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.
These two images © Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill.
Here’s a section from THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: CENTURY: 1969. Often artist Kevin O’Neill will mark balloon placements on a photocopy of his finished art, but on this page he didn’t have time to make a copy, so he put a sheet of tracing paper over the art and rough-sketched a layout with balloon placements. This is fairly complex storytelling, and quite a few balloons, but Kevin knows how much space to leave, and I was able to get everything in as requested.
Finally here’s an example of an artist going above and beyond the call of duty! For TOM STRONG’S TERRIFIC TALES #11, artist Bruce Timm did a story featuring Tesla Strong. For lettering placement, he sent me photocopies of his finished art, and taped over it were his own hand-lettered balloons! Bruce made it very easy for me in this case, even with fairly heavy dialogue in the last two panels. And I had fun lettering the story in the style of Ira Schnapp to match the 1950s feel of the piece. By going the extra distance, Bruce Timm has sort of recreated the way comics were laid out by the artists when I first began lettering them, except that I couldn’t letter it with pens and ink, as I did back then. While I don’t think artists today need to go this far, they and the writers both need to think about how and where the lettering will go to help tell their stories.