JANICE CHIANG: A WOMAN OF LETTERS
A legend among letterers, Janice Chiang is a familiar name to any avid comics reader during the 1980s.
Chiang broke into comics in the mid-1970s, when she began freelancing for Marvel Comics, and she continues to letter to this day. She is best known to the Bronze Age generation for her lettering in the 1980s and 1990s on such books as Transformers, Visionaries, and Rom: Spaceknight.
Chiang also lettered long stints on some of comicdom’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). She has also lettered books for Dark Horse, Scholastic, Acclaim, DC’s CMX and Tokyo Pop.
“I simultaneously freelanced for Marvel, DC and the now-defunct Tundra,” Chiang tells BACK ISSUE! “I worked on Disney Adventures – whatever editor Heidi MacDonald gave me. I am now working on Archie Loves Betty and also on Archie Loves Veronica.”
(And contrary to a credit on her erroneous Wikipedia profile, she did not do any work as a colorist!)
“I lettered Mark Texeira on Ghost Rider, Mark Bright on Iron Man,” Chiang says. “I did Rob Liefeld’s first work for DC on Hawk and Dove, it was a four-part story and then it went monthly, but I was under exclusive contract for Marvel [from 1993–96].”
“I continued as freelance letterer for Marvel and DC until 2004, then I focused on enhancing my digital design skills by take classes at Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons and Fashion Institute of Technology. From 2001-04, I worked for the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Harlem on ‘Harlem Week’ campaigns as a freelance graphic designer.”
Since the late 1990s, Chiang has not only returned to form but she has adapted quite smoothly to the digital revolution that changed comic book production forever circa 1993.
Her Random House work includes Kagetora (vols. 2-5), Suzuka (1-3) and Air Gear (vol. 1-4).
“It’s great to see the young Japanese characters having the same problems as the kids have here. In my youth,” Chiang says. “There were no positive images of Asian people. It was either the Fu Manchu stereotype, kung-fu, or the nerd. These books reinforce sophistication and tolerance.”
For Papercutz, she recently worked on Smurfs comics and the Italian translation of Disney’s Fairies. Emma, Vol. 1 was chosen by NewType anime/manga magazine as book of the month in September 2006, and by the Young Adult Library Services Association as one of the greatest graphic novels in 2007.
In 2009, Village Voice named Danny Fingeroth adapted from Stud Terkel’s Working, one of the best graphic novels of the year. Chiang lettered two short stories in this work.
However, Chiang is much more than the sum of her credits and the writers and artists she has teamed up with. She is a thoughtful, philosophical, complex and multi-layered artist with personal tastes that transcend her ostensible métier. Among Chiang’s favorite movies is Old Yeller and The Color Purple, and one of the books that left an impression on her was The Art of Mastery by George Leonard.
“I gave [son] Calvin this book, when he was ten years old, to help him gain some perspective of what is conditional, subjective, and what he could truly control on his path to whatever he decided to master,” Chiang says of the latter. “If we can express our mutual understanding of how passion, diligence, and principle drives our work and other aspects of our lives…Sometimes we get lucky and we are able to pursue what we initially target as our passion. Other times, we find ourselves in situations that we never anticipated.
“The elements that comprise ‘passion’ may be applied in other arenas. If we're fortunate, we do get another chance, as I am experiencing now.”
For 25 years, Chiang has lived in Woodstock, New York, with her husband, Danny Louie. When asked how she’s managed to work so far away from Manhattan early on in her career, she responded that, in the old days, “Federal Express helped me out. I’d overnight it from Woodstock. Basically, we built up the Federal Express business here. It was insane.
“When I was doing a lot of monthlies, I’d work on 5 to 10 pages at a time…and I never dropped the hot potatoes.”
I interviewed Chiang on and off over the first half of 2010 in a series of phone calls and emails.––MA
AUSHENKER: You’ve worked with so many luminaries in the comics industry. And yet, because of the assembly line nature of American comics, you probably have yet to meet many of your collaborators!
