Choosing and effectively implementing a font is therefore an important, and unfortunately, often overlooked part of editing. I’ll go over quite a few topics here, and give my opinion on what works best. Some techniques will work well in certain comics, while others will not look quite as good. I hope this guide gives enough information to make an educated opinion as to what should and should not be used.
The whole point of proper lettering is to draw as little attention to the lettering itself as possible, while enhancing the flow and presentation of text to visually reflect the events in the comic. Transparent delivery of text is the idea we’re shooting for. Proper lettering is perhaps the best way to better the presentation of an edited manga and smooth the conversion from Japanese to English text.
A good localization doesn’t reduce the quality of the manga, any more than using slang or colloquialisms (or even using English sound effects) do. How this implemented is up to your opinion as the editor, but knowledge of style is the first step in making an informed decision. And that’s what I hope to help accomplish.
Whether you use Whiz Bang, ComiCrazy, Kid Kosmic, Comic Hun, Comic Sans (joking), Komika, Web Letterer, or whatever, first and foremost make sure the font you use is easily readable. If you have to fit a lot of text into small bubbles, use a font that scales down well. If your readers have to work to figure out what you’ve put in the bubbles, you may want to reexamine your font choices. While a proofreader should catch something important like this, not everyone sends a finished copy to a proofreader, and even then, not all proofreaders will bother correcting something like this.
For narrations, there are three keys points to keep in mind:
VARIOUS FONT-RELATED NOTES THAT
Unless there’s a reason (undertoning or some kind of yelling), try to keep the font size constant throughout the chapter. There isn’t any particular need to enlarge your font to fill the bubble from end to end, so it’s perfectly fine to go with a font that leaves some margins around your text. It gives a consistent “volume” to your character’s voices. If text is larger or smaller than normal, it appears the character is yelling or talking under their breath (which may be the case. If that’s so, go with it). Consistency is the key here. Compare the following:
On the left, we have sizing that isn’t standardized (the right is the “fixed version), and changes between panels (between bubbles in each panel as well). It looks kind of sloppy if it’s all supposed to be said at the same volume. If “your arrows for my tears” is being shouted, you’d want to enlarge it (and bold/italicize it as well, but we’ll get to that later), but it isn’t really said with any more emphasis than the rest of the sentence, so there isn’t a reason for making it so large. Likewise, there isn’t a reason for making “the girl—I won’t give up the girl” or “hear me Apollo!” any smaller than the rest of the text. If at your “standard” font size, then the text wouldn’t fit in the bubble no matter what you did to it, you’d obviously want to shrink it a bit (read the “Let’s Talk Balloons” section for a few more ideas on this as well) to fit the bubble, but in this case, the text fits just fine.
Occasionally, you’ll come across one of those “different fonts for every character” edits. As you’ll have several fonts on a single page, all fulfilling the same function (dialogue), when there is no actual difference between the characters, this can get either confusing or just plain excessive. I go by the rule “if the character sounds different than a normal person for the manga, change their font”. Only excessive cases (like a talking robot or something) get their own font.
Anything in foreign language gets typed in English, and placed in <these less than/greater than brackets>. If it’s not explicitly mentioned in the comic already, drop a note in the margin letting the readers know which language it’s supposed to be in. There’s no need to italicize or change the font or anything like that. Simple problem, simple solution. Usually you won’t need a note specifically saying “the Russian mobster is speaking Russian”, as your reader can quite easily figure that out.
A lot of comics use all uppercase fonts. In all fairness, most comics do, though this is changing, and we’re starting to see more and more comics done in lowercase (Marvel Comics, for example, uses the lowercase font “Up Up and Away” for their dialogue now. See the example below for a sample of what that looks like), however all capital letters are a very ingrained style in comics, and it can be rather difficult to get used to the transition between all-caps and lowercase.
Capital letters are a throwback to the good old days when
letterers actually hand-lettered the comics, before these wacky “fonts” and
“computers” came and stole all the jobs from honest Americans and gave them to
This doesn’t mean you should use a lowercase font. Some manga just doesn’t work well with lowercase, it looks awkward and out of place, and that has everything to do with the fact that we’re not inserting our own speech bubbles, we have to fill what’s already given to us. So match the case to the manga. But if you’ve got something text-heavy, or very small speech bubbles, I suggest trying out some lowercase fonts to see if they fit the style of the manga. It can be much easier on the eyes, and since lowercase letters are smaller than their capital counterparts, it reduces the page real estate needed for the dialogue. Since uppercase is already the standard in most manga groups, I’ll be covering lowercase usage here.
