Writer. Creator. Large mammal.

Lettering and Balloon Placement Memo

I come from the Stan Lee school of thought regarding lettering and balloon placement. Here are the lettering notes I frequently include in my scripts:

– Lettering should be clear and legible

– Lettering and balloons should be as unobtrusive as possible

– There should never be any question about which balloon comes next

– As much as possible, balloons should stay out of the way of the art:

– Anchor balloons to the panel borders when possible, unless that puts the balloon too far from the speaker or otherwise causes problems

– Try not to cover anything important or interesting—especially light sources, signs, figures, critical details and especially heads

– Characters shouldn’t be wearing balloons like hats or balancing them like trained seals—avoid “resting” the balloons on heads

– If a balloon MUST cover part of a head, try to keep the coverage small.  If it’s going to cover a head down to the eyebrows, it’s time to adjust the art

– If you can overlap a head a smidge into the balloon to avoid covering the head or trained seal syndrome, please do

– Try to have short, straight pointers aimed at the speaker’s mouth

– Pointers should come from around the middle of the balloon.  Avoid those cat’s claw pointers at the ends of balloons, especially long, narrow ones

– Avoid “snakey” pointers

– Consecutive balloons from the same speaker should abut, if possible, with a bridge connector between them 

– If a longer bridge connector is required, make it as straight and direct as possible


Storytelling Lecture, Strange Tales Part 6


Howard Chaykin’s Finest Hour


  1. Jim, this post just made my day! Letterer extraordinaire Rob Leigh pointed it out to me. Thanks for the nice words! I couldn't have done without your placements. Hope all is well.

  2. Just realized I called, "Gold Key", "Keystone" by accident. It's been that kind of a week. Must have cheap, Keystone-brand beer on the brain! Sorry, Jim!


  3. Thanks for weighing in, Nate.

  4. I too, do the lettering placements about 50% of the time. It really depends on the Editor/Asst. Editor. It's not even consistent by publisher anymore. Some editors prefer to do it, some of them trust me enough to do the job myself.

    I've lettered all of Jim's Keystone books for DH. Our editor,Chris Warner, did indeed do the placements. But that's generally Chris' preference on all books I've done for him over the years. Not just Jim's.


  5. I can dig that, Jim. The placement guide from 2 months ago had the balloons where I wanted to place them anyway. It is nice when the whole team is in sync like that. Given the chance, I'd love to work on a book of yours and see if it's the same way.

  6. Traditionally, for comics done Marvel style (pencils from a plot, before dialogue and captions were written), writers indicated balloon placements with blue pencil on the penciled art boards or on photocopies of same. For comics done DC style, that is, full script, pencilers indicated balloon placement on the art boards, and often roughed in the lettering to get the space right.

    In my career, I have never had a letterer place balloons, nor was I asked to allow it, nor did anyone volunteer to do it, or seem to expect that they should. On my last stint on the Legion at DC, even though I wrote full scripts, for some reason I was supposed to place the balloons on print-outs or photocopies. At Dark Horse, where I also do full script, the Senior Editor I work with, Chris Warner has been placing the balloons.

    So yes, at DC lettering indications were done on copies of the pencils. Lettering and coloring were done simultaneously.

    I wouldn't mind the letterer placing the balloons if they did it well. I'd trust Tom Orzechowski, Steve Wands, Marshall Dillon and a few others to do so, for instance.

    "…outdated way of thinking."? I don't know. Someone who's good at it should place balloons. If the letterer is capable, why not? If the writer, like Roy, who was excellent at it (and he had a lot of balloons!) is best choice, fine. Walt can place my balloons any day. And, like I said, if the letterer was skilled at it, that would be fine by me.

  7. In my career as a letterer in independent comics, I've only encountered a single placement guide (two months ago, for half of an issue). While I was offered to be sent some in the past, they rub me the wrong way and I've always declined. They stifle creative expression and imply lettering isn't an art form but rather a service that can be rendered by just about anyone (sure, lots of people try their hand).

    The majority of letterers I know place copy the way they see fit because writer/artists or editors consider it part of their job and prefer to give them free reign.

    This may be because of the more freewheeling nature of independent comics, but "placements aren't a letterers job" seems like an outdated way of thinking.

    I WILL agree that they seem like a terrific way of dealing with lettering on lineart before coloring is done, especially when there are lots of characters that may resemble each other too much.

    Is lettering at DC done before or after colors are complete? I know it's before at Marvel, so placement guides do make sense there.

  8. Dear Rich,

    Sim is great, but I think that's art not lettering. Or both. Anyway, there are no rules. If it works, if it communicates, it's groovy.

  9. Kid

    Hi again Jim – I don't think it was that uncommon amongst letterers on British comics – once they demonstrated they could do it, that is. Stan's advice is sound, 'though he didn't always follow it. Remember that pic in X-Men #1 where the balloon covered most of Magneto's upper body? When Marvel UK reprinted the strip in The Super-Heroes #1 (1975), the balloon was moved and Magneto's missing torso restored.

