Show card lettering artists were usually anonymous to the public. Art was a commercial service and few people signed their names or were credited for their craft. Edgar Church (1888 – 1978) was among the few who received a certain amount of acclaim – and some of that recognition today is thanks to Chuck Rozanski, an avid comics collector (drag queen) and founder of Mile High Comics.
Church was one of the leading comics collectors in the 20s, 30s and 40s. The two disciplines, comics and graphic design/lettering, were intertwined — and comics splash panels certainly influenced his work.
Church maintained his art service studio in the Denver area from about 1910-1965, with the majority of his work – clichés, spot art and custom lettering, produced from 1918-1950. He also created numerous color paintings and landscapes during this time. He was hired on a freelance basis for variegated lettering styles, borders and pen and ink illustrations for ads running in the Colorado Yellow Pages. Rozanski states that Church worked “in the evenings and on weekends for literally thousands of small businesses, creating everything from letterheads, to Christmas cards, to full-page ads in local newspapers.”
Church practiced a textbook contemporary approach to letters with a distinctive flair for dramatic, eye-catching tropes. “He was an avid borrower of visual cues from all media.” Rozanski notes regarding that Church’s collection of hundreds of pieces of clip art that he had cut and filed for reference, from full color Maxfield Parrish ads, to entire pulp magazine covers, to clippings of ordinary spot ads from newspapers.
His renown, however, derives from the collection of comic books that he amassed, later known as the “Edgar Church collection.” Under the umbrella of the “Mile High collection”, Church is most famous for his valuable stash, including between 18,000 and 22,000 early comic books.
The generic styles that Church worked with are generally not considered on the high-end of graphic design (although they have seen a revival in that twilight zone between art and commerce today). But not only was his skill undeniable, his work represents the roots of graphic design. Mirko Ilic recently pointed me towards a collection of the pieces that are being sold by Heritage Auctions. Other original drawings and comprehensives are also to be found on auction sites. There is a special, invigorating thrill for a designer or illustrator to see the level of handwork work that went into speciments of the late 19th through the mid-twentieth centuries. The likes of this labor, craft and artistry may never be seen again.
About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →