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Home ¦ Features ¦ Annie Parkhouse & Ellie De Ville interview

Annie Parkhouse & Ellie De Ville - A 2000 AD Review Interview
8th April 05

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Ellie De Ville

Interview by James Mackay

It's not so much that letterers don't get a good press: it's much more that they don't get any press at all.

But while it may not be the most glamorous form of comics work, it's likely that the readers of 2000AD will be very familiar with the work of Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville, who between them have contributed to around 350 separate stories in the comic, as well as work in other classic British titles such as Warrior, Crisis and Toxic, and many, many American imports - a work rate that makes even Dan Abnett look slack!

So it's with pleasure that we bring you an interview with two creators who form the very bedrock of 2000AD...

What made you interested in comics in the first place? (Were you interested in comics in the first place?)

Ellie de Ville: I was a teacher and had no interest in comics. It was serendipity. I had to sleep with a comic artist for several years first though. And I had to swear at a D.C. Editor on our first meeting in order to get work. Unorthodox, I know, but it worked for me.

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Annie Parkhouse

Annie Parkhouse: No more interested than the next kid. I used to read Beezer and some of the American imports of some decades ago. I ended up in comics by default. It had been suggested that I might try girls' magazines for some work. The editor said that he wasn't looking for anyone and sent me downstairs to the scruffier male stratum of Juveniles. There I was told that I was too old, at 19, but they'd give me a try and put me on Lion as a bodger. There was a very low ratio of women to men.

How much collaboration do you get with the writer or artist? Are you ever able to go back and ask for a caption to be cut, or anything like that?

Ellie de Ville: Collaboration has only occurred when working on an individual project. There is no collaboration when working with editors on regular comics.

Annie Parkhouse: I have had a whole range of different collaborations. I could say that the closest has been with my husband, Steve, but as a letterer himself, I haven't had the opportunity to letter his work very often.

The most accommodating collaboration has been with Gary Erskine. He would send me layouts and indications on otherwise blank boards and he would draw round the lettering, or stick the loose balloons down when he'd finished. How much easier can it get?

There was a sea change in the 80s when the writers were being treated like deities by publishers. I was working for DC Comics at the time, and some lettering scripts were becoming like short novels. It seemed to be editorial policy not to touch a word, even if the artwork suffered. One job, I recall, was truly impossible so I called the writer. Bless him [no names] he told me to cut it as I thought best.

On 2000AD I've had to mention cuts or small rewrites a few times.

How did you start working in the American comics industry? What did you start working on?

Annie Parkhouse: I can't remember and I've only recently thrown out my old invoice book which had every job I've done since 1973 in it!

As I recall, DC Comics threw out a net for British writers and artists in the early 80s. We were wined and dined at the Savoy. The great and the good were there. I was included and many of the artists used me for the work they were commissioned for. Then, word got round and I began working for Marvel US, too. Afraid I can't be more specific, there were so many jobs. I remember the first few Hellblazers, but that was '87, and I did New Statesmen with Jim Baikie. Gary Erskine began working for Marvel and Dark Horse and I did stacks of work for them.

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Ellie De Ville

As a letterer, you probably examine artists’ work even more closely than the editor and readers normally do. Whose work do you most look forward to receiving?

Ellie de Ville: I don't see original artwork any more. It's all via email only.

Annie Parkhouse: That's not fair. I'm not naming names, some are close friends. Let's say I look forward to artwork where the artist understands about leaving space for lettering so I'm not forced into poor design by having to cross balloon tails, or put the balloons in awkward places. I want his or her work to look good.

The only technical problem I used to have on some of the very heavily textured work was to hold a line as the pen bumped over the surface, even when I was lettering on Artcel film. Often it's the writing I look forward to if I've got into a good storyline.

Is there ever an issue with artists not thinking about where the speech balloons are going to go? How do you get round this? (And are there any particular offenders you’d like to ‘name & shame’?)

