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Comic Book Lettering

Updated on October 20, 2012

Lettering Pages by Mike

Mercury Lettering from All-Smash Funnies.
Mercury Lettering from All-Smash Funnies. | Source
Maple Leaf Lettering from Red Leaf Comics!
Maple Leaf Lettering from Red Leaf Comics! | Source

Comic Lettering Figures 1, 2 & 3

Figure 1 - Bubbles on Peoples
Figure 1 - Bubbles on Peoples | Source
Figure 2 - As tempting as it is to have the left hand bubble higher, the right hand character needs to speak first.  So raising the bubble on the right corrects the bubble order.
Figure 2 - As tempting as it is to have the left hand bubble higher, the right hand character needs to speak first. So raising the bubble on the right corrects the bubble order. | Source
Figure 3 - Sandman panel, the words alone are artwork!
Figure 3 - Sandman panel, the words alone are artwork! | Source

Comic Book Lettering

Comic book lettering can be done in various ways until about the 90's all lettering was done manually. In the advent of widely used personal computers and software becoming within reach of the average guy, comics are now almost completely lettered in a digital format. I will cover what I know about lettering in this Hub page to the best of my knowledge with the tools that I use or have used in the past.

Just to clarify, I'm not by any means an expert, and have had to learn allot from my mistakes. Right or wrong, it's just a great thing to make comics, however you can. No matter what your skill level or how you do it, you can learn allot from those around you and improve every time you ash-can and press another book.

Don't let some critic who's never made a comic before get you down. Evaluate the criticism for it's worth and use it as an opportunity to learn. Move on and make more Comics!

It is this publisher's opinion that lettering should be done first in the process of comic page creation after the pencilled pages are completed. Whether lettering manually or in digital format it will save the inker and colorist time not having to work in areas under captions and bubbles.

Helpful pencillers will block out lettering areas to save themselves and everyone else allot of extra work. Unless of course you're operating under the Marvel method where the penciller is working without a full script but a plotline with panel breakdowns instead. While I like the Marvel method, the way i see it, time is lost either in getting the initial script out to the penciller or wasted on artwork never to be seen under the lettering. Additionally, the Marvel method can lend itself to unusual bubble placement due to the fact that the panel artwork is laid out prior to dialogue/captioning. Sometimes bubble tail directions can get a bit wonky or panels are too small for all of the words. This is not to say that the same thing doesn't happen with a full script, but it is generally less likely.

Basics of Lettering

While the letters in comic books tell the story, the artwork is what moves the story and entrances the reader motivating them to follow and consume panel after panel. That being said it is a Letterer's job to not subdue or de-emphasize the artwork in any way. So here are a few simple rules I follow no matter what type of lettering I may do:

1 - Never, never ever place dialogue bubbles or captions over artwork of main characters or objects of primary interest in the panel if at all possible (see panel figure 1). As much as it pains me to show you Figure 1 (because Commando is my all time favorite comic mag), I must since they are the biggest culprit of what I call "Bubbles on Peoples". This is from an older book when I believe they were typing on a manual typewriter (notice the impossible to center justify throughout the bubbles) and gluing the cut out bubble over the artwork. Panel 1 - Anywhere but the middle of everything. Panel 2 - What about the white space in the bottom right corner. Panel 3 - Great bubble placement!

2 - Allow dialogue bubbles and captions to flow through the panel and from panel to panel. Dialogue has an order in the story and needs to read generally from left to right and/or top to bottom. Orientation (right/left or left/right) swapping from panel to panel can be confusing for your reader so take an overall look of the page when finished to avoid this. Occasionally artwork forces this swapping in which case changing to a top/bottom reading direction helps greatly (see panel figure 2). This panel shows the common problem of the guy on the right speaking first and how to fix it.

3 - Writers write, and their visions for verbage often are different than the space the artwork provides. So when you find yourself with too many words to fit in a panel ask for a re-write. Notice the Mercury page's verboseness, which I love to see especially from my favorite writer Jazzy Jon Gilbert. Every page I've lettered with Jon is always a challenge since he's a real writer. In contrast, if you find a page lacking story direction, tell the writer to add more something-or-another. There's nothing I hate more than to buy a $2.95 comic book for only 30 seconds worth of actual reading in 22 pages.

4 - Be consistent! Keep your bubble shapes, tails and caption frames to a similar style. Fonts the same type unless it is for artistic effect. Multiple fonts can distract the reader. Make font sizing the same if possible, occasionally word volume may require slightly smaller font sizes or character widths.

5 - Be Creative! Just because the Letterer isn't the star of the show, doesn't mean they are not artists in their own right. When I think of great lettering I think of the lettering that read like artwork. For instance the lettering in the 80's Sandman series is great artwork in my opinion, namely the Sandman's dialogue bubbles (see figure 3). Even just simple character bolding of strong inflexsions in dialogue phrasing makes for great reading.

So what can you use for lettering? Well pretty much anything that works. I think I've heard of people using everything from sticks, to ball point pens, markers or crow quill pens, to freebe graphic programs to spendy ones.

Personally, I use Manga Studio EX, which replaced my longtime usage of Adobe Illustrator. I'll go into the reasons why in the Digital Lettering Hub that you can link to below and do my best to explain as much as I can about lettering on the computer for both programs and explain the pros and cons of each.

Unfortunately Manual Lettering has been largely replaced by Digital Lettering. I say unfortunately because while something is gained in speed or convenience, something is lost in artistry. Almost overnight a whole host of letterers in the late 80's found themselves out of work when the industry converted to digital lettering unless they had the dinero to dive into the new order. But suprisingly I still see allot of manual lettering these days, there's something unpredictable and soothing about the way it reads. And best of all, it costs you almost nothing. So please tune into the Manual Comic Book Lettring Hub below.

Your Friend and Fan!

Mike Rickaby
CE Publishing Group

© 2011 Comic Enterprise Publishing Group


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