I’ve commented a couple of times that I want to cover lettering in the future – in depth. This post will attempt to do just that. I think lettering comics is pretty interesting and has a lot of fun challenges to it. With my design background I’ve spent a lot of time learning typography that I think will come in handy here.

For the most part, I don’t think comic typography is all that impressive. Now don’t get me wrong, there have been some good typographers. But realistically, I can’t say that the lettering has been up to the typographic standards that have been drilled into my design brain.

So what comics do I think have/had good lettering? Sandman was impressive. Spawn. I remember when the Batman Adventures switched to Richard Starkings and noticing the difference. Comicraft‘s body of work has been pretty good over the years. Below are some shots of what I would class as “good” comic lettering.

How to letter?
There are quite a few online resources for “how to letter” a comic book. Here’s a bunch of links that will give you a basic understanding that I’m not going to cover here:


Build your own typeface
Over at reMINDblog, Jason covers a cool way to build your own typeface based on your handwritting. I tried it out and it’s really neat and definitely much easier than the other ways I’ve designed typefaces in the past. I used a couple of different samples of my writing and one of my wifes. It’s an awesome way to do something custom. BUT, it wasn’t what I was looking for with On the Verge. It didn’t have the right feel to me, so I started to experiment…

Test runs
To start with, I’ve tried out a couple of different typefaces with different word balloons. I had a couple of ideas, but my main goal was to “design” a lettering solution that “fit” with the artwork. I didn’t want the word balloons to sit on top of the artwork but instead look like a part of the art – so it’s not an afterthought.

My first design was with the typical “comic”-style font (Comicrazy from Comicraft) in your typical word balloon. This seemed pretty obvious and too generic for me.

My second attempt was with a sans serif font – Frutiger – in a typical word balloon. I actually like the way this looks and it’s really easy to read. But it wasn’t sitting well with the artwork because the type was really clean and the art was hand rendered and painted. So I needed to do something different.

Next I used the typeface that all my jsnsmith.com branding uses – Junction from the League of Moveable Type – and a normal word balloon. This was starting to get a better overall feel to it, but still not quite there.

I then took the copy that uses Junction and hand drew a word balloon using the brush tool in Illustrator (a tablet helped with this). Bingo! It’s much more interesting to have each word balloon be done specifically for it (kind of like it was before computers!).

Finally, I took the hand rendered/Junction combo and placed a textured and colored piece of art inside the word balloon.

My lettering and word balloons
I’ve had to put copy over my own artwork numerous times and what I like about the lettering that I’m using is that it combines what I’ve found works (ie. sans serif type) with the hand drawn word balloons that sit well with the artwork. By using the computer, edits are easy to make and I don’t have to redraw/scan/clean up any artwork. If the balloons need to be changed for whatever reason, that’s a snap too.

Proper typography decisions
At this point I needed to decide “how” I was going to letter. Was I going to follow proper typographic rules like I would with normal design work or was I going to follow typical comic lettering? I decided to go with proper typography. Back in college I took typography, but in my professional career, The Elements of Typographic Style has been my typographic bible. If you’re just learning, it’s a great tool. I’ve read a lot of other type books, but this one is really straightforward. I really wanted to use my design background as an advantage and try to set the type right.

The nitty gritty
I mentioned in my Workflow post that I’m using inDesign for my lettering. There’s a couple of reasons for this: 1. It’s easier keeping all the copy, balloons and design elements all in one file instead of a lot of jumping around, 2. inDesign has the same basic drawing, colouring and pathfinder tools that Illustrator does, and 3. I can easily place images or textures in the boxes when needed.

I’m using layers which is always a good idea. I’ve got my lettering/typography on one layer and any word balloon/caption boxes on another (art is on a layer by itself too). I developed this approach over the years because I’ve found it easier to lock down layers that I’m not going to be editing so that I can easily access what I need to. This might not make sense until you’re trying to edit just the copy and keep selecting the word balloons behind the art. I also like to keep the type seperate from the balloon shapes so that if I edit just the shape, my copy doesn’t reflow. I like to be able to control each item on its own.

So what’s this all boil down to? After a lot of experimenting, printouts and comparing what I had versus existing comics, here is how my type is set:

Speech balloons: I’ve used Junction set at 7 points with 10 points of leading. The type is centered with no hyphens turned on so I won’t have any word breaks at the end of lines.
Thought/caption boxes: I’ve used Junction set at 7 points with 10 points of leading. The type is aligned left with no hyphens turned on so I won’t have any word breaks at the end of lines.
Balloon colours: I’ve created a set of textured backgrounds in various colours to use in the speech balloons and caption boxes. This becomes a simple act of placing an image “inside” the shape in inDesign.

7 pt. type might seem small, but when actually printed out, Junction compares well with a lot of comics that are on the market. What I’ve found while researching lettering is that a lot of comics change the point size depending on what’s on the page. If there isn’t a lot of copy and there’s room, the type gets larger. If things get tight and there’s a lot of copy, the type gets smaller. This isn’t going to happen in On the Verge. The type will stay consistent throughout the whole book and will be set to 7 over 10 pt.

[For any special type that interacts with the images (sound effects or something like that), I’m copying that and pasting it into Photoshop as a smart object, then making any edits there.]

And that’s it for now. As I do more pages I might find some different stuff happening, but that’s it so far.

About jason

Illustrator and graphic designer. When not working full time as a Senior Graphic Designer, I am usually working on the graphic novel On the Verge: the Arrow of Time. Artist on Andrew Jackson in Space and The Sisters.

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