Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Next installment of my EC Archives article. Much of this segment was edited out by Grant Geissman and Russ Cochran, but here it is as I wrote it.                                                               

Vault 19

Craig’s front cover for The Vault of Horror 19 (June-July 1951) illustrates Graham Ingels’ story “Reunion!”, but it echoes the rural elements found in the Craig cover for #18. The cover situation comes across as lightweight when compared to the horrific closing page of “Reunion!”, and the character name is changed from Roger to Ralph for no apparent reason.

Jack Kamen’s “Daddy Lost His Head!!” (with two exclamation points in the title) introduced to Vault what Gaines called EC’s “widdle kid” stories, and two more by Kamen appeared in issues #20 and #21.

With “Southern Hospitality!” Craig managed to create an interesting cast of Southern characters for this melodramatic tale, but it curiously carries absolutely no hint of a Southern setting. Completely blank backgrounds are conspicuous in 17 panels. Later, the magnolia murders, mossy horror and decaying mansions of EC’s Southern Gothic tales became closely identified with Ingels.

“Southern Hospitality!” is notable as a turning point in Craig’s writing with the use of far fewer captions. Compared to Feldstein's writing, Craig chose to tell more of the story visually. This continued to evolve in later issues, but this issue is where it began. Leroy lettering often crowded Feldstein’s stories, but Craig’s minimal use of the Leroy lettering gave his stories a distinctive look.

The Vault of Horror and other EC Comics used Leroy lettering by the husband-and-wife team of Jim and Margaret Wroten. On the Feldstein-edited titles the artists received pages minus layouts but with the Wrotens’ inked lettering already down on the boards.

Leroy lettering requires a collection of templates and a small handheld instrument, the scriber. An inked letter is produced by the penholder on one side of the scriber as the metal stylus on the other side follows the grooves in the template positioned an inch below.

EC’s extensive use of Leroy lettering, one suspects, derives as much from Bill Gaines‘ compulsion for neatness as it did from the reasons he offered in The Comics Journal #81 (May 1983): “My father, when he did Wonder Woman, and I have no idea why, used Leroy lettering… The older Wonder Womans were Leroy lettered by Jimmy Wroten, who started out as a salesman for Keuffel & Esser, who made, among other things, my slide rule. They were the big company for slide rules, for templates, for Leroy lettering. Leroy lettering mostly was used for lettering charts, engineering charts and so on, which it is beautiful for. How the hell it got involved in comics I don’t know, but it suited us very well because Al was a script-oriented person. Although he is an artist, and a pretty good one, when he started writing, he was more interested in the script than the art… Because Al used so many words, we found we could do it more clearly with Leroy lettering. If we had wanted a hand-letterer to work that small, to get all that copy in, it would have been very difficult for him. You’ll notice Kurtzman’s stuff has very light copy. He never liked Leroy lettering; he wanted the feel of the hand-lettering, so we used Ben Oda, a fine Japanese hand-letterer, who still works for DC and occasionally does something for us.”

While scripting directly on the boards used for the finished art, Feldstein penciled in the copy in a system advantageous for Wroten, as Gaines explained: “He would take his six, seven or eight sheets of paper, because we had a formula—it was either an eight, seven or six-page story. He’d take a ruler, rule out the panels, he’d letter right into the panels, he’d hold his lettering three lines down so the letterer could read what he was lettering, because he used Leroy lettering with templates, and he had to leave room for the template.”

Since all Feldstein-edited books, over a period of years, featured Leroy lettering, readers assumed Feldstein chose to use Leroy lettering as the ideal adjunct to his clean, crisp art technique, but in 1975, he told interviewer Ed Spiegel (Fanfare #1, Spring 1977) that this choice was not his preference: “I inherited that. When I joined Bill, they were already using it. I think it was a mistake. Harvey didn’t want any part of Leroy. But the fellow who did it for us, Jim Wroten, had this whole family arrangement, and we didn’t have the heart to take it away from them. Jim and his wife did it. We published all those years with it, and I think it made the books appear a bit static. But there’s another angle to examine, and that’s whether the heavy captions I did would have been harder to read without it. It’s not easy to sustain good lettering over a whole paragraph.”

Jim and Margaret Wroten’s studio, Wroten Lettering, remained in operation for decades until Jim Wroten’s death in 1980. The couple, who first met in elementary school, grew up together in Baltimore. When I interviewed Margaret Wroten in 1986, she talked about the mid-1930s when Jim’s uncle helped him land a job at Keuffel & Esser in Morristown, New Jersey, leaving her in Baltimore. A year later, in 1937, they married. “Remember, it was the pit of the Depression,” she recalled. “You couldn’t get jobs. I had worked for the gas and electric company when he worked for Keuffel & Esser. I was just a housewife. He had been with them for about 18 months when we were married. Jim was about the best Leroy letterer around. He taught me how to do it. He demonstrated for Keuffel & Esser at different trade shows; that’s how he started doing it.”