CHIANG: I recently teamed up with Danny Fingeroth on a short story for a collection named Yiddishland, where the theme is about cantors who ventured into vaudeville. I've lettered many projects, so I know the majority of freelancers by name only. I thought, ‘Oh, so that's Mike Vosburg! He sounds like a really nice guy.’ I had met Rich Butler while waiting on line at The Big Apple Comic Con in October 2009. We had teamed on some books back in 1975, when I was working in the Marvel Bullpen. Rich said he remembered me…nice to find a living witness of my first staff job in Marvel.
AUSHENKER: What are some misconceptions about letterers?
CHIANG: People think we’re just copying words and we can’t think for ourselves. It goes back to how I approach lettering. My background is fine arts. My fonts…it doesn’t look like anyone else’s. I studied at Hunter College. We were a very creative family. My mother could look at a dress and sew that dress. She could see a sweater and knit it. My father could build things. A big promotion by the age of 12 for me was to use a circular saw. My father had so much faith in us that we could do the process. I learned how to do crafts at age 5, how to do create something out of nothing.
I’m the first generation born here. My parents grew up in China. My mother’s name was Hop Kun. My father’s name was Bay Doc.
My father came to New York when he was 13-and-a-half. In 1892, after Chinese came to build the Transcontinental Railroad, there was an economic crisis. A lot of scapegoating went on with the immigrants. The Manchus were in control of China. The immigrants had to wear a long braid to differentiate them from the Manchus – a lot of Chinese had long braids…My father was sponsored as a paper son [a fake relative] with a Chinese laundry or restaurant business. He did hand laundry.
My mom and dad ran a business at home. They were really accessible. Basically where we lived, on East Elmhurst in Queens, my dad converted the garage attached to our apartment building into a hand-laundry storefront. I had two older sisters and a younger brother. One of my sisters is Fay Chiang, a well-known poet. As far as the immigration experience, China was not a friend to this count until an open door policy in 1962. It was not comfortable being Asian. You would keep a low profile. Look like they did to the Japanese[-American] people [in California during World War II].
Basically, all of us connected with the fine arts. The creativity in the family home situation fit into writing and artwork. My sisters, Fay and Jean, were at Hunter College, already studying fine arts. So I was the third Chiang in there. When we went to Hunter, Fay was in the anti-war movement. She was bringing literature in the house from progressive thinkers, from the Black Panthers. It gave me a broad view of what was going on. What really got me angry was when they murdered Fred Hampton. It made me question, “What’s this democracy and who are we helping?”
I became active in the anti-war movement [during the Vietnam War era]. A lot of students were active. They’re killing people who look like us over there. Fay started organizing ethnic studies and we were very active in the Asian-American organization. Like what’s going on right now in Arizona, if you look Latin, you’re going to be stopped. We were all there [at Hunter] at the same time.
Basement Workshop, an Asian-American multi-arts organization, was taking up community issues, Civil Rights issues. Larry Hama was a founding member of that organization. He’s an artist and musician. That’s how I got into comics. Larry’s sort of my big brother and mentor. His mom is really talented. She worked at a dress shop. The clientele brought the couture clothing and she would copy it. Larry told me, “I love hanging around women! They smell nice and they’re creative.”
AUSHENKER: So that’s why Larry was off to a red-tag sale when I caught him for a phone interview [in January 2010]! [Writer’s note: see BACK ISSUE!#43.]
CHIANG: When he was 12, he got a subscription to Vogue. I’ve known Larry since I was 13 1/2. They would do these Asian arts festivals that were held to celebrate the August moon. This was back in 1972. The great thing about New York City is that it’s multiethnic.
AUSHENKER: How did a fine arts major such as yourself start on a path to lettering?
CHIANG: I never finished Hunter College, I just left. Basically, I made a lot of decisions that were unconventional. Struggle is a big part of my life. You see something and you move forward rather than stand there and being scared.
Larry Hama’s partner, Ralph Reese, taught me how to letter. They were working together under the name of Crusty Bunkers [the gang of inkers at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios]. I’d go there, and Ralph would show me a few things and then I’d go home and work on it. Different kinds of lettering and somehow it evolved.
