We are in a golden age of comics right now and in an age of geek none of us could have ever imagined, but with the good comes the bad. As our geek news sites become more corporate they tend to focus less on comics and in some cases less on independent creators. My goal is to never shy away from giving a soapbox to those starting out, the independent, the unsung and the creators trying to carve a niche for themselves.
For today’s edition of Lettering with Style, I am interviewing letterer extraordinaire Marshall Dillon. For those who don’t know who he is here’s a bit about Marshall from his web page.
A comic book industry veteran, Marshall got his start in 1994, in the middle of the Indy boom. Over the years he’s been everything from an independent self-published writer to an associate publisher working on properties like GI JOE, Voltron, and Street Fighter. He’s done just about everything except draw a comic book, and worked for just about every publisher except the “Big Two”. Primarily a father and letterer these days, he also dabbles in old-school paper and dice RPG game design.
Now that you know a little about Marshall. Check out the interview below.
Marco: Generally, I ask two typical questions to start things off but I’m going to switch it up here. Instead, I want to start off by asking you a question I recently asked Micah Myers and D.C. Hopkins.
There’s quite a bit of misconception when it comes to lettering. What are some of the misconceptions you’ve run across as a letterer in this business and if you could what’s something you would like to see changed or improved upon when it comes to letterers in this business?
Marshall: I’m sure lots of people will answer that question by talking about how “good lettering shouldn’t be noticed” and that “only bad lettering gets noticed”, (a debatable cliché to be sure), but that’s pretty broad. I’m going to drill down a bit…
I think the biggest misconception within the industry about lettering is that the letterer is responsible for catching errors in the script. While it is common enough to get notes from the writer or editor saying, “change this, change that”… “add a comma here, delete a comma there”, it’s not our job to ferret out these errors and change them without instruction. Of course, I fix anything I notice but I don’t hunt down mistakes, that’s the editor’s job and it’s the writer’s job to polish their script before sending it to the rest of the team. Along those lines, if the artist took considerable liberties and the script wasn’t reworked to reflect those changes the letterer is left trying to reconcile the out-of-date script with the art. Thirty minutes of the editor’s or writer’s time could save a lot of hassle.
What could be improved? Well, this might touch on another misconception. People often view letterers as hired hands. Like we’re just doing the work you’d rather not do. But really, we’re professional artists with the same goal as everyone else on the team. We want to serve the story in the most effective way possible. We work our own particular creative skill set and apply what we’ve learned over the years (decades) to help make the final comic look and read as well as possible.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really great people. People that consider me a friend and a part of the creative team. People that appreciate what I do and give me credit on the covers alongside the writer, artist, and colorist. Mike Marts and Joe Pruett at Aftershock (Animosity, Black Eyed Kids, Shipwreck, Pestilence, and more I can’t talk about yet.) take that team approach as does Jim Zub and his collaborators Steven Cummings and Djibril Morissette-Phan (Wayward & Glitterbomb at Image Comics).
Conversely, I’ve worked with companies that didn’t credit me at all or credited my work to someone else because to them the position of letterer is one where the letterers are interchangeable.
Marco: Now we get to the standard starter questions. It lets the audience get to know you some more. So, what made you fall in love with comics? And how did you get your start in this business?
Marshall: What made me fall in love with comics… Hmm. Uncanny X-Men #203. I don’t know if it was the first comic I read but it’s the first one I REMEMBER reading. That cover is just so amazing. It’s a very dynamic design and the colors are beautiful. Old school colorists don’t get enough respect or love. They did so much with such limited tools and so little time. Honestly, I couldn’t name a single one either. Such a shame.
Anyway, X-Men #203 got me hooked on X-Men. Claremont’s stories throughout the X-verse kept me hooked for years. I soon fell in love with Marc Silvestri’s X-Men and Wolverine art and always in the background… Tom Orzechowski. To my teenage mind lettering WAS invisible but Tom literally GAVE VOICE to the characters and creators. His unique style and affectations MADE the book. He was the voice of the X-Men as much as Claremont was the mind of the X-Men. Their run was spectacular, formative, and, if I’m not mistaken, pretty unprecedented.
So, how did I get my start? How far into the weeds do you want to get? There’s never really an “I MADE IT!” point so I’ll give you all of it.
Fresh out of high school I started working on comics with three friends. At the time, I was going to school to be an artist and working full-time but two of the four of us were much better artists so we formed teams. I was going to write a book and my buddy Josh Ellingson was going to draw it. We were working on a shared universe of mutants with super powers. I was basically ripping off X-men and other Marvel books, but so were the Image books at that time. It was the zeitgeist. Next to nothing was original. All of it was derivative or a complete swipe. So, we worked on pages, started hitting conventions, did an ashcan and then it all imploded.
Our little company fell apart and so did some of the relationships. I ended up quitting art school and my job and gave up my apartment to “give it a real go” with my buddy Noel Collins who was one of my co-conspirators and the artist of the other team book we’d been trying to put together. I worked part-time on a horse farm and an animal behavior correction farm and lived in a shared studio space. I had no shower and would crash at Noel’s place every few days to wash off the smell of horse. Living like that is hard. Not much work got done. But I did come up with a title… “SCRUBS IN SCRUBLAND”.
After a few months of living like that things had to change and I got a job as a screen printer and moved into an apartment with another friend, Donovan Entrekin, who was working on his own comics. I doodled, I dabbled, I thought up stories. Donovan moved on and my old friend Josh Ellingson moved in. I doodled and dabbled some more. All the while hitting conventions with Noel and Josh. Emboldened by a little cash (remember I had a real job) I started working on the stories that would become Scrubs in Scrubland. I hired Noel, Josh, and Aaron Bordner (who I met at the Motor City (Detroit) comic show) to draw the stories. I also met Guy Davis at the Motor Comic show. His art was inspiring. It was sloppy. It was gritty. It was punk AF. And he was a total sweetheart.
Over the next few years, we published two 32 page black and white comics, an ashcan, and a mini comic. All had Guy Davis covers and most were written by me with a few stories by Noel.
I figured out a few things (not enough) about publishing comics and published Noel’s Medicine Man #1 and Aaron’s The Veil #1.
The truth is NONE of these books sold well enough. All of them lost money. All of them lost a LOT of money. So I pulled back. I did a little bit of licensing for T-Shirts (remember that day job) and ran shirts for Guy Davis’s The Marquis (Caliber & Oni Press) as well as a few others. That also wasn’t very profitable so I decided to quit comics.
I’d met Josh Blaylock (Devil’s Due Publishing) at some point over the years. He’d been self-publishing Penguin Brothers and presumably had a little more success than I was having. He also had a day job working in the T-shirt biz. The game changer was that he secured the GI JOE comic book license and was actually making money-making comics. The books were doing well enough that he set up shop in Chicago and had a small bullpen consisting of himself, Mike Norton, Tim Seeley, Chris Crank, and Susan Bishop with some part-timers tossed in. Josh offered me a job doing business development and PR. I took it and was terrible at it so he offered me the position of managing editor.
As Devil’s Due grew. We added other retro titles (Micronauts, Voltron) and started creator-owned projects like (Kore, Hack/Slash). We got bigger offices, more employees, an editorial staff, and I got promoted to associate publisher. I ran the day-to-day publishing. I worked with the editors, the printers, and the distributor (Diamond) to get our books out as close to on time as possible. We hit the book market HARD with the release of Forgotten Realms and got hit back twice as hard when the returns came in (in the book market, bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble can return unsold books for a full refund even if they’re damaged). We couldn’t resell any of the returns through the comics market because no one wants a dog-eared book. We were on the hook for repaying a lot of money and it messed with our cash flow. I was already financially strapped so when cutbacks had to happen I had to jump ship. Luckily, I landed a ton of work.
I immediately became managing editor at Udon, Ice Kunion (Korean manga), Speakeasy, and became managing editor at Boom Studios within a few months. I also lettered all the Udon Comics & Manga, all the Ice Kunion Manga, 3/4 of the Speakeasy books and 1/2 the Boom books. So, that’s when I really learned to letter. Deadlines and budgets were tight but the workload was heavy enough that I started making headway.
Unfortunately, in the shuffle, I burned my first marriage. It’s a common enough tale of miscommunication, money problems, and youthful bullheadedness. I formed a small studio to help with the workload. I had an intern, Terri Delgado, who I hired as a full-time employee pretty quickly. I also hired my girlfriend. That turned out to be a bad idea. Due to market twists and turns and some mismanagement by companies I worked for I had to shut down the studio. Terri continued working on the manga books for a while. Things didn’t work out with the girlfriend and I ended up losing my house to boot.
I hunkered down, moved in with a friend and lettered for a smaller set of clients. During this time Brandon Jerwa brought me on as the letterer and technical guy for a commercial AT&T comic he was writing for South by Southwest. When AT&T wanted more comics and Brandon was busy he passed the writing torch to me. I wrote two of those. The pay was good. The people were good. The comics… well they were commercials.
Today I letter and ink a little. For the past 20 months, I’ve also been a stay at home dad. In order to make it all work I’ve had to shed a lot of work and I’ve had to work some ridiculous hours but honestly, the only thing I’ve ever done that matters is being a father.
Marco: That is quite the history, man. Thank you for sharing all of that. It really gives us an honest peek into this business from a creative and business perspective. Along with the highs and lows that come with it. As I was reading your answer I was thinking this is really good stuff. What the hell am I gonna ask after this? (laughing)
And then it came to me. Awhile back and I forget the colorist who brought this up but there was some talk at one point of royalties when it comes to other members of the team like the colorist and letterers. What’s your opinion on that?
At least when it comes to corporate comics. It might be another beast when you’re discussing creator owned books.
Marshall: Royalties…Hmm. Though I’ve lettered for a LOT of companies I haven’t lettered for Marvel or DC but they’d be the most likely companies to have a breakout success that earns enough to pay out royalties so my firsthand knowledge is a little sparse. But if I’m just spitballing I’d say everyone deserves a little royalty in their contracts (including the editors).
I used to run a lot of numbers while I was at Devil’s Due and when brainstorming various ventures and projects and I’ve come to realize that incentive pay or royalties or whatever you want to call it can always be figured in. Those incentives might come at very high sales numbers but if they’re included in the agreement then at least it shows the company believes in the value of what is contributed by the creators. That said, the comics industry has had a hit or miss record on creator’s rights and with the corporatization of the larger companies, I don’t see them going out of their way to hand out extra cash to people they don’t consider proper creators.
To me, the bottom line is that lettering uses the tools of graphic design but it is NOT graphic design, it is STORYTELLING. The letterers serve the story just like everyone else on the team. As such, we are CREATORS and if any creator is due a royalty then ALL creators are due a royalty. Again, those numbers can and should be adjusted based on the participation, time, quality, etc… but there should be SOMETHING in writing to that end. I’ve heard stories of letterers who worked in the early 90s and got royalties during the Image Comics boom. Those checks were pretty big… but it was a ridiculous time for comic sales and the collapse that followed really hurt the industry.
Side note: I’ve received bonuses from some of my better clients, particularly self-publishers or people running creator-owned books through other publishers. Sometimes I’ll get Christmas bonuses, rush bonuses, quarterly bonuses, “just because” bonuses, etc. THESE guys get it. They know how important lettering is to their books and when they have some success they share that success with those that made the success possible.
Marco: Outside of lettering are there any other (comic industry) interests you’re pursuing? You mentioned above inking. Whom have you inked for?
Marshall: I’ve literally done a little bit of everything in comics except penciling and all of that has been paying work EXCEPT inking.
