Art direction and design of comics – part 5


Comics are unique in that they use “lettering” to communicate the written language of the story (not sound like TV/movies or prose like a book). There are many ways to letter a comic, but in this series I’m really trying to tie this into how lettering applies to the overall art direction, why you should give it some thought and if you haven’t thought about it, why you should. Lettering can play a vital role not only in how the story reads, but in how it fits with the rest of the art and design and this is what should concern us when designing a book.

In a lot of comics, word balloons tend to be a solid Illustrator circle/ellipse with a tail pointing to the speaker and faux-hand-lettered-cartoon-typefaces no matter what the artwork looks like. In most cases the overall aesthetic of the book would be improved with a little attention to lettering. This basically means that the it would have to be different for each and every book and/or artist.

How does lettering tie into the art. How do you achieve a unified look?
The main concern should be to ensure that both word balloons and type “gel” with the art of the story and doesn’t look stuck on at some later point. It should also definitely be unique to the art on the book since not everybody’s art looks the same.

All too often lettering is the same from book to book no matter what the story is.

When you think about it, using a sans serif typeface with a richly textured ink line doesn’t make too much sense. Then again, neither does hand written type when it’s combined with a story about cyborgs that’s illustrated using vector art. It could create an interesting look, but in most cases it just won’t work since they contrast so much.

Just like you need to pick typeface that works with artwork in a design you need to pick a typeface that works with the artwork for lettering. How you do this is the skill a good designer or letterer can bring to a project, but paying attention to what the artwork actually looks like can get you started in the right direction.

Don’t forget the balloons
Just as picking the correct typeface is important, by not paying attention to how the balloons are drawn can make or break the overall effect you’re creating. Word balloons really become a vital way to add another designed element to your book. You have so many options, from thick to thin rules, rules that vary in thickness like you’d get from a brush, symmetrical or wobbly, circles or squares. You’re only limited by the art you’re working with and your creativity.


A case study: how I’ve applied this philosophy to On the Verge

I made a few decisions for the lettering that I’ve carried across the work so far. My decisions were based on a number of factors…

1. Everything is done on the computer. My hand writing isn’t legible enough at the best of times and doing things on the computer allows for easier edits down the line.

2. All the balloons are drawn by hand. My artwork has a certain amount of messiness to it and I draw all the panel edges by hand with a brush. So in order to tie the balloons to the art they need to have the same looseness to them and this means avoiding the perfectly drawn word balloons. This also applies to square boxes. Freehand only!

3. All my type is a quirky font that I use for my own business stuff and tends to work well with my artwork. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had a hard time over the years setting type over my artwork. So when I found this typeface a couple of years ago it solved a bunch of these problems. Its quirks work well with my art so using it seemed like a good idea. It’s not the normal hand-drawn-cartoony style that’s common to a lot of comics, but that doesn’t matter to me.

4. I’ve also incorporated some watercolour texture and colouring to some balloons and this helps it tie the lettering into the colouring and textures in the artwork.

5. All the type is set in “sentence case” instead of the normal “all uppercase” that you see in most comics. This was a fairly obvious decision to me since I wanted to use proper typography throughout the lettering. This means that I use proper punctuation and spacing as well as not placing emphasis on certain words (something that you always seem to see in comics and I have no idea why you would do this). I wanted it to be typographically correct and sentence case allowed for this.

Each of these decisions was made to help the lettering become a part of the artwork on the pages and not be an afterthought. As with the art direction, it was a case of trial and error that was interesting to explore. For more on how I developed my lettering style, see my earlier post here.

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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