Respect the Letter-er!

I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, the letterer makes the comic book. We all talk about names like Ed Brubaker, Geoff Johns, Steve McNiven, Ethan Van Sciver and the like, and you might even know some names like Chris Eliopoulos, Todd Klein, Rus Wooton, or Clem Robins, but do you ever really take a moment to appreciate what they bring to the table, or do you just take them for granted like your mother’s affection, because it’s always just there?  Scott McCloud referred to all of comics as the Invisible Art, but the invisible-est aspect of comics is the lettering. 

A couple of years ago, I worked on a small project, and had to learn how to letter a 16 page story. It shouldn’t be that hard, right? There is no shortage of lettering tutorials out there, and I had a computer, so it should have been a snap right? So you would think.

The application most use for lettering comic books is Adobe Illustrator. It’s a (and correct me if I’m wrong here) vector-based graphic design program. It’s important to note that Illustrator is both incredibly expensive, and it is also the most maddeningly non-sensical program ever created. I managed to glean an exceptionally marginal knowledge of the most rudimentary functions of Illustrator after much reading, and many nights of research, trial and error, and I still feel like I’m groping around in the dark, avoiding stepping on rakes that threaten to flip up and smack me in the face. It also turns out the tutorials are usually written for whatever version you don’t have, and they’ve changed just enough to render said tutorial completely useless.

But eventually, like a baby who learns to awkwardly amble, I figured out how to make a balloon, and place some words in it. But how big should the letters be? Should I just eyeball it? How thick should the black stroke around the bubble be? How do you make the top of the bubble get cut off by the frame? How do you get the top of one bubble to overlap one, but get the one under it to go under that one? Try google searching the answer to that last question, and see how long it takes you to come up with a useful answer.

And that’s just the technical.

I’m starting to believe that the letterer is the much more directly responsible for your immediate comic book experience than almost anyone else involved in the process. Think about it this way: what is the most glaring obvious thing you can notice in a comic book? For me, nothing is more egregious than typos and spelling errors. It’s the mark of carelessness. Who’s going to get blamed for that kind of thing? Not the writer, no, it’ll be the letterers fault. But who is most responsible for pulling you through the panels in the right order, and who can throw you off right quick? The letters that’s who. The writer and artist might have crafted an incredible story and moment, but an unnoticed slip of the keyboard can take you out of the moment faster than a Tom Cruise cameo.

Currently, I’m learning a lot about how the placement, spacing and sizing can say so much about how the characters are actually communicating with each other.  Say that you take a balloon that says:

As opposed to one that says:

What if the last word is smaller in a bigger bubble? Does that change the intent?

They all subtly suggest slightly different readings, and therefore emotion, and therefore characterization. If a writer doesn’t specify in their script, the letterer is the one either doing, or not doing these subtle shifts telling the story, and done properly, it’s virtually unnoticed.

And that’s just the dialog and word bubbles. But that’s not all. Who do you think designs logos and titles? That’s your friendly letterer as well. What about giant expansive sound effects? Guess who? Then there’s the design of the actual fonts themselves. Do you realize how many different fonts there are that all look like only vaguely different versions of themselves. Can you imagine trying to come up with a variation on that, and working so hard, solely so that it won’t look exactly the same, but also so that people won’t notice it? What if you’re working on a book drawn John Cassaday, and he creates a gorgeous page of action, but doesn’t leave enough room to properly place the letters? Who is the letterer supposed to complain to? The fan favorite artist drawing pages he’ll later sell for thousands of dollars, in addition to his page rate? And God forbid you’re lettering a Brad Meltzer book. That’s enough words and different color text boxes to drive a man to drink.



And just when you think that’s a lot, this all used to be done by hand. In ink. This boggles me, a kid who got straight A’s in school, but for physical education (bad attitude more than inability) and the dreaded penmanship grade (which likely doesn’t exist any longer, because who needs good penmanship when all you write is “OMG! UR LAME! ROTFL!!”). And there are a hearty few who still actually letter by hand. Take a guy like Chris Ware, who has taken it to a completely different level. I’ve seen original pages he did, and the letters themselves are works of art. They’re also gigantic and poster sized with more precise measurements than have been proposed for rebuilding the Freedom Tower.


