From The Brownies by Palmer Cox, June 7 1903. Many of the comic strips shown are in public domain, where they aren’t, the images are © the respective syndicates or owners.

In this article I’ll take a closer look at some of the elements of comics listed in Part 1, beginning with captions. Comic strips as we know them today grew out of earlier combinations of words and pictures like political cartoons, where drawings were often paired with a descriptive block of lettering or set type in or below the art. Today we would call them captions, and many book illustrations of the time also had captions. Silent films followed a similar path with title and intertitle cards that were sometimes typeset and sometimes lettered by hand. Many early comic strips used captions to help tell the story, as in the example above of The Brownies by Palmer Cox, which uses rhyming ones.

From The Brownies by Palmer Cox, 1903, detail

The captions are beautifully lettered in upper and lower case with distinctive shapes for some letters, like the T and G, and Cox’s open letter title is equally charming. Some comic strips always relied exclusively on captions to tell their stories, along with the art of course. At least one, Prince Valiant, still does today. While typeset captions were sometimes used, hand-lettered ones are a better match for  hand-drawn art, and also easier for artists in the days before desktop publishing when type had to be set at a type house or printing plant, then pasted on the art. Note that Cox’s captions were numbered, reinforcing the English language natural reading order of left to right in each row of panels, then down to the next row, helping new readers understand how to follow the story. To give the art in panels 1 and 2 more room, he’s put the captions in the top of the panels below.

From Buck Rogers by Phil Nowlan & Dick Calkins, Jan 6 1930
From Wash Tubbs by Roy Crane, April 28 1935

Large initial capital letters were sometimes used in captions, carrying forward a tradition begun in medieval manuscripts (but those were far more ornate), and often used in printed books of the 19th and early 20th centuries. That idea can be found in some comics today. 

From Buck Rogers by Phil Nowlan & Dick Calkins, Jan 6 1930

Specialized captions like this cursive writing note from Buck Rogers also evolved to help tell stories in more complex ways. I’m reminded of epistolary novels like Dracula by Bram Stoker, which tell a story through a series letters, newspaper articles, and diary entries, Diary captions in comics follow that tradition, though readers today may have a harder time reading any kind of script, so now they’re more often done with simpler lettering.

From Mr. Skygack from Mars by W. Aird MacDonald, 1912

The earliest diary captions I’ve found were a regular feature of this largely forgotten comic strip, where the main character, a Martian, tries to explain what he sees on Earth with funny results. The style is standard block lettering, but slanted.

From Hogan’s Alley by George Luks, Oct 11 1896

When I think of words in comics, the first thing that comes to mind is word balloons, also called speech or dialogue balloons, which are occasionally seen in the earliest comic strips and before (see Part 1), and gradually grew in importance and frequency over the next decade or two. Generally by the late 19th century, they were all upper case sans-serif block letters, the easiest to draw and the easiest to read. Within that parameter, there are many variations of style individual to each strip and each artist. The one above by George Luks is crude but readable, with letters made with a flexible pen nib that creates lines of various thicknesses. As in Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, the balloon barely contains the letters with little space around them, and some words are almost run together. The tail does at least go right to the parrot’s mouth.

From Alphonse and Gaston by Frederick Opper, Dec 29 1901

These balloons have more even letters, though the first one tilts to the left. Single line tails are used, which were common at the time, and on an open background they work fine. Letter spacing is too wide in places, making GASTON read like GAS TON, but it works well enough. Some letters appear broken, but that may be from the printing process.

From Buster Brown by R. F. Outcault, May 29 1904

Outcault’s balloon lettering here is very regular, though narrow. Most of the letters are sans-serif, but the personal pronoun I has small serifs at the top at bottom, something that gradually became a tradition of comics lettering. Note that Outcault does not put serifs on the other letter I’s.

From Bringing Up Father by George McManus, May 8 1913

Every strip artist had his own style in the art and in the lettering, and there was lots of variation. McManus did small letters that floated in large rectangular balloons. The lines of lettering tilt slightly down to the right, suggesting no level pencil guidelines were drawn in first.

From Barney Google by Billy DeBeck, June 25 1920

DeBeck’s letters are looser with almost no straight lines, but he does use the serif I for the personal pronoun. His tails are single lines, and none are used on the first two balloons, where they touch the speakers. Note that there are very few periods ending sentences in these strips, either it’s an exclamation point, a question mark, or nothing. At the time, comic strip line work was printed from metal plates, and the men who made those plates went over them and removed any small spots, assuming it was unwanted dirt, so periods were avoided since they were likely to be removed anyway.

From Winnie Winkle by Martin Branner, Jan 20 1924

This lettering is very regular with lots of straight lines, though it does all tilt down slightly toward the left. So far we haven’t seen any emphasized words, but here YOU is underlined twice for emphasis, and the punctuation is doubled and tripled. There’s space between the lines of lettering, and space around it in the rectangular balloon. For the first time here we see the tails beginning to open up, which makes them easier to see against background art. I’m amused to see the expression “Holy Socks!!,” as I thought Alan Moore created it for Timmy Turbo in TOM STRONG.

From Buck Rogers by Phil Nowlan and Dick Calkins, June 8 1930

The balloons in Buck Rogers are rounded and billowy, with open tails that have snaky curves. Emphasized words are done with a thicker pen point, but are otherwise about the same size.

