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Lettering - some guidelines
DAJB at 5:12AM, June 9, 2010
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Let's be honest - lettering is one of the dark arts! If it's done well, it probably won't even be noticed. But, if it's done badly, then - no matter how good the artwork and writing may be - it can seriously affect a reader's enjoyment of a comic.

When Harsho had to leave Shades, I found a new artist (E.C. Nickel) and colourist (Muamal Khairi) but decided to attempt the lettering myself. The lettering of Chapters 9 onwards, therefore, is all mine and - in the course of working on those chapters - I came to a few conclusions about what makes lettering succeed or fail. Some of these “guideines” are common sense, others are simply my own opinion but, just in case they might of any help to anyone else, I thought I'd set them out here in the Shades forum.

I am, of course, by no means a professional and so I'm sure there will be many who disagree with some or all of the following. Even so, there's no denying that there's a lot of bad lettering out there in Webcomic Land and so - if nothing else - I hope these guidelines might prompt one or two people at least to start thinking about the principles and techniques they're using (or not using!) If they then decide to do something different, hey, that's cool. We each have to find what works best for us!

1. Hand lettering vs digital lettering

One of the first decisions to make is whether or not to do the lettering for your comic by hand. There are those traditionalists who believe that hand lettering is the only correct way to letter and that all the other ills listed below are a direct consequence of digital lettering. This is not true. Hand lettering can be bad, and digital lettering can be good. To me, there are only two considerations here:

(i) Is your handwriting clearly legible? Even when it's reduced in size and scanned into your PC at 72 dpi?
(ii) Can you draw circles, ovals and other wonderfully curvy geometric shapes? Neatly?

If the answer to either of those is “no”, you probably ought to be doing your lettering digitally!

2. Choosing a font

Assuming you're going to letter your comic digitally, you'll need to choose a font. Most art packages come with a few pre-loaded but, if none of those are suitable, there are plenty online that you can download for free. For Shades, I used Digital Strip because, to me, it has the feel of a traditional “real” comic. If your artwork is manga-styled, however, you might want to use something lighter and more modern. For Hunted, for example, I used Anime Ace which, along with a wide variety of other fonts is available free from the excellent Blambot website.

Some of the things to bear in mind with regard to fonts are:
- does the font suit the mood of your comic?
- is the font simple, clear and easy to read, even in a dense block of text?
- make sure it's not a font designed for use in headings or sound effects. The spacing on these fonts will seldom look right when used in general dialogue.
- pick a font and stick with it. Using several different fonts on one page may make you feel like you're being creative but, to the reader, it can very often make your page look messy and less “unified”.
- some fonts have upper and lower case letters. Be consistent with the case you use.

3. Font size

Many webcomics use too large a font size. This is bad for several reasons.
(i) your dialogue balloons will cover up far more of your lovely artwork than is necessary.
(ii) if you plan to print your comic at some stage, the font will look even bigger on the printed page!

Getting the right size is unfortunately a matter of trial and error. It will be different for different fonts and will change depending on which resolution you use. As a general guideline, use the smallest size you possibly can without the text becoming difficult to read when posted online.

4. Text inside balloons - quantity

Dialogue balloons containing a whole wall of text are hard on the eye. At best, the need for a huge balloon will spoil the look of your page and, at worst, the reader may not even read the text, preferring to skip over it and move on to the next panel. There's no hard and fast rule here, but I'd suggest that - for most comics - very few balloons need contain more than five or six lines of dialogue. If you have more, break the text down into shorter sentences and use two or more balloons adjoining each other. It looks more attractive and it's just easier to read that way!

5. Text inside balloons - layout

Dialogue balloons are usually oval-shaped. The text inside them should therefore also be arranged in the shape of an oval (or lozenge). Text arranged in a perfect square with lines of equal length, for example, will look as if it doesn't fit the balloon properly (unless the balloon itself is also square, obviously!) For an oval-shaped balloon, the first and last lines should be the shortest, maybe containing only one word each. The middle line should be the longest and lines in between should be … well, in between! Obviously there will be exceptions but, as a general rule, having a long line at the top and/or bottom with shorter lines in between will usually look very amateurish.

