Interview With Providence Letterer Kurt Hathaway

Providence letterer Kurt Hathaway, photo by Hathaway
Providence letterer Kurt Hathaway, photo by Hathaway

Providence is lettered by Kurt Hathaway, a 30+year veteran of the comics industry, mostly lettering, but also writing and editing. Even if comics readers do not immediately recognize Hathaway’s name, you have probably read dozens of comics he had a hand in, from Aquaman to Youngblood. He is one of the current go-to letterers for Avatar Press, generating word ballons for Uber, Lady Death, Cinema Purgatorio, God Is Dead, and Providence. Hathaway was generous to give us this exclusive interview, to get some insight into an aspect of the comic creation process many readers take for granted—but which forms an integral part of how we read Providence.

The interview was conducted in June 2016 over email. We’ve added some links and images.

Facts: Tell our readers a bit about you. Where are you based? What is your background? What do you specialize in?

Hathaway: I’ve been interviewed a few times along the way, but the same theme comes up—I don’t like to talk about myself—or my work. I like to work. But I know folks may be interested in what I do and how I do it—so I’ll reach into my writer’s bag of tricks and try to make this informative—and interesting.

I’m based in Los Angeles. I went to NYU film school a million years ago and came out here to work in Hollywood—which I did for a while—all the while lettering at nights after long days in the editing room. Anyone interested can find me on IMDB, but the credits list there is woefully incomplete. I still do video work, but I suppose my main focus is on comics lettering.

I’m also a sometimes writer (TV, comics, video games), as well as an editor (mostly with Image comics—but freelance as well).

I also do logo design, general design for just about anything, book design, and pre-press.

Do you read a lot of comics? What were your favorite comics growing up? What are some of your favorite comics now?

I do read a lot, but these days they’re public domain scans that I read on my iPad. Golden Age stuff that I could never afford for real. So scans will have to do.

Steve Ditko cover for Amazing Spider-Man annual #1. Image via Wikipedia
Steve Ditko cover for Marvel Comics 1964 Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1. Image via Wikipedia

I got into comics as a fan in 1972 when I was 12. Marvel comics just popped up and slapped me around. I was exposed to some older Marvels by a kid across the street. It was 1972, but I was seeing 1968 stuff: Tales to Astonish, Sub-MarEE-ner, Captain America by Kirby! I was a guest several times in Kirby’s home when he was still alive and I couldn’t believe this weird journey from discovering these comics in 1972 and many years later being in Kirby’s living room while he’s telling stories about his WW2 experiences.

Anyway, I gravitated to Spider-Man—the Ditko issues are true treasures. Cap is still an all-time favorite. It was early enough that I could buy back issues for a buck or so, so it was pretty easy to amass a pretty decent collection of Silver Age goodies. I bought Batman, too and a bunch of other DC stuff.

As for current comics, I’m just too busy with deadlines and family that I don’t read much of it. I try to stay on top of lettering styles and such, but I don’t read much of it for entertainment. I like old stuff in general—old movies, old comics. I do have a backlog of current stuff I want to read, though, I just haven’t gotten to it.

Image Comics 1995 Violator vs. Badrock #1 - written by Alan Moore, edited by Kurt Hathaway
Image Comics 1995 Violator vs. Badrock #1 – written by Alan Moore, edited by Kurt Hathaway

Back in the 1990s you edited some of Alan Moore’s Violator vs. Badrock comics published by Image. Is there anything you can tell us about working with Moore then?

Not really, most of my time at Image is kind of a blur—I was so busy with deadlines that I don’t have many distinct memories of any particular project.

I have dozens of Image comics in my garage with my name in them, but I have no memory of doing the work. This is mostly with lettering, I’d do a book in a day and off it went. Years later it’s just not familiar.

I sound like Stan Lee, now. Spider-Man? What is this Spider-Man you speak of?

Seems to me I didn’t letter that old Alan Moore project (which was unusual for me—I lettered 98% of the Extreme Studios Image Comics books) but I could be wrong. My only memory is that his scripts were extremely detailed. Still are to this day.

There is no letterer listed for Moore and Burrows’ earlier Lovecraft-inspired stories The Courtyard, Neonomicon, and Yuggoth Cultures. Did you letter any of these? If so, anything interesting you could tell our readers about that work?

That doesn’t sound familiar—I’d have to look at the work to be sure, though.

What is it like working with Alan Moore? How does Moore’s work differ from other comics writers?

As far as the work goes, I just move forward one balloon at a time until the page is done—then on to the next page. The individual writer isn’t really on my mind when I work. But reading over the Providence material is a treat—as a reader (and a sometimes writer), I can see some of what he’s doing, but I don’t read it as a reader—I look it over to see if I did anything wrong, basically.

But I’m a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft and was actually born in Providence and went to Art School in Providence (Rhode Island School of Design)—one of the best art schools in the country. I do recall walking around the local streets and seeing a plaque on one of the residences explaining that it was the home of H.P. Lovecraft. So it’s neat to be on this series from that perspective. A lot of the street names in the series are very familiar to me from my art school days.