From Li’l Abner by Al Capp, Jan 10 1937

Al Capp’s Li’l Abner began in 1934. Both the art and lettering is well-crafted and stylized. While Capp set the style and did the early lettering, he often used assistants who probably also did a lot of the lettering. In this example, the emphasized words are very large and thick, with squared corners, which takes more time, as it’s done either by outlining each letter with a fine-tipped pen and then filling in the black center, or by drawing the letters with a thick pen and then pointing the corners with a fine one. Both emphasized and regular letters are very square and lined up well horizontally. In the first balloon, there’s a quiet remark in the middle set apart by both parentheses and quote marks. Capp wasn’t taking any chances it would be misinterpreted! The balloon shapes leave air around the lettering in most places, and as in Buck Rogers, are billowy like clouds, but with straighter bottom edges. The tails are kind of a mix of open and closed. Capp’s lettering style, like his art, stands out and makes an impact.

From Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff, lettering by Frank Engli, Sept 25 1936

Milton Caniff made a wise choice hiring Frank Engli to letter his comic strips, Engli’s work is modern and appealing, and I think he set the style going forward, as many others copied him. He used a wedge-tipped pen, giving the letters variation between thick and thin lines depending on direction. His letters are consistent and line up well, but also have a small amount of looseness that feels inviting. His balloons are gracefully rounded with large loops, and his tails are open to read well against the background art. Comics balloon lettering style is a tree with many branches, but the direction of growth is clear, and with this strip and lettering, I feel it reached maturity.

From Monkey Shines of Marseleen by Norman E. Jennett, April 19 1908

Other kinds of word balloons were slow to develop. The unusual comic strip Monkey Shines of Marseleen utilized all kinds of specialized lettering including a type of thought balloon which was drawn more like a burst of lightning, literally a flash of inspiration, in which Marseleen the clown thinks, “Like a flash I have an idea.” This happened similarly in other Marseleen strips. It’s a thought balloon that looks like a burst balloon.

From Buck Rogers by Phil Nowlan and Dick Calkins, April 27 1930

Buck Rogers by writer Philip Nowlan and artist Dick Calkins began in 1929, and was a popular and successful science fiction adventure strip, garnering many imitators. The lettering on this page is in a different style than the other examples shown above, so perhaps Calkins was using assistants for that at times. Thought balloons took many forms in different strips, and even in the same strip. Here it’s given a dashed or broken line but a standard tail.

From Buck Rogers by Phil Nolan and Dick Calkins, July 27 1930

This example from a few months later is back to the earlier lettering style with more curves and bounce, and here thought balloons are surrounded by very jagged borders, but these are telepathic balloons, which the character is projecting into the minds of the other characters.

From Alley Oop by V. T. Hamlin, April 7 1935

In the humorous prehistoric adventure strip Alley Oop, begun in 1932, a character’s thought balloon is given many tiny circular scallops on the edge to distinguish it from the speech balloon next to it. The thought balloon has no tail, but overlaps the speech balloon, which also has scallops, but not as many, and an open tail.

From Alley Oop by V. T. Hamlin, Dec 20 1936

This example from more than a year and a half later takes a different approach to thought balloons, with jagged burst-like borders and jagged tails. But I think this lettering may be by someone else, perhaps an assistant, as the letter shapes and style are not quite the same. Perhaps Hamlin wasn’t concerned about being consistent.

From Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff, lettering by Frank Engli, March 19 1939, this and other original art courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Terry and the Pirates has the earliest example I’ve found of the later standard thought balloon with scalloped edges and a tail of diminishing bubbles. I think Frank Engli created this style, and as with his other lettering, many followed his lead. Engli’s bubble tail doesn’t quite point to the character’s head, but it’s close. The emphasized word in it is underlined, an older style that Engli often used for slight emphasis. Note two other types of punctuation often used in comics, a dash to indicated an interruption in speech, and an ellipsis or three dots suggesting a pause in speech.

From Smokey Stover by Bill Holman, April 5 1936

One episode of the humor strip Smokey Stover brought back the “idea burst” balloon last seen in Monkey Shines of Marseleen, in this case with a tail ending in a fist striking the character’s head for funny emphasis.

From Li’l Abner by Al Capp, Jan 19 1937

By the late 1930s, burst balloons had become more common. In Li’l Abner they were used to emphasize loud speech. The tail goes down to Pappy Yokum, and is curved, but the burst points are so long my first thought was that Abner was speaking.

From Alley Oop by V. T. Hamlin, July 17 1938

In Alley Oop a different sort of burst with radiating lines gives similar emphasis to an argument with symbols suggesting swear words, more on that to come. Oop’s balloon ends in a double dash instead of a single longer dash, another common way to indicate an interruption in speech. That may have evolved from typewritten scripts. There’s no long dash key on a manual typewriter, so scripters used a double dash instead.

From Terry and the Pirates by Milton Caniff, lettering by Frank Engli, Feb 12 1939

In Terry and the Pirates, a voice from a radio is surrounded by a jagged burst and has an electrical or lightning bolt tail. This is another style I think Frank Engli created that was imitated by others, and it became a standard style for balloons to radios, TVs, and loudspeakers. Engli stuck with the long dash for an interruption in speech.

I’ll continue with sound effects and other special lettering ideas in Part 3 of this article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.