6. Text in bold

When looking at general, conversational dialogue (i.e. not shouting!) a number of professionals have said that one mark of an amateur letterer is that none of the text is in bold. Even so, to create the best effect, I believe it should be used sparingly, with only one or two words emboldened per dialogue balloon. The question then becomes, which words?
(i) Golden and Silver Age comics would often embolden purely random words, simply because it helped to add variety to the look of a block of text, making the dialogue balloon easier on the eye. Today, this approach is considered pretty silly!
(ii) The more obvious and common approach is to embolden only the most important words in a balloon. This can help to make sure the reader doesn't miss any significant clues about what's happening.
(iii) My preferred approach is to consider which words a character would actually emphasize if they were speaking them in the real world, and then to embolden those. This means the relevant words may often be insignificant in themselves (an “and” or an “or”, for example) but my hope is that it may sometimes help the character seem more real.

7. Balloon size

The first part of this should be obvious. A dialogue balloon must be big enough to fit all the text inside. The text should not touch or break outside the borders of the balloon (unless that's being done to create a deliberate effect, obviously!) Less obvious, it seems, is that a balloon should be no bigger than is necessary to fit all the text inside. A huge balloon with acres of empty white space surrounding four little words looks as if you haven't planned your dialogue properly.

Plus, of course, it will cover up a lot more of that beautiful artwork that you sat up all night creating!

8. Balloon placement

When dialogue balloons are placed correctly, the reader should move from one to the next in the right order, without even having to think about it. A reader should never have to pause to work out which order to read the balloons in. Western readers will read from left to right and then from top to bottom. With practice you can bend the rules of balloon placement but, as a general rule, this means that, within each panel:
(i) Do not place a balloon lower in a panel than one which is meant to be read after it.
(ii) Do not place a balloon to the left of one which is meant to be read before it. (Note: For manga-styled comics which are traditionally read from right to left, this direction is reversed, but the principle is the same.)

The other thing to consider when placing balloons is to try to use empty spaces whenever possible. That way you'll cover up no more of the artwork than you need to (hey, you worked hard on that!) If you do have to cover up some nice detailed artwork in order to ensure the balloons read in the correct order, however, then be brave and do so - the reader comes first!

9. Balloon tails

The pointer or tail of a dialogue balloon should always point towards the character who is speaking and, ideally, towards that character's mouth. Tails which point towards hands, chests (or lower!) will tend to create an unintentionally comic effect (i.e. “comic” as in humorous!)

In addition, the pointer of one dialogue balloon should not cross that of another. Not only is this confusing but it looks untidy and suggests the artwork and the positioning of the characters wasn't properly planned with the dialogue in mind.
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
Abt_Nihil at 11:57AM, June 10, 2010
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Good article on lettering! I like the fact that you don't assume anything as given (square blocks of text in an oval balloon? Now who'd ever think of that? I'm sure it has happened, or you probably wouldn't mention it), and remind people like me - who've been lettering for decades - of some of the basics we might have forgotten.

Personally, I was surprised to read that “a number of professionals have said that one mark of an amateur letterer is that none of the text is in bold”. I've never heard of that! For some reason I always assumed that emboldening words in comics is the exception (might have to do with the fact that many comics I read don't rely on emboldening too much, and also that I treat comic book text like any other text, where bold words are the exception also.) But I'll try to keep it in the back of my head.

I'd like to add something you didn't mention though: Since I treat lettering as an integral part of any page layout, I draw word balloons exactly the same way I draw the page - I sketch them out in my pencils, then ink them. I rarely ever add balloons digitally. Frankly, I can't do it as well on the computer as I can do it on paper. But there's also a less pragmatic reason: When drawing I don't like to gamble on where word balloons will be placed in the end - I like to know! But doing it this way, another aspect comes into play: You don't have to block out any gorgeous art. Rather, you can cheat by placing word balloons in areas you don't want to draw! :P
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
DAJB at 1:46AM, June 11, 2010
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Abt_Nihil
I like the fact that you don't assume anything as given (square blocks of text in an oval balloon? Now who'd ever think of that? I'm sure it has happened, or you probably wouldn't mention it)
Absolutely! This is the sum total of what works and doesn't work (at least as far I'm concerned, obviously!) and it's almost all based on things I've actually seen in comics, both mainstream and indy/web. I won't name any of the webcomics (because, hey, we're all still learning here!) but books like Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, for example, is guilty of many, many sins against the art of lettering!

