Janice Chiang: Dazzling, Lovable Letterer by Rebecca Kaplan

Each February, Women of Horror Month happens, but this year, I couldn’t celebrate with the annual blood drive or romp around the graveyard. Instead, I read comics and lots of them. While the rest of the world was still figuring out how to entertain themselves from home, as a disabled person, I’ve been honing my homebody craft for years and have a ton of floppies laying around my apartment, so this wasn’t a hard task. I poured through Marvel Comics history to find the spookiest women in the Marvel Bullpen over the years, and re-discovered Janice Chiang (trust me she’s spooky) – and although at the time, I was only able to discuss her work in brief, I thought the lively, loquacious letterer needed an article all her own.

Since letterers are often overlooked by fans and critics alike, it can be hard to find information on them; however, it’s their part of the comic people focus on most – the actual words – and the stylization of those words give each book a distinct sound. In 2017, ComicBook.com, recognized Chiang as the best letterer of the year for “[tailoring] her work to the story at hand” and knowing what the audience needs and expects from each story; however, that award aside, often, critics only associate Chiang with titles like Transformers, Visionaries, and Rom: Spaceknight – and those titles don’t even skim the surface of what she’s worked on in her nearly four decade and over 69,000-page career as a lettering artist (needless to say, she’s still underappreciated).

Lovely, Lively, Loquacious Letterers

Comic books consist of many parts and the letterer’s job is equal in importance to every other member of the creative team: writer, penciler, inker, colorist, flatter, and editor. However, often, the critical acclaim only goes to the writer and the main artist on a series, not the other members of the creative team. It’s only recently that colorists started regularly being credited on issue covers (my best guess is this started happening after 2014 – thanks 2020 Kelly Fitzpatrick – but it’s definitely a practice that many publishers have adopted as of 2021). But letterers? HELL NO! Fans can only find letterer credits on the creator page inside the issue itself, so thank you, Comics Toon ‘N Toys, for opening multiple back issues for me. You know? For research…

One of the most common misconceptions about letterers is that they copy words onto the page and cannot think for themselves. However, that’s simply not true. Each font choice, word-break, and balloon style, gives a comic book a unique cadence and rhythm. Thus, of all the elements defining comics, the most paradoxical is that the medium is often charged with expressing sound through silent sequential art, putting comics in the unique position of needing to imply heard sounds (and silent verbal inflections) through seen images on a page. In graphic narratives, lettering and text balloons convey “sensorial experience in an iconic way,” a decision that’s often left up to the letterer. And while many critics and fans may fail to recognize the importance of the shape and color of speech balloons – as well as the letters themselves – in comics, former Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee once said of the unsung heroes of the industry:

“Letterers receive the least amount of ‘star’ attention amidst creators of comics, yet it is their work that our eyes focus on most when we’re reading a comic book. Paradoxically, the letterers who do the best jobs get the least notice because their work is all in service of the story.”

Well, that certainly seems to be true for Chiang.

Eye tracking, or getting insight into what people see while looking at specific content, is a regular practice in various disciplines. While I’m not sure if Chiang has any notion of the scientific concept of eye tracking, the gist of it certainly plays out on her comic pages with her letters enhancing the art, not overwhelming it. Chiang told BACK ISSUE! Magazine’s Michael Aushenker in 2011 that:

“Basically, we’re like the soundtrack to a comic. We’re integral. You can’t really notice it, but it enhances. It’s subtle.” And it takes a lot of work to subtly guide the eye of the reader from panel to panel and action sequence to action sequence.

“It takes a lot of engagement” to do a good job at lettering, whether it’s an adult comic or a kid’s comic, because as she tells the interviewer, in so-called kid’s cartoons, “the stories are really funny, working on two levels for the kids and for the adults” – the only difference is scale: the lettering is larger in kid’s comics.”

Portrait of the Letterer Behind Words

In the 1970s, Chiang broke into comics by fixing other letterers’ work – including Jean Simek, Annette Kiwecki, and Sam Rosen – for Marvel Comics under John Verpoorten’s supervision in the Marvel Bullpen. After growing up in the back room of her parents’ hand laundry shop with her three siblings, she found herself on the path to lettering courtesy of her lifelong friend, Larry Hama, and his creative partner, Ralph Reese, at Neal Adams’ Crusty Bunkers (and she must’ve had a natural talent for lettering because after she gained experience, Adams called over to Marvel and got her a job doing lettering corrections). As a young letterer, Chiang studied Joe Rosen’s work, telling Aushenker in 2011:

“I loved Joe Rosen’s hand because he had an interplay of thick and thin lines. I don’t like blocky, one-dimensional strokes. That goes back to my background. My father taught me how to use a calligraphy brush.”

However, after three months, she took a break from the industry to focus on community organizing and her family so her comic lettering career didn’t take off until the 1980s, aka the Bronze Age, when she lettered up to ten books a month, including an issue of Vision and the Scarlet Witch!