Uppercase can sometimes be a bit difficult to follow in large blocks of text, relative to its lowercase counterpart. Usually when you have all uppercase lettering, you can get about two sentences, maybe five or six normal lines before you start to give the reader “information overload”, and their eyes skip letters or whole words throughout the bubble. A good uppercase font reduces that, and can probably squeeze another line or two out of the reader’s attention, but you’re still left with a reader paying only partial attention to the bubble. Fortunately for us, most manga doesn’t have this much dialogue per bubble to deal with, and we can use uppercase fonts just fine in most cases. But to give an example of how attention and readability between an all-caps and a lowercase font in large blocks of text differs, take look at the following example:
Example done with Anime Ace and Up, up, and away
Another reason lowercase fonts are useful because you can fit more text in bubbles than with uppercase fonts. This can be pretty helpful when trying to fit more letters in those narrow bubbles that manga is so famous for. Breaking up words and putting part on two separate (or, god forbid, three) lines gets kind of annoying to most readers, especially when you do it more than once or twice per bubble. Lowercase lettering reduces the number of times you need to break up words.
Now, lowercase fonts typically don’t look as good when you crank them up to, say, 48 points and still keep them lowercase. They’re better when they’re kept a relatively “normal” size (you don’t even need to go all the way to the edges of the bubbles, you can leave yourself some breathing room on the sides). If for some reason you do need to increase the font size, I suggest just hitting caps-lock and then using all uppercase letters for the bubble. A good example would be yelling or screaming. Someone yelling in lowercase just doesn’t have quite the impact of all capitals, so that would be an appropriate time to switch.
If you do decide to use a lowercase font, I recommend using
lowercase throughout the entire manga—especially if
you use several dialogue fonts. It’s
quite strange to see one person talking with lowercase lettering
We use stressing because comics are primarily a visual medium. In a novel, you typically get a feel for how a character says something based on how he or she says it, rather than what he or she says. In comics, you don’t typically have that degree of subtlety. A sentence is typically read as it’s shown, which means that emphasis and variations of speech need to be reflected in text style. Picture the text bubbles as simply another portion of the panel’s art, rather than a separate portion “where the words go”. Remember that readers pay attention first to the text, second to the art. The panel is simply a snapshot of the events taking place inside the bubbles.
Stressing is the bolding (and italicizing, if it’s not
already included in the font’s bolding) of words within the sentence. I highly recommend getting used to doing this,
because it’s a very powerful tool for letterers. A sentence reading: “Where is this car
going?” could change meanings depending on your stressing:
These minor changes in emphasis can really alter the way the sentence reads to the viewer—each of these sentences means something slightly different, and when used properly, this really livens up the dialogue. Not using any stressing at all makes your characters flat, monotone. Your characters have feelings; use stressing to bring those out in the dialogue.
It helps when just getting used to using stressing to run the sentence around in your head, to make sure you’re stressing the right words. Sometimes, you’ll go an entire chapter without stressing anything. Other times, you’ll be stressing multiple words on every page. Just be careful about which words you stress, because if you continually pick the wrong words, it comes across as rather heavy-handed and overdone. But when done right, this is a great way to liven up your dialogue. A few common mistakes include stressing nouns, unusual words, or spoken actions (like “run that way!”). Certainly there will be a time when these are the words you should be stressing, but typically they’re the words you see stressed when there shouldn’t be any emphasis on them. Again, while you get used to figuring out which words to stress, try saying the sentence aloud to see if it sounds right to you.
Now, there is a time and a place for stressing, and there’s good and bad stressing. You don’t want to overdo it by stressing words that don’t have any special emphasis in the dialogue. If you do this too much, you get awkward, jerky sentences. You don’t need to stress “thirteen millimeter socket wrench”, for example. Bad stressing will put words in bold just to break the uniformity of the text, regardless of how it affects the dialogue or sentence flow. Good stressing brings out emotions and feelings, puts force behind key words without reverting to all uppercase letters. Let’s compare here:
Left Image: Ultimate Daredevil (good stressing) Right image: Cannon God Exaxxion vol. 1 (bad stressing)
On the left, we’ve got someone confronting another person. This isn’t left for the reader to interpret, it’s given visually in terms of the word choice for stressing. The words that make the dialogue forceful and confrontational are stressed. In the very first bubble, for example, we have “do” stressed. This changes the sentence into more of a command than if, say, “something” had been stressed instead (which would have given this bubble a tinge of desperation instead).
On the right, we’ve got “tenant district”, “especially”, and “severely damaged”. Now, tenant district isn’t really something anyone would stress in a normal sentence, it falls under that “noun” problem I mentioned earlier. “Especially” is probably the only word in this panel that I would stress, but even that doesn’t really strike me as a necessity. When looking at “severely damage”, the stressing here is rather redundant with both “severely” and the exclamation. I could see “severely” stressed by itself, to emphasize the extent of the damage (or if it’s just a whiny character in general), but think it’s a tad excessive, given that it’s already got an exclamation in there.
You can also use stressing to help with your dialogue options. A sentence without stressing would likely look something like this:
“I know you’ve got it hidden somewhere. McIness!”
“I know you’ve got it hidden somewhere, McIness.”
“I know you’ve got it hidden somewhere, McIness.”
As you see, our sentence is no longer an exclamation, it’s now a statement. Especially for your calm-and-ruthless villains, this really helps with showing character and personality.
