If you're a fan of Charlton, then you know about their infamous letterer A. Machine.
But who or what is A. Machine?
Back in November, we did a short local library tour spreading the word about our documentary. Naturally we did a stop in Derby... I mean, how could we not?!?
We were taking questions from the audience, when a woman tucked on the end of the second row politely raised her hand. She introduced herself and said she was a former Charlton employee. When Jackie asked what her job was, our world exploded!
Without much regale and a cheerful smile she said...
"I typed the letters on the comic books".
Paul Kupperberg blurted, "Holy sh*t, you're A. Machine!". Jackie pterodactyl screamed.
This mystery woman just smiled politely at our reactions.
She had no idea how important she was.
Ok, ok, we have to remember not all of us are super megatronic nerds, so before we get into WHY this is so epic, we'll give you the quick history.
Comic book lettering is simple - somebody literally writes the story in the comic panels.
But, it's easier said than done.
Fit the story on the page, actually cram it in a bubble - DON'T BLOCK THE ARTWORK - oh, and make sure it flows and is easy to read.
Lettering in comic books has it's own style varying from person to person, typically has a cartoonish font, but on occasion the font would match the artwork... for example
Jim Aparo's work on Thane of Bagarth...
Typically the artist would letter the story, sometimes the inker, but there are people who just specialize in lettering. Just like drawing, this is a fine art, and we could do a whole series just on famous letterers.... but we're talking Charlton here, so let's get to the Fast, Cheap and Easy!
This is where our mystery woman comes in. She didn't just "type the letters on the comic books", she was part of a entity only known as A. Machine.
Actually her name is Veronica, and she was The First A. Machine!
Sometime in 1958, somebody at Charlton got the idea that instead of having someone hand letter the comic pages, they could use a modified typewriter to do it. Suffice to say, this idea was probably inspired by the "fast" and the "cheap" principals, and since Charlton wasn't the only company using a machine to letter, we can only assume they thought it would be "easy" as well. But regardless, in 1958 Charlton hired Veronica to work in the comics division.
Veronica's brother worked at Charlton and she said it was probably him that landed her the job. This was her first full time job, and the particulars of who hired her or who trained her weren't remarkable enough to remember, but she gave me enough to dig deeper into A. Machine's lore.
Although it didn't mean much to a young 17 year old girl, Veronica was in the middle of the bullpen, surrounded by "older men" who were still a few decades away from reaching legendary status. These guys - Steve Ditko, Vince Alascia, Charles Nicholas, Joe Gill, Dick Giordano.... they were just her co-workers.
She sat at a typewriter and for $1 an hour (the minimum wage in 1958) she was handed Joe Gill scripts, and then typed onto artwork done by George Wildman or Steve Ditko; the pages freshly inked by Sal Trapani or Vinnie Colletta.
She said loading the poster board into the typewriter was cumbersome, and sometimes fitting the text into the word ballon was a challenge, but she could get through 25 to 30 pages a day. After each page was finished she would lay it on a shelving unit next to her desk to let the ink dry.
According to my research (and please, PLEASE correct me, if any of you find something different), the first appearance of Charlton's typewritten lettering was in the romance comic My Secret Life #27 which hit the newsstands around December 1958.
This story's lettering was blended; partly typewritten, the rest by hand.
Veronica said that sometimes typos would happen, and when they did, she'd have to white-out the entire balloon and start from scratch. She said it was too difficult to get the typewriter to line up exactly again.
Some reliable guesses on what brand of typewriter was used pointed to the 1957 Vari-Typer Model 160. It had a carriage that was large enough to support the oversized artwork, but.... Veronica didn't recognize the machine when I showed her a picture, however she wasn't 100% sure... so unfortunately we can't vet this particular Vari-Typer just yet.
The hunt continues.
As for that peculiar font style, an often cited quote from Frank McLaughlin stated that editor Pat Masulli designed it. Now, I think we all took this for gospel, but I did scrounge up an old Vari-Typer catalogue which showcased most of the fonts available for purchase.
That's pretty gosh darn close! Buuuut... yeah there's that big ol' but again... there are a few inconsistencies.
A. Machine had a distinct "M" "W", and the "3" had sharp top. So, did Charlton get a couple of janky keys... maybe...
The catalogue this was pulled from was from the late 60's so it is possible that in the late 50s the style was just subtly different. Don't worry, I'll keep looking!
I think one of my favorite parts of the interview was that Veronica didn't know that she was an important part of pop culture history, AND she didn't know she was credited as
Well, actually the credit of A. Machine didn't technically appear until 1967 in a Sarge Steel backup story featured in Judomaster #94, and we have Tony Isabella to thank for that!
No, he never worked for Charlton, but his fan letter made The Beetle's Nest fan column in 1965...
Veronica was unique in that she was the only A. Machine on staff at the time - "there was only one typewriter", so we don't know who took over for her when she left, and hopefully we can find more of the collective!
It was as much fun interviewing her as it was revealing that she had a secret identity that was so secret that even she didn't know about it!
As always, if you know someone who worked at Charlton, send em' our way!
Until next time!
Up and Atom!
Jackie & Keith
P.S. It was a majority rule that A. Machine's font wasn't well liked, but we know of at least one person who was a fan! Up and Atom to you, Richard Mills!