In Moore’s scripts, does he specify much in regards to the lettering, word balloons, and captions? What sorts of noteworthy lettering specifics did he include in Providence scripts?

For the special lettering, he’ll indicate that it’s “special”—so that’s a flag for me. Sometimes—maybe even all the time, he’ll outline his idea of what that “special” is. Not the font name or anything super specific, but some idea of what I need to know. From there I come up with something that I think is along those lines. Sometimes—and I don’t mean necessarily with this series, I’ll have to rework a lettering style based on the editor or writer’s notes.

Did you create the cover masthead for Providence? If so, describe that process.

Well, the process for that is pretty simple. I didn’t do the logo at all. Not sure who did, but as a logo designer, I can tell you it’s very effective and fits the project very nicely. I might even be jealous.

What do you use for lettering – what computer programs, equipment, and/or what kind of pen? Is it all electronic, or do you do any lettering by hand? 

Front page of St. Jude's newsletter from Providence #3.
Front page of St. Jude’s parish newsletter in Providence #3. Art by Jacen Burrows, lettering by Kurt Hathaway

I’m on a large-screen Mac—with an extra screen for more working real estate. I use the extra screen mostly for my video editing work, but the extra screen is handy to keep the comics script in constant view, too, when I’m lettering a series issue or graphic novel.

I letter in Adobe Illustrator, the industry standard. No pens for the electronic stuff.

But I do hand letter all the—what we call backmatter—with a Tul ultra-fine-point marker. I can’t find them in stores anymore, so I have to get them online.

In an early issue, I think there was a church newsletter and I typeset that in what I thought was an appropriate style.

But for Robert Black’s handwritten musings, that’s all done by hand. At first I typeset that, too—in an appropriate handwriting font, but I quickly heard that Alan wanted it literally hand done—which made perfect sense. I just read “handwriting” in the script and in most cases the client would expect a handwriting font. But in this case, as I said, it made sense to really do it by hand.

Example of Providence's Commonplace Book backmatter - lettered by Kurt Hathaway. Photo by My Absolute Collection
Example of Providence’s Commonplace Book backmatter, from Providence #1 – lettered by Kurt Hathaway. Photo by My Absolute Collection

There has been some internet debate about the lettering in the Commonplace Book; in an earlier email you mentioned that you hand-letter it. Tell our readers more about your process for lettering the Commonplace Book entries.

As I said, I’d originally typeset it—by starting out at a legible size—and I think it came out to 14 pages. Once I heard I had to do it by hand, it made sense to keep it typeset, and simply print it out at roughly twice the printed size, plop some tracing paper over it—and hand-letter on the tracing paper with the typeset text visible underneath. In this way, my hand-lettering would fill the same space as the typeset version—just in my handwriting. So it still came in at 14 pages.

When I’m done—it takes me about 3 weeks to do the backmatter material—I scan it, fix any mistakes in Photoshop and make sure that Avatar gets it in enough time to work their graphic magic.

Did you research specific handwriting styles from the Providence era, perhaps Lovecraft’s own handwriting?

Well, unless I misunderstand (and it’s totally possible), Robert Black isn’t Lovecraft, so there’s no reason to emulate Lovecraft’s handwriting. But even if the backmatter was written by H.P. Lovecraft it’s unlikely I’d emulate his handwriting. What you see is a hybrid of “lettering” and my actual handwriting. By that I mean, it has to be legible to the reader, so it’s more clear than my everyday handwriting, but most of the letterforms are what I’d use on an ordinary note around the house. Most, but not all.

In some issues, Commonplace Book entries end on cliff-hanger mid-sentences. How do you you control the spacing to ensure the end of the entry appears where it should?

That’s all in Alan’s script—if a line is suddenly 5 lines down—that’s what I do. How it appears in the final printed version I’m not sure. Someone else adds the paper texture and puts my scans together on their end. They may make decisions about that of which I’m not aware.

I don’t have any interest—or the time—to compare my tracing paper originals with the printed version. In the course of doing business, I rarely look at my printed work anyway.

The Commonplace Book includes multiple places where words are crossed outs or blacked out. Some of these appear clearly very intentional, others a bit random. Are all of these explicitly scripted by Alan Moore, or are some inserted for other reasons, such as spacing or something else?

I seem to recall in early issues, the crossed-out stuff was in Alan’s backmatter material. The backmatter “script” is completely separate from the comic script and I get them at wildly different times. I’m not privy to Avatar’s printing schedule, but as an editor myself, I know that there’s a certain juggling of material, deadlines and publication date that takes place. As long as it all in place for publication—that’s what matters.

Anyway, in later issues, I’m not aware that there were crossed out sections. But then I’d get a note from editor William Christensen to supply some corrections to the most recent backmatter stuff. Maybe three unrelated words and a couple of words crossed out so they can’t be read. I’m assuming the three unrelated words are to replace words that are illegible in my handwriting, so I try to make the new versions more legible in the redo. As for the crossed-out stuff, I’m not sure where or why they fit in. It’s entirely possible that it was in Alan’s backmatter script, but due to my workflow, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Maybe Alan looked it over and had an idea about Robert’s Commonplace book that he wanted to see in the final version, but that’s just a total guess. As I said, I don’t compare my originals with the printed work, so I’m not sure. I just do what’s asked of me, scan it—and send it off.

