Typographic conventions in comic-book lettering

Blambot's Nate Piekos has written a fascinating and informative article on the typographic conventions in comic-book lettering. Lots of interesting quirks in the form that I hadn't picked up on ('An "I" with the crossbars on top and bottom is virtually only used for the personal pronoun, "I." The only other allowable use of the "crossbar I" is in abbreviations. Any other instance of the letter should just be the vertical stroke version.').
WHISPERING: Traditionally, whispered dialogue is indicated by a balloon with a dashed stroke. More recently accepted options are a balloon and dialogue in a muted tone (grayed-out), or with a lowercase font in conjunction with small dialogue/big balloon. Italics are a possibility as well.
Comic Fonts and Lettering (via Making Light)


  1. So: What happens if you use a crossbar I in the “wrong” place? Does Stan Lee send you to Arkham Asylum?

    But seriously. Every artform from ancient Greek pottery to impressionism to cinema has a certain lexicon and syntax to it. If you don’t understand the “language” the artist is using you can still appreciate the work, but if you do understand it really enriches the experience.

    Comics are no different.

  2. Poor sick person. I’m counting at least two dozen visits to the doctor. Again and again. That’s gonna be expensive…

  3. I haven’t read many comic books, but what’s always puzzled me is the strange convention of printing at least two words per sentence in bold to show where the stresses are.

    Taking a page from Watchmen at random (i bought it the other day to revise for the coming movie)…

    “Time is *simultaneous*, an intricately structured *jewel* that humans insist on viewing one edge at a *time*, when the whole *design* is visible in every *facet*. What is your earliest *memory*?”

    Is there any particular reason for doing it? It gets on my nerves, because it seems somehow patronising, as if the author’s scared you’ll miss the important words if he doesn’t highlight them for you… Either that, or it’s to make it easier for speed readers.

  4. Chezzo, #3: what’s always puzzled me is the strange convention of printing at least two words per sentence in bold to show where the stresses are.

    I can think of at least two reasons for this:

    1. Traditionally, comics have been lettered in all caps. This makes it possible to lower the size of the text, but introduces other legibility problems. Bolded words may help counteract that, serving the same function that capitalizing words within a sentence served in the 18th century. (Benjamin Franklin once wrote a letter–it’s collected in the Library of America volume of his work–decrying the the increasing disuse of the long, f-like “s” and in-sentence capitals in print; he thought it made text harder to read.)

    2. Comics are a visual medium. It makes sense that the text should also have a visual element to it, delivering information through the look of the text as well as the words. It helps tie the art and the text together. The bolded words may look odd, but a comic that never uses bold, italicized words looks even odder.

    (The emphasis on “never,” which I added automatically, raises an interesting related issue: I’m much more likely to italicize emphasized words when writing for the web than when writing something on, or for, paper. I have no idea why.)

  5. Chezzo, the bolding is just another way of expressing how a character speaks. Showing the stresses helps you ‘hear’ the cadences as you read them. Taking the Watchmen page as an example (that’s Doctor Manhattan talking right?), the stresses add to his erudite nature and makes a clear distinction between his old and new personality post transformation. It’s sort of like listening to a Christopher Walken monologue. His odd way of emphasizing certain words, dropping punctuation, make his characters very unique.

  6. In a (non-comic) book, Doctor Manhattan would simply say “Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet. What is your earliest memory?”, and it wouldn’t make it any harder to understand, or any less interesting.

    I can see the reasons for it, but i still don’t like it… Just a question of personal preference I suppose.

  7. Sooo, what accounts for the exclamation point at the end of every sentence in the Mark Trail comic strip?

    Even as a kid in the ’60s I used to giggle over that.

    I think I’ll make a sandwich!”

    Yes, that sounds like a good idea!

    Please get the mayonnaise for me!

    Sure! Here you are!