  10. My favourite letterer is Dave Sim, and he will regularly ignore all this advice for the sake of the story. He clearly knows it all first though – and where to break it. One of my favourite examples was someone drunk, on the edge of consciousness, his world arpound him depicted by speech balloons of those gathered around him, with an interloper barging through the crowd represented as the interloper's speech balloons making their way through the others, knocking them out of the way. Wonderful comics.

  11. it's funny i was just reading this new comic called bullet to the head and there was that exact problem with the balloons taking up almost the whole scene except for the talking heads.

    It's funny how something the old school always did right the new school can't seem to manage for anything.

  12. Stan's advice. I'm just passing it along. Whoever you are, you are an exception among letterers, the only one I've heard tell of that placed balloons.

  13. JayJay Jackson was kind enough to send me a copy of Jim's lettering notes a while back and I open it and reference it for every page I letter now. The letterer whose style fits the advice most closely in my opinion is Ken Bruzenak, one of my favorite letterers. It seems writers these days can't be bothered with balloon placements or word emphasis!

    George E Warner

  14. Kid

    I earned my living as a lettering artist for 15 years and editors generally left placement of balloons and captions to me because they knew I was good at it. You say characters shouldn't be wearing balloons like hats (although it can't always be avoided), but your advice to overlap a head a smidge into a balloon can often lead to the same effect. To my mind, Sam Rosen was probably the best letterer that Marvel ever had.

  15. Dear Jim,

    Thank you for setting me straight on who places copy. I knew Marvel-style writers placed copy (which is why I consider Stan Lee to be an expert on this subject), but I falsely assumed that letterers placed copy in stories with full scripts. I wonder why other writers and editors don't talk about this subject a lot more in public.

    In unflipped manga, the person who speaks first is *always* in the lower right hand corner of the panel. Yes, "it's a challenge" … to read.

    You're praised Steve "Magic" Wands' work on your latest Legion run and I wondered why. Now I know!

    As a reader, I never thought Denise Wohl lettered big until you mentioned this in an interview. Saw her work recently when I finally got around to reading the Korvac saga and thought it looked fine. Speaking of her, I'd love to read what you have to say about SEVEN. I'd love to read SEVEN, period!


    I've seen unflipped manga with diagrams showing "the proper sequence to read word balloons." And I thought arrows between panels in American comics were bad …

  16. Letterers generally and historicallly do not place the balloons. On stories done Marvel style (plot, pencils then copy) balloons are placed by the writer as he or she writes the dialogue and captions. In ancient days, on stories done full script or DC style (scripts like mine, these days), the penciler used to place the copy. Not so much anymore. The pencilers can't be bothered, so either copies of the art are sent back to the writer, and the writer makes placement indications, or, in some cases (lazy writers important enough to get away with it), the editor places the copy. And when an idiot penciler unthinkingly puts the person who speaks first in the lower right hand corner of the panel, it's a challenge.

    Notwithstanding the fact that letterers don't place the copy, a letterer like Steve "Magic" Wands, who lettered my latest Legion of Super-Heroes run at DC can save your life. Steve always improved my placements — fit things in that I thought would never fit — and solved many problems.

    Besides Wands, my favorite letterers include John Costanza, Tom Orzechowski, Jim Novak, Ben Oda…lots of others, I can't think of them all now. You can guess. I also always liked Denise Wohl's lettering. Most other writers thought she lettered too big, but I generally wasn't verbose and I thought her lettering looked fine, reminiscent of Costanza's.

  17. I'm always amazed that non-comic readers often don't know the proper sequence to read word balloons. It has to be as simple as possible or you risk confusing a new reader.

  18. Dear Jim,

    Thank you! I have *never* seen this issue addressed in such detail anywhere before.

    Which letterers would you recommend as models to study for balloon placement?

    Have you tried reading unflipped translated manga? I can read in Japanese and I'm accustomed to reading text and pictures oriented in the same direction (right to left). But unflipped translated manga has R-to-L art combined with L-to-R text. An eye-straining disaster for me.

    Example: A manga panel has two balloons (1 and 2) atop two characters (A, B):

    B-A (drawn from right to left)

    and the contents of balloon 2 are supposed to be a surprise. To read this panel in an unflipped translated manga, I have to find the beginning of balloon 1 which is in the *middle* of the panel. My eyes glance at the right edge of balloon 2, giving away the surprise. I read balloon 1, moving my eyes to the right edge:


    To read balloon 2, my eyes have to move to the left edge and then stop in the middle before moving to the next panel (on the left!):


    If I were reading this in Japanese, my eyes would start at the right and move leftward:


    No back and forth motions:


    Apparently there is a whole generation of readers who are accustomed to eye-bouncing. I don't *see* the appeal.

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