AUSHENKER: Which letterers were you studying at the time?
CHIANG: The big-name letterer I really liked was Joe Rosen. The others were a little clumsy. 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.
AUSHENKER: Were you already reading comics?
CHIANG: No! [Laughs.] I read books! I sort of stumbled onto comics. I tell my comics editors: “Just remember that my mother didn’t raise me to letter comics! [Laughs]. At Neal’s studio, there were some things floating around that were pitched to me. Neal called over to Marvel Bullpen. He contacted Danny Crespi. He was a letterer, too. His daughter, Susan Crespi, is the production manager now at Marvel. Thanks to Neal, I was in the Bullpen at Marvel, doing lettering corrections.
AUSHENKER: What was the Bullpen like in 1975 when you came aboard?
CHIANG: The Bullpen was one big open area. Freelancers would come in and drop off their art. I was younger than most people there. I was 19.
AUSHENKER: This must have been a great place to learn.
CHIANG: I was fixing letterers: Jean Simek, Annette Kiwecki, Sam Rosen. I didn’t’ keep track on whose work I was on. John Verpoorten was my supervisor.
AUSHENKER: Who were the Bullpen peers that you socialized with?
CHIANG: I didn’t hang out with comics people. Working at the Bullpen taught me that I worked better by working by myself.
I worked there for three months, and then I left the comics industry, going back to the community organizing. I worked on how to get the word out if there’s a demonstration by creating graphics. I did that for a couple of years. Once you know time/date/place, you’re off and running. I would do artwork, I learned to silk screen. Back then, you were a rebel, a mover and shaker, a revolutionary. That’s why it’s appropriate that my son is working at Radical Publishing. [Laughs.] [Calvin is the assistant director of production at Radical.]
AUSHENKER: How did you meet your husband Danny?
CHIANG: To get jobs for Asian-American construction workers – the African and Latin construction worker a lot of us people came out of the antiwar movement. They would teach us how to close down a construction site. That’s how I met my husband, Danny Louie. Around the construction of Confucius Building.
In 1974, construction began on the Confucius Plaza high-rise development, a federally-funded project in the heart of New York Chinatown. Back then, there was a big structure being built and no Asian-American workers on site. 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 we were inspired by the African-American movement. There was a real flow of creativity.
Despite City policies requiring employment opportunities for minority workers, the builder refused to hire Chinese applicants. 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.
The leaders formed Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAFEE, later to become AAFE) to coordinate demonstrations, marches, and picketing around the Confucius Plaza site. After six months of unrelenting demonstrations, the Confucius Plaza struggle ended with AAFE's first victory for minority rights and equal employment opportunity when the builder was pressured into hiring twenty-seven minority workers, including Asian Americans.
One time, Danny jumped on a crane and the construction workers said, “Don’t worry! We’re not going to move it. We rather not work today!” [Laughs.]
AUSHENKER: So what happened next? How did you get back into comics?
CHIANG: I spent five years in Chinatown. For a period, I worked in auto factories for Cadillac at the GM plant. I worked at a Ford plant in Mahwah, New Jersey, on and off over those five years.
In 1980, my son Calvin was born and now I was thinking, “How am I gonna raise him?” So I said, “Let me see if they would remember me over at Marvel. Luckily, the Bullpen was intact: Danny Crespi, Morie Kuromoto and Jack Abel were there. Marie Severin. Mary MacPherson was the front person answering the phone. This time, when I got to Marvel, Louise Jones Simonson was the editor there. I was so happy to see a woman there. This was so nice. Louise gave me my first book, a Conan issue drawn by John Buscema.
AUSHENKER: Do you remember which issue it was?
CHIANG: I have no idea but it scared me. I thought to myself, “Take a deep breath! Sit down! Once it’s on paper for posterity, I was really nervous. I‘d pencil it and come back and ink. It took so long. It took two hours for one page. I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous!”
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. To make corrections, we used Snopake, which is similar to Liquid Paper. I remember that stuff is gummy.
AUSHENKER: Where were you physically doing the lettering work?
