The comic book letterer extraordinaire stops by to talk about his new line of Spider-Man books for Young Readers, as well as his career in comics!
Joe Caramagna has come to be associated with just about every Marvel Comics character under the sun. He's also worked on a lot of non-Marvel Comics as well. As one of the busiest comics letterers in the industry, his name can be seen in the credits of a multitude of comics every month. Versatile and willing to work, Caramagna has actually held a few different jobs in the industry, and is now writing a series of Spider-Man stories in Marvel's new Young Readers Novels line of books featuring the wall crawler. Two books have already come out, and there are more to come. The first in the series, entitled Behind the Mask, will be available at Scholastic's elementary school book fairs, which start on August 13.
The Outhouse (OH): You're in the midst of a series of Spider-Man prose novels for younger readers. Was writing something you've wanted to do for a while?
Joe Caramagna (JC): Writing is what I originally wanted to do, before I had dreams of being a superstar penciler. And even then, I never had much interest in drawing someone else's scripts, I always wanted to write my own. I wrote everything as a kid, short stories, comics (that I drew myself), I started a novel that I just kept writing even though I didn't really have a plot. Recently, my sister found a Gilligan's Island screenplay in my old closet back home that I started when I was a kid, it's hilarious!
OH: How did this Spider-Man project come about?
JC: A couple of years ago, Nate Cosby, who was an editor at Marvel at the time, hired me to write a series of all ages Spider-Man short comic book stories, starting with his origin, to be published in France. I wrote and lettered the stories in English – I don't speak French at all – and they were translated later. What happened, though, was that the stories were adapted into prose as young readers novels. Somewhere down the line, Marvel wanted to try it here in the United States, and asked if I would be interested in re-writing them as prose stories and I jumped at the chance.
OH: These books are a mix of prose and comics/illustration. How did you approach the design of the books? Is there anything in common between the process of designing the Young Readers books and designing the letters for a comics page?
JC: I didn't have much input into the design of the books because they were published this way in France first. But my editor Cory Levine is very good about letting me see a pdf of the book before it goes to print to make sure that I'm okay with the way it looks, and I think they're great.
OH: How do you view Spider-Man? What stories from the past have shaped the way you write about him and his world?
JC: To me, Spider-Man has the most tragic origin of any super hero. Batman's origin is pretty tragic, too, but imagine how Peter Parker must feel every day knowing that he is somewhat responsible for his Uncle Ben's death. That's a lot of guilt to carry around with you, especially for a teenager. And because of that, his credo becomes "with great power must come great responsibility." It's powerful stuff.
I've heard Stephen Wacker, Spider-Man editor at Marvel, say many times that the Stan Lee & Steve Ditko issues of Amazing Spider-Man are the best comic books you'll ever read, and I agree. Those issues were the greatest influence on me in writing these stories, and that influence will be clear to long-time Spider-Man fans who read my novels to their kids. After all, the novels take place in the first year of Spider-Man's life and each book is about his first encounters with many of his most famous villains, Vulture, Dr. Octopus, Sandman, Green Goblin, etc.
OH: How many more of these Young Readers Novels can we expect? When will the next one be out?
JC: The first two, Behind the Mask and Vulture came out in May and can be found at your local comic shop as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other major booksellers. The next two installments, Dr. Octopus and Sandman, will be on sale in October. After that, there are two more in the series, but whether or not they are put on the publishing schedule probably depends on sales, so please go to your LCS or Amazon and pre-order them so Marvel knows that you want more! They're a great tool to get kids to read because it's subject matter that they could get excited about, and they're very reasonably priced.
OH: Let's switch gears a bit: When did comics come into your life, and when and how did you decide that you'd be working in comics for a living?
JC: When I was very young, I loved reruns of the Adam West Batman TV series, and Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends on Saturday mornings, so I already loved super heroes by the time I found comics. My mom has some pictures of me wearing Captain America shirts, too. When a family friend showed me some of his old Batman comics, I fell in love with them right away. And then in the 5th grade, a friend gave me some copies of Amazing Spider-Man, and I think I knew immediately that I wanted to work in comics for a living. I've never wanted to do anything else.
OH: As far as lettering goes, they say that "you only notice lettering when it's bad." How do you approach the job of lettering? What design principles do you work with in your lettering?
JC: My approach to lettering is very basic, and that's to keep it simple, and be consistent. Anything more than is necessary is just showing off and nobody really cares about that. My job is to sell the words as best I can and help the art tell the story either through sound effects, or leading the reader's eye through the page. And I choose the font for each title based on the art and the tone of the writing. And as far as consistency, I try to make sure my balloon shapes are all sort of the same and there's the same amount of "air" around the letters in each one. And I like to keep the thickness of my tails the same. See? I bet you didn't know that much though went into lettering. Most people think it's just fitting the text into the panels!
OH: Letterers are as much a part of the visuals in a comic as the penciller, inker, and colorist. When lettering a book, do you communicate with those creators as you're working?
JC: Sometimes. But most of the time, it's just me and the editor. Though there are times when Mark Waid asks for a special effect or Matt Fraction asks for a type of balloon or text, like the creative way that Split-Lip uses profanity in Invincible Iron Man.
OH: You've had a long association with a lot of Marvel characters. Do you have a favorite?
JC: Spider-Man, without a doubt. With Marvel characters, it's not even close. I grew up loving Superman and Batman too, but Spider-Man was always number one for me. He's the one I most identified with. And being able to write Spider-Man stories as my job is an incredible experience that I'll always cherish.
OH: Now that you've had multiple jobs in comics (writer/letterer), what next? Will you take on multiple jobs in other industries? Will we soon be saying, for example, "rapper/actor Joe Caramagna...?"
JC: I also have a professional inking credit for a Platinum Studios series called Consumed and I inked my creator-owned graphic novel Model Operandi. But if I ever leave comics, I'd like to be a singer/songwriter like James Taylor or Carole King. The only thing holding me back is that I can't sing and I can't write songs. But I think everyone should learn how to do a lot of different jobs in their industry, it's a good way to stay employed.
OH: Is there anything else you'd like to tell us that we didn't ask?
If there's anything more anybody wants to know, you can always find me on Twitter @JoeCaramagna. I answer any and all questions. If you take the time to ask me something, I promise I'll take the time to give you an answer. I love talking comics, writing, politics, etc. Come on over and chat!