the center of my attention these days. I'm not sure if I have another idea into which I'm prepared to invest the same amount of energy, but you never know...
IH: Do you see any becoming more than just comic books, maybe a theatrical or animated feature?
RS: Elephantmen has been optioned for motion picture development by Zucker Productions. I've been working on the treatment with producer Janet Zucker.
IH: Lastly, Mr. Starkings: Do you have anything coming down the line, or anything you'd like to promote?
RS: We have a sale on fonts at comicbookfonts.com through July 31st, and Volume 4 of Elephantmen is available in trade paperback now!
IH: Thanks for your time, it's been a pleasure!"
RS: You're welcome!
And next we have an interview with JG Roshell as well - the other half of Comicraft!
IH: John Roshell, or "JG", how did you meet Richard Starkings and what lead to you two working together?
JG: Late 1992. I'd graduated from UCLA with a degree in design and was doing whatever freelance work I could rustle up while trying to get a record deal with my band. One afternoon my girlfriend receives a phonecall from some British guy who wants to know if she's interested in typing comic book scripts into his new computer. I practically grab the phone out of her hand, "Did you say LETTER COMIC BOOKS?!?!" Well, the record deal never happened, and now I have a near 20-year career lettering and designing comic books. And the girlfriend became my wife and the mother of my two boys, both of whom love music and comics.
IH: Some quick questions from friends of mine that are also fans of your work. What's your favorite font that you've created, and what's your favorite font that someone else, maybe a peer or someone you looked up to, created?
JG: Hey, that's like asking me to choose my favorite child! I wouldn't want the other fonts to get jealous.... but, alright -- first one that comes to mind: SchoolsOut. It was one of the first fonts where I started incorporating some of my "outside of comics" visual influences into Comicraft's fonts and lettering, and I think this one managed to strike a great balance between graffiti and comic book style -- so that it manages to be both, or neither, at the same time.
As far as other people's fonts, Trixie (the first and best of the crusty old typewriter fonts) was the first font I ever bought with my own money -- I just HAD to have it! Computers are best at being accurate and perfect, and up until that point, computer fonts were all about accurately re-creating traditional typefaces. I was blown away that someone would apply all this technology towards something that looked so messed up and imperfect! Trixie, in my opinion, started the whole "grunge type" look of the '90s, which we've only recently moved past.
IH: I've met and spoke with you numerous times on the comic convention circuit, mostly on the West Coast, but I was wondering if you ever attend other shows such as Typecon, shows that are more focused in your field of logos, typeface, and fonts?
JG: Nope, never done any of those. Didn't even know there were type conventions! We seem to exist outside the realm of traditional typographers. I don't really know any of the "big name" people in type, or talk shop with very many other people who do this. Which is kind of weird, I suppose, when you consider how long we've been at it! I guess we're kind of like the kids in over the corner of the playground, doing our own thing with our little group of friends, and nobody else pays us much attention. Which I suppose could describe working in comic books in general, most of the time!
IH: I'm a big logo enthusiast, constantly trying to hand draw them out in my sketch books, but there is something to be said about what programs such as Illustrator can do with them. Having had the experience you have working with both traditional means and digital means, what do you feel 20 years later are the pros and cons of working up a logo?
JG: I've actually gotten back into the habit of doing pencil sketches and sending them to clients as preliminary ideas. I find once something's on the computer it looks so clean and perfect it's easy to think you're finished, when there's still possibilities and interesting angles left to be explored. Purely computer-designed logos can often end up kind of undeveloped and bland, as opposed to ideas that are worked up from paper and pencil (and eraser!) first.
On the other hand, some great logos have come from sitting there in Illustrator, trying out the word in every font on the menu, finding some that "click", and going from there. I suppose the great thing is that we now have such an amazing array of tools to work with. Between Illustrator and Photoshop, we can fully realize a logo in perfectly straight-edged, shiny 3D glory, which simply wasn't possible until 20 years ago.
IH: You've accomplished a great deal in the industry, is there anything, any project or goal that still haunts you? Something you've yet to do? Jim Mahfood wanted to swim with sharks, you don't want to skydive with monkey's or anything like that do you?
JG: I'd like to see my comic strip Charley Loves Robots (currently running two pages at a time in the back of Elephantmen and on Facebook) become a full-fledged monthly, either in print or online. I'd like to win an Eisner Award for design, though at this point I think it's gonna come posthumously. Mainly, I hope to retire on a beach in Hawaii, where someone brings me piña coladas while my grandkids splash in the ocean.
IH: Lastly John, what can we expect to see from you coming up? Any news or projects you'd like to share with us?
JG:More Charley, more fonts, more Elephantmen. All good stuff!
Annnnd that's it people, special thanks to Richard Starkings and JG Roshell of Comicraft, check out more at the Comicraft website. And special thanks to The Resident for the early edits and BK Thomson for the late assists!
-As always people, if you're underground, on the cusp, or over the top, I'll probably want to check out what you got! I remain, always Indy Hunting, but never nothing, the one, the only J.M. Hunter! (ok, google searches show there's alot of J.M. Hunters, but only one Indy Hunter!).
Written or Contributed by: J.M. Hunter