CHIANG: I lived in Jersey City and then moved to Woodstock. I started weight training because it takes a lot of will power to make me sit still. That’s basically for 15 years – there were no weekends. I don’t know how I did it. My husband was able to be out in the woods and raise my son. He worked in advertising. You’ll have to ask my family that but basically we’re all alive and standing!
AUSHENKER: Do you and Danny have other children?
CHIANG: No, one is enough! [Laughs.]
AUSHENKER: How did you adapt to the digital turnover in how comics are lettered?
CHIANG: In terms of going from hand lettering to digital lettering, it was not difficult. What was difficult was that nobody would show me. This was in 1996. Marvel did a lockout on hand-letterers in ’96. That whole year, I didn’t letter a comic. Jon Babcock, he 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.”
When I was doing hand lettering very intensely, I’d gauge how long it’d take when to take a break. It’s a different temp today. With digital, you get first stage, second stage…
AUSHENKER: So is your life is easier now because of digital?
CHIANG: Not necessarily. When I hand letter now, once it’s on the page, it doesn’t move. Sometimes I get the wrong dimensions or a font file that has problems. Whenever you’re involved with teamwork, people have to find their rhythm. After 30 years in this industry, I’ve seen everything.
AUSHENKER: How is your digital lettering different?
CHIANG: If you look any of my work, it’s as if I hand-lettered it. Not one sound effect is repeated. I’ve learned to use Illustrator as if I’m hand lettering. But I find it very straitjacketing to use InDesign, as in the Manga translation industry. I feel so much freedom using Illustrator to create sound effects. That’s the fun of it.
It’s acceptable but quite mundane. Every job brings new challenges. I went to Parsons to take classes that showed us all the filters in Illustrator. My husband and I rolled our eyes. We were the only artists in that class.
AUSHENKER: What is the trick to being a great letterer?
CHIANG: You don’t want to overwhelm the art, you want to enhance it. Basically we’re like the soundtrack to a comic. We’re integral you can’t really notice it but it enhances. It’s subtle.
AUSHENKER: What was one of your wildest assignments?
CHIANG: 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.
AUSHENKER: What was your drug of choice while working on those classic Marvel Comics?
CHIANG: My drug of choice was the Walkman. Now I’ve got my iPod. Music is a big part of my family. My husband’s music collection goes back to the ‘20s. Coffee. Food. In our house, we cook from scratch.
AUSHENKER: What kind of music are you listening to while lettering?
CHIANG: 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.
I listen to a lot of news, too. I owe it to myself and to my craft to engage myself. I better know what’s going on. I love to run the BBC in the background.
AUSHENKER: The digital revolution has had a profound effect on our industry. How difficult was it for you to transition from hand lettering to digital in the early 1990s?
CHIANG: I picked it up pretty easily. Jim Starlin called me from San Diego in ’92. He said, ‘Hurry! Get your lettering in digital form.’ But at the time, I couldn’t drop my workload. Strategically, it was the right thing to do. I said that to my son before he went to RISD. The main thing is to pick something you have the passion for that will engage you creatively. To my son, I said to him, ‘Whatever you’re doing even the mundane folding laundry, cooking, do it with passion.’ I’ve been lifting weights for 30 years. There’s always a different way to do things.
For anyone in the industry, there’s a time when there’s a lot of work and there are fallow points. You have to be ready to change of style or methodology.
AUSHENKER: Do people ever swipe their lettering style from you?
CHIANG: Yes, this began during the transition in the mid-'90s. At San Diego Comic-Con, I randomly picked up a Judge Dredd book reprint book and I see they’re lettering from my style in 1988. He’s lettering in my style like I wouldn’t know the difference. I do know the difference. This scanning of letter forms to create digital fonts from many well-known hand-letterers continues to this day.
There was a lot of plagiarism even when I was hand-lettering. Someone at Malibu Comics on the West Coast took my font and copy. I recognized it. Everyone in editorial recognized my lettering. My creative DNA is so strong, anyone who knows it would know it flows from me. Little do other publishers know that the work plagiarized from me is facilitating the comic translation industry.
AUSHENKER: What are your tools of the trade when you hand letter?
