Digital Lettering for Comics

My lettering desk and work station, © 2023 by Todd Klein, as are all the following images, except as noted

Before I even begin this article, I must highly recommend The Essential Guide to Comic Book Lettering by Nate Piekos (Image 2021). It’s the book I wish I’d had when I started digital lettering, and it’s far more comprehensive and detailed than what you’ll find here. If you’re serious about lettering comics digitally, Nate’s book is what you need. I’m going to present a very basic and bare-bones look at what I do, which is all I feel there’s room for in a blog article.

Above is my computer work station. Left to right on the tables: laser printer, scanner, small Wacom tablet (in front of scanner), 27-inch iMac, Apple Superdrive disc reader (below iMac), paper holder, spot lamp. Behind the iMac are two external hard drives for backup and a surge protector/battery backup power supply. A wireless keyboard is on an under-desk slide-out tray, a wireless mouse is on the file cabinet to the right.

Digital lettering, and the hardware and software used to produce it, is something that’s constantly in flux, with new versions, upgrades and tools coming onto the market all the time. I can be sure that the more specific the recommendations I make, the more likely they will be outdated by the time you’re reading this, so I’ve opted to keep things as general as possible. Whichever hardware and software you use, study the manuals, tutorials, and any information you can find about them online. The more you know, the easier your process will be. Personally I’ve always learned on my own, following tutorials and by trial and error, but if classes and instruction work better for you, look for those options.

Unlike hand-lettering, digital requires a significant cash outlay to get started, but you may already have some of what you need. Most of the comics industry works with Apple hardware and operating systems, but you can letter with others as long as your files are compatible. Most letterers work on a desktop computer with a large screen, but some use a laptop and a second monitor to get the space needed for everything they want to see at the same time. A few work on tablet machines with a stylus where the screen is interactive. Get hardware with the highest amount of processing speed, memory, and storage space you can afford. Consider getting at least one external drive for backup, two is better, and cloud backup is another option. You should also have a printer to see what your work looks like on paper. A laser printer is recommended. After hardware, the next most important item is a chair you can sit in comfortably for hours. I use an Aeron chair by Herman Miller.

The most important software you’ll need is Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign, and Adobe Acrobat Pro. These now come together in a package with other Adobe programs that you license for a monthly fee. The subscription model for software that Adobe and others have adopted is disliked by many users, and rival software of equal quality without it might change the game, but for now, if you want to work with publishers, you should go with Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription. One advantage (or sometimes disadvantage) of the subscription is it includes frequent updates. Beyond that, you’ll want to shop for and buy some commercial comic book fonts. The best selections at present are from Comicraft and Blambot. Begin with a family of regular balloon and caption fonts at first and perhaps one or two sound effect fonts. As you learn and work with them, you’ll discover what additional fonts you might need. Both font providers have yearly sales that are worth planning for.

Software that works with images comes in three basic types. 

1. Painting and photo editing programs work with pixels and produce images that can be many different sizes and resolutions. They’re not recommended as a lettering program, but you’ll want one to work with images of comics art or to produce online-ready images. Adobe Photoshop is the standard for creating comics art files, but others are also used. Common file formats for art are PSD (Photoshop), best for files with layers, TIFF (Tagged Image File Format), best for printing, and JPEG or JPG (Joint Photographic Experts Group), best for small size previews and online images. These files can have several different color environments. The most common are RBG (Red, Blue, Green) for on-screen images and CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) for print images. For anything that’s going to be printed, you must use or convert to CMYK, and image resolution for print should be at least 400dpi (dots per inch) for painted art and 600dpi for black and white line art. For images that will only appear online, RGB is fine, and resolution can be lower. You can to see how that will look on your own computer.

2. Drawing programs work with vectors and Bezier curves and produce images and shapes that can be enlarged or reduced without any loss of quality, unlike pixel images. Adobe Illustrator is the standard for lettering comics. Common file formats are AI (Adobe Illustrator) and EPS (Encapsulated Postscript). Illustrator works in layers, so you can place an art file on the bottom layer, lock it, and then do all the lettering on another layer above that, or as many layers as you need. EPS files are more universal, but have some limitations.

3. Page and book design programs are used to combine all the elements you need to produce a final product, with art files on one layer, lettering files on another above that, as many pages as needed, and any other elements you want to add like logos, additional images and type. Adobe InDesign is the program most often used for that, and it works well with the other Adobe products. The only file format for this is INDD (InDesign). All these Adobe programs can save your work as a PDF (Adobe Acrobat), which can be viewed by almost any computer, making it ideal for proofing. PDF files can also be used for printing. Note that Illustrator and Photoshop can create print-ready work, but for anything complex, or that might need tweaks and changes, InDesign is the way to go.

My Adobe Illustrator setup, closer looks below

All the Adobe programs have a a variety of ways to set up your work environment. Above is mine for Illustrator, with tools along the left side, then an open document, then palettes on the right. Some palettes are stacked behind others. 

Tools on the left side of my Adobe Illustrator setup

At the top of the tool area are a double row of all the tools. Ones with a small black triangle at lower right include other tools hidden in a clickable palette. You can click and drag those away from the toolbar, and position them below the main toolbar, as I’ve done here with six small tool palettes, ones for Pen types, Size and Slant, Eraser and Scissors, Rotate and Reflect, Shapes, and Type. As you can see, there are lots of tools to learn and understand. The most-used tools for lettering are the Selection tool (black arrow), Direct Selection tool (white arrow), Pen tool, Type tool (letter T), Oval and Rectangle Shape tools, Rotate tool, Scale tool, Hand tool (for moving the entire image on your screen), and Zoom tool. Spend time familiarizing yourself with these tools, and note that most also have keyboard shortcuts that can save you time, especially when switching back and forth between things like the Oval and Rectangle shapes for balloons and captions.

Palettes are used often, and can be set up many ways. Shown here is a typical setup for me, but some palettes are stacked, and clicking on the names of the ones behind bring them to the front, as with the bottom one: Layers in front, Gradient and Stroke behind. There are many more palettes, and they’re all accessed by clicking on the Window pull-down menu at the top of the Illustrator screen. If you have room on your computer, you can set up a second row of frequently-used palettes to the right of the first row. I often do that, but to show them here I’ve stacked more than usual. Again, take time to explore and experiment with all the palette options until you understand what they do. Adobe tutorials are helpful.

Sample of my Illustrator Template

Next you need a template for lettering. I create my template on a letter-size page, one of the options when you open a new document in Illustrator. First set up some layers in the Layers palette (at lower right on my setup) by clicking on the Create New Layer icon at the bottom edge of the palette, then typing in the name of each layer. As you can see, I generally use seven layers: INFO, lettering, balloons, sfx1, sfx 2 (for sound effects), art and Guide. When you have your layers, click on the INFO layer to make it active for the next task.

Open Preferences under the Illustrator menu at the top left of the window. Choose Inches for General preferences, assuming you work in inches. You may find other Preferences you’d like to adjust as you learn.

Open the Rectangle Shape tool by double clicking on it and type in the Trim Size of the pages you’ll be working on. Most U.S. comics have a trim size of 6.625 by 10.1875 inches. (If you’re working on something else, make sure you get the trim size from the printer or publisher.) Click on the page away from the tool to create a box of this size.

In the Color palette, give the box a Fill of None (white box with a red diagonal) and a Stroke of 100% Cyan and 100% Yellow, solid Green. Center your box on the template page.

If the rulers are not visible on your document, Go to Rulers on the pull-down View menu at the top of the Illustrator window and make them visible. Next you need to set the rulers to make the upper left corner of the Trim Box at the 0,0 starting point for both the horizontal and vertical rulers. Do that by clicking and dragging from the small corner box where the rulers meet down to the corner of the Trim Box. You will see the corner symbol of the box when you’re over it. Release your drag-click there. Now your rulers are set to start at the upper left corner of the Trim size.

Most comics art is prepared with an extra .125 inches on all sides for bleed, in other words the art runs (or can run) to the edge of the paper. The Bleed area is trimmed off after printing, but must be there to give the printer room to make sure the border of the art is removed. This Bleed box is 6.875 by 10.4375 inches, and has a black outline in my example above. Centered inside the trim line is a Safe Area box that all lettering must fall within to make sure it doesn’t get trimmed off. This is .25 inches in from the trim on all sides, and measures 6.125 by 9.6875 inches. It’s indicated by a dashed red line in the example (dashed lines are an option in the Stroke palette). Non-bleed comics art panels usually stop near the safe area edge. Set up the Bleed and Safe Area boxes the same way you did the Trim Size box, and center them outside and inside the Trim Box using the rulers. When you have these in place and centered, lock the INFO layer so you can’t move the boxes accidentally. 

The layer at the bottom labeled GUIDE has guidelines added by me at the borders of the safe area and trim size, seen as light blue lines in the example. Click on that layer to add Guides. To use Guides, check your Illustrator tutorials, they’re accessed from the View menu at the top. Guides are visible to you, but non-printing. If you click on the vertical ruler and drag right, you will pull out a new guideline, which with be set where you stop dragging and release it. The same is true for the horizontal ruler at the top. The guidelines make it easy to align anything to the boxes. When you have your guidelines where you want them, lock the GUIDE layer. Once you have your template boxes set up, you can add identifying text along the sides in the INFO layer, seen on the right side of my template in the example: my name as letterer, and places for the book, issue, and page number. Save this Illustrator document as your template with a new name and keep it where you can find it.

To begin lettering, open your template, rename and save it as a working file. Choose the Lettering layer, then choose your comic book font in the Character palette. The arrow to the right of the font name gives you a pull-down menu of all the active fonts on your computer. If you’ve installed your comic book fonts, they will be there. Mine is shown set for ToddKlone with the style Roman, though I’ll change it to Wedge for the following examples. Other choices in the Character palette will set the size of your letters, the space between lines, and other aspects of the type. The values shown are the ones I generally use for printed-size lettering, though different fonts may need different settings. Before you begin entering text, go to the Paragraph palette and choose Align Center for balloon lettering, or Align Left for captions.

Choose the Type tool, click anywhere on your template and begin to type. For balloon lettering, you usually need to create line breaks that will fit into an oval shape, as in the example on the Illustrator setup image above, though many balloons are wider than that and have much smaller letters. Once you have some text entered, you can experiment with the size and spacing options in the Character palette to get the look you want, and also adjust the line breaks to get the shape you want. You’ll need to Zoom in on the work area to see it more clearly, and the best way find out if you have the right lettering size and space between lines (kerning) is to print out a sample and compare it to some printed comics you like. While doing your sample lettering, don’t forget to use the upper case serif “I” for personal pronouns and lower case non-serif “I” for all other examples of that letter. Try using the alternate characters in the upper and lower case spots on your keyboard for pairs of the same letters to add variety (a feature of comic book fonts that use all capital letters). Other options may be available using the special keys next to your Space bar. A full display of all the glyphs (or individual objects) in your comic book font can be seen in the Glyphs window accessed from the Type menu in the top bar. You can place any particular glyph by double-clicking it when the Type tool is active. If you’ve come this far, congratulations, you’re lettering!

Now let’s make a word balloon around some text. Select the balloon layer in the layers palette. We want a balloon that has a white fill and a black outline. You can set these individually in the Swatches or Color palettes, and the thickness of the outline can be set in the Stroke palette. A quicker way is to select a preset option in the Graphic Styles palette. You can add new presets to that palette by dragging a balloon with the Fill and Stroke colors and Stroke Width you want into the Graphic Styles palette, but do that on your original Template file to make it always available.

For the following instructions, refer to the lettered identifiers at the upper left of each balloon in the image above. Select the Oval tool. Hold down the Option key on your keyboard to make the oval grow from the center. Click on the center of the text and, without releasing, drag down and to the right, as in the blue arrow in Figure A. You’ll see the oval form and can adjust the size, it will not be final until you release it. If the centering is off, you can use the arrow keys on your keyboard to nudge it so the text is centered. If the size or centering is way off, Delete and try again until you have what you want. 

Let’s make a triangular balloon tail. With the same graphic style chosen, click just inside the balloon to set the first point of the tail, then click outside to set the end of the tail, as in Figure B. Click a third time inside the balloon to complete the triangle, as in Figure C. The tail should not be too thin or too wide, look at printed comics to get an idea of what works well. The individual points can be moved with the Direct Selection tool (the white arrow) once you’ve clicked away from the tail to deselect it.

When you have what you want, select the balloon and the tail and join them by clicking the first shape in the Pathfinder palette, which joins shapes. It will now look like Figure D, and be one complete balloon.

A curved tail is harder because you have to use Bezier curves by clicking and dragging with the Pen tool, and this will take some practice. In a balloon with no tail, click again inside the balloon with the Pen tool to set the first point of the tail, but without releasing, drag to the right to extend the Bezier curve, as seen in Figure E. The amount is again something that takes practice. Release and click again to set the end point of the tail. Don’t drag that one. Finally, click again inside the balloon to set the third point of the tail, and again drag to extend the Bezier curve and make the curve similar to the one you already have. You should aim for a curve that is consistent, with the tail getting gradually thinner, as in Figure F. After creating your curved tail, you can adjust each point position and the Bezier curves using the Direct Selection tool. Illustrator calls the curve adjusters “handles,” they have round end points when selected. The handles will move together like the ends of s seesaw, but you can separate them or retract one of them using the open V in the Pen tools. You can always delete and start over, too. Bezier curves are the trickiest part of Illustrator, but practice with them will improve your skills. When you have what you want, join the tail and the balloon in the Pathfinder palette, as in Figure G.

Let’s add some emphasized words to the text. In Figure H, I’ve selected the word OVER by double-clicking on it, or you can run over the letters with the Text tool. In the Character palette I’ve clicked on the arrow right of the style, the second pull-down menu under the font name, and chosen Heavy Italic. The result can be seen above, and in Figure I, where I’ve also selected the I and SURPRISING! for the same treatment. The result is in Figure J. In Figure J, the word SURPRISING! is too wide for the oval balloon shape. I’ve selected it and, in the Character palette, changed the width in the box for that (the T with a horizontal arrow under it) from 100% to 90%. I rarely go below 90% or above 110% because the letters become too distorted. The result is in Figure K, but the S in SURPRISING is still too close to the balloon border. I’ve adjusted that in Figure L by clicking on the bottom point of the balloon with the Direct Selection tool, then moving the left Bezier handle to the left a bit, making that curve wider. There are many more options in Illustrator’s tools to discover and play with, these are just a few examples.

Here are some of the other common (or uncommon) balloon types you might want to make. Captions borders are made with the Rectangle Shape tool, but without holding down the Option key, so you drag it from upper left to lower right. Burst balloons have one long point for the tail and many smaller ones that aim away from the center of the balloon and vary in size. (I’ve put in an oval Guide, shown in blue, to help me get the inside points in the right places. Any drawn object can be made into a Guide.) Rough balloons can be drawn with the Pencil tool, but are easier to make with the Roughen effect. This is under the Effect top menu in the Distort & Transform section. Try different values in each box to see what happens. Whisper balloons are made in the Dashed Line section of the Stroke palette. This one has dashes of 6 points and gaps of 6 points. Electric balloons can be made from an oval in two steps. First you need to add points to the oval either with your pen tool, or with the Roughen effect set to a Size of .1, detail of about 10, point type Smooth for evenly-spaced points. These points will not be visible yet. Next go back to the Effects top menu and choose the Pucker & Bloat option under Distort & Transform. Now you can add inward scoops by putting in a negative number, this is about -5. When adding tails to any shape with Effects, draw the tail as described above, then choose the tail and the object. In the Pathfinder palette, click on the menu at top right and choose Make Compound Shape. This will keep the tail and the balloon separate items, but they will appear to be one. Later, if you need to, you can select them again and click the Expand button on the Pathfinder palette to make them truly one shape and remove the Effect without changing anything. Adding a positive number in Pucker & Bloat  will give you a type of thought balloon, but I prefer to draw those with the pencil tool using a small Wacom tablet and stylus. I can make them look better that way. Thought balloons are rarely used in comics today, so you may not need them.

