Category Archives: Creating Comics

Preparing Comics Scripts for Lettering

Image found online, © DC Comics.

Yesterday I was asked by Paul Kupperberg for recommendations and suggestions on this topic for a book he’s working on. I covered it in my book, but things have changed since then. Now that most comics lettering is done digitally, a whole new regimen of script preparation issues have emerged that often create problems for letterers. I posed the question to a group of other letterers, and together we came up with these recommendations.

1. Prepare your script in a word processing program that the letterer can access easily. Microsoft Word is the usual standard but RTF format from any word processor works well too. PDF format from Adobe Acrobat should NEVER be used. It prevents the letterer from copying and pasting from the script, the most common method of getting words onto the comics page.

2. Captions, dialogue and anything that needs to be lettered should be in sentence case, like this document, not all caps. Do not use a double space after a period. Do not use tabs. Each section to be lettered should be separated from the rest of the script so it’s easy to copy and paste. Such as:

I am the only solution to Earth’s problems.

That’s what you think!


3. The writer should decide which words to emphasize and indicate that consistently in the script. Bold italic is the best method, do not use all caps. Do not try to simulate special styles with different fonts in the script! Make suggestions for fonts if you like.

4. Internal dialogue captions (what used to be thought balloons) do not need quotes. Use quotes only when someone is off-panel and doing narration in captions, or when actually quoting what someone else said. Such spoken narration needs a beginning quote in each caption, but an end quote only on the last one in a series of continuous narration captions. Double/single quote rules apply to comics as well.

5. If someone is in the room but off-panel, let the letterer know which direction the balloon tail should go. Whenever possible, the character on the left should speak FIRST, the next one to the right should speak SECOND, and so on. Train your artists to do this and everyone will be happier!

6. Foreign phrases, movie titles, book titles, ship names and any other item needing special attention should be italic. Translated foreign languages should be inside lesser and greater symbols such as <this> with an asterisked footnote such as: *Translated from French.

7.Make sure any notes for the letterer are pulled out and separate from panel descriptions so they aren’t missed.

8. If you are working plot-first, look carefully at the art when you are writing dialogue to make sure all the characters you asked for are present. Try to write to fit the space available for lettering. Large panels with open spaces are best for large or many balloons, small panels with little space should have little lettering.

9. Lettering placements are welcomed by some letterers (like me) as a time saver, are not wanted by others. Check with your letterer. The letterer should be given the freedom to make actual placement choices that differ from provided placements if they see a better way to do it. Placements can be done with markers on a printout of the art that is then scanned, or digitally. If you are providing placements, it’s recommended that you number each item to be lettered in your script, as above, and use the corresponding numbers in your placements.

10. Remember that the letterer is part of your team, don’t keep secrets from him. That mysterious character who turns out to be a returning villain? Let the letterer know when he first appears. It may be a secret surprise for the reader, but the letterer needs to know when you do in case it affects the lettering style. If your story has narration captions by a character who won’t appear until the last page, the letterer still needs to know who is narrating. Every narration caption should be labeled by speaker just as word balloons are. Or if it’s omniscient author narration, say that.

11. Perhaps most important of all, MAKE SURE THE SCRIPT IS A CLOSE TO FINAL AS POSSIBLE BEFORE SENDING TO THE LETTERER. It has become a common practice among newer writers to treat the lettering draft as a first draft, and then do major rewrites after the first round of lettering, or sometimes several rounds of rewrites. This is unfair to the letterer, taking up time they need for other jobs, and usually they are not paid for that extra work. Script and art editing and proofreading should be done BEFORE lettering, not after.

Thanks to Nikki Foxrobot, Ian Sharman, Hde Ponsonby-Jones, Bill Williams, Nic Wilkinson, Lucas Gattoni, Zen Hcmp, Annie Parkhouse, Lois Buhalis and Michael Stock for advice and suggestions!

Carla Speed McNeil’s Lettering Process

At this year’s Baltimore Comic-Con, I was surprised by a visit from writer/artist Carla Speed McNeil and delighted with what she had decided to give me, a page of her original art as well as her layout and lettering guide. Carla’s process is unusual, and I found it fascinating. I told her I’d write about it on my blog, and here it is. Continue reading

Pulled From My Files #93: ACTION COMICS #484 Cover Proof

This and all images © DC Comics.

