Recently I had some pen lettering questions from a friend that my first article didn’t answer, and I realized I could do another one on the subject using material and images from The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering (2004, Watson-Guptill), which has been out of print for many years now. The image above, which I sell as a black and white print on my website, was done in 1993 when digital lettering was just making inroads in comics, and expresses how I was feeling about it then. The following year I bought my first Apple desktop computer and began creating my own fonts (with some help) and gradually inched my way into digital lettering. While I loved working with pen and ink, I could see digital was the way of the future, and I didn’t want to be left behind. Over the next decade, digital lettering moved from an option to a requirement from most of my clients. I think I made the right move, but there are still things to learn and skills you can only develop doing lettering the old way, and if you’re interested in trying that, here’s more about it. I suggest you first read Pen Lettering for Comics before this one, though there is a slight overlap.
One question asked was, how do you break up a speech into lines that will fit into a balloon? As with all things, it takes some practice. First, look at the area available for balloons on the art. If you’re doing the art yourself, make sure you leave room for the lettering, generally it works best at the top of each panel, but it can go elsewhere. A speech balloon is usually oval or round, though there are always exceptions based on different style decisions. Assuming you want one of those shapes, you need to break up the text into lines that are longer at the middle and shorter at the top and bottom, as seen above. While you’re learning, try it first on a separate piece of paper, penciling in the letters roughly as you plan to letter them. Note that each line doesn’t have to be perfectly centered, close is good enough.
Sometimes you need to hyphenate words, break them in two, as in the first balloon above, though you should do that as little as possible. If you must, a dictionary can help by showing syl•la•ble breaks. Already hyphenated words like ping-pong are easy, compound words like northeast are also easy to break into halves, but some words like thorough don’t break well (thor•ough reads oddly and tho•rough is worse). Never hyphenate one-syllable words. So, how else can you get things to fit? Making the letters a little narrower (or wider) can do it, as in the second line of the second balloon above. This takes some practice to keep it readable and not too obvious.
The other question I had was how do you know how much space to leave between the letters and the balloon border? This varies some depending on taste and style, but my rule of thumb is to leave about an average letter space between border and text. Closer than that makes the balloon seem too crowded. Again, try this out on a separate piece of paper when you’re learning, and rough in the balloon shape in pencil first, as above. I’ve left more than a character width in many places in this example, but then I don’t have to fit this balloon around any art, and a little extra space is okay if there’s room. In the FABLES panel above, you can see I’ve had to leave less room than I like on the left edge to make the lettering work.
Another option if space is tight is to open the sides of the balloon where it meets the panel border, a favorite approach of John Workman, as seen above. Some letterers leave a lot more “air” around the lettering, and that can work if there’s room in the art. When you’re doing everything yourself including the art, you can leave extra space for the lettering if that looks good to you.
You also need to draw balloon tails, which should point toward the center of the balloon on one end, and toward the speaker’s mouth on the other. If you don’t follow those guidelines, your tails will seem wrong to readers, even if they don’t know why. As with all things, exceptions can be made occasionally to help the balloons fit. Balloon tails should never cross one another, and try to avoid having them go behind things if you can. It’s particularly bad to have a balloon or tail go behind something in the background and in front of something in the foreground, defying the depth of the scene. See the previous article for more about balloon placement, and for inking balloon borders. Captions traditionally have straight rectangular borders best made with a T-square and triangle, but they can be done freehand or with other shapes if you prefer, as long as they’re clearly different from speech balloons.
Other kinds of balloons are helpful to tell a story. The traditional style for whispering is a broken line, as above, but very small letters with lots of air around them is another method that works. If this style is used against a black background, it’s best to leave a thin white space between the background and the balloon so the effect can be seen.
A radio or electric balloon shape is often used for any amplified or broadcast voice such as a loudspeaker, phone, or TV. Note the electric zig-zag in the tail to help get the idea across. Other methods work, this is my preference. I vary the size of the points to add interest.
Thought balloons were extremely common until the 1980s, and now are rare, as many writers prefer to use narrative captions to let us know what someone is thinking. That can work fine, but I kind of miss this approach. It’s also more direct, a window into the character’s mind, while a narrative caption is a story the character is telling himself and the reader, which may or may not be what they really believe.
I covered burst balloons in the previous article, and how to give them more emphasis by adding thickness to the outside of the border. Here I’ll just point out that, while I give the points a variety of sizes to add interest, I try to keep the tail the longest, it’s on the bottom here. Also, the tail and points all aim directly away from the center of the burst.
Digital lettering offers more options for things like telepathic balloons, thoughts that are broadcast from one character to another, this is the way I usually did it when lettering with a pen. The style combines the thought balloon with radiating open lines to suggest transmission.