  8. Chezzo, it *is* flatter sounding though, and comics are a visual medium after all, probably closer to film than books. The writer is stressing words as an actor would, as a novel writer probably wouldn’t. The visual cues compliment the reading experience along with the onomatopoeia. All you have to do is read Cerebus to see how those stresses are used to maximum effect (that is if you can put up with Sim as a writer but that’s a whole other thread, in this case, check out his earlier stuff, pre-loop-de-loop rant fests).

  9. Not a typographic convention as such, but you’ll rarely find a comic character named Clint. Spelled in all caps, the L and I tend to merge together and form… well…

  10. The use of exclamation marks at the end of every sentence was due to poor printing, where the tiny period would not reproduce very well! The exclamation mark was a way to bring the sentence to a stop that would not be missed!

  11. Fairly comprehensive; although I see they’ve shied away from the controversy about how to do speeches from telepathic robots.

  12. Ooh. As a comic nerd, that was immensely intriguing, and though I didn’t directly know most of these rules, looking back, I accepted them. I’ve read a couple comics in which these rules were broken and it felt… odd, but I wasn’t quite sure why.

    Thanks for the really awesome post, Cory, Teresa.

  13. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comic book until fairly recently that didn’t end every sentance with an explanation point – whether we’re talking Stan Lee books fromt the 60s or Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge books, they’re all like that.

  14. Regarding emphasis — part of it is tradition — some emphasis in some older comics seem to be almost at random because they emphasis words that wouldn’t make any sense if spoken that way. However, part of it is to create a specific meaning. Take the famous example of “I didn’t say you stole my money.” “*I* didn’t say you stole my money” has a different meaning than “I *didn’t* say you stole my money” and so on for every word in the sentence. one sentence with 7 words and at least 7 different meanings are possible.

  15. #14 – actually, you’d be surprised how many people have come to hate blambot fonts, due to their insane overuse.

  16. I agree with Chezzo. Reading the lines with emphasis in your mind quickly becomes annoying, as the amount of “random” emphasis outweighs the useful ones (as in post #15).

    I wonder if adding a third font format would work. or maybe one just has to train themselves to interpret the style..

  17. @Daemon: I’m a letterer, and I’ve never heard this about Blambot. Now, some of Nate’s fonts (Swingset) DO get overused, but that’s not his fault, and his foundry is solid.

    @folks who don’t like emphasis: do you also not like italics in writing? It’s the same thing. Like “!” overused and abused, but not necessarily bad.

    I disagree with Nate’s use of serif I in abbreviations, unless he meant contractions of the possessive pronoun “I.”



    *koff koff* …if only… I could escape… this poison gas cloud… *koff koff*

  19. @Tenn I disagree with Nate on the use of a serif “I” in abbreviations.
    The only place for a serif “I” is for the proper pronoun “I” and its contractions “I’d” “I’m” and “I’ll.”


  21. I used to read Brenda Starr in the newspaper aloud just to get the full effect of the random boldings. Eventually I discovered that it is currently cowritten by Mary Schmich, the columnist responsible for the famous “wear sunscreen” graduation speech. I’m still not sure what, if anything, to think about that bit of information.

  22. I spent a lot of time on Balloon Tales and Blambot while practicing comic lettering for my comic book project. The different mechanisms are a lot of fun. The only thing that I don’t accept as a convention is the double-dash em-dash trad design mechanic. I like em-dashes the way they are.

    I ended up eventually rooting myself with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

    Before the end of this year, there will be a Mill Avenue Vexations comic book. Lettered by me. Amateur to be sure, but it’ll be truly a work of love, sweat, and blood.

    Oh, and I love random bolding.

  23. Not a typographic convention as such, but you’ll rarely find a comic character named Clint.

    Longtime Avenger Hawkeye’s civilian name is Clint Barton.

    It’s not that common of a name anyway.

  24. Nor do you often see the word “flick.” I used to think this was just the Comics Code being paranoid until I saw a screen credit for FLICKER FILMS…..

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