You’ve just written a fantastic script and absolutely cannot wait to draw it.
Then, after laborious hours and perhaps days, the artwork turns out perfectly.
You cannot wait for your readers to see it. You really can’t.
All that is left is that final, insignificant step: lettering.
You begin dropping in a few comic balloons but it doesn’t take long for the dread to start rising in your stomach.
At first, you just suspect there might not be enough room. But only five minutes later you’ve tried everything and can no longer deny it: You did not leave enough room for both script and art.
Will you make cuts into your pitch-perfect script just to uncover the art? Or will you leave in the script intact but cover up detail, action, or even significant plot-revealing aspects of the art?
There is, of course, that third, horrible option. The one we don’t talk about, much less instigate. That villain of all villains: the redraw.
In this post, I’ll share with you my tried and true method for designing comic balloons into the art from the very beginning. Follow these few simple steps and you’ll never have to face the villainous redraw again.
There is nothing insignificant about lettering your comic.
There is a reason you can win a Harvey Award or an Eisner Award for lettering a comic. Great lettering is an art form, not an accident.
In the west, we read left to right. So should your comic pages: Left to right, top to bottom. Zig zag across and down the page, just like a “real” book.
The moment your reader wonders, “Where do I go next?” you’ve lost them. It’s like seeing a boom mic in a movie shot. Illusion destroyed.
The last thing you want to do is create a powerful script and poetic art but kill any power the story might hold by making your reader aware of the reading experience.
You are Robin Hood. So aim true.
What is attached to every word balloon? A tail, right? Wrong. Well, of course, it is called a tail. But what is the tail really? It is an arrow.
And arrows point.
Yes, your tail needs to point to the mouth of the appropriate character, but that is not all. Your tails also need to point in directions that push and pull the reader throughout the page from one panel to the next in the appropriate order.
Look at the sample page from my comic The Dreamer again. This time, I marked the tails of the balloons. You can see how they act as road signs, telling you when to turn, how fast to go, and if you should break. Thinking through this intentionally will add a finesse to your comic layouts, creating a consistently sophisticated reading experience that does not come by accident.
It might be perfectly clear as to who is talking whether a tail points up or down toward the mouth of a character. However, it might make quite the difference to your layout if you make the wrong choice in this matter.
In the top version the tails direct you in absurd directions that don’t make sense even though who is speaking is clear:
In the second version, the tails point in a way that encourages you read through the panel, ensuring that you pass over the faces of the characters to read the expressions as well as the balloons.
BOTH tell the story.
The third balloon “-A Tory, her father is.” interrupts the previous balloon. In the second version the balloon illustrates the dialogue by turning the tail into a bold arrow, punching right into the text and forcefully creating the feeling that he has cut in while his brother is talking.
(View the final effect on the finished page of my historical fiction comic here.)
The tails on your balloons don’t just dictate order. A reader will instinctively jump from balloon to balloon.
Knowing this, you can control how much time a reader spends looking through the art in any given panel by making the right choices. Put the balloons in the wrong place, and a reader might just skip over the artwork all together.
Make sure you take the reigns and direct your readers where you want them to go so they don’t miss a thing.
Art first, Comic Balloons second, right?
As independent comic creators, we often wear more than one hat. And if the hats of both penciller and letterer befall you, you’re in luck!
Years ago, after enough frustrating “I didn’t leave enough space!” moments, I began lettering my comic in the rough stages.
Any penciller worth his salt will etch in spaces for word balloons into his layouts. But if you’re only pencilling, you still have to hand the power over to the letterer when the artwork is finished. Hopefully he sees the visual spaces you left for the word balloons, and hopefully you estimated accurately as to how much space they will take up.
But if you are both artist and letterer, nothing is left to chance. So why not change the order of your process?
When I am sketching my layouts, I make a separate layer where I mark in spaces for the word balloons. Then I do my final letters right onto my layout file.
If something doesn’t work at this stage, it is very easy to fix! I can re-size panels, scale figures and move objects around, all before moving onto final art.
I make sure the balloons fit in a way that they breath, make sense, read in the proper order, encourage the viewer to slow down and look at what I want them to notice within the art, and do not cover up anything essential.
With my word balloons on their own layer, I draw my final artwork. I toggle that layer on and off as I work, constantly reminding myself where they are and making tweaks as I draw, ensuring that the final page leaves nothing to accident.
Of course, if you do this right no one will ever notice.
But that is the point.