Ellie de Ville: Sometimes artists don't leave space for the text but it's usually possible to move it to previous or following panel.

Annie Parkhouse: I get narked when the artist draws the characters in the wrong order for the balloons, it makes it unnecessarily awkward sometimes. There used to be a general rule that the top third of a frame should be lettering space if required. I think when some artists follow this they are afraid the frame looks too empty and gradually draw closer and closer to the top of the frame. I end up lettering the characters' knees!

A couple of times an artist has asked me to cover a bit of dodgy drawing or distract the reader's eye from it with a sound effect.

Ellie and Annie, you’re the only women creative artists working regularly for 2000AD. Has this ever caused a problem for you?

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Annie Parkhouse

Ellie de Ville: I’ve never had a problem working as a woman in the comics industry.

Annie Parkhouse: Not quite sure what you mean. Since all work is sent by email, gender is irrelevant. Now when I worked in the offices...that was a different issue....I would need real money to spill the beans, or maybe I should say I need real money to keep quiet about it...

Do you ever find the content of 2000AD too male-oriented for your liking? I’m thinking of the infamous “sex issue” as an example…

Ellie de Ville: Most comics are too "boys' own" for me. They seem to be aimed at young males hence the sex, power and violence content. I’ve been lucky enough to work on comics that dealt seriously with issues such as child abuse, disability etc but they don’t have the wide audience appeal of the ‘superheroes’.

Annie Parkhouse: Nooo.....not that I recall. When I was pregnant I was lettering Hellblazer and that was pretty heavy going...foetal skin lampshades etc. What I will say is that it's not what I'm lettering that might make me uneasy, more the scene descriptions. I'm sure that in their enthusiasm to communicate with the artist, writers don't know how much of their own psychology they are revealing...the misogyny, the dubious sexual preferences.

Now you will realise why I'm not naming names...but they know who they are!

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Ellie De Ville

For you, what makes the difference between a good letterer and a poor one? Whose work, apart from each other’s, do you rate highly? Can you usually tell other letterers’ work apart?

Ellie de Ville: Good lettering is easy to read. Todd Klein is my hero.

Annie Parkhouse: One used to be able to identify letterers, though now fonts are often purchased, it could pretty well be anyone doing the work.

My view, as a designer, is that the lettering should, of course, be secondary to the artwork but aid in the story telling. This is where people who think that installing a lettering font is all there is to it, are being a bit optimistic. The balloons should lead the eye across the page is such a way as to pace the dialogue and make sure that the frames are read in the right order. Even small adjustments can make a difference. The readers probably won't notice, though.

The letterers I appreciate are the usual suspects. Johnny Aldrich, with whom I shared an office. He used a Graphos pen, which I could never master, and relied on a blob of dried ink to build up for his inimitable style...John Costanza, Todd Klein...and we have to recognise the work of Richard Starkings who has taken comic book lettering to another level with Comicraft.

Confession time...my style was based on the lettering of Mike Peters of Sterling Studios. When I was doing production work for Valiant, his was the lettering I found the easiest to match, so it sort of evolved.

Another quote, from Alan Donald – “Lettering is an art form that does tread water. I really believe more should have been done in light of The Sandman. Batman should always have a black speech bubble with bold or scratchy text etc, much like the other piece of original lettering, Arkham Asylum by Gaspar Saladino. Saladino and Klein...man. That is lettering as art.” Do you think that most comics lettering is a bit staid?

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Annie Parkhouse

Ellie de Ville: Most lettering is simple rather than staid. In the past, when I worked directly with writer/artists, my lettering would reflect their personal taste. Some liked the lettering to be simple and unobtrusive whilst others encouraged flamboyance. When I don’t know the other collaborators then I aim for simplicity.

Annie Parkhouse: Yes I do. Quick turnaround to meet deadlines makes you concentrate on the functional craft, but cuts down on the art and design. You also begin to believe that no one notices anyway.