While I’d love to be filling my free time with inking I’m in the middle of a trans-state move that required selling a home and buying a new one as well as a month-long hotel stay and now we’re starting a kitchen renovation. I’m also a stay at home dad so my time for side work has been limited of late. I have a keen interest in inking certain people. Phil Hester is one of those people and a hero of mine. I’ve known him for years. I’ve lettered him on several projects. I read his early Caliber comics when I was still figuring out how to make comics. Being the letterer on Shipwreck (w-Warren Ellis, p-Phil Hester, i-Eric Gapster, c-Mark Englert, l-Marshall Dillon, ed-Mike Marts) at Aftershock I’ve had access to Phil’s pencils and have worked up ink samples based on those. I’ve gotten some good feedback on those samples from Joe and Mike at Aftershock and from Phil and Eric. I’d be totally stoked to ink Phil or someone with similar sensibilities. I’m still wrapping my brain around what inking is and how to approach it. I see some artist’s stuff and I wonder how anyone can ink it. Some of it is so rendered it’d take days to do a whole page and you’d end up working for fast food wages (or worse) if you were to ink it.
I’ve only colored a few short stories and I’d like to color more but currently, it’s lower on the priority list.
Writing is where I’ve spent most of my free energy and yet had the least success. Like most writers and want-to-be-writers I’ve always got ideas running through my head and I’ve pitched a few things over the years. I pitched a GI Joe vs Transformers story that I STILL think was better than the one that eventually got made. I’ve got a Superman Elseworlds story that I’d love to do but the Elseworlds “projects” haven’t been around for a long time. I’ve worked on some creator-owned ideas too but nothing has really taken off. Writing is HARD. Pitching is HARD. Launching a creator-owned project is HARD. When the average reader/fan sees a successful comic, they have no idea what it takes to make that book work. There’s so much that goes on behind the curtain.
The writing project I’ve given most of my energy to is my fantasy paper & dice role-playing game, INTREPID. It’s over 100 pages of content and is fully playable. INTREPID was conceived as a free to download and play open source kind of thing. I play tested it with two groups via the Roll20 website and reworked extensive parts of the base system. With this being open to others I envision people doing their own stories in this world, making their own comics, prose, game storylines, etc. It’s designed to be a place people can explore their skills and stories they find compelling. Eventually, I’d like to aggregate all those stories into one place so people can roll from one to the next enjoying stories from a variety of creators. (laughing) But that’s really a huge undertaking so it’s just sitting on my hard drive waiting to be finished at the moment.
As I said it’s totally playable. I’ve created what I think to be a unique character creation system that influences story development and gameplay as well as incentives for the players to really embrace the characters they’re playing. Being free to download and play I had to make the game as universally playable as possible so I designed it using only 6-sided dice so you could just rob the dice from your old Monopoly or Yahtzee games and not have to find 4, 8, 12, or 20 siders.
The problem with wanting to pursue all these different avenues of creativity is that you have to dedicate massive amounts of time and you have to break-in multiple times. If people think of you as a letterer and not as a writer why give you a crack at a writing gig when they have “actual” writers banging down their doors.
Marco: This final question brings us to the end and as usual we end not with a question but with an opportunity I like to call PIMP YOUR WORK! This is your space and your time. Be passionate, be bold and tell the readers why they should check out your work and what they can look forward to. Also, let them know where they can follow you on social media.
Marshall: Oh, boy. When’s this go live? (laughing)
My social media presence has been lax due to the current political climate and how riled up it makes me but I am on Twitter . I’m on Facebook more often but that’s a mix of personal and professional posts. It seems I’ve made myself kind of hard to find but my online home is First Draft Press, which REALLY needs an update.
For those that want to download the INTREPID paper & dice RPG for FREE here is a link. I’ll give you a free copy of a comic called The Cursed Blade (w-Marshall Dillon, p/i-Matt Cossin, c-Matt & Mikey Cossin, l-Marshall Dillon) to anyone interested in signing up for my mailing list. The Cursed Blade is set in the Intrepid world and was originally published by Double Feature Comics.
And that’s the end of that. I want to thank Marshall Dillon for letting me interview him and I hope you all enjoyed this edition of Lettering with Style.