One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite (and least favorite) typefaces.
JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | EDWARD JOHNSTON | 1929
If you wanted to model a book after the earliest printed books, you might mirror their layout — placing the main text in the middle of the opening, with commentary surrounding it along the margins and illustrations interspersed. You might commission one of the great artists of your age to cut new woodcuts and choose a text that is itself centuries old but still loved today. And you might find a typeface to do the same, straddling the past and the present.
When Henry Graf Kessler wanted to print an edition of Hamlet, he did all of these things. The most striking part of the 1929 book is its illustrations — Edward Gordan Craig’s images are stunning and powerful. But what ties the Cranach Press Hamlet most clearly to Kessler’s vision of reworking the past is Edward Johnston’s type.
Johnston’s typefaces for the London Underground are decidedly modern sans-serifs. But for Hamlet, at Kessler’s direction, he turned back to some of the earliest fonts, the blackletter types designed by Peter Schoeffer. (The colophon for Hamlet states that the typeface derives from the 1457 Mainz Psalter, but L.M. Newman’s collection of Kessler’s and Craig’s correspondence describes the 1462 Bible and 1472 Decretum as being additional key texts for Johnston’s inspiration.) Schoeffer’s typefaces, like other early fonts, have their origins in scribal writing. Imagine writing with a thick quill, and you might — if you were very talented — come up with the blocky blackletter of medieval religious books. As Schoeffer continued to adapt those letters for the system of punches and matrices that produce metal letters, however, he opened up the white spaces, giving a whole different look to the page. This might have been an aesthetic choice, but it was certainly also a practical one: by introducing more space between the letters, Schoeffer reduced the number of ligatures and the pieces of type that needed to be cast.
Just as Schoeffer took the letters of earlier scribes and adjusted them, so Johnston took Schoeffer’s typeface and reworked it for a twentieth-century audience. In Johnston’s hands, the fussiness of the earlier letters is minimized, but if you compare the type of Schoeffer’s 1472 Decretum with Johnston’s 1929 Hamlet, you’ll see the resemblance clearly. Johnston’s ascenders tend to stand straight up, but the curves in the “h” and “g” come straight out of Schoeffer’s. The 12-point type used for the Hamlet commentary is a mixture of sans serif and serif, letting in more air while still suggesting the heaviness of blackletter.
But that’s what you see when you look with a knowledgeable eye. What do you see when you look at the book with your heart? What I see is a book that is of both the past and the present, a book that looks back to foundational moments of printing, illustration, and drama and makes them speak to the world even now, nearly a century after its production.
2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.
2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.
2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins
2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker