Preparing Comics Scripts for Lettering

Superman and Bizarro with new lettering by Todd Klein.
Image found online, © DC Comics.

Yesterday I was asked by Paul Kupperberg for recommendations and suggestions on this topic for a book he’s working on. I covered it in my book, but things have changed since then. Now that most comics lettering is done digitally, a whole new regimen of script preparation issues have emerged that often create problems for letterers. I posed the question to a group of other letterers, and together we came up with these recommendations.

1. Prepare your script in a word processing program that the letterer can access easily. Microsoft Word is the usual standard but RTF format from any word processor works well too. PDF format from Adobe Acrobat should NEVER be used. It prevents the letterer from copying and pasting from the script, the most common method of getting words onto the comics page.

2. Captions, dialogue and anything that needs to be lettered should be in sentence case, like this document, not all caps. Do not use a double space after a period. Do not use tabs. Each section to be lettered should be separated from the rest of the script so it’s easy to copy and paste. Such as:

I am the only solution to Earth’s problems.

That’s what you think!


3. The writer should decide which words to emphasize and indicate that consistently in the script. Bold italic is the best method, do not use all caps. Do not try to simulate special styles with different fonts in the script! Make suggestions for fonts if you like.

4. Internal dialogue captions (what used to be thought balloons) do not need quotes. Use quotes only when someone is off-panel and doing narration in captions, or when actually quoting what someone else said. Such spoken narration needs a beginning quote in each caption, but an end quote only on the last one in a series of continuous narration captions. Double/single quote rules apply to comics as well.

5. If someone is in the room but off-panel, let the letterer know which direction the balloon tail should go. Whenever possible, the character on the left should speak FIRST, the next one to the right should speak SECOND, and so on. Train your artists to do this and everyone will be happier!

6. Foreign phrases, movie titles, book titles, ship names and any other item needing special attention should be italic. Translated foreign languages should be inside lesser and greater symbols such as <this> with an asterisked footnote such as: *Translated from French.

7.Make sure any notes for the letterer are pulled out and separate from panel descriptions so they aren’t missed.

8. If you are working plot-first, look carefully at the art when you are writing dialogue to make sure all the characters you asked for are present. Try to write to fit the space available for lettering. Large panels with open spaces are best for large or many balloons, small panels with little space should have little lettering.

9. Lettering placements are welcomed by some letterers (like me) as a time saver, are not wanted by others. Check with your letterer. The letterer should be given the freedom to make actual placement choices that differ from provided placements if they see a better way to do it. Placements can be done with markers on a printout of the art that is then scanned, or digitally. If you are providing placements, it’s recommended that you number each item to be lettered in your script, as above, and use the corresponding numbers in your placements.

10. Remember that the letterer is part of your team, don’t keep secrets from him. That mysterious character who turns out to be a returning villain? Let the letterer know when he first appears. It may be a secret surprise for the reader, but the letterer needs to know when you do in case it affects the lettering style. If your story has narration captions by a character who won’t appear until the last page, the letterer still needs to know who is narrating. Every narration caption should be labeled by speaker just as word balloons are. Or if it’s omniscient author narration, say that.

11. Perhaps most important of all, MAKE SURE THE SCRIPT IS A CLOSE TO FINAL AS POSSIBLE BEFORE SENDING TO THE LETTERER. It has become a common practice among newer writers to treat the lettering draft as a first draft, and then do major rewrites after the first round of lettering, or sometimes several rounds of rewrites. This is unfair to the letterer, taking up time they need for other jobs, and usually they are not paid for that extra work. Script and art editing and proofreading should be done BEFORE lettering, not after.

Thanks to Nikki Foxrobot, Ian Sharman, Hde Ponsonby-Jones, Bill Williams, Nic Wilkinson, Lucas Gattoni, Zen Hcmp, Annie Parkhouse, Lois Buhalis and Michael Stock for advice and suggestions!

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