Marvel Comics Editor Louise Jones Simonson gave Chiang her first book upon her return to comics, a Conan the Barbarian issue drawn by John Buscema. She told BACK ISSUE!: “That became a long-running series for me. What happens is, you get what people can’t handle. You get the overflow. I looked at it as a learning experience.”

During this time, she also worked long stints on some of the industry’s most popular series: Conan the Barbarian (1982–1990), Alpha Flight (1987–1994), Iron Man (1987–1990), Ghost Rider (vol. 2; 1990–1996), What If? (1990–1995), and Impulse (1999–2002).

“I lettered Mark Texeira on Ghost Rider,” Chiang said. For people who don’t know, Marvel’s Ghost Rider is the story of a man who makes a demonic deal to save a loved one but instead finds himself cursed by the embodiment of the Spirit of Vengeance. Rosie Knight at Women Write About Comics alerted me that Chiang is to thank for the badass balloons in the Ghost Rider comics.

“On Ghost Rider, I did this crazy flaming balloon. When I came into the industry, it was pretty straightforward. I would think, ‘Let me do something special for Ghost Rider.’ Why don’t they run away and scream? It’s a skull with a flaming head. I was working out at the gym, and I had an idea. I know; let’s give him a flaming balloon. That was fun.”

So, yeah, if you love the flaming bubbles for Ghost Rider thank Chiang’s weight lifting routine because all the best thinking happens in motion, at least for kinesthetic learners and ADHDers like myself (my executive function seriously declined after leaving dance, but it wasn’t all bad, it also gave me an appreciation for the art of word balloons around a herkie in Dazzler #27). So, thank you, Chiang. The exciting thing about my relationship with letters is that it’s so motion-based – possibly because of the years that I spent trying (and failing) to learn Labanotation – and that’s something that Chiang’s lettering style has always tapped into for me.

Through Chiang’s extensive experience, she’s worked with numerous comic greats and up-and-comers, offering her some exciting insights on how lettering has changed over time in the Marvel Bullpen:

“Sam Rosen, Artie Simek, the hands were really blocky; the sound effects were really square, not too many curves. But with Neal Adams, Walt [Simonson], Bernie [Wrightson], the lettering got looser in the mid ’70s…But then there was permission to use a more calligraphic style. In the ’80s, there was a loosening under Jim Shooter’s editorial hand. A hand-letterer used elliptical templates to make balloons that sort of killed the organic balloons. For digital lettering, I pull out the corners of the balloon shapes and make them more organic. It’s interesting to see the digital work of different letterers. I can tell at what point they started studying and reading comics by the kinds of balloons.”

However, as I’ve said, Chiang is an industry giant in her own right. (You can watch a video of her hand-lettering HERE.)

At the Hand-Letterer vs. Digital Divide

Chiang told BACK ISSUE! Magazine that, “I simultaneously freelanced for Marvel, DC and the now-defunct Tundra. I worked on Disney Adventures – whatever editor Heidi MacDonald gave me”Squirrelly Burly??? In addition to her work at Marvel, she’s also lettered books for Dark Horse Comics (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Scholastic (Goosebumps), Tokyopop, Kevin Eastman’s Tundra Publishing, Archie Comics (Riverdale), Resolution Independent, Acclaim Comics/Valiant (Toy Story, The Mighty Ducks), and many, many more. As one of the few professional letterers to successfully transition from hand to digital lettering, Chiang honed her “digital” craft on her clunky Quadra computer at Acclaim (thanks to a tip from Jim Starlin in 1992), and much to the chagrin of digital letterers.

However, it wasn’t an easy transition for her to get there. In the 1990s, digital fonts gradually became more common among many comic publishers. And initially, some companies responded by telling hand letterers to make fonts of their own for their digital workflow. But, according to the letterer Todd Klein, although Marvel was resistant to the idea at first, it followed suit around 1996, at which point, hand letterers were out of work for a year. Although Chiang sees the good and bad of the digital revolution, she doesn’t waiver on how Marvel Comics handled the transition, saying:

“It was sort of an Amish shunning being a woman and the male bonding thing. I think a lot of people who ran digital thought I would drop by the wayside and disappear, but having done it for so long, you don’t stop the way you’re doing something. If you learn a new way to look at things, you don’t start. The people who were there at the digital divide when they see you hear they’re uncomfortable.”

However, despite the upheaval, she adds she’s happy for Chris Eliopoulos, who started Marvel’s digital lettering department: “He started from the bottom up. He paid his dues.”

According to Chiang, it wasn’t difficult to adapt to the digital revolution – once someone showed her how to do it. Referencing the seismic shift in the industry, she’s joked in the past about needing to weightlift to develop new time management skills for the digital revolution (funny how something that’s supposed to make our lives easier complicates it), saying that:

“What was difficult was that nobody would show me. Marvel did a lockout on hand-letterers in 1996. That whole year, I didn’t letter a comic. Jon Babcock pulled a bunch of us traditional hand-letterers: Jack Morelli, Bill Felix, Mike Higgins – at Jon’s house. He said to us, “You guys need to see how this works.””

