Gary Scott Beatty
Gary Scott Beatty

Comic Book Lettering: How Do They Do It?

by Gary Scott Beatty

Gary Scott Beatty runs Aazurn Publishing, is publisher of “Indie Comics Magazine” and recently wrote the comic book retailer story “Number One.” The first alternative comic he produced (They were called “underground” then) was on his high school’s ditto machine, after hours, without permission. His Xeric Grant Winner “Jazz: Cool Birth,” a jazz club murder mystery, was inspired by ‘50s album cover design. He also colors and letters for the industry. Find out more at Gary Scott

Okay, so you have clean scans of the artwork for your comic pages, to size, between 300 and 450 dpi, clearly named so you know what's what. You have placed the tif or eps scans into Illustrator and lined them up to center your standard non-bleed comic book size of six by nine inches (or what size your printer tells you). Now what?

I have an Illustrator file set up with my own word balloons to pick from. You don't want to use the same one or two balloons throughout or your pages will have a "dead" look. Varying shapes gives the page interest and helps to pull readers' eyes in the right direction (more on that later).

After a conversation I had with Scott Rosema years ago during the first issue of his August comic I will never look at word balloons in the same way. At that time, in the late '90s, comic creators were still so knocked out with what computers could do many ignored lessons of good design from the past. Scott pointed out to me the difference between the standard oval word balloons drawn by many letterers on their computers and the graceful, space saving, rounded-off squares hand drawn by lettering legends in the '70s. He's right - the rounded-off square shapes are simply more attractive. I still use circles for variety, especially on the smallest balloons, but my Illustrator word balloon file contains varying sizes of the rounded-box style.

These rounded-off squares are not easy to draw - not only are the corners rounded, but the outside lines also bulge. "Tails" on word balloons may be easy to draw by joining two curve shapes, but are difficult to give that natural swoop a hand letterer achieves with his brush, and often become too pointy on the ends, turning into lines. You don't want a line. You want a white filled swoop. Don't merge the tails to the balloons on your Illustrator word balloon file because they'll change on the different comic book pages you're lettering. Merge tails to balloons when they're correct on the page. Thought balloons are murder - sure, uniting circles to make them is easy enough, but creating the right feel to them takes some messing around and they're not scalable like word balloons - you want the circle sizes making up thought balloons to be consistent.

Above, word balloons have to take eye movement into account to lead readers comfortably through the panels. Twisted ©2003 Kaso Comics. Lettering by Gary. More of Gary's lettering samples are at Gary Scott

So take time with your Illustrator word balloon file. Try to reproduce balloons you like from comics, especially hand-drawn balloons from the '70s and before when artists really knew how to use their tools. Draw different "swoops" for the balloon "tails," especially long ones. Don't settle for the first shapes you make.

Outline your shapes with a one point black line and fill them with white. Remember to turn off the "Scale Line Weight" command in the Scale menu of Illustrator - you want your line thicknesses and type sizes to be consistent. Consistency to ANY graphics project shows professionalism.

Please, please avoid distorting typefaces! When an amateur can't fit type, he reduces the horizontal scale percentage. This is just plain wrong to good design. So how do you fit type in those tight places without changing type size or distorting type? It's called kerning and any professional graphic artist needs to understand it. Kerning is amazingly easy in Illustrator - it's called Tracking and it's in the Character pull down menu. A negative number pulls the type closer together. I wish it was that easy in PageMaker. Just remember, if you're using that word balloon again somewhere else, to return the type to zero tracking - that's why I pull everything off my Illustrator word balloon file.

I copy the appropriate balloon, tail and type from my Illustrator word balloon file and paste them onto the Illustrator file that contains the page I'm lettering. Finally comes the fun part (depending on deadline), typing the script in and arranging the balloons and tails.

When I type in words I think in phrases. Say Twisted is saying, "Finally. I thought they would never notice me. Now, just come over here." I split it "Finally./I thought they/would never/notice me./Now, just come/over here." That split squares up the words nicely for the balloon, but also reads better than, say, putting the "I" up next to "finally" or the "Now" at the end of the previous sentence. It's a phrasing talent I picked up arranging and writing headlines for advertisements and publication headlines.

Pay particular attention to where readers' eyes will go following the panels on a page. It's a letterer's job to lead their eyes from balloon to balloon in the correct order. A good illustrator, like Ed Coutts in "Twisted," will leave empty spaces for balloons that will help lead the letterer, but the final decision is up to you.

After the customer okays the final proofs, I "path" the type in Illustrator, keeping unpathed copies of all for that inevitable, last-minute change. Pathing type converts the typefaces to outlines, preventing output problems. I supply printers with Illustrator TIFs with pathed type and professionally made PDFs.

With experience, lettering can be a fun way to work into comic book production. Although the lowest-paying comic job, with a little practice it can be quick and profitable. Misspellings and mistakes can, however, ruin a comic just as surely as any of the higher-paying positions on a book. Patience, attention to detail and practice are the combination that produces letterers of quality and distinction.

Comments on our can be referred to Gary at gary -at- comicartistsdirect -dot- com. All artwork copyright © by its respective artists and publishers.

To find out about how to appear in INDIE COMICS MAGAZINE, Visit Indie Comics and click on Submissions!

Click here to return to index page.


How do They Do It? is a feature on Comic Artists Direct that explores the nuts and bolts of the creative process. Check out the below articles!

James Lyle demonstrates his working methods from start to finish on an illustrated logo project.

Gary draws, inks, colors and lays out a cover illustration for On the Shore magazine here.

James Lyle talks about brainstorming for ideas here.

Check out Gary's article here for ways to keep your writing ideas fresh and different.

Gary's step by step article on lettering for comics is here.


Submitting Art to Comic Book Companies by Scott Rosema. What do the pros look for when judging the acceptability of your artwork? Tips from Scott.

Small Press Stories. Comic Artists Direct asked accomplished small press creators to tell us about producing, printing, publishing and distributing small press comics in today's changing market. The results are contributions from Peter Kuper, Jaime, Steve Lafler and Steve "Noppie" Noppenberger and more, here!

Promotion for Your Book by Gary Scott Beatty. It doesn't matter how killer your comic, fans have to know you exist. This primer by Gary offers some ideas.

Questions and Answers. Chances are your question is answered here.

Navigating Comic Book Conventions by Gary Scott Beatty. It's easy to wander around in a daze at big conventions. A little preplanning can make your visit even better.

Breaking Into Comics by Gary Scott Beatty. There's more than one way to be a success in the comic book industry. These stories from pros are inspirational.

Coloring Comic Books Before Computers by Gary Scott Beatty. The processes printers went through to color comics before computers will amaze and impress you.

Comic Book Lettering -- How do They Do It? by Gary Scott Beatty. Putting those comic book letters in those little word balloons may be more complicated than you think.

Been There, Done That -- Avoiding Cliches in Comic Book Writing by Gary Scott Beatty. How does a writer break away from the everyday?

Setting Up a High School Comic Book Class by Gary Scott Beatty. Wouldn't it be cool to take a high school comic book production class? A Minnesotta teacher is setting one up and asked for Gary's advice. So, as long as he asked -- Gary's article is here.

Hang 'Em High! Framing your Original Comic Art.

The Word "Got" and literacy in comics.

Halloween: Comics, Not Candy. Turn kids on to comics!

All content copyright © & trademarked TM Gary Scott Beatty or their respective owners. | Privacy