To be given a graphic novel to work closely with the artist with time to really design the look, is a bit of a luxury. I did much more of that kind of thing when I lettered by hand. I also think that you don't want the lettering to get all singing and dancing and detract from the artwork. Its function is still just to present the dialogue, but yes, it could be more interesting using quality design.

Who are your favourite writers to work with?

Ellie de Ville: Favourite writers are those who write sparingly.

Annie Parkhouse: Oh, so many. It was terrific working with Alan Moore's scripts for Marvelman...but between Alan's script and Garry Leach's wonderful artwork there wasn't always much room for ME.

I'm always delighted to get one of Robbie Morrison's scripts. A realisation that has dawned on me over time is that if you can read the script for a panel or balloon and letter it without going back to check, it's a good script. Awkward sentence structures and waffle just become words, and you don't get into the spirit of it. It might as well be in a foreign language...and I've done that too. Robbie is always effortless to read and letter and the story unfolds like magic.

A quote from Alan Grant - “Back in the 50s/60s--the heyday of British comics--letterers were among the top earners in the business. Tom Frame used to drive a Rolls Royce.” Should we be having this interview aboard your private gold-plated jumbo jet?

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Ellie De Ville

Ellie de Ville: There's no jumbo jet parked outside. I shall have to ask for a page rate rise!

Annie Parkhouse: Square inch for inch of a page - I expect that was true. Tales of earnings were legion. The downside being failing eyesight, clawed fingers and bent back...no social life or interesting conversation. The money goes on therapy and alcohol.

It was probably the sheer vast amount of work available at that time. Even in late 80's I could work 12 hours a day and still have to turn work away. Now I only do one tenth of what I did, so it's not a sole source of income.

Do you do any work outside lettering? Would you ever try your hand at doing comic art or writing?

Ellie de Ville: Sometimes, I teach English as foreign language. I have no ambitions to be writer/artist.

Annie Parkhouse: Yes, for some time I taught ceramics at an art school. Now I work as an architectural librarian, I've trained as a kinesiologist and work occasionally for a bookshop chain. I adapted a Quatermass screenplay to comic strip for House of Hammer many years ago and really enjoyed doing that.

Annie, if I don’t ask then I’ll never find out – what’s a kinesiologist?

Annie Parkhouse: I suffered with agoraphobia for about 5 years. Thank heavens I was lettering from home. I learned a lot about earth energies (magnetic flux densities etc) as it was worse in some place and not others so I needed to know why. I was eventually 'cured' by visiting a kinesiologist in Penzance who had written a book on Geopathic Stress (Negative Earth energies), and they suggested I should train.

It's basically using muscle testing to find out where the body is holding onto stresses, phobias, addictions and clearing it by holding acupuncture points. It's good for finding allergies and intolerances, too. It's a bit 'out there' for Carlisle, and I haven't really pushed it yet.

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville
Lettering by Annie Parkhouse

Why do you think that the UK’s comics industry has shrunk so badly?

Ellie de Ville: The industry shrunk because of Playstations and the like, together with the UK attitude that comics are only for kids.

Annie Parkhouse: Washed at too high a temperature?

In the 70's the British industry became complacent and didn't try and break new ground. IPC Magazines had a young enthusiastic workforce who wanted to push the envelope but they weren't listened to. Nearly everyone left within a couple of years. Management were pretty staid and wanted to play it safe by doing what they had done for the previous 30 years. They got left behind. Things got crazy during the 80s with the market exploding. Young artists being paid huge amounts to feed the machine, it was unsustainable. Now I suspect the potential comic buyers buy computer based products. The creators are putting their energies elsewhere. The last convention I went to felt downright nostalgic.

Can you take us through the actual process of lettering a page?

Ellie de Ville: Obviously the flow goes from top left to bottom right and if the panel order is unusual, then the text can link panels so they’re looked at in the correct sequence.

