Lettering Tips for Comics Writers

Image © Marvel.

This morning a writer I’m working with asked me if I had any tips for comics writers from a letterer’s point of view. This is something I’m rarely asked, but of course a few things did come to mind. I’m sure I could think of more, and probably will later, but this is what emerged in a half hour or so.

The big one is to write economically, and don’t describe what the art is already showing. Leave room for the art, this is not a novel.
Use of double dash (- -) and ellipsis (…): double dash (replacing an em-dash in regular type) is for an interruption of some kind, ellipsis is for a pause or unfinished sentence. Where one is at the end of a piece of dialogue that continues, it should also be at the beginning of the continuation.
Inner dialogue captions (where we used to employ thought balloons) do not need quotes. Quoted dialogue by someone off-camera does, but you only need an opening quote for multiple captions in a sequence until the final one, which gets a close quote. If such running captions are interrupted by dialogue, I close quote before that.
Spell out numbers up to twenty (thirty, forty, fifty, etc. is optional), use the actual numbers above twenty.
Symbols like % should generally be spelled out in dialogue if possible.
If you are going to emphasize words, make them Bold Italic. With emphasized words, less is more. Read dialogue out loud to find the correct emphasis points, but don’t overdo it. Some emphasis is recommended in large balloons or captions to help break up the large areas of lettering and make them easier to read.
Things to consider that will make your letterer happy: 
Don’t end a dialogue balloon with a very long word that can’t be hyphenated easily. Example: ecclesiastically.
Don’t write characters that repeat things a lot. Yes, there are people who do that, but it’s annoying. I say, it’s annoying, son, annoying, and it takes up too much space. This goes double for stuttering!
If you can, I recommend following in the footsteps of Alan Moore by doing thumbnail layouts with lettering placements of your comics pages yourself. You don’t have to be a great artist to do this, and it will help you understand visual storytelling and balloon placement. Of course, your artist and letterer may have other ideas, but it will give you a better concept of what works and what doesn’t. Remember that lettering is read left to right, then down and left to right again, generally, within a panel, across a row of panels, and over an entire page. Lettering should form a natural flow for the eye across the page. See my website article on balloon placement.
Finally, try to avoid calling for special lettering styles unless they are really needed to understand the story or express a unique characteristic of your cast. In some cases your letterer may decide to volunteer some special styles, but this is an area that is often overdone, and when it is it can make storytelling less clear and reading more difficult. (Yes, yes, I know, SANDMAN, but the exception proves the rule!)
ADDED: I forgot an important one brought to my attention by Chris Eliopolous. Writers should not treat the lettering as a first draft that will go through one or more rewrites, making extra unpaid work for the letterer. This is a growing problem from newer writers and editors who don’t understand the fact that letterers are generally only paid once. Respect that.

And Then I Read: NEW GODS SPECIAL #1

Image © DC Entertainment.

As part of their tribute to Jack Kirby’s 100th birth anniversary, DC is putting out new books featuring his Fourth World characters. This one features Orion versus Kalibak in the main story, with supporting roles for Lightray and the Bug, Forager (also in a new series) written and pencilled by Shane Davis, inks by Michelle Delecki.. The backup is a story of young Orion and Seagrin (Kirby’s Aquaman, sort of) written and drawn by Walt Simonson, and eight pages of Kirby New Gods reprints.

Davis’s main story reads like something Kirby might have written, except that it’s a retread of things he did write in the original NEW GODS series for the most part. Entertaining enough, but it misses the most essential Kirby element: breaking new ground. The art has many Kirby touches, and several visual homages like the sound effect KIIIRRRBBRACK! The figure work is more along the lines of Jim Lee and other Image Comics artists, though.

Simonson’s backup story is more original and fun, as Walter doesn’t fail to add touches of humor to balance the action and fighting, and the art, while referencing Kirby, is Simonson’s own style, itself full of energy and grace. John Workman’s lettering is part of the Simonson look, and equally fine.

The Kirby material is fairly obscure: two pinups and two very short stories featuring the New God Lonar. Even so, the unique style and energy of Kirby tends to show up much of what came before (even with Vince Colletta inking).

Not a bad package, but with more appeal to nostalgic fans of the original material than new readers, I’d say.

Mildly recommended.

And Then I Read: HAL JORDAN & THE GL CORPS #15

Image © DC Entertainment.

As the Quest for Hope storyline continues, Green and Yellow Lanterns are being paired and sent out by Stewart and Soranik (head of the Greens and Yellows respectively) to track down and either recruit or imprison the remaining rogue Yellow Lanterns. This creates some friction, but not as much as the fact that the three other Earth-born lanterns: Hal Jordan, Kyle Rayner and Guy Gardner, have snuck off on their own missions. Hal and Kyle are trying to find and perhaps rescue Saint Walker, the embodiment of Hope, or the Blue Lanterns. Guy is after a particularly dangerous Yellow.

This all reads well, and the character stories are as interesting as the fights. Writer Robert Venditti seems to be having fun with the DC mythos, and I love the inclusion of the old Julie Schwartz-era minor character Space Cabby. The art by Ethan Van Sciver is impressive, and this book is fun from one end to the other.


Pulled From My Files #65: CRIMEBUSTER LOGO

In 1994 I was asked by John Clark at Gladstone Comics to design a new logo for the 1940s crime fighter Crimebuster. Apparently they were planning on either a new series of stories or reprints, I don’t recall which. These are the first two marker sketches I submitted, after getting direction that they wanted something classic and using block letters, I think. Version 1 uses a lot of space, so I didn’t expect they would want it, but I enjoyed drawing it. Continue reading

Rereading: THE TWELVE AND THE GENII by Pauline Clarke

This excellent book had different titles in the UK (left) and the US (right). By either title it’s a gem.

Max and his family have moved to a new home, but an old house in rural northern England not far from Leeds. Max discovers a hidden treasure in the attic, a set of twelve wooden soldiers, clearly very old, worn, and much loved. To his great surprise, as he plays with them, they begin to come to life. Each has a name, rank, history and distinct personality, and they treat him as a sort of god, or genii, as they call him. Max learns they once belonged to four other genii, he guesses children like him, who created elaborate stories and adventures for them. Somehow that creative energy brought the wooden soldiers to life.

Max’s sister Jane discovers the secret by spying, but soon joins in the game. Max’s older brother Philip is more interested in the possible value of the toys, especially when he hears that a wealthy American is offering a large reward for any set of similar toy soldiers found in the area. The American is looking for the soldiers once owned by the Brontë family in nearby Haworth. The four Brontë children; Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Ann, wrote extensive stories about “The Young Men,” as they called them, a prelude to the literary fame and careers of the three Brontë sisters. Philip, Max’s older brother writes to the American to say they have such a set of soldiers, and Max is furious when he finds out. He explains the danger to the Twelves, and they decide on their own they must make a dangerous journey to their old home, the Haworth parsonage, now the Brontë Museum, where they will be cherished and protected from being taken overseas.

Not even Max is witness to their escape from the attic and the beginning of their journey, but he and Jane soon figure out what is happening, and help the soldiers along when they can. Still, the Twelves must face many perils in the oversized human world, from automobiles that want to squash them to people who have heard of the reward and want to capture them and collect it themselves.

This is a great story full of imagination and literary relevance. When I read it in my own childhood, it led me to fine books like Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre,” and Emily’s “Wuthering Heights,” as well as biographies of the talented but tragedy-prone family. It won Britain’s Carnegie Medal in 1963. I recommend it highly.