Other comic book fonts are handy in some situations, like my upper and lower case one shown in the bottom two examples, but only use them when there’s a good reason, and don’t overdo it. Both type and balloons can have colors added for effect, and more complex balloon borders can be created by adding layers below the top layer with different colors. The one shown at lower right has a balloon with a black fill and a white outline, while a matching balloon below it has a thicker black outline, creating a double border (more on stacking items below). Again, this sort of thing needs to be used sparingly, but can work well in the right situation. You can experiment with the other Effects and the many other choices available in the top menus and in the toolbar. Illustrator is a complex program with lots of options, but the ones shown here are the most useful for lettering comics. Some letterers keep a section of their Template outside the work area for pre-made balloons, tails and captions in many different sizes and styles they can copy and paste into any job and adjust to fit their current needs. I’ve always preferred to draw most of what I need on the fly, but I do that for complex styles once in a while. You may find it quicker to reuse already drawn elements.

Here are some of my title and sound effects fonts in black as typed, and with a variety of color and layer treatments. I use the two sound effects layers for these, beginning in sfx1, then moving any additional layers to sfx2. The same can be done with titles. It keeps elements other than regular lettering and balloons separate, making them easier to handle as a group. Any type enters as black, by default, but you can add color as wanted from your Swatch or Color palettes. Bright or light colors tend to work best in comics, particularly if you aren’t lettering over final colored art, as is often the case.

To create a black outline around open type, as with INTRODUCING, select the element with the Selection tool and give it a light color, second image. In the Edit top menu select Copy, then select Paste in Back. Then move your item from the sfx1 to the sfx2 layer by clicking on the highlighted box at the right end of the layer in the Layers palette and dragging it down to the layer below. With that item selected, you can now add a black outline in the Color or Swatches palettes and add thickness by increasing the point size in the Stroke palette. The third example in the image above shows that, the bottom example is the two versions together, one on top of the other. Slightly offsetting this object by nudging it with the arrow keys will give you a drop-shadow effect, as seen in TITLES AND SOUND EFFECTS. The same thing was done to RRIIPP.

For the KA-POW I also added another layer with the Roughen effect used to give it a ragged shape. WHAM! has several layers with different colored outlines, and an offset black drop shadow at the bottom. The front layer uses a color gradient made in the Gradient palette. Experiment with these and other effects to create something that works for you. Note that it’s often easier with complex elements like these to convert your live editable type to Outlines. This is in the Type pull-down menu at the top of the Illustrator window. Once converted, the type is no longer editable with the Type tool, but you can move or change individual points and letters with the Direct Selection tool, handy for staggering or resizing letters. Experiment with all these options, it’s the fun part of digital lettering!

Sample comic art page in Adobe Photoshop from BOOKS OF MAGIC #20, May 2020, images of this art © DC Comics

This page of art was created by artist Tom Fowler, who scanned his drawn and inked page and placed it in the DC Comics art template at printed size, which is perfect for my lettering needs. The outside dimensions of the image are at Bleed size, and you can see the light blue Guides set up in Photoshop the same way as in Illustrator to indicate the Trim and Safe boxes. Again, this is my Photoshop setup, with Tools in a vertical row on the left, palettes on the right. I won’t be going into more detail on this, but Photoshop works in similar ways to Illustrator. This same file went to the colorist. I rarely see the colored version until the book is printed, the colorist and I work at the same time. Often I’ve had to letter on art that was not in a print-size template. If it’s at the correct proportions, I can simply reduce it when I place it in my lettering template. If not, I need to contact the editor and the artist to see what needs to be done to make the art fit the printed size. Sometimes I’m lettering over pencils, layouts, or other unfinished art to meet a deadline, later to be replaced by the final inked art. There are many ways to produce art by hand and digitally, but it all comes down to: will it be printed? If so, it must meet the minimum standards of print-ready art usually set by the publisher and printer. If it will only appear online, the options are greater.

Here’s that art file placed on the Art layer in my lettering template in Illustrator using the Place command under the top File menu. Once there, I align the top left corner of the art with the top left corner of the Bleed box while zoomed in on that area.

