Writer and Letterer Joe Caramagna on the History and Mystery of ‘Wyatt Earp’ [Interview]
Joe Caramagna is a writer and letterer best known for his work at Marvel, where he writes much of their all-ages line and letters titles including Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil. His newest project is the Kickstarter-funded miniseries The Further Travels of Wyatt Earp, with artist Scott Koblish. The history of the infamous cowboy --- much of which is myth, some of it legend, and maybe even some of it true --- is a tangled knot, which Caramagna slices through to provide readers with some of the most interesting Wild West stories in recent comics history.
To find out more, Caramagna spoke to ComicsAlliance about the series, the man behind the legend, and how the Kickstarter process developed for him. We also asked him about his role as a letterer, to learn what makes a great letterer, and what life is like as a lettering pro.
ComicsAlliance: Why Wyatt Earp? What about the man --- or the time period he lived in --- motivated you to start writing this story, in particular?
Joe Caramagna: I love history --- especially American history --- and Wyatt Earp is Americana. He's an icon of American history and the Old West in particular. I've always been a fan of that time period because my Grandpa Pat used to tell me stories of when as a kid he would visit his great uncle Cornelius who was a Civil War veteran. It almost boggles the mind to think that I spoke with someone who spoke with a Civil War veteran, right? So I knew a little about Wyatt Earp from my love of history, and also because of the movies and long-running television series from the fifties.
But all of those stories end with the famous Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, which happened when Wyatt was in his early thirties. When I found out he lived to be eighty, I wanted to know what happened in the nearly half a century after the credits rolled.
CA: There are many lingering questions about his life. Was it difficult to sift out the truth?
JC: A lot of his life has been mythologized, but that was happening when he was still alive. He was the only participant in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral who didn't get hit with a bullet, so some people even wondered if he were somehow bulletproof. That would explain the brass you-know-whats that he had.
For much of his life, they say he didn't like to talk to the press, so many of the stories that were told about him were told to the newspapers by his enemies. But then there were others who claimed that all he cared about were his press clippings and his legacy. So even that is being debated to this day!
For this series, I chose five different times and places from Wyatt Earp's later years. It's historical fiction, but based around actual places where Wyatt lived and some based on real-life events of the time. I chose the locations based on how interesting they are, but also how different they are from one another, like San Francisco, California and Nome, Alaska.
CA: What motivates him throughout your series, and across the five periods?
JC: When we meet Wyatt, he's buried so many loved ones in his life that he vows that when he dies, it won't be by gunshot. He's going to live until his body decides to stop living. So he leaves law enforcement behind to start a new chapter; to reinvent himself. The problem is that his reputation as a lawman is so well known throughout the West that no one can see him as anything but the Wyatt Earp from Tombstone, Arizona. They put him in that box, and no matter what he does, he can't get out.
CA: Did you come out of the project with more respect for him as a person?
JC: I originally saw him as a ruthless, fearless lawman, which he was, but I also grew to feel sorry for him. He's a tragic character. His first wife died when she was pregnant when they were fairly young, and then he lost friends and brothers under really violent circumstances. In his later years, he tried to be something else, and was humiliated in the press. He never really had much but his fame, and that didn't come with fortune. He had a pretty rough eighty years.
CA: How did the creative team, Scott Koblish and Andrew Edge, come onboard the project? What was it about their work that made them the team you wanted to approach?
JC: I had worked with Scott on some projects before and was always impressed by his storytelling and his ability to draw anything. I'm not sure he ever saw himself drawing a western, but I always saw his style as very adaptable to any genre. I thought he was perfect from day one and begged him to come aboard.
Our colorist Andrew Edge is a classmate of mine from The Kubert School. I love his work and was hoping for a chance to work with him, so I asked him to join us. And our logo was designed by a high school friend of mine Melissa Horvath-Plyman who has a long design resume, but this is her first comic book. And of course, I worked with our editor Nate Cosby when he was at Marvel. Nate and I have similar sensibilities, I knew he'd "get" it and have good feedback.
CA: With the success of the Wyatt Earp Kickstarter, do you think you’d be likely to go the crowdfunding route again in future?
JC: Probably not, but only because of how long it took me to complete the project. I feel like I let a lot of people down even though they couldn't have been nicer or more patient with me. I guess I expect the crowdfunding experience to be freeing since I'm used to working in "corporate comics," but it was almost the opposite because I was serving two hundred masters who forked over their hard-earned money to see this through.