Abt_Nihil
Personally, I was surprised to read that “a number of professionals have said that one mark of an amateur letterer is that none of the text is in bold”. I've never heard of that! For some reason I always assumed that emboldening words in comics is the exception
It's quite difficult to find a good, comprehensive guide to lettering, or at least one that simply focuses on practicalities rather than trying to teach say, the DC or Marvel “house style”. But, yes, over the years I've read that comment a number of times in interviews. I think, essentially, it's just another facet of breaking up the text visually so, the more text you have in a balloon, the more important it becomes.

Of course it's just as important not to over-do it and embolden too many words. If you have a page where the balloons only have half a dozen words in each, a lot of those balloons might not need any bold text at all. (In my opinion!)

Abt_Nihil
I'd like to add something you didn't mention though: Since I treat lettering as an integral part of any page layout, I draw word balloons exactly the same way I draw the page - I sketch them out in my pencils, then ink them. I rarely ever add balloons digitally. Frankly, I can't do it as well on the computer as I can do it on paper. But there's also a less pragmatic reason: When drawing I don't like to gamble on where word balloons will be placed in the end - I like to know! But doing it this way, another aspect comes into play: You don't have to block out any gorgeous art. Rather, you can cheat by placing word balloons in areas you don't want to draw! :P
I agree. If you're doing all the artwork and lettering yourself, then I think that's exactly the right way to go about it. The placement of the balloons should ideally be a part of the overall page composition.

For me, I obviously don't have that luxury! As a writer who knows the artwork will come back to me for lettering later, I do try to consider balloon placement etc when I'm describing the panel in the script, but artists can always surprise you! Sometimes they use a different page layout for the panels, sometimes they draw the characters larger than anticipated or in slightly different poses, or they might add in details which - when you see them - you just don't want to hide because they are sooo gorgeous! All you can do then is improvise and make difficult judgment calls!

I think all the above principles still apply, though, even if you are doing the artwork yourself. In theory, it should just make it easier to plan for these things in advance!
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
Abt_Nihil at 3:42AM, June 11, 2010
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DAJB
I won't name any of the webcomics (because, hey, we're all still learning here!) but books like Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, for example, is guilty of many, many sins against the art of lettering!
Gasp! I didn't even notice, what with all the pretty art and neat writing. I would look it up if it wasn't in my other home. I'm wondering who's the letterer… (Not being able to take all your comics with you kind of takes the fun out of moving ;-))
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
DAJB at 5:17AM, June 11, 2010
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Abt_Nihil
DAJB
I won't name any of the webcomics (because, hey, we're all still learning here!) but books like Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, for example, is guilty of many, many sins against the art of lettering!
Gasp! I didn't even notice, what with all the pretty art and neat writing. I would look it up if it wasn't in my other home. I'm wondering who's the letterer… (Not being able to take all your comics with you kind of takes the fun out of moving ;-))
The letterer was Jared K Fletcher, but I'm going to retract part of my condemnation here. I do have a number of issues with TNF but, to be fair, a lot of them have nothing to do with the lettering! I do have some issues with the lettering in places, but I think that particular example only came to mind because I've just finished re-reading it, and so its flaws are still fresh in my mind!

Anyway, let's not get off topic here. I agree the artwork is very pretty!
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
alejkhan at 3:33PM, June 17, 2010
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*sigh of relief* Good to know I'm not totally failing at lettering! :P Thanks for compiling this advice. It has given me a lot to think about.

The bold lettering section really caught me by surprise. It makes a lot of sense to use it as a way of emphasizing speech patterns, but I hadn't thought of it as simply being used as a way of creating variety and interest in a block of text. I've used bold or italics here and there, but not with any consistency. I might have to look into that a bit more, now.

