Punctuating Comics: Breath Marks


In 2008 I wrote a blog post about the use of dots and dashes as punctuation in comics. Here’s another focusing on punctuation that I think is unique to comics. I call them “breath marks” because they indicate a human sound caused by expelled or indrawn air with little or no vocalization, as in the examples above. There are other names, such as “crow’s feet.”


This and all comics images © DC Comics, Inc.

To get an idea of where they came from, let’s begin with the very first Batman story in DETECTIVE COMICS 27, in 1939. In the first panel, Batman is punching a villain, and in addition to the lettered sound effect, notice the lines radiating out from the impact. This is part of comics’ visual grammar. In the panel below, longer and closer together radiating lines around the two figures add visual interest to an otherwise boring image. It’s not too far a leap from these lines which spread out from a central point, call them “burst lines” and the outward spreading lines of breath marks, as a way of adding interest and emphasis.


Over in SUPERMAN #2, Fall 1939, a breathy comment is enclosed in parentheses to set it apart from the regular dialogue. This was a fairly common usage at the time, and my guess is it was already being used in newspaper comic strips, which is what comic books took their cues and style from in the early days.


Here’s another example from the Batman story in DETECTIVE COMICS 62, in 1942. Both Superman and Batman stories were being created largely by the studios of Siegel and Shuster and Bob Kane respectively, so both must have been looking at the same comic strip sources for lettering style, as well as other comics by the time of this one.


The earliest example of breath marks as we now know them that I’ve been able to find in my DC Archive Editions is this one, from a Wildcat story in ALL STAR COMICS #27, Winter of 1945. It’s not quite in a standardized form yet, there are five marks on the left and four on the right, but they radiate outward from the word in a recognizable way. Other examples are in the same issue, probably by the same letterer.

Somewhere in my DC Archives is the missing link, which I once noticed but have been unable to find again after an hour of looking: a hybrid form consisting of parentheses broken up into dots or short dashes. If anyone can find an example of that, let me know, and I’ll include it here. I think that’s the natural evolution from parentheses to breath marks. First you have broken parentheses, similar to the form of broken balloon borders used for whispering (also a breathy sound), then some letterer begins to make those marks radiate out from the word. Other letterers saw it, realized what a good idea it was, and copied it.


By the time of this early silver age Green Lantern story in SHOWCASE 23, November 1959, the breath marks were standardized to three radiating lines on each side, and so ingrained that they even appear here in a thought balloon, where no vocalization is being uttered!


When I began to make computer fonts from my hand lettering, I realized there was no place on the keyboard for breath marks, so I had to decide on one. I put them in the place of the left and right brackets, highlighted above. I’m not sure if all others who make fonts for comics lettering put them in the same place or not, but I think some do. I thought it was a safe and logical choice, as I’d never needed to use brackets in all my years of lettering comics. And if by some chance I ever did, I’d just use them from a common font like Helvetica instead of my own lettering font. Meanwhile, I’ve grown so used to using the bracket keys for breath marks, I don’t have to think about it. I sometimes wonder if people who aren’t as familiar with comics lettering who buy comics lettering fonts are ever puzzled by them, though…

10 thoughts on “Punctuating Comics: Breath Marks

  1. Kurt Busiek

    Someone at Marvel called them “roachlegs,” and I picked up that name for them there. Before that I think I called them “gasp marks.”

    I remember working with one editor who insisted that anything that would ordinarily be enclosed in roachlegs be spelled out as a sound, so “gasp” became “H-hh!” or something. he reasoning was that no one in a book or movie would actually say “gasp,” and so such things were comic-booky. My argument that in books they do it through narration, but comics evolved other methods, and if we were going to shy away from comic-booky things, it was worth noting that in books and movies when people talked, big white ovals with their words in them didn’t appear over their heads, and loud noises didn’t manifest as floating letters, either, fell on deaf ears.

    So I rewrote the script to take all such bits of dialogue out, rather than expect the reader to decode various forms of “hh” for “gasp” or “sigh” or whatever. And when the project moved to another publisher, I put them back in.

    Comics are comics. We should use the tools we have, rather than trying to limit ourselves to the tools some other form uses.

    But I still think of them as roachlegs.

  2. Todd Post author

    Thanks, Kurt, well said. One of my DC editors also called them “roach legs,” which I think was a term of disdain, as he didn’t like to see them used much at all. He was also an editor at Marvel for a while.

  3. Clem Robins

    i thought they were called “cat’s whiskers”.

    and for whatever reason, i put them on the same keyboard location as you do.

  4. Kurt Busiek

    For whatever it’s worth, I use the greater-than and less-than signs to indicate them in a script, like so:

    > sigh <

    But I’d imagine the comma and period keys are a little too important to repurpose…


  5. Todd Post author

    I use those symbols the other way around to indicate translated dialogue sometimes. Another way to indicate breath marks in a comics script is with asterisks.

  6. Pj Perez

    “Comics are comics. We should use the tools we have, rather than trying to limit ourselves to the tools some other form uses.”


  7. Reb

    As an amateur typesetter, this article was pretty darn informative. I see breath marks a lot in the western comic world, but not so much in the east, which is such a shame, because they’re so effective in bringing a-whole-nother dimension to sound effects, and I hope the trend starts to move towards that in the future… Or at least, one can hope.

  8. Terry Kepner

    @Reb – You don’t see them in the east because all non-speech sounds (such as gasp) are written in beside the character as part of the picture. Other sounds, like Huh? or Ow! are used in the speech bubbles.

    And I just checked the six comic fonts I have and only one has the “cat’s whiskers.” Too bad.

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