CHIANG: I use a Crowquill, speedball C6, inside the balloon lettering, B6 to outline balloons and bold lettering; a B5.5 for borders and sound effects lettering; and a Crowquill for balloon points and for touch-ups.
AUSHENKER: What were those days like as the industry went through that seismic shift from manual to digital?
CHIANG: In 1996, the hand letterers had no work. I just sat down and drew the letter forms, balloons and sound effects I used in my work. I created a glossary for myself. I have a basic working for 40 original styles that came from drawing them from pen and ink. But for what I handle in general is about 8 to 10. You don’t want to make things too complicated to stop [the flow for the reader].
Marvel, at the time, decided to not use hand lettering anymore and move onto digital lettering. I was really happy when Chris Eliopoulos took it on. He started from the bottom up. He paid his dues.
The way Marvel portrayed hand-letter vs. digital – 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 doing 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.
AUSHENKER: Can you discuss working on the licensed toy books ROM:Spaceknight and Transformers? Since these books featured robots, were they more of a challenge, lettering-wise? (I'm assuming you sometimes lettered in different "voices" for these books?). Was that a challenge or was it a pain in the ass?
CHIANG: Oh, no, it was the fun part.
AUSHENKER: You worked on quite a few titles written by Bill Mantlo. What was he like?
CHIANG: He was a very sweet guy, very energetic, very curious. Comic people either they originate from their love of comics or they’re intellectuals where their scope is really broad. Bill was one of them, as are Larry Hama and Walt Simonson.
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.
AUSHENKER: Did you ever get a response from readers to your work?
CHIANG: I would get fan letters in house for pushing the boundaries but it never got to my hands. I think I managed to get two fan letters. It was nice to get a response. [Laughs.]
AUSHENKER: Is there a difference lettering for Archie or The Smurfs, compared to the superhero and fantasy stuff?
CHIANG: Not really, it takes a lot of engagement. The stories are really funny, working on two levels for the kids and for the adults. It’s so smooth you don’t know what’s happening. I’m laughing while I’m lettering. The only difference is scale: the lettering is larger.
AUSHENKER: You worked on Dark Horse’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer…
CHIANG: It was when the TV show was popular. It was a strong woman character. For Scholastic, they did a version of Goosebumps. It didn’t do that well, I only lasted on it for a year. For Tundra (Kevin Eastman's company) – at the time I was working for DC and Marvel. They had stacks and stacks…I could’ve gone to the trough and eaten but I thought it was best to work for a variety of comics.
At Acclaim, I worked on the Toy Story comic when it came out, Pocahantas, The Mighty Ducks – That was when I could really use my digital lettering. That’s when it was viable. The computer I was using––a Quadra––in terms of processing, it was slower than the power Mac but the software was unstable. The hard drives were one gig or 500 megabytes. But with the Acclaim stuff, I really finally got the flow of it even though I was on this clunky machine.
I’ve been through seven Macs. I’m now working on a MacPro, the 17” one.
AUSHENKER: You attended the first ever Asian-American Comic Convention in New York City a couple years ago, where Larry Hama was the first honoree. How was that experience?
CHIANG: I attended the Asian-American Comic Book Convention [in July 2009] in support of Secret Identities. I found out about [the convention] by Googling. I showed up and they introduced me. [The books’ creators] were like, “Oh my God! We should have called and asked you to letter!”
The Secret Identities project has allowed me to introduce myself to a new grouping of younger comic creators. Their talent is short of stunning, which makes me quite proud to witness their contribution to comic history.
In terms of the artists who created a lot of these artists on independent projects want to collaborate with me and I’ll say sure, I’m capable. A lot of these creators are my son’s age . I feel the same kind of relationship. There’s no “You’re over the hill,” there’s no dissing. People know that, as you stay with your art [in the Asian culture], you master it.
AUSHENKER: How does your husband handle your lettering career?
CHIANG: Pretty well, I suppose. We celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary last year. That’s me, constant and faithful.
AUSHENKER: As dependable as you are as a letterer…
CHIANG: I sound like a dog! Old Yeller! [Laughs.]