I've been reading, off and on, the classic 1960s X-Men comics. The first thing that caught my eye about the lettering was that every single sentence ended in an exclamation point. Every one! It made it ridiculously difficult to read. How could everyone be shouting, at all times, about everything? The second thing would be the balloons. My god! They are insane! People are drawn over them. They take up two-thirds of a panel. They have horrible flow. They look like cell structures splitting and reproducing, sending out tendrils to pierce the poor characters in the comic in order to steal their precious genetic information. How on earth they got away with that nonsense for so long boggles my mind. And yet, it is sort of inspiring. Some of these bizarre aspects of the lettering are actually kind of fun to employ. Sparingly. As you mentioned, sometimes you can mess with lettering and balloons to create neat effects. I guess, in the end, it is all about moderation and balance. You have to know when to call it quits and just stick to the basics. ^_^
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
DAJB at 1:58AM, June 18, 2010
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alejkhan
*sigh of relief* Good to know I'm not totally failing at lettering! :P Thanks for compiling this advice. It has given me a lot to think about.
I think that's the key, isn't it? There's never a single right or wrong way to do something like this, but - if you know what the issues are - you can at least think about them and come to your own decisions about what works and what doesn't. For example, somebody else might decide that they will never use bold text under any circumstances and, if they've thought about it, then that's fine. I suspect, however, that most who don't use it have simply never even considered it. With subjects like this, it's so hard to find guidelines on the kind of things we should be thinking about.

alejkhan
I've been reading, off and on, the classic 1960s X-Men comics. The first thing that caught my eye about the lettering was that every single sentence ended in an exclamation point. Every one! It made it ridiculously difficult to read. How could everyone be shouting, at all times, about everything? The second thing would be the balloons. My god! They are insane! People are drawn over them. They take up two-thirds of a panel. They have horrible flow. They look like cell structures splitting and reproducing, sending out tendrils to pierce the poor characters in the comic in order to steal their precious genetic information. How on earth they got away with that nonsense for so long boggles my mind. And yet, it is sort of inspiring. Some of these bizarre aspects of the lettering are actually kind of fun to employ. Sparingly. As you mentioned, sometimes you can mess with lettering and balloons to create neat effects. I guess, in the end, it is all about moderation and balance. You have to know when to call it quits and just stick to the basics. ^_^
Yes, I love reading the old stuff for that kind of insight! When I was first getting back into comics, I delved into a few “classics” from the 1970s and 1980s (Crisis on Infinite Earths, A Death in the Family etc) and, for a couple of years now I've been reading The Batman Chronicles, The Superman Chronicles and The Wonder Woman Chronicles which reprint all the original 1930s and 1940s comics in chronological order. I love seeing the evolution of the styles we now consider “the norm” and making up my own mind about why certain practices have since been dropped or why others have become the standard.

As I wrote to someone in an email recently, I love history and, when it comes to the history of comics, reading the original strips is far more enjoyable than reading about them!
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM
Abt_Nihil at 4:01AM, June 18, 2010
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alejkhan
I've been reading, off and on, the classic 1960s X-Men comics. The first thing that caught my eye about the lettering was that every single sentence ended in an exclamation point. Every one! It made it ridiculously difficult to read. How could everyone be shouting, at all times, about everything? The second thing would be the balloons. My god! They are insane! People are drawn over them. They take up two-thirds of a panel. They have horrible flow. They look like cell structures splitting and reproducing, sending out tendrils to pierce the poor characters in the comic in order to steal their precious genetic information. How on earth they got away with that nonsense for so long boggles my mind.
Sorry for cutting in, but that's both one of the most accurate and at the same time funny descriptions of what comics used to do (I was actually laughing out loud, which I never do in front of the computer, and even then I don't admit it easily, what with the over-use of “lol” and all). And the really funny thing is, I tried to ignore these comics for the past few years, since I find their lettering so annoying, and thus, hard to read. You both know I love text-heavy comics, but it's really the lettering that makes the difference between easy to read and hard to read, not the amount of text. (It also helps if the text you're reading isn't just rubbish, either.)

Specifically, I'd guess that in an era when hallucinogenics defined aesthetics, it's easy to see why speech balloons were the way they were. It's just that these days I'm usually not reading my comics under the influence.
last edited on July 18, 2011 10:23AM

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