Willard Wheatley speaking in Providence #4 Pxpx detail. Art by Jacen Burrows, lettering by Kurt Hathaway
Willard Wheatley speaking in Providence #4 P19,p2 detail. Art by Jacen Burrows, lettering by Kurt Hathaway

Providence utilizes multiple fonts for various different characters from Salem’s fish-men hybrids, to Willard Wheatley, to the ghoul King George. Even Neonomicon‘s Deep One has his own font. How did you come up with the lettering style for each of these?

These are outlined by Alan in some way—no specific font, per se, but an idea of what he’d like to see graphically. A short description of the font style—and balloon style—maybe a color note—I then put together something I think may fit the bill.

This is something I do on a fairly regular basis on other series and graphic novels anyway, so I’m always prepared to put together something.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time designing all kinds of caption and balloon styles, so I have a gallery of styles to choose from when the request comes in. I have ghost balloons, and zombie balloons and all kindsa crazy styles already prepped in advance. I can usually grab one of those, and make a tweak or two to make it suit the book’s needs.

Tiny lettering coming from the bottles in Providence #2 PXpx
Tiny lettering coming from the bottles in Providence #3 P8,p1. Lettering by Kurt Hathaway

In Providence #3, there is a tiny unreadable font coming from some of the Terrible Old Man’s bottles. One of our readers actually took photos of it through a microscope device. A somewhat similar font appears in Providence #7 as Pitman and King George walk away. Are these just stand-ins for indistinct speech, or is there more to it that you would explain?

I’d forgotten about the bottles until I looked at my page file a few days ago—I was trying to locate one of the balloon styles to match it again. Not that one—another one, but it crossed my radar all the same. The bottles contain tiny people if I’m not mistaken, so that balloon indicates to the reader two things—there’s a tiny person in the bottle—and they’re voice is so low in volume, that its content is indistinguishable. But the balloon draws the eye to the bottle. It’s a clever storytelling device.

In Providence #4, the first page shows a blurred lettering for speech as perceived by the invisible creature John-Divine. What was your process for coming up with the lettering for that page?

I found that while looking over a printed copy—something I almost never do. I had nothing to do with the blur. I did the page as normal, I think—and it was blurred by someone else. I’m assuming that was the plan all along, but that’s just my guess.

Those kind of effects are best done in Photoshop—which is more of a coloring tool in comics. Since I work my lettering magic in Illustrator, that kind of blur effect is difficult to accomplish in the lettering file. I do all kinds of effects in my video work and there’s a cut-off point where one file needs to be converted to another file type to accomplish the design goal. I think that’s what was going on here.

Aklo (or Aqlo) lettering from Providence 6 P1,p3 (detail) - art by Jacen Burrows, lettering by Kurt Hathaway
Aklo (or Aqlo) lettering from Providence 6 P1,p3 – art by Jacen Burrows, lettering by Kurt Hathaway

Providence #6 includes Aklo lettering. How was the Aklo lettering developed? Did you draw those characters? How much did Moore specify versus how much did you come up with?

Boy, I read this question and I had NO idea what you were referencing. It’s no wonder the bulk of my Image work from 15 years ago is unfamiliar!

If I recall correctly—without looking at the work itself, there’s a grid with letterforms and some kind of ID regarding the forms. The letterforms were given to me—presumably by Alan, ‘cause I understand he does a ton of research on his projects—something I really respect. Anyway, the big letterforms were given to me to redraw by hand. The Id’s are in “Robert’s” handwriting. Or maybe I’m thinking about the descriptive text above and below the grid.

Anything else you’d like to share about working on Providence and/or working with Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows?

It’s fun when I move on to the next page when working—it’s almost—but not quite—like the reader turning the page (since I haven’t actually lettered the page yet)—and I see something totally unexpected—at least by me. Something weird going on—something Lovecraftian. That’s a treat.

Kurt Hathaway can be reached via email khathawayart[at]gmail.com or via his website

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2 thoughts on “Interview With Providence Letterer Kurt Hathaway

  1. TOLD you those tiny letters in the speech balloon meant nothing! I think it was Joe who tried matching them to letters, just to see how they were repeated, and they didn’t look syntax-containing then. Now we have it from the horse’s mouth though we can be certain.

    Interesting interview, bit of a shame the guy doesn’t remember so much of his work, but I suppose that’s the life of a letterer, they don’t spend as much time on a page as an artist or writer would, that’s why there’s only a few letterers for dozens of writers and artists.

    Like

  2. Sudden thought; if the letterer is so abstracted, well, no wonder that there’re all this misprints, listed in “Providence Nitpicks”! No intention to offend anybody, just a notice.

    Like

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