Ensure there’s enough space for the text and if there isn’t then float to previous or following panel or divide text into smaller captions/balloons.

Make use of top of panel/corners etc so that important plot details aren’t obscured.

Write small.

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Ellie De Ville

Annie Parkhouse: On computer or by hand? You'll have to get back to me on that one. May I recommend 'How to Draw and Sell Comics' by Alan McKenzie published by Quarto.

What sort of turnaround time do you get to letter a six-page episode?

Ellie de Ville: Turnaround on the weekly is anything between 1 and 5 days.

Annie Parkhouse: Three or four days, which is very relaxed. I used to have to go into the office and turn around that many pages by hand in two or three hours on deadline day.

Over the last fifteen years or so the art of lettering has been altered out of all recognition by the advent of the computer. What changes have you made to your working practices? Have you designed your own fonts or do you use “off-the-shelf”?

Ellie de Ville: I use my own fonts.

Annie Parkhouse: I was pretty resistant to the change. In many ways I would still prefer to be hand lettering, apart from the aforementioned problems of crookback and blindness... It seems to be more of a piece of craftwork when it's hand done, but maybe that's all too William Morris. It's flexible and easier to adapt the lettering to the space available, intuitively.

The computer makes it easier, though not necessarily quicker if you are taking time on details like trimming and kerning. The costs with the computer are huge compared to paper and ink. A huge advantage is that you're not posting, or even worse, losing work in transit. It's so much easier to work internationally as well. Steve turned my hand lettering into a font which works well, but when I look at my old hand lettering I think I prefer it. More character somehow.

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Annie Parkhouse

What’s the lettering job that you have worked on that you are most proud of?

Ellie de Ville: Dave Hine's 'Strange Embrace' was my favourite collaboration. Dave was the writer, artist and editor.

Annie Parkhouse: It's not so much being proud of my lettering as to being proud of being part of something of value. I've loved lettering Nikolai Dante and America really hooked me. Warrior was very special and I felt very much part of the team. Lettering is still very much a process, far less stressful than writing or drawing, as someone who has lived with a writer/artist will understand.

Alan Barnes used his “dying” editorial to thank you both and say that you don’t get the praise you deserve. Do you ever feel overlooked?

Ellie de Ville: I don't feel overlooked.

Annie Parkhouse: That's an issue of pride again. Being just over five foot one, I'm used to being overlooked, especially when I try to buy a drink. Arsy editors can get to you and you're always the one the pressure lands on if the artist doesn't make the deadline, but that's the job. Pressure can be exciting. Alan was a prince to work for, lots of communication, understanding and recognition, it's that rare attitude that makes all the difference.

2000 AD -  Annie Parkhouse and Ellie de Ville

Lettering by Ellie De Ville

A friend of mine wants to become a letterer. What advice would you give him?

Ellie de Ville: Tell your friend to do something else. Seriously…

In the olden days of ye hand lettering, it was more fun, more exciting and more edgy. I usually worked directly on the pencils and so there were always inherent dangers: spilling coffee on the artwork (no, I didn’t but I did once spill ink when refilling my pen); or realising there’s not enough space to complete the text (aargh – patch paper and start again) or putting the wrong text in a balloon/caption (find someone or something to abuse verbally or physically). Computer lettering is safe but boring and I’m sure there are more exciting things to do.

Annie Parkhouse: I would have to know your friend's motives. It can't be for a living wage, it can't be for the fame [though I did get an Eagle Award some years ago]. It can't be to rub shoulders with the rich and notorious, you'll spend days and weeks on your own apart from trips to the supermarket to buy stress-relieving biscuits. WHY? WHY, I ask you. Being a letterer is a crime against nature.

Thanks to Annie and Ellie for taking part in the interview. Annie and Ellie's work can be seen every week in 2000AD. In the meantime - can you work out which strips the above appeared in? Let us know in the forum.

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Original content (c) 2002 Gavin Hanly (contact 2000AD Review).