Images © DC Comics, Inc., except as noted.
I’ve written about balloon placement in my book, The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics and also on my website. When I started in comics, lettering was laid out on the art by the penciller, at least at DC Comics. Artists like Curt Swan would pencil in all the dialogue so he and the letterer would both know where everything should go, and that it would fit. The Marvel style of comics creation spearheaded by Stan Lee started to change that. Marvel artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko would lay out an entire story from a plot, and Stan would write the dialogue afterward. This was fine with experienced artists, but later ones using the plot-first system didn’t always have a good handle on how much space to leave for lettering, and the situation has only gotten worse since then. Today many letterers are expected to do their own lettering placements, and often have a tough time of it. Newer comics writers and artists who don’t really understand the medium and how it tells stories both contribute to the problem. The writer will try to do too much in one panel: multiple actions, back and forth dialogue. Artists struggle with that, and also make basic storytelling mistakes like having the first character speaking on the right side of the panel instead of the left, or filling the panel with large close views of character heads, leaving no room for dialogue balloons.
I have to say I’ve often been lucky enough to work with writers and artists who understand comics, and what I need to do my part of the job. Here are a few examples. Above, two panels from DC’s DEAD BOY DETECTIVES. Artist Mark Buckingham does layouts in pencil, and often lightly indicates where lettering should go. Either the editor or assistant editor marks up a copy of the pencils with clear marker indications for placement, usually following Mark’s lead. The storytelling is clear, so when I get the finished art by Ryan Kelley I rarely have trouble fitting the lettering in where requested, though I will move it around if I need to, as in the second panel above. Continue reading