He continued as a Keuffel & Esser salesman during World War II, exempt from military service because of his “confidential work for the government,” as she put it. Wroten Lettering began at the end of WWII when the couple, in 1945, joined William Moulton Marston (1893-1947) and others on the Wonder Woman team at 331 Madison Avenue. 

“Jim quit Keuffel & Esser when we got our studio; he thought it would be a nice little business for the two of us to do together. Our studio was Doc Marston’s office. We were on the 12th floor. The art studio where Harry G. Peter worked was upstairs, right over us on the 13th floor. They had another artist, a girl named Arlene, who did backgrounds for him. Harry G. Peter was a nice old gentleman; he was just a nice person. We went out to Doc’s home several times, but after Doc died we never kept in touch with the rest of the family. He had an assistant who helped him write stories; her name was Joye Hummel. She married, and I think she’s down in Florida someplace.

“That’s how we started. We got started doing Wonder Woman, and through that we met Mr. Gaines [Max Gaines] and did work for him—because Doc Marston and Mr. Gaines were good friends. For Mr. Gaines we did Picture Stories from Science, the books on history and the story of The Bible. We worked on all of those.”

Wroten Lettering’s list of clients boomed in the post-WWII years. “We worked on EC Comics. We worked on Hillman Comics. And Victor Fox—we worked on some of his too. We did charts, and we did lettering on some romance magazines at 500 Fifth. At one time we had some help, but mostly it was just my husband and myself. I liked working with him, and I happened to like Leroy lettering. I think it’s a very fine kind of lettering. In addition to the comic books, the Wrotens also lettered for comic strips—Bert Whitman’s syndicated Debbie Dean (1942-48) and Stan MacGovern’s antic angle on human behavior, Silly Milly (1939-50), which had little syndication but appeared in the featured slot at the top of the New York Post’s comics page. In Sinclair Lewis’ novel Bethel Merriday (1940) a character leaving New York remarks that they won’t miss the city except for Silly Milly. Once toasted in a “Stan MacGovern Night” at Leon & Eddie’s nightclub, the talented MacGovern became one of the more curiously neglected cartoonists of the 20th Century because his popular Silly Milly was never seen nationally. He abandoned cartooning in the 1950s, opened an unsuccessful East Rockaway, Long Island gift shop, and then worked at a Long Island furniture store. He was 72 when he committed suicide in 1975.

With the advent of EC’s New Trend, the Wrotens often worked evenings and weekends to keep pace with the ever-increasing number of words per page. “When we went into the horror comics, heck, the lettering on the horror comics practically took up half the panels. All you were getting was heads, a lot of heads. When we first got into the business, a survey was taken that said the concentration span of a child was very limited—and they said 35 to 40 words a page. Those you could turn out in 15 or 20 minutes. Bill Gaines was paying $2.50 a page. I’d count the words sometimes and find 400 to 500 words on a page. That’s a lot of words. The average way it used to be when comics were first done was with 35, 40 or 50 words a page, and you could do a page in 15 to 25 minutes or half an hour, depending on the words.; 400 to 500 words a page would take an hour or so. When it got so terribly heavy, I think we just reduced the size of the template. We had to go down to a #140 template, I think, because you couldn’t use a #175 with all those words on a page.

“We got it done. We always got it done. We worked night and day on those things. Many nights we stayed until nine o’clock to get something out that they needed the next day. We delivered and picked up our own work. This way we knew it got there; I don’t believe in that messenger stuff. Whenever they would finish the stories, they would give us a call; we would come down, pick up the work, do the lettering and take it back to them when it was done. We tried to proof everything before we sent it down. If Bill found a mistake or made a change, he would mark it off in blue in the margin, and then we would just correct it. Sometimes when there would be changes or he would want to do something else, we would put them on little strips, cut them to fit and put them on with rubber cement.” (This created a problem for reprints many years later when the rubber cement dried, and the tiny strips fell off.) 

This exchange of pick-ups and deliveries kept the Wrotens actively involved with EC, since the procedure often necessitated traveling downtown to EC’s office three or four times a week. The Wrotens saw the EC artists not only at the annual EC Christmas parties but also in the course of their work, since the deadline pace occasionally required the artists to go to 331 Madison. “We just had one big room. It was a small office, but it was large enough for three boards. If they didn’t finish something, or if they wanted to make a last-minute correction, they could do that. Once in a while they would stop in and pick up work from us. If they needed to make a correction, we had pens and ink they could use. This didn’t go on all the time. This was just if they wanted to to do something quick or change something. Lots of time they would even bring up the work. Jack Davis used to come in, and Wood came in. We always had an extra drawing board, and they could sit down and do whatever they wanted to do.

“Bill had very good artists. We always got comic books. I had loads and loads of them. I gave them away. I shouldn’t have, should I? The last comic books we did were for EC, and then Jimmy just got out of it. He went into doing charts, badge cards, formulas for chemical houses and floor plans for trade shows all over the country. We sublet part of the studio during the 1960s. I gave up the studio after he passed on six years ago.” 
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