Today we’re going to jump into a lesson on lettering in comics. Often seen as an afterthought by many rookie artists, the lettering component of comics can be the deal breaker that makes your comic look professional and well crafted, or poorly planned. If you are just learning how to draw comics, the very first step you should take is to carefully plan out where your dialogue and sound effects will be placed on the panel in relation to your artwork. Essentially, the speech bubbles and sound effects are artwork in their own right and should work alongside the figures and backgrounds to create a complete composition. Here’s a brief tutorial on proper lettering techniques, and how to use them to your advantage.
Expression and Tone
Lettering is more than placing word bubbles on a page and attempting to avoid characters heads or important focal points in the artwork. Lettering serves as an additional method of advancing the story, through direct eye movement and through narrative/dialogue. As you draw comics, there may be a message you are trying to convey within a panel – the formatting of the lettering can play an important part in expression. For example –
The example on the left is fine – the exclamation is there, and the tone appears serious. If you were to use the example on the right, it has tremendous impact – it is perceived to be a loud yell, a bold statement, an exclamation and an order coming from someone who is clearly showing force and authority. Now, if THAT is the message you’re trying to get across, the example on the right is how you should render your lettering. If the statement is subdued and serious in tone, the rendering on the left can be used to express a different type of emotion in speech.
Placement and Direction
Another important item in effective lettering is placement. Since speech and narrative balloons take up space on your panels, they should also lead your reader through your panels alongside the direction of your artwork. Visually leading a reader through the panels is vital in maintaining a comfortable storytelling pace. If the flow is broken up and the reader has to figure out which panel they should go to next, you have disrupted their concentration and pulled them away from the experience. The key is to keep the reader immersed in the story. The composition, the pencils, inks and colors can only do so much in leading the eye – if the viewer has to read dialogue, it MUST be placed in a logical area to limit confusion and distraction.
Here’s an example featuring Marvel’s ‘Deadpool‘ – take note of the direction of your eye…
If you managed to read the dialogue, your eye should have traveled in this path (more or less) –
Did you notice how the speech bubbles and thoughts propelled you in the right direction, in conjunction with the rendered artwork? If the lettering was merely ‘slapped on’ you could potentially be led off of the page, or lost in details that are unimportant to the story. In this example, the story is advanced through the actual dialogue and through the placement of the lettering. Also, note the various tones in Deadpool’s speech – he goes from being calm, to surprised, to angry, and then to evil – if the lettering was rendered in the same fashion throughout the page, the emotions would not be as clear.
Font Selection and Examples
The last lettering tip I’m going to share today deals with font selection. Back in the day, lettering was all done by hand, so the majority of the rendered words in comics were unique from issue to issue. A person used to letter a comic title was often used for an extended run, in order to keep the look consistent. With the advent of computers and technology, hand rendered lettering is slowly becoming obsolete. Custom lettering is still widely used, but the hand drawn letters are now scanned and converted into fonts that can be used over and over again. By applying the right font style, weight and color, you can add more impact and meaning to the spoken dialogue, thought or narrative. Here are some examples of hand rendered lettering from comics of years past:
Note the artistic nature of the lettering – it doesn’t have to be plain words on a page. By giving them life and dynamic action, you can heighten the intensity of the mood of your comic page. Remember, the lettering is also part of your artwork – so make sure it interacts well with the drawn images on your page! Determine where you’ll need emphasis in your lettering, and decide what style of font will express the emotion effectively.
Comic Book Font Downloads
If you run a search online for comic book lettering and fonts, there is a wide array of free examples to download and use as you learn how to draw comics. One of the best resources for comic book lettering comes from BlamBot. Check out these font examples from the site:
In addition to fonts, BlamBot also features an array of speech bubble styles and sound-effects in a vector format for scalability.
There’s the lesson for the day – there will be a future lesson on more advanced lettering techniques in the next little while. For now, these basic tips should push you forward in your quest to learn how to draw comics effectively. Don’t just slap your words on the page – integrate them into your artwork, and make them an important component in your composition. See you next time!