Wobbly balloons can indicate exhaustion, illness, dizzyness, drunkenness, and other impaired speech. For the last of those, I add a few bubbles in the balloon. Note the extra bounce in the lettering, with letters placed far up and down from the usual horizontal rows.
On the other hand, a rough balloon shape suggests anger, toughness, a raspy voice, clenched teeth, someone receiving a blow, a character doing something physically difficult, and so on. I generally give them a thicker border than regular speech balloons. You can find many other examples of special balloon styles in comics, but remember to use them sparingly, and only when it makes sense to help tell the story. Special styles used for no reason confuse the reader and detract from the storytelling.
Display lettering is the term for larger lettering, where you need something extra to create excitement or gather focus. It can be used in balloon lettering, and is often seen in story titles, next issue blurbs, and on covers. The name may have come from the days of show-card lettering when it was a display of the letterer’s talent. Sometimes it’s just a larger, thicker version of emphasized balloon lettering, as above, created with larger Speedball pen points.
To make it more forceful, you can “point the corners” with a small pen point, as has been done here on the last two lines.
Shapes like these in outlined form also work for sound effects. In that case, you would pencil the shapes and outline them with a small pen, adding thickness to the outside of the lines if needed. Note that you always add to the outside, not the inside. The inside shape is what the reader sees first, taking away from it distorts the letters. Think of outlined letters as tracing around a white shape. In this case, I used a straight edge to make the straight lines and oval templates on the O, while the added rough edge was done freehand. Sometimes connecting the letters works, here it would have made the P hard to read.
Learning to draw standard block letters is a skill that will be useful for titles, sound effects, and logos. Above is a diagram showing how I construct the most common of mine. I do many other variations, but these are a good starting point. Draw out measured horizontal guidelines with a T-square and ruler, and vertical ones with a triangle and ruler to give you even, balanced shapes.
There are many effects that can be added to open letters, here are a selection. First, a shadow on two sides to add depth, then a drop shadow for more depth. An open drop shadow gives room for a second color, and telescoping (extending the letters like a telescope extends outward when it opens) adds even more depth, a technique often seen on logos.
A rough outer edge created with a small pen adds energy, a second outline again allows room for another color. Solid letters within an outline can be dramatic as long as the inner shapes aren’t distorted, and flaming letters add excitement in the right situation. I like flames that blow off to one side a bit.
There’s really no limit to what you can do with block letters as your starting point, here are other creative examples. You can find many more. Always try to match the style and effect with the intent and look of the words, characters and art. For an amazing catalog of display cover lettering by my favorite letterer, see these articles:
Traditional comics balloon and caption lettering has always been all sans-serif capital letters (with the exception of a serif I for the personal pronoun and sometimes the J), because they’re easiest to read at small sizes, and easiest to letter, but other alphabets and styles are sometimes useful to help tell a story, or as a style choice. Mixed case alphabets were once common in early comic strips, and have become more common in the last few decades, especially in captions. The trick is to keep the parts that extend below the baseline, like the tails of the lower case G, J, P, Q, and Y, as short as possible so the lines of lettering can stay close together vertically. The parts that extend upward should also be kept short. The body of lower case letters like the N and X should take up most of the height, this is called the x-height. The space between lines of lettering, as prepared with an Ames Guide (see previous article) may have to be adjusted for mixed case.
Samples of a few other alphabets I use occasionally are above. Script handwriting has largely fallen out of use because younger readers, who no longer learn it in school, have a hard time reading it. Again, you can find many more examples of special lettering styles and alphabets in the work of professional letterers, there are some of mine in the poster at the top of this article. Always be careful to keep your lettering readable first, that’s more important than a clever style.
Sometimes when I was lettering comics with pen and ink I needed to work on vellum overlays placed over pencils or inked art rather than lettering on the art boards. This was a way to save time, or a way for an artist to send in completed pages before the lettering was added. You can use this idea when learning how to letter. Vellum is a thick tracing paper available in pads. It’s translucent enough to see through, but you can still see what you’re lettering. If you have access to photocopies or scans of penciled or finished comics art (easy to find online at auction sites), you can print them and practice your lettering over that. You can do the same thing over lettered comics art, and copy the lettering on the page. That can give you instant feedback about how well you’re doing compared to the professional letterer who did that job. It will also give you insight into the decisions made about how and where to place the lettering. And of course, you can use vellum over your own comics art to try things out before committing to ink on the page.
I hope this information will encourage you at least try pen lettering yourself, I highly recommend it, even if it’s not something you plan to do regularly. And perhaps you’ll find pen lettering is something you enjoy doing enough to keep it going.