B&N Week 124: Lettering Pt 3

| May 7, 2013


We’ve got another beautiful Tuesday upon us! I’m no longer traveling, I’ve gotten my rest [was down for a few days as I recuperated], and am now ready to get back into the swing of things. WE have the mid 80s here in Tucson, with a slight breeze, so things are great all the way around. It isn’t too hot, I’m home, and I have my kids. What else could you possibly want?

Fine! More Bolts & Nuts. I get it. This week, we’re back talking about lettering. Like I’ve said before, if you want to be laughed at and not taken seriously as a writer, use Comic Sans as your font. Ridicule will be yours! But if you don’t want ridicule, then go grab one of the free fonts over at Blambot.com. You’ll be glad you did.

Now, I’ve gone back and forth with myself as to how deeply I want to take this. My goal here isn’t really to teach you how to letter. There’s already a book out on the market that does this very well: Lettering the ComiCraft Way. Buy that book and follow the directions. No, I’ve decided that my goal here is to give you the information you need to know as a letterer. This will include what your job does and does not entail, as well as the placement of the balloons and captions for best effect.

Your job as the letterer is simple: you copy and paste the words that the writer provides you onto the artwork. [Yes, I’m talking about computer lettering. Hand lettering is a totally different beast that all but an extreme few of you will not be doing.] So, you copy and paste. You don’t edit, you don’t proofread. That isn’t your job. Your job is to copy and paste. If something is spelled wrong, sounds terrible, or is just awkward, you aren’t going to get blamed for it. The writer and editor [if there is one] will be blamed, but the letterer won’t be. They did their job.

Another part of your job is to be open to dialogue tweaks. Notice, I said a tweak, not major changes throughout the entire script. A tweak here and there for flow. If you aren’t open to those changes, you won’t be seeing many return customers.

Why don’t you want to make editorial changes to the dialogue? Because the mistakes could be deliberate. [This is giving the benefit of the doubt to the writer/editor.] If they’re deliberate, then you’ve got a bit of explaining to do as to why you changed it, or why you want to change it. You’re much better off leaving it as not part of your job. Copy and paste. Let the writer and/or editor sink or swim on their own merits.

Before we get into placement, which is where the meat and potatoes of your job comes from, let’s talk a bit about the shape of your lettering and your word balloons themselves.

What I mean by the shape of your lettering is this: the shape the text takes inside the word balloon. Unless it’s for effect, the shape you want the text inside the balloons to be is that of a diamond. How big the diamond gets will depend on how long the sentences are and how many of them there are for a single balloon.

Another thing while we’re here. Those of us who took typing twenty years ago and more have something to un-learn. That thing? The double-space after ending punctuation. It iis no longer necessary in today’s world. A single space will do everything you need, thank you very much. This becomes especially important in lettering, when space is at a premium. Want to have an odd-looking space in your word balloons? Put two spaces after ending punctuation. Don’t want that odd gap? Use a single space.

Okay, we were talking about diamonds. Since the word balloons are ovals, you have to form the letters to the balloon. Short top, longer middle, short bottom. That’s how it works. Word and thought balloons. Captions work a little differently. Those are often left-justified, and you want to try to fill them as much as possible. Sometimes, this means the entire caption is left-justified, and sometimes, everything but the last line is justified, with that last line being centered. It depends on the look you’re going for. You’re generally not going to go for an oval shape in a caption.

The balloon around the text is more art than science. Everyone has their own thing, but you don’t want to shape the oval too much outside its natural shape. The further away you get from a natural oval, the less immersive the reading experience will be, because the reader will be noticing the lettering instead of reading the book.

The balloon itself shouldn’t be too tight or close to the lettering, nor should it be too far away or loose. [This is the art vs science part.] The happy medium is to have a single letter’s width all around between the text and the balloon. Sometimes, this is more challenging than it sounds, and sometimes, it’s more or less space than you need. Not every balloon is created the same.

Now let’s talk about placement! Took a while to get here, but like everything, it has to go in layers in order to make sense.

Letters are something that the artist should take into account when laying out their pages. There should literally be spaces in the thumbnails for the dialogue. Even though they’re not responsible for the lettering themselves, they have to take the lettering into account. Or they should.

Whenever possible, the word balloons should float up above everything else. Float above, or cut behind important people/objects. And by float above, just that: anchor them to the tops of panels above everything else. They should not be on a face/head whenever possible. Have them lead the eye from left to right and top to bottom.

I’ve said before and will say again: we read American comics from left to right and from top to bottom, in a Z shape. Right now, I’m only going to speak about a single panel. Whatever is said first should be at the top left, and what’s said next will be slightly below and to the right of that, and what comes next will be below and to the right of that. Rinse and repeat for every panel. [Remember to make sure that all the tails point toward a mouth.]

Captions are generally the same. They can get even deeper into a no-man’s land, though, because they’re not coming directly from a character. (No-man’s land?) Lots of panels have space where word balloons can’t go, due to their very nature: a character isn’t there, or there’s something important with a person, place, or thing in the panel. The caption can go into the places where word balloons can’t. Just make sure it isn’t covering anything important.

Word balloons should also not come between two characters speaking. They shouldn’t be on the same eye-level as the characters. If they absolutely must come between two characters and you can’t put them above their heads, put them below eye-level. [What happens is this: instead of looking at each other, the characters instead are looking at the word balloons. Generally, this is not the intent of the panel. Lowering the word balloon to below eye level—below head-level, if possible—removes the balloon as an actual object in the art, and turns the characters back into actors speaking their parts again.]

One last thing about lettering: readability.

Your job is to make sure that the story is easily followed. If the writer has done their job, they’ve put the characters in correct speaking order in the script. If they haven’t, then hopefully the artist has done their job in fixing the writer’s mistake. [Hopefully, there’s an editor onboard who’s already done this.] While it isn’t your job to fix the wording of the dialogue, it is your job to make sure that the eye is properly led so that the story flows as smoothly as possible.

Readability is made up of three things, letterers: the correct font, at the correct pitch, placed in such a manner so that it doesn’t cover important art while leading the eye in a flowing manner. This is also more art than science.

A good letterer is hard to find. When you find one, keep them for as long as you can. They’ll appreciate the work. Lettering is not a glamorous job, but it is a necessary one. You can’t just put words on the page and call yourself a letterer. [This is something I know from firsthand experience.]

That’s really about it for lettering.

Homework: read some comics! Notice the lettering. Notice how the eye is being led all around. Notice fonts, sound effects, caption boxes, credits, and all the rest. Notice the readability of the pages. Also, get Comic Book Lettering the Comicraft Way. It’s a slim volume that’ll set you back about $10, but it’ll be worth every cent you paid for it.

See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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