They were much nicer to me than I deserved, and I hope they're happy with what the long wait has produced for them.
CA: Do you think crowdfunding is starting a change in the way the industry views comics?
JC: It's huge. With the digital capabilities that we have these days, it's never been easier to get your own comics out there into the world. But even though the process had been made easier, the money still wasn't there. But now with crowdfunding, that's been taken care of as well.
Every time we say "it's never been easier to self-publish," it gets even easier. And it does a lot for your self-esteem to know that people like your idea and work enough to give you money before they have the product in hand. I don't know if it changes the way the industry views comics because along with this influx of comics by great, undiscovered talent and/or established pros getting their creator-owned work out there, there are probably a lot of books being made that don't match their level of quality. But if they get funded and find their audience, more power to them! They've earned their space.
CA: You’re lettering this project yourself --- you are a letterer for Marvel, after all! Do you think your work as a letterer changes the way you work as a writer?
JC: It makes me a better writer, that's for sure. I get a master class in writing every month from the best in the business when I letter their books, and that has always helped. But lettering also helps me to know how much text is too much for the room I'll have. When I letter my own books, it also allows me the luxury of being able to rewrite as I letter, which is especially helpful for those times when I grossly miscalculate how much room I have in a panel! And sometimes you play off of the facial expressions and other things that the artist draws into the page.
But that doesn't mean I like writing plot-first --- I actually hate that. I write mostly full scripts even when I'm going to letter it myself. I encourage the artists I work with to present my story however they want to visually, but the idea that an artist can change a plot because too much was left to interpretation scares me to death. I hate flying by the seat of my pants like that and having to change the story I had in mind to match the art.
CA: So where do you start when lettering a comic? How do you know what style, what font, what details will work best in any particular story?
JC: I do it the same way I do when lettering Marvel books. I look at the art and from a design standpoint, see what works the best. My goal, or philosophy, or whatever you want to call it in regards to lettering is to not stand out, but to add to the reader's investment in the story. It'll probably look terrible if a western were lettered in a futuristic, robotic font, no matter how awesome that font might be. Also, big, bursty effects and block lettering will probably stick out like a sore thumb over photorealistic art.
CA: What do you see as the mark of a good letterer? What marks good lettering from poor lettering?
JC: If a reader is taken out of the story by my lettering, I feel like I've failed at my job, even if they were taken out of it by a lettering effect that they thought was really cool. They should be paying attention to the story, not the lettering. To me, a good letterer is someone whose work can go unnoticed. There are also some spacing, kerning, and leading aspects and the placements of tails that make for good lettering in my opinion, but I feel that's more of a personal preference thing. To me, anything that distracts is bad.
And consistency is key, too! When I see a book that has odd balloons here and there that are tighter than the rest, or the last few pages are a bit sloppy because the letterer ran out of steam, I cringe. That's why I usually letter pages out of order, to maintain a consistency. Or at least to hide the inconsistencies!
CA: As a letterer, are you usually the final part of the comics-making process?
JC: Sometimes I'm involved very early. Mark Waid and Dan Slott make sure I'm involved in the early stages of an issue's creation, but for the most part I don't know anything until a few days before the issue goes to print. Then it's a mad dash to the finish.
CA: How do you think the industry treats letterers as a whole? There was a recent campaign pushing for colorists to get credited on covers. Shouldn’t we also want for letterers to have that same attention?
JC: It's my understanding that the cover credits are a marketing tool. If you put "Snyder & Capullo" or "Johns & Romita Jr." on a cover, I don't think there's a colorist or letterer out there whose name would move the needle any further in terms of sales when put under those kind of names. And there are a lot of colorists these days who really make a world of difference in the art --- so much so that it would be a different book without them. The letterers: not so much.
Unless you're a student of lettering or related to the letterer, if you're buying a book just for the lettering, you probably need to have your head examined, ha! So no, I don't think my name should be on the cover as a letterer, it would just add to the clutter.
But I've seen some creators talking about it as a respect issue, and that I can kind of understand, but it's much more important to me to have the respect of the people I work with behind the scenes than it is to have my name on the cover as a letterer.
That said, I understand that I'm speaking from a position of privilege here. Working with Virtual Calligraphy means I don't have to worry about promoting myself as a letterer because I'm not really interested in lettering books outside of Marvel for the next couple of years. I get to do something that I enjoy for a living, and that matters to me more than getting a credit. But maybe that'll change in the future, who knows?
The first issue of The Further Travels of Wyatt Earp is available now on ComiXology.