Thus, Chiang had to refine her craft, creating a glossary of her letterforms, balloons, and sound effects for her digital workflow. As of 2021, Chiang has several regular working relationships close to my heart (although in writing this article, there’s tons more of her work to read, so our parasocial calligraphy friendship will keep on keeping on). Presently, Chiang is mostly working with Storm King Comics on John Carpenter’s Night Terrors: 13 Horsemen and John Carpenter Presents Storm Kids: The Grimms Town Terror Tales: Rise of the Candy Creeper and DC Entertainment on DC SUPER HERO GIRLS.

Janice Chiang Smashes Comics

Recently, Chiang (a first-generation immigrant) lettered Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru, which tells the story of Anti-Asian hate crime in Metropolis’ Chinatown in 1946. In this DC Comics story, inspired by the 1940s Superman radio serial “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” the creative team brings their retelling of the adventures of the Lee family as they team up with Superman to smash the Klan!

And, I’m going to bet that working on Superman Smashes the Klan was significant for the letterer because her sister, the poet Fay Chiang, and good friend, Hama, were both founding members of Basement Workshop, “an arts activist and social justice group which spawned many of the New York City Asian American arts nonprofit organizations you see today,” according to fellow comic writer and letter Amy Chu.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, Chiang was raised during the height of the Vietnam War, and the letterer has discussed her own experience with discrimination in the past, saying, “As far as the immigration experience, [i]t was not comfortable being Asian. You would keep a low profile.” She added, “They [were] killing people who look like us over there,” and so she got involved in the anti-war and equality movements (check out Meet the Chin Family for more of this history).

In 1974, “protest was unheard of in the Chinese American community,” according to Asian Americans for Equality. However, “anger had been building in Manhattan’s Chinatown where a private firm, the DeMatteis Corp., refused to hire Asian construction workers for the 764-unit apartment building.” So, when the federally-funded project continued to discriminate against the 100 Asian construction workers who applied for the Confucius Plaza job, activists organized in public protest. “Outraged by this blatant discrimination, a coalition of Chinatown residents, students, and professionals came together to demand the right of access for Asian Americans to some of those construction jobs,” Chiang said of the real-world events that are fictionally told in the DC’s Superman Smashes the Klan.

On May 16th, 1974, Asian Americans for Equal Employment protesters took to the streets to force a work stoppage at the Confucius Plaza construction site. According to Mary Uyematsu Kao, whose photographs are in Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement, the 1974 Confucius Plaza demonstrations are least documented in the Asian American civil rights movement. Uyematsu Kao told AsAmNews:

“The most important thing in winning that was the unity of the Asian American workers with the Black and Puerto Rican construction workers. It was important in terms of solidarity among people of color. And huge support from the Chinatown community came in the form of garment workers, senior citizens, and high school kids coming out to demonstrations. That was really inspiring.”

Among the ranks of the Confucius Plaza protesters was Chiang, who became active in the Vietnam War anti-war movement and “worked on how to get the word out” for demonstrations “by creating graphics” for posters for a couple of years. Chiang said, “back then, you were a rebel, a mover and shaker, a revolutionary,” noting in BACK ISSUE! that she got involved with the Asian American civil rights movement because of employment discrimination:

“We said, ‘Something’s wrong here.’ There were no Chinese policemen, and there’s a big language gap, no bilingual teachers. There were a lot of things to be done, and the African-American movement inspired us. There was a real flow of creativity.”

In this historical, groundbreaking moment (full of passion and creativity), Chiang met her husband amid the Asian American civil rights movement. As a person looking back at recent history, not sure how all the events unfolded, but it seems to me that Chiang and her husband are Avengers fighting racism from the suburbs of New Jersey. Now, isn’t that romantic?

Dujour Around the World

To end on a bit of fun, and because rock music and anti-capitalism go hand-in-hand (umm, punk), here’s some musical notes. In the BACK ISSUE! interview, when asked about her “drug of choice” while working on classic Marvel comics, Chiang answered her Walkman and iPod, saying, “Music is a big part of my family. My husband’s music collection goes back to the 1920s.” She added that while lettering, she listens to:

“Jazz fusion, Pat Matheny, Al Jarreau. A friend of mine, Jerry Marotta, a renowned and a house drummer at the Power Plant recording studio. He owns a studio called Dreamland Studios in Woodstock. He and his brother were in this group, Orleans. They did a song called Dance With Me. Rick is the drummer on the Archies’ hit song, Sugar, Sugar.”

So maybe that’s why I’ve always listened to Sugar, Sugar while reading Riverdale comics?

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