Interview with comics letterer guru Annie Parkhouse
If you love Judge Dredd, Slaine, Tank Girl and the famous Brit comic 2000AD, you’ll know the name of guru comics letterer Annie Parkhouse. Fascinating woman… we are not worthy.
Mention the iconic comic 2000AD, and the first thing you think of is Judge Dredd. Annie Parkhouse is the woman who literally puts the words in his mouth (and many others). In a career that has spanned 40 years, Annie tells how she broke into the comic-book scene and forged a reputation as one of the best known and widely-respected letterers of the genre. We are not worthy…
How did you become a letterer; did you always want to be one?
It started in 1970 with my mother saying that I had to get a job. She worked for the printers in Carlisle who printed all the IPC comics and the Managing Director took me down to one of the IPC offices in London to see if they could use me. I’d never thought about comics. In fact, he took me to the fashion magazines [19 and Honey] to start with; but they needed someone with some layout and graphic experience. They couldn’t offer me anything, but sent me downstairs, which was the Boys’ Juveniles floor.
They gave me a job as a bodger on a comic called Lion. Bodging is part of the production process, getting the pages camera ready. When the comic strip boards came in often there were some missing bits, perhaps the artist had forgotten to put the hands or all the background in, so I drew those, then I cleaned everything up, removing pencils [or tea stains!] so everything was as perfect as possible.
Part of doing corrections is that you have to do a bit of lettering making changes for the editor, so I got quite used to comic lettering and matching peoples styles. One Friday afternoon, someone came in and said, I’ve got this page that has to go off on Monday morning and no one to letter it. Will you do it? So I said yes; I was so nervous. From that one page, it was, Can you do this job, can you do that job? I went freelance in ’72 because I had so much lettering work. I was lettering all night and working all day. It just got silly.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to break into lettering now?
Don’t do it! A lot of artists are already drawing on computer, so they do their own lettering. I started on Lion after it had taken over the famous Eagle. One of the first jobs I had was working on black and white bromides [photographs] of the colour artwork of Dan Dare, from the Eagle, cross-hatching with pen and ink to restore the modelling which had been lost in bleaching out the colour. That was on my first day. So you can imagine, I was shaking like a leaf, handling a pen, doing fine cross-hatching. After that I worked on two new comics, Jet and Thunder, which didn’t last long. I was the only production artist on those. When they folded I went to Valiant.
This was a long time before computers came in.
What do you prefer, lettering by hand, or computer?
Pros and cons on both sides. It was more creative working by hand, you were more of a calligrapher. You could letter to fit a space by hand/eye co-ordination. Computer lettering can be adjusted but it takes time, it’s less intuitive. As computers became more common it was more difficult to get the materials; high quality inks and graphic white, or the range of technical pens. I checked them out recently and the Faber-Castell pens are listed as Vintage and it’s just people selling off old stock they’ve found.
How does the artist/letterer relationship work?
I worked with the artists in a few cases. Because I knew them, I was able to phone up and say, ”How would you like me to do this? Shall I cover up that dodgy bit?”
Was it a more of a collaborative relationship, working with the artist?
It was. And then they’d say, can you put some really big sound effects on that? In fact, sound effects are the only thing that’s still a little bit creative – distorting letters, or putting shadows in.
What was it like, being up against it working to a deadline?
It’s great, when you’re going like the clappers, watching pens, brushes and scalpel flying as if they’re doing it all by themselves. At IPC it was very laid-back for half the week, twiddling your thumbs waiting for pages to arrive, then everything became frantic, trying to get ink to dry whilst the courier was standing waiting at the door. It was very exciting. When I was freelance I’d have to go into the office and letter pages on press day. That could be quite stressful. The printer charged huge fines if the work was late.
You’ve done graphic novels too. Is that easier than regular comics in some respects?
You handle them in exactly the same way. I did those for Marvel, DC Comics and Dark Horse. I’ve been working on a publication called The Big Lie for Truth Be Told comics, about the collapse of the Twin Towers in 9/11. That’s been great. Americans are so enthusiastic.
The characters in 2000AD also had very distinctive artwork, eg, Sláine…
I have lettered Slaine, always a joy. I’ve also been working for the current Slaine artist, Clint Langley, on a work called American Reaper which will be made into a film. I recall having to do a very quick turnaround on a few pages as film people were waiting to see them on their iPads at a meeting in Cannes. No pressure there!
How would Sláine actually translate to a film?
It could be possible. Clint Langley puts so much detail in, it’s all there as a beautiful story board.
Would it work for purists (ie, me)?
Because you fancy Sláine? [Annie smiles , interviewer blushes]
How many people know what colour Sláine’s eyes are? In my mind, the colour is blue.
It is! [Interviewer punches the air in victory.]
Do you think that Tank Girl turned the tide with her powerful image and attitude?
I lettered one of the versions of Tank Girl and I love it. It was certainly very different, I don’t know if it turned the tide. I’m not sure if it translated into a film terribly well…
The film has to compete against the imagination of the reader; Sly Stallone wasn’t very well received in Judge Dredd… but he was a great character. I thought he caught some of the essence of Judge Dredd.
Do you think some of the humour of the comic is lost in the script?
Each artist brings some of their own character and humour to the work. Did you see Christmas JD? That was so funny, all done in rhyme…
Do you read comics for pleasure?
[Smiles and shakes head]
I think it’s because I’ve always had to do something else besides lettering.I trained as a kinesiologist, so I do a lot of technical reading. I read what my husband does [Annie’s husband is writer, artist and letterer, Steve Parkhouse]. He’s working on a really interesting project at the moment. I dont see it as he works; he emails it to me.
So what do you do to unwind?
[Laughs] You know… alcohol, usually… I’ve talked about stress-relieving biscuits, because you can keep going into the wee hours on biscuits. At one point Steve and I took on production work for three comics. We were sent bromides of artwork for resizing and changes, stuck them on boards, drew them up and made lettering alterations. I was also working full time at an architect’s practice at the time. I’d go home, work till two in the morning, get up at six to take it to Red Star parcels at the train station straight into the architect’s and I did that for about 18 months…until I cracked.
You do lettering for other people’s work; have you ever been tempted to write anything yourself?
In the early days I had a go at ideas, sometimes brainstorming with Steve, who’s a writer, but all I have is an idea, I can’t see it through, develop a beginning, middle and end. I did turn the film script of The Quatermass Experiment into a comic strip, which I enjoyed. I really had to concentrate. Maybe that’s what I lack when I’ve tried to write. I’ve never imagined that it’s easy.
Is there anything else I should have asked you but have been too selfish to do so?
One question I was asked, was that being a woman, was there anything I felt went too far or was too graphic? Generally no, but when I was pregnant one Hellblazer graphic novel was very dark and I felt quite queasy about it. I think the other thing that’s put me off is when I’ve actually suspected the writer’s psyche. I’ve read the script and thought, he’s actually made his perversion into a comic strip!
Congratulations on your Eagle Awards nomination.
I might have been nominated other times and didn’t know. They don’t tell you; I just happened to stumble across the website and thought, Oh! Ive been nominated for an award!
Is it nice to be recognised for your skill?
It gives you a little frisson because it’s your peers who put you forward. Then again, I don’t know the numbers involved!
Many thanks to Annie Parkhouse for granting the interview.