Effective lettering

The greatest comics in the world will generally have three things in common: an excellent script, excellent artwork, and excellent lettering.  Okay, there are some silent comics and when done well, these are fantastic but in general, a comic will need words.

They tell us what is going on in the minds of the characters.  They show us their dialogue between one-another, and they destroy a comic’s appearance when handled incorrectly.  So let’s look at how to avoid this.

The two kinds of lettering

In modern comics, lettering falls into two bold categories: digital lettering, and hand lettering.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages so in the end it all comes down to your personal preferences for the job at hand.

Digital lettering

Lettering a comic on a computer will generally involve typing the words onto the comic (hopefully on a separate layer to the art, in case you make a mistake or want to move something later) using a font.  Which font you choose can be a matter of personal preference but there are a number of factors you should take into consideration before you slap those words onto your latest masterpiece.

Firstly, is the font appropriate for the feel of the piece?  A political epic set in medieval Europe is going to be ruined if all the characters are speaking in 12pt Funky Sixties.  Similarly, a font styled to replicate the handwriting of Jane Austin could look superb for your comic’s titles but are your readers really going to want to decypher that text all the time just so they can understand what you’re saying?

We’ve just run across the biggest disadvantage of digital lettering: inappropriate font choice.

Picking a font you like is never easy.  There are thousands out there to choose from; some free, some cheap and some so incredibly expensive the average webcomic artist can only dream of ever using them.  Each font has its uses and those that are popular have their detractors (I’m looking at you here, Comic Sans!).

The best fonts combine clarity with an appropriate style for the setting.  In the example above, Funky Sixties sounds like it would be an excellent title font – it will be all flower power, peace and love, and lovely styling.  Is it likely to be something you’d want to look at again and again, for hundreds of pages?  If you just said no – or even if you’re just not sure – then it’s not a font for your lettering.

Popular lettering fonts are Comic Sans (yes, I know it’s overused and should be avoided because of this alone) and Blambot’s Letter O Matic (which is becoming equally overused).  They are simple, clean and easy to read.  The fact that they have upper- and lower-case lettering is a bonus.

In traditional hand-lettered comics, uppercase would be used throughout because it aided clarity but with digital fonts, being able to write normally is an advantage; so feel free to use it.

Hand lettering

Hand lettering is, basically, writing out all the dialogue yourself, in the traditional method.  This method is fantastic for anyone with a steady hand and good, clear handwriting.  With hand lettering, each word becomes part of the art itself, and can be intermixed with the comic to a far greater degree than lettering after the fact ever could.

For those of us with terrible handwriting or unsteady hands, the major drawback of hand lettering is: done badly, it destroys comics.  This is no exaggeration.

A poorly hand-lettered comic is illegible at best, distracting and confusing at worst.  Imagine trying to wade through a comic lettered in the most hideous scrawl.  Would you bother?  Many would not.  If your handwriting is not up to scratch and you don’t have the time to labour over lettering your comic, it’s best to avoid hand-lettering until you’ve been able to practice and improve; then you can be sure of doing it well.

Positioning

Once you’ve decided on hand or digital lettering, the next thing to consider is where to put each speech bubble.  The biggest pitfall here is that the lettering will obscure the art and make the comic confusing for the reader, who can’t see what’s going on.

An example of lettering at the sketching stage

Hand lettering the comic at the sketching stage makes planing for speech bubbles easier.

To avoid this, plan ahead.  Remember that in frames where there is dialogue, you will need to leave enough room for the speech bubbles.

Knowing how much space to leave comes with practice, but you can help yourself along by sketching in the speech during the sketching stage.

This way, you have a rough idea of not only where to place the speech bubles but also how much space they will take up on the finished comic.

While covering some of the background is almost inevitable when letting a comic, covering the action and the main characters – especially the speaking characters – is something that should be avoided as much as possible.

The fact that a speech bubble is so large it fills the frame, crushing the characters, is something that can be played for laughs but outside of situations like that, covering up your characters just makes the comic look unprofessional; like you didn’t bother to plan properly.  It should go without saying that this is best avoided at all costs.

Speech bubbles

Not all comics use speech bubbles, but most do.  Those that don’t should be wary of making the text incomprehensible by writing over a complex, or even simply a coloured, background.

Examples of good and bad lettering without speech bubbles

The text in the left frame is unclear both because it is poorly hand-lettered and because it is being overwhelmed by a coloured background. The text in the right frame is clear.

At each stage of lettering it is important to remember that clarity is king.  Whether you use a font or a pen to letter, making your words clear and precise means your readers don’t have to exert effort to understand and enjoy your work.

Don’t drain their energy taxing their pattern recognition abilities with poor handwriting and fonts mixed in with the backgrounds, leave them the brainpower to wonder where your characters are going next!   Keep the lettering simple and the comic will be better for it.

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