Punctuating Comics: Dots and Dashes

I received an email recently from David Norman that I thought might lead to an interesting topic here. With his permission, here’s an excerpt:

I’ve been a long-time reader of your blog, and I was wondering if you could answer my question, as noted in the subject heading: why is the double hyphen still used in comic book lettering when the en-dash (or em-dash) is so much more elegant? I can’t see any reason for it other than “that’s the way it’s always been done.” As the source of all things lettering, I hope you would be able to tell me.

First, let’s be clear on the terms used above, as they appear in print. A hyphen (or regular dash) is what connects words like four-color, and also used when a word is broken into two lines, or hyphenated. An en-dash is a longer line, rarely used, but sometimes seen between parts of a phone number as in 555–1212. In many fonts it’s nearly indistinguishable from a hyphen. An em-dash, so called because it’s about the length of the lower case “m”, is used to indicate a quick pause in speech,  or set off a brief interruption in a statement, such as “His first thought—if there was one—was to scream.”

Another bit of punctuation that is similar to the em-dash is the ellipsis, a series of three periods: … which can indicate a missing word in a sentence, or again a pause in thought, but a more leisurely one. A good example is from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” when the title character says, “I never drink…wine.”

Panels from the first Superman story.
This and all images © DC Comics, Inc.

Punctuation in comics was fluid and erratic in the early days, not surprising for a new medium. Letterers, whether they were the artist on the story or a separate person, pretty much made their own choices as they went along. In these panels from the very first Superman story from the 1930s, the first caption begins with an ellipsis, continuing a sentence from the panel before it, and ends with a double dash (or double hyphen if you like), indicating the sentence continues further. But the next caption again begins with an ellipsis, so a more logical thing to put at the end of the first caption would have also been an ellipsis. That’s how I was taught to do it when I began lettering in 1977: connect two parts of a sentence with EITHER a pair of ellipses or a pair of double dashes.

Why the double dash instead of the em-dash? As you can see in the doctor’s balloon above, a very long em-dash is used there, and you do see it in some older comics stories. But when comics got to the point where scripts were typed out on a typewriter for someone to copy when lettering, the usual way to indicate an em-dash was a double dash, since there was no em-dash symbol on a typewriter. Typesetters and printers knew to convert the double dash to an em-dash when a typewritten script was copied into set type, but letterers probably didn’t know or follow that convention, and the double dash gradually became the common form.

Panels from Detective Comics #31.

Here are two panels from one of the first Batman stories in DETECTIVE COMICS #31, 1939. The caption ends with an ellipsis indicating an open-ended statement, another common use of it. But the doctor’s balloon below has a real hodge-podge of punctuation. After the second YES is what I think is meant to be an em-dash, but it’s quite short and aligned with the bottom of the letters instead of the center. Another longer one is below. And after the word PARIS are two periods, which are meant to be an ellipsis. You can find similar uses with from two to about six periods in old comics, perhaps showing that letterers then didn’t really know what they were supposed to be putting in. And the final word is underlined instead of emphasized in the more usual way by making it bolder, or bold and italicized. I can still remember DC editor Julie Schwartz yelling at me when I made a similar mistake just starting out in lettering, “We NEVER underline in comics!”

Panels from a Flash story, 1949.

In this FLASH story from 1949, toward the end of the Golden Age, lettering has become more standardized, at least at DC Comics, but there are still some odd variations in the dots and dashes here. In the first panel we have ellipses that are centered vertically on the letters instead of aligned with the bottoms, as they are in the caption. And in the other balloons we have some double dashes, and also some longer single dashes—about the size of an en-dash—performing the same function.

Panels from a Flash story 1956.

A few years later, in this first Silver Age FLASH story from 1956, probably lettered by Gaspar Saladino, the punctuation has become much more standardized, with only the double dash, ellipsis and hyphen used. Editor Julie Schwartz may have had a hand in this, as he was big on rules and traditions.

So, to finally answer the original question by David, here’s what I had to say:

Yes, it’s all about tradition. When comics began, scripts were produced on a typewriter, and the common typewritten version of an em-dash was a double-hyphen. That became part of the comics vocabulary, and remains so for many readers, not to mention writers and editors. I sometimes use the em-dash when I’m lettering in upper and lower case, but when using the traditional all upper-case style, the double hyphen is what looks best to me.

7 thoughts on “Punctuating Comics: Dots and Dashes

  1. Shawn

    This begs the question, however. Does the double hyphen look better to you because that’s what you’re used to seeing — that is to say, because it’s traditional — or because you feel that it has a better overall look on the page? Alternatively, is it possible that those are the same thing?

    It’s strange to think about how much of language is just an agreed-upon set of conventions.

  2. Todd Post author

    As it’s what comics I grew up reading always used, it’s hard to separate the history and the aesthetics, but trying to be objective, I don’t think either looks better than the other really.

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  4. Dave Bell

    That last panel, the 1956 FLASH story, suggests to me that comics lettering is almost a distinct dialect. Think about how the waitress’s hesitations and uncertainty would be depicted in a book, or in a movie. The picture is a frozen instant, and the lettering has to carry all the sense of timing, without the space for descriptive text that a book has. Almost everything that isn’t in the picture has to be somehow presented as speech.
    That doesn’t explain double-hyphens, but maybe that development of language tools for the medium has something to do with the more chaotic earlier usage.

  5. Dave Lanphear

    One other note: when I made my full-time break into comics, I was working at Malibu Comics in 1993. There, I was lettering for several of the mid-70s Marvel and DC writers: Mike Barr, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber… and particularly I lettered for Steve Englehart on Night Man, and The Strangers. One day, shortly after I’d begun in the Bullpen there, I got a note from Steve, telling me that it was important to remember to end sentences with exclamation points or question marks or double-dashes or ellipsis, but not periods.

    He explained that the periods tended to get lost in the photostat/separations stage because over-fastidious platecleaners thought the period punctuation was flecks of dust and would scratch them off the plate. So, now I understand why Marvel comics always seemed to feature Lots! Of! Yelling! (The fact notwithstanding that we didn’t have a traditional photostat and manual color separations process at the modern Malibu: we were all using scanners and Photoshop for coloring. Oh well.)

  6. David Marshall

    Curious that you didn’t use any Marvel samples. By the Silver Age, Stan’s “shoot from the hip” consistency was using double-dashes (–) for interruptions and ellipsis (…) for continuations. Perhaps this made his free-form word balloon placement more coherent.

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