Follow Along With Me, Unless I Totally Mess Up

When I first started lettering I made the wise decision to avidly study what other letterers do and never stop. One of the first things I noticed is that letterers make stuff up all the time. Things that certain letterers find helpful become rules and often those rules become widely accepted in a kind of natural selection process as the art form evolves. I love this. When my early collaborators would ask me why I insisted on shoving as many balloons up to the top of the panel as I could I would simply say, “Because Richard Starkings says you have to,” and that would be good enough for both parties. One of my own unilateral decisions early on was that, since most people aren’t “trained” to read comics, I should always endeavor to make sure that consecutive balloons are geographically close to each other.

Now, this may be controversial (I admit I’ve never taken a poll) but I remember reading a post from Eddie Campbell somewhere along the way confirming my suspicion that people need more help following along with comics than we think they do (and the philosophies of Mr. Campbell, along with Mr. Starkings, should be adhered to, at least in my shop). People don’t naturally think, “Hmm, I’m at the end of the balloon. Maybe I should search for the next invisible ‘row’ of this panel, start at the left, and continue reading.” They will instead look for the next available block of text, the same way we all do when reading a magazine or looking at a wordy advertisement.

Lettering in this fashion means the page has to be designed as a single unit rather than a collection of individually designed panels. Artists already know this innately — most veteran comic book artists (especially Jim Steranko) will say that images in a panel must subtly lead the eye to the next panel. Letterers aren’t as keen to do this, mainly because we often have a massive challenge of fitting words and art together without deleting or changing anything within an almost impossible deadline, another 22-page job waiting right behind it. When facing a tough, wordy page, often the best a letterer can do is try to fit the words rather than design them. But when it works in our favor, when the art is already working for the story rather than against it, we can actually try to help the reader out a little.

But sometimes you can’t. When I lettered this page from Johnny Hiro, I spent an unconscionable amount of time trying to move Balloon 3 over to the left so it would be directly above Balloon 4. Of course, the further away it got, the more difficult it was to identify Johnny’s friend as the speaker, and the more it looked ridiculously forced. At some point, Fred must have told me to to just shut up and send the page to the printer, because the final version here naturally leads the reader to skip over Johnny’s “oof” and go right to Balloon 5. Though memory of our actual conversation is lost to the sands of time, I probably reasoned that no one would miss Johnny’s “oof” if they did accidentally read it backwards. This situation wasn’t anyone’s fault, just an accident of dialogue and character placement that couldn’t be changed — Fred’s layout here is perfect from an art perspective.

Later in the same issue we find what may be my least-favorite panel in the series, when Mr. Masago has to convince Johnny to steal a rival’s lobster. The panel presents three potentially conflicting lettering challenges: maintain the rhythm and pace (and, therefore, the humor) of their banter, make sure the characters’ posture and height differences are visible (since that also adds to the humor and meaning of the scene), and lastly, maintain the proper reading order of of the page.

Masago’s large chunk of text in Balloons 5 and 6 meant I couldn’t make better use of the blank space above Johnny’s head. Inserting Johnny’s response there would have interrupted Masago. Moving Balloon 6 to the left would have required a connecting tail across Masago’s face. So, with the basic balloon layout decided for me by the art, I went to work. The end result accomplishes the first two goals (the art is visible and the dialogue is cracklin’) but the readable page was lost in the process. So as not to block off Masago’s body and lose his grounding in the scene, the final balloon is in the lower left corner of the page, or, to put it another way, the complete OPPOSITE of where it should be if I mean to help the reader go to the next panel. Fred solved his problems with the page layout by placing Masago’s face at the extreme left of the last panel, making it impossible to put a balloon there and trick the reader into skipping over the panel above. Of course, I still managed to make it momentarily confusing. This is another case of the story needing to do what it needed to do, and we just hoped the reader would do a little more work than usual.

And (sigh) here’s an absolute mess of a page, lettering-wise. While writing this one I violated one of my foremost rules of making comics, which is to let the visuals tell the story, using the words to add texture and help it along. In our rush to cram a lot of meaning into eight pages I essentially wrote a prose story and asked Monica to illustrate it in a compelling way. She did exactly that, drawing meaning out of facial expressions and gestures that I barely even suggested in the script. Then, as the letterer, I tried to cram the words in to the available space. Some pages work better than others in this story but this one makes it nigh impossible to go to the next balloon. After Balloon 5, a reader could justifiably choose to skip right to Balloon 8, or even to Balloon 12, or just close the book and give up. I blame this one on a confluence of tight deadlines, collaboration across state lines via email, and, of course, some poor initial writing choices. If Monica and I had gotten together at a cafe at the start of the process she would have told me to write a different script and all would have been resolved.

But perhaps I’ve been misleadingly bleak by starting with the bad examples. Most of the time, regardless of the project, any good letterer can achieve a well-designed page with a few extra minutes of thought about how the reader will come to it. These pages from Johnny Hiro are some of my favorite examples of consecutive ballooning, design work that tells the story rather than simply using space:

Panel-by-panel they may not all seem to take advantage of every open area, but this is the thinking of someone trying to fit the words in. If you take in the entire page and follow along naturally, one balloon to the next, you start to see how the balloons act as guides. They ask your eye to linger over artwork you might otherwise skip, back and forth across images, leaping over dead space and further enlivening the live space, words and pictures harmonious at last.

7 thoughts on “Follow Along With Me, Unless I Totally Mess Up

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  3. A great read, and it’s with some shame I must admit that it’s something of an eye-opener for me. I’ve always thought in terms of empty space… oops.

    Thanks a lot for this post!

    • Thanks, Nina! I’m glad it shed some light, but hey, no shame at all. I’m not exaggerating when I say it took me about five years of bad (OK, let’s call it “practice”) lettering before I even noticed the “fitting vs. designing” issue, let alone try to conquer it.

      Would love to check out your comics; send us a link! 🙂

  4. That’s great advice – I’ve attempted comics before (never shown to anyone, let alone published in any form) but never had much luck with text placement – thanks so much! x

  5. Maaaaan, I would find this blog the week after I finished lettering my comic, now, wouldn’t I? Ah well, now to re-do it with a few revelations, I think! Thanks so much for this, really well thought-out post and some solid advice.

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