When I began working in the DC Production Department in 1977, this is what cover proofs from the separators in Connecticut looked like. Proofs of each of the four color plates (Black, Cyan or Blue, Magenta and Yellow) were printed on clear acetate, and lined up correctly over a sheet of white paper, then stapled either at the top or bottom. These proofs came in the regular deliveries from Chemical Color to the DC offices in Manhattan where they were checked for errors by Anthony Tollin, the Cover Coordinator, and shown for approval to the editor of the book. Tony would call Chemical and ask for any changes wanted. Printing was approved, and the separations would go to the printing plant in Sparta, Illinois. DC would receive one final proof, uncut make-readies from the press before the book was stapled, trimmed, and shipped to distributors, but by that time it was too late to change anything, and the only option in the case of a major problem was to scrap the print run and start over. I never saw that happen when I was there. Once the book was printed, these acetate proofs were generally thrown away. I saved sixteen of them from covers dated 1978-79 because I liked the art and I thought they were cool. This one has gorgeous art by José Luis Garcia-López and Dick Giordano, which is why I saved it. They sat in a drawer under my desk at DC, and when I went freelance full time, they came home with me and sat in a drawer in my storage room. I pulled them out this week to bring to the Baltimore Comic-Con to sell. Continue reading


Images © DC Entertainment.

Here’s a rarity from my files, the only one of its kind, and the story behind it. While on staff at DC from 1977 to 1987 I also did freelance work, but that was mainly lettering and logo design. In the early years, though, I did whatever work was offered, including coloring, and I had my own Dr. Martin dyes coloring set, as seen in THIS blog article. By early 1982 I wasn’t doing much coloring (I never did that much anyway) when this cover art pencilled by Rich Buckler and inked by Dick Giordano came into the production department. It must have been very late, there wasn’t even time to have a color guide made and send it to Chemical Color in Connecticut for the usual color separation process. They wanted someone to do painted color, and probably overnight. I volunteered, and they must have been desperate because they gave me the assignment, despite the fact that I had never colored a cover for DC, nor had I ever done painted color for the company. I had done some on my own, but not for comics. A large photostat was made of the art, 11 by 16 inches with extra space at the top in case the proportions weren’t right and they needed extra room for the trade dress. This photostat was dry-mounted on a piece of illustration board, and I took it home to work on.

I already knew from experience that getting smooth colors on photostat paper was quite difficult with some of the Dr. Martin dyes, but fortunately the sky-blue one did go on smoothly, so I was able to use that at the top and bottom. On the large Luthor heads, I at first struggled to get smoothly blended tones, then hit on the idea of using thin brush strokes, which worked much better. The costumes of the two Supermen were small enough that the uneven color variations didn’t show very much.

The background was the biggest challenge. There were no stars on the original art to paint around, and even if there had been, going around little white areas with dyes was too time consuming. I filled the space with purposely mottled purples, several shades, to give it depth and used the uneven color application as a feature. I then tried to paint the stars over the color with Pro-White paint, but the colors were hard to cover, and the stars were lavender rather than white. The only choice left was to cut them out, and that’s what I did. With an exacto knife, I cut the top layer of photostat paper on each pointed star and the larger round ones, and then peeled it off with the knife. I was an expert with an exacto knife at the time, since I used it every day for art and lettering corrections in my day job.

I brought in the result, editor Julie Schwartz approved it, it was photographed for reproduction (not sure where, either at DC or at the separator) and here it is in print:

The ANNUAL trade dress frame was something I designed for all of that year’s annuals, and overall I think it worked pretty well. The colors came out different than I expected, particularly in the Luthor heads, the blue costumes and the stars, and some copies printed darker than this one, so it was far from a huge success, but as Sol Harrison used to say, it was “good enough for comics.” I wonder now if those blues in the costumes were lightened at the separator, I can’t imagine how else they’d print that light. No one was much impressed with my work, but they thanked me for getting it done quickly so it would print on time, and I was paid well. I wasn’t ever asked to do it again, though!

Early Comic Book Memories

This and all images © DC Entertainment.

I’ve been working on a family history project the last few months, and today it got me thinking about my earliest memories of comics and superheroes. The first superhero I encountered was on TV, “The Adventures of Superman” with George Reeves as the title character and a great supporting cast. We got our first black and white TV around 1955, it had a tiny screen no more than eight inches diagonally I think. The moment I saw this show, I was hooked. I began learning to read in the fall of 1956 in first grade, and at some point a year or two later, I managed to read on the end credits of the show that Superman appeared in magazines. I hadn’t seen one yet, but from then on I knew about comics, at least in theory. Continue reading