Lettering Comics by Hand

Font, you say? FEH.

Lettering practice sheet by David Marshall
Lettering practice sheet by David Marshall

Lettering practice using a Hunt 107 for dialog, and a Speedball B6 for bold. Ames setting 3.5 even-spaced.

Lettering an important part of comics. Beyond just telling you who's speaking, word balloon placement can affect storytelling, page readability, expression, and determine horizontal order of drawn characters. This is why most artists prefer full scripts instead of the "Marvel Method". If done well, most even notice your undercover genius. Other aspects of lettering include thought balloons, titles, logos, blurbs, and sound effects.

Mainstream comics are lettered with fonts these days, but a lot of independent artists still letter by hand. Some simply prefer the inherit "do it yourself" feeling, or just seeing it on the original art. Others think integrating words with pictures is faster without a ton of digital workarounds. Longtime comics writer Mark Evanier wrote a thorough comparison of digital and hand lettering in 1997.

Lettering for this class will be done done by hand with calligraphy pens, ink, paper and the almighty Ames Guide. Like any other skill, the path to good hand-lettering is paved with practice.

Dialog Lettering

Hunt 107, Speedball B6, and pre-ruled paper

Traveling practice with my Hunt 107, Speedball B6, and pre-ruled paper

Speedball nibs 107 (thin and italic lettering) and B6 (bold lettering) are the standard tools for 10 x 15 inch, 3.5 Ames guide original art for mainstream American comic books. Speedball C6 is an alternative to the Hunt 107 for dialog lettering. Matching the desired effect with your individual ergonomics will take time and dedication. It's a never-ending journey, but practice and persistence will eventually make lettering an essential element in composing your work! A few examples

Any waterproof india ink is fine, but I prefer Daler-Rowney's Calli non-clogging calligraphy ink for lettering. A one-ounce bottle is $5 at Blick.

Be sure to clean your new nibs before using them. Manufacturers cover them with an oil finish for long term storage. Cover the nibs with either toothpaste or de-greasing dish detergent for 30 seconds, rinse in water, then dry with cloth.

Test new nibs on scrap paper that matches what you're drawing the finished art on. This is also good practice if you haven't lettered in a while. Start with random strokes, the write the word JOHNSON (which has all the strokes of the alphabet). If certain strokes dig into the paper, you'll need to smooth the nib with ultra-fine sandpaper. Gator 600 grit fine sandpaper works fine for me. It's available at most hardware stores, and a 5-sheet pack sells for $7 on Amazon.

my travel lettering practice kit

Sample of my on-the-road lettering practice, 2020

Word Balloons

Once you're the letter forms in your own style, the next step is drawing the dialog balloons. There's a variety of approaches: modern to classic, traditional to experimental, domestic to international. The important thing is to get working! Start by reviewing comics you instinctively favor or feel best matches the types of stories you want to tell. A few examples

Sound Effects

Apply the same discovery process from word balloons. There's no such thing as getting it right the first time in art school! Some editors don't like sound effects, but they're a visual storytelling element unique to comics. Not using them would be like not using vowels or numbers. Don't let the haters define your voice! A few examples

Logos, Titles, Blurbs

The wealth of styles is just as large as any other part of lettering. A few examples

Useful Tips

Hand lettering basics by Nate Piekos
Step-by-steps of honing nibs, drawing balloons Learn more
Lettering tips by Nate Piekos
Infographics from his social media accounts Learn more
Lettering tips by Patrick Brosseau
Infographics from one of the masters Learn more
Blambot: Comic book grammar and tradition
Visual glossary of terms and practices Learn more
Hand lettering demo by Todd Klein
All you need are pens, ink, and practice Learn more
Ames Lettering Guide Instructions
PDF of the printed manual Learn more