When it’s in place, I double-click the Art layer in the Layers palette, which opens an options box. I click Dim Images to: and enter 30%. That grays the black line art down to 30% gray, making it easier to see what I’m doing. (When I’m finished I remove that effect.) I lock the Art layer so I can’t change it. I fill in the issue number and page number in the INFO layer, then lock that. I select the lettering layer and start working from the writer’s script provided by DC, which I can also have open on my desktop to the right of the Illustrator file, so I can see it while I work. The standard program for that is Microsoft Word, but other word processors can be used. Usually I’m zoomed in to about 300% in the area I’m lettering to see everything clearly. Many letterers like to copy and paste the dialogue and caption text from the script file into their document, then format each piece and place it. I’m a fast typist and find it easier and quicker to simply type each piece where I want it and format it as I go, breaking the lines and adding alternate characters where needed.

On this page, the final panel is a song, so I’ve used an italic style and added music notes (done in two layers to add a gray outline around the light blue notes). There are no examples on this page, but where balloons need to trim along panel borders, you can either use a Clipping Mask under the Objects top menu or create a new balloon shape where the trimming is needed and use the Minus-Front option in the Pathfinder palette to subtract it from the existing balloon. There are many other uses for those tools, experiment with them to see how they work. When I’ve finished lettering a page I usually print it out to see how it looks, as a printed copy reveals anything I might have missed on-screen.

First page of FABLES #158, June 2023, lettering proof in Adobe Acrobat, image © Bill Willingham and DC Comics

When all the pages are lettered, I make PDF proofs from Illustrator. To make the proofs smaller, I open each page in Photoshop and create a JPG at 400dpi. I have an Action for this in Photoshop, to save time. (Actions are a way to automate frequently-used processes in both Photoshop and Illustrator.) Those JPG proofs are gathered into a new multi-page proof document in Adobe Acrobat Pro, which is sent to the editor and others for proofing. Later I get corrections, do those, and create revised proofs. (In this example I had the colored art file from colorist Lee Loughridge, often I’m working only over black and white line art.)

When everyone is happy, I make final files. I open each page, delete the INFO layer, delete the art, and set the overprinting for the lettering. This happens in the Attributes palette. I select all the type by option-clicking the Lettering layer in the Layers palette and convert it to outlines using the Create Outlines option under the top Type menu. This means the type is no longer live and editable, so I want to make sure everything is finished and approved before doing it. Now each letter is a vector shape with a black fill (assuming all the lettering is black). With all the lettering selected, I check the Overprint Fill box in the Attributes panel. This means that, if any of the type is on a colored caption or balloon, the type will print on top of the color. In the balloons layer, I select all the captions and balloons with black outlines and check the Overprint Stroke box in the Attributes panel. Then where the balloons and captions meet the coloring or line art, those outlines will print on top of them. Without overprinting, Illustrator will instead make a hole in what’s below, and there’s a danger of thin white edges showing where the elements meet, which looks bad. When the overprinting is set, I create a new final file for the page with FINAL in the name. Finished files are collected and sent to DC, where their production department will combine my lettering files with the colorist’s final color files in Adobe InDesign. If you’re working for a smaller company that doesn’t follow that plan, you may be asked to create final print-ready files yourself, which is why you might need to know and use InDesign. Or you might be asked to produce final files in Illustrator using the final color files and making those into high-resolution print-ready PDF files. There are many options and workflows in comics, and if you freelance you will run into a variety of them.

There’s plenty more to learn about lettering comics digitally, but that covers the basics, enough to get you started. I don’t letter for anyone who requires files with live type and the fonts used, but if you do, I recommend lettering with commercial fonts, and publishers should buy their own font licenses, not get them from you. Don’t be surprised if your work for employers like that gets changed after it leaves your hands, often not for the better. If you’re doing everything yourself, creating print-ready files with all lettering converted to outlines, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that everything will print just the way you prepared it, always a good feeling! Good luck with digital lettering, it’s challenging to learn, but can be a satisfying accomplishment.

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