A Designer’s Guide to Comic Book Fonts

Close up of a comic book with dialogue bubbles and characters

When you are a designer, you want your project to be perfect no matter what it is. Having even the slightest detail off can throw your whole project out of whack. Take a comic book for example. You may have beautiful graphics and a killer storyline, but if your comic book font does not fit with the overall aesthetic or contains glaring errors, your readers will notice. A die hard comic book fan along with industry professionals view lettering as an indicator of the overall quality of a comic. From start to finish, every detail of your design project is important, even the font. Here is our designer’s guide to comic book fonts. 

A history of comic book fonts 

When comic books were first introduced to the world, comic book lettering involved putting all of the words on a comic page, as well as the borders or balloons around them, any titles, signs or sound effects, all by hand. Yes, comic book designers used to have to hand letter their comics with a technical pen or a #107 nib. This lasted for about half a century, meaning that comic book fonts were handwritten by numerous people, yet it is one of the most widely recognized fonts to this day. Thankfully, these days you don’t have to go through the painstaking process of hand lettering every single page. With the digital age comes the ability to digitally letter comic books along with an array of comic book fonts to choose from.

A pile of classic comic books

Comic book font guidelines

When it comes to comic book lettering, classic comics follow certain grammatical and aesthetic traditions specific to the comic book genre. Many of these guidelines were established by Marvel and DC, although each letterer and editor can apply their own unique spin on them. 

  • Asterisks: when you see an asterisk in comic book dialogue, you know to look for a caption located somewhere on the page including information referencing other issues or explaining an acronym.
  • Burst Balloons: a burst balloon is used when a character is screaming their dialogue. They are often bold with enlarged or underlined words for more emphasis.
  • Balloon Tails: balloon tails are used to indicate which character is speaking and are often pointing to the characters mouth.
  • Double Dash: a double dash is used when a character’s dialogue is interrupted. This is not interchangeable with an ellipses. There are only two dashes in a double dash.
  • Ellipses: An ellipses is used when a character’s dialogue trails off. If a character trails off in one balloon and resumes in another, the first balloon ends with an ellipses and the second begins with one. There are only three dots in an ellipses. 
  • Bold Italic: Bold italic is used to place emphasis on a specific word. In classic comics, you will mostly see bold italic as opposed to regular bold. 
  • Breath Marks: Breath marks consist of three small dashes vertically stacked before or after a character coughs or sputters.
  • Breaking Borders: This is another style choice dependent upon the editor, but this is when the white interior of a balloon breaks into the white of the panel gutters.
  • Captions: Comics can contain four different types of captions:
    • Location and time are in the same font as the dialogue, only located inside a caption box and in italics.
    • Internal monologue is typically larger and replaces thought balloons and represents the inner voice of the character.
    • Spoken represents the speech of a character that is off camera (or off the page).
    • Editorial represents the voice of the writer or editor and is also in italics.
  • Butting Balloons: This technique is used to combat limited space. This is when part of a balloon is cropped flat and placed up against the border.
  • Double Outline Balloons: Double outline balloons portray the same effect as a burst balloon, emphasizing dialogue.
  • Drop Caps: Drop caps are enlarged and/or embellished first letters in a caption. The style of these is dependent on the letterer.
  • Crossbar “I”: An I including both the top and bottom crossbars is mostly only used for the personal pronoun, “I” or in acronyms.
  • Hyphenating: If need be a long compound word that breaks well can be hyphenated in order to fit in the balloon.
  • Italic: Italics is used quite a bit throughout comic book font. You will see italics applied to dialogue such as internal monologues, captions, broadcast balloons etc.
  • Sound Effects: Any noise occurring in the comic that is not speech is displayed in a type that conveys the properties and intensity of the noise.
  • Squink: A squink is a small, multi-pointed burst that appears at the end of a balloon tail when the character is speaking from off-camera behind a door or inside another building. 
  • Small dialogue in Big Balloon: Using small dialogue in a big balloon represents a character that is muttering or speaking to him/herself. This can also be used for whispering.
  • Telepathic Balloons: Telepathic balloons are used to represent dialogue being spoken telepathically. The classic comic style consists of a thought balloon with breath marks on opposing corners, though the modern style is a bit more creative.
  • Tangents: A tangent occurs when a balloon brushes against another lettering element or border. This should be avoided whenever possible.
  • Thought Balloons: Internal monologue captions have started to replace thought bubbles, but a thought bubble has a tail made of bubbles in decreasing sizes pointing towards the characters head instead of the mouth.
  • Whispering: The classic way to convey whispering is through a balloon with a dashed stroke, though the small text in a big balloon technique can also be used.
  • Wavy Balloons: A wavy balloon is used to signify a character in distress.
  • Joint Balloons: Balloons that are directly joined together usually signify the same thought process. In cases of limited space, a connector can also be used to portray this.
  • Joint Balloons with Connectors: This can be used in two cases. The first case is when a character expresses two separate ideas one right after the other. The second case is when two characters are speaking back and forth in a panel.
  • Numbers: Unless they are a date, designation, part of a name or a larger number, numbers should always be spelled out.
  • Music: Music notes are used to express sung dialogue. A single note often refers to whistling, while two notes in a dialogue box expresses dialogue that is being sung.
  • Off-Panel Dialogue: The tail of the balloon butts against the panel border to express that the character who is speaking is “off-camera.”
  • Quotations: Spoken captions with quotation marks are used when a character is speaking off-camera.
  • Broadcast Balloons: Also called raion balloons or “electric balloons,” these are used to indicate dialogue that is spoken through a TV radio or any sort of speaker.

Everyone has their own unique style when it comes to comic book font, but simplicity and specificity are two aspects that make for great comic book font form. Whether you are lettering your first comic book or your 100th, make sure you take the time to brush up on comic book lettering techniques. If you are newer to the industry, consider consulting a professional who has a good eye.

Side view of a saddle stitch booklet stitching
Saddle stitch booklets are the perfect binding type for comics books. They are quick, easy, and cheap to produce all of your different volumes!

Printing Comic Books

The printing of comic books has come a long way since they were first introduced to the world. The majority of comic book publishers prefer the four color printing method (CMYK) as it offers many advantages, such as allowing for the most color tones and is cost effective. This printing method is used in offset printing presses and most digital presses. 
Printivity offers a variety of booklet printing services, including saddle stitch, a popular book binding option for comic books. Saddle stitch booklets can be designed to fit almost any need with several format and sizing options including but not limited to 8.5”x11”, 5.5”x8.5” and 6.625”x10.25”. As 6.625”x10.25” is the most common comic book dimension, Printivity has this option marked for comic books allowing for easy ordering. Use a Printivity template with all of the information you need to help your design process flow as smoothly as possible. Contact us 1-877-649-5463 with any questions.

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