I suppose what I’m saying is; don’t take your letterer for granted. He does more for you than you usually know, and if he’s doing it right, you’ll never even notice. 

Also, given the option, if you’re going to show up to Chris Eliopoulos’ place unannounced, be prepared for confrontation.


  1. Lettering is definitely the the part of comics that gets overlooked the most. I’ve just recently begun to take notice of lettering and learning what makes it good. Great article.

  2. Great article, Josh.  Superb.  One of the great things that the ifanboys have taught me over the last couple of years is that the letterer really matters.  In an early vid-pod, Ron told Chris E or some other editor, "I really love your stuff!" and PAD and some other guy reacted like "WTF?!" and so did I , but now, I think I am starting to get it.  These guys have a hard job and bring a lot of talent to it and get the least recognition, except for maybe the inker or colorist–they never appear on the cover!

    Good stuff. 

  3. Not editor, letterer–clearly I need Chris E. to write for me as well.

  4. This is great. I have a whole new appreciation for this due to something I’ve been working on recently; these guys are the unsung heroes of the biz. I couldn’t do it!

  5. No love for Richard Starkings in here?

  6. Simone Bianchi’s layouts would be unreadable if the letterer wasn’t doing a perfect job.

  7. How many letterers actually still design their own lettering these days as opposed to those who use "canned" fonts from ComicCraft? Some comics are obviously using ComicCraft fonts.

  8. What, no THOOM? 🙂

  9. FYI, Inkscape is the open source alternative to Adobe Illustrator.  Don’t let the price of Illustrator keep you from doing a comic.  Sure, I’d get it if I had an extra $2000 blowing through my room but if you want to get your comic idea on paper, it’s hard to beat the price tag of Inkscape (free).


    Google it. 

  10. Does Walt Simonson do his own "sound" effects?  The first time I ever paid any attention to them was during his run on Thor, way back in the day.

  11. World War Hulk for its faults had fantastic Sound Effect Type.

  12. @Vichus: What no EEEEAPA!!!!

    or How about SHHHHTUPPPP!!!! 🙂

  13. @Tad- this is exactly what I was looking for, thanks for the tip mate!

  14. This article makes my graphic designer heart swoon.

  15. @ultimatehoratio- I believe that John Workman did the lettering during Simonson’s run on Thor

  16. Good lettering is noticable since most of what I encountered is not so good.

    The best lettering I enountered was in a hand drawn and letterd book by the same guy – Uri Pink (or Fink) and he also colored the comics and in some places it’s just brilliant and the way he uses movement lines and sound effects.

    It’s in the first book of Super Shloomper which nowadays is hard to find.

    Most lettering is just ok or just gets in the way – maybe it’s just me but some of the sound effects are really bad and it’s hard to tell how it’s supposed to sound or if it’s the right sound.

    There was one comics page that in one panel there was a train stopping (I think it’s a train) and the sound effect was obvious but it flowed great. Can’t remember if it was a mini or a full show. 

  17. no edit button … here’s the book (Super Shloomper – the first one) 

  18. Good to see letterers getting their due! I letter books for Viz and never gave a thought to lettering before I started working for them. Of course American comics have the luxury of placing the text where they want while I’m at the mercy of the original Japanese placement. Sometimes making that look good/readable is a challange!

  19. I would use a combination of inDesign and Illustrator to do that job. What’s the standadr jhunt?

  20. @IroncladMerc – Lots of smaller and indy publishers use Comicraft fonts because they’re relatively cheap and well known.  Many use free ComicCraft and Blambot fonts because they’re ten times better than their own handwriting and, well, free.

    The "big name" letterers have their own fonts they use.

    @Tad – Illustrator is "only" $600 or so.



  21. Sorry for the formatting faux pas above.  Yikes, that’s ugly!