Comic letterer Rus Wooton spells it out
Story by Jennifer Longdon
As a comic book letterer, Rus Wooton has one of the coolest careers on the planet. The problem is, few people understand what he does.
“Even people who read comics aren’t quite sure what a letterer does,” Wooton, said. “Comics are a visual storytelling medium. Lettering is crucial to the storytelling. I get the script and the art. Then, I layout the dialog and narration on each page. I draw the word balloons and caption boxes and create the sound effects.”
The sound effects—the BOOM, CRASH and RRRRRrrrring within the panels, along with the emotion conveyed through the size, shape and color choices of the lettering often carry readers through the story.
Wooton was introduced to comics as a boy when a cousin gave him his first copy of The Amazing Spiderman.
“I was hooked,” he recalled.
For his eighth birthday, his father gave him a subscription to Godzilla. He became a denizen of the Marvel universe.
Wooton was studying fine art in Florida in 1990 when he was paralyzed in a surfing accident. At the time of his injury, he could still move his hands and arms. Complications from his near-drowning postponed his decompression surgery. By the time it was done, Wooton was diagnosed with incomplete quadriplegia at C6 and spent months in rehab.
“As soon as my halo came off, I asked my dad to bring my sketchbook. I saw people drawing with a mouthstick in rehab and I really wanted to see what I could do,” Wooton said. “I had to approach art differently. Instead of fine motor drawing with my hand and wrist, I started using my arm and began to draw more loosely.”
His first recognizable figure was a dinosaur.
“It took a couple of years until I felt my skill level was back to where it was before I was hurt.”
Wooton letters digitally using Adobe Illustrator and fonts that have been created from handwriting to keep the original feel of the work.
“My plan wasn’t to get into lettering. I enjoyed drawing comics as a kid and thought that’s what I wanted to do. I sort of fell into lettering.”
He started his career as a web designer, yet always still drawing, when a friend who lettered for Marvel comics offered to teach him the ropes.
“He said, ‘I have more work than I can handle right now. I can teach you digital lettering and maybe you can supplement your income with some freelance work.’ It sounded fun,” Wooton recalled.
Wooton has worked as a letterer for 15 years and has lettered thousands of stories for Marvel and independent publishers. He currently works with Image Comics, an organization that helps creators sell their original works. He now works directly with writers and artists to letter their work.
During his time with Marvel comics, he worked on his beloved Spiderman and lettered more than 70 issues of the Fantastic Four. With Image Comics, he’s lettered The Walking Dead since issue 20. The series is now on issue 180.
Wooton has advice for those interested in breaking into the field.
“The great thing about comics today is with the internet, people can make their comics and put them out there for the world to see. They don’t need gatekeepers like publishers. Even Marvel and DC have found great artists and writers who’ve been doing their own thing on the internet.”
Working digitally allows people with disabilities to work in ways they may not have anticipated Wooton explained.
“You can adjust software to account for tremors and range of motion challenges in your line stroke.”
Always, there were comics. Wooton had wanted to draw comics as a kid and remained smitten with the medium. He began drawing comics for “Life in Action,” the monthly publication of the United Spinal Association. He’s drawn a number of wheelchair rugby promotional posters including one for Ability360.
“Representation matters,” Wooton said. “Storytelling is a great way to advocate for marginalized communities.”
As a storytelling medium, comics are expanding beyond superheroes to include other genres like horror, romance and politics. As more women enter the industry, strong, nuanced female characters are on the rise.
“There are more women and girls reading comics and working on them for sure. And, there are more opportunities for people looking for something other than superheroes,” Wooten said. “The audience is changing. In fact, the biggest selling comics right now are published by Scholastic and aimed at teens and young adults.”
To round out his career, Wooton would enjoy the opportunity to letter for DC Comics. “Lettering Superman would be incredible with the connections to the spinal cord injury community through Christopher Reeve.”
Currently, Wooton is working on his own autobiographical graphic novel. He hopes it’s ready to publish by the end of the year.
Outside his LA studio, Wooton is known to advocate for and mentor people with disabilities. While living in New York state, he changed parking policies to include clear signage for access aisles.
“I know that no matter what kind of function you have with your disability you can probably do more than you think you can. You can definitely do more than other people believe you can.” Wooton chuckled.
Find Rus Wooton’s art at RusWooton.com or on Deviant Art at RusWooton.DeviantArt.com. Watch for his upcoming autobiography to publish and then, perhaps, you’ll find him at a Comic Con near you.
Jennifer Longdon is a Phoenix-based writer, speaker and advocate.