In addition, (for all-caps fonts especially) when you’ve got giant blocks of text, bolding a few words here and there kind of “breaks up” the bubble by eliminating the uniformity of single-size text. It makes it read a bit easier to read.
There are, with most all-caps fonts at least, two forms of the letter “I”. One has the two bars on the top and the bottom, making it a flanged I. I don’t know if there’s actually a real word for that, so…whatever. The other form of “I” is a simple vertical line. The difference in use is not simply “capital “I”/lowercase “I””—there’s a very specific use for the flanged I, and that’s for pronoun forms of “I” only. If you have a capital “I”, such as at the beginning of a sentence like “It did”, use the simple vertical line form, not the flanged form.
See how good the second line looks compared to the first? It may seem a rather minor thing, but it does look much nicer, and requires very little work to implement.
When you’ve got some dialogue with all caps fonts that has “heh heh” or possibly “hmmm”, and similar forms of speech, it looks a bit strange to see that as
With the part muttered almost under the character’s breath “Hmm” the same size and emphasis (as it is all capital letters) as the rest of the sentence. You can drop the size of the “Hmm” a bit, but that does look a bit obvious and ungainly. What I recommend is using a similar font that has a lowercase set and italicizing that. The reasoning here is the same as the reasoning behind stressing: we want the lettering to visually express the dialogue.
done with Comic Font Hun for the dialogue and Shorthand
And there we go. The appearance of the text now matches what the flow and tone of the dialogue. We do this unobtrusively and without drawing attention to the actual letters or fonts. And as a letterer, there is nothing more important than that. Seems kind of strange, but if no one really notices our work, that’s the surest sign we’ve done our jobs right.
Now, if you’re using a font that has a lowercase set already, you don’t really need to bother with this step, just italicize the undertones and move on.
If you use an all-caps font you don’t really need to concern yourself with matching up the font to the one you use for dialogue exactly, a similar match will do. The example above shows how this works. The undertones (by design) do not draw a lot of attention to themselves, they’re not intended to. A few fonts that work well for undertones include: Technics WS, Gemelli, SF Cartoonist Hand, Andy Bold, Oil Bats, or Shorthand Normal. There’s no need to find something that fits your dialogue font “perfectly”, just pick something that looks good in italics and isn’t incredibly different from your dialogue font.
Some fonts handle spaces between letters pretty well, and you really never think twice about it, and can just leave it at default. Other fonts, particularly the poorly-made fonts, have letter pairings that have exceedingly wide spaces between the letters or too little space, making certain letters collide with each other.
When you use a font, pay attention to these spacings for several reasons. The first is that if you really need to fit that word on a line and you just barely don’t have the space for it, you can drop your tracking by 25 or 50 ems (this the unit, but isn’t labeled in Photoshop, it just gives you a number) and give yourself just a bit of room without making it apparent you’re trying to cram this stuff in. The other reason is that when you have fonts that either have too much space between the letters or not enough, you need to manually adjust your tracking (or kerning). In Photoshop this is no problem at all, just open up your handy character window and set the number to something that makes the spacing look appealing. Then remember to set it back to the default (zero) when you’re done. Otherwise you’ll realize you’ve gone several pages of dialogue at +50 or so, and that’s no fun to have to change. Of course, if you’re using those levels to make your lines fit a specific space, then by all means, go ahead. No QAer will ever catch improper kerning or tracking, so it’s up to you as editors to do it.
On the same token, you can adjust the leading (space between lines) as well. Most fonts could use a bit of vertical alignment to look better—usually it’s lowering the leading, to below its default amount. There’s no need for a ton of white space between lines.
If you need some extra space for a word to avoid breaking it up (and please do, broken-up words are something to avoid as much as possible), then adjust your letter width. I wouldn’t go past about 93%, though, as your letters start to look a bit like that stick-figure girl from Ally McBeal who is so obviously anorexic it’s not even funny. The reduced width doesn’t hurt the form or substance of the lettering any, so feel free to use this OCCASIONALLY. If you find yourself continually strapped for space, reduce the font size or choose a different font. To see this in effect, take a look at the fixed version in the “Let’s Talk Balloons” section.
Give your letters vitality when appropriate. Compare the following:
Example done with Comixxx
See? You can work it up a bit. Voices aren’t flat and monotone, they’ve got spring and vibrancy, especially when they’re yelling. It’s the same basic principle as stressing, you don’t want to just “give the information to the reader”, you want to dress it up, give it style and substance. And when you’re done, you can scale/distort the result as necessary by rasterizing the layer to fit your need:
Be careful not to go overboard on the transform options, as you’ll end up with something that’s difficult to read or that looks bizarre.
When laying out your bubbles, there are a few basic ideas to keep in mind. The first thing I think about is how to order the text in such a way that I get a normal-sized or smaller-than-normal width line at the top, average-length middle lines, and a smaller line at the bottom. That gives the general flow of the text as a whole a “bubble” appearance.
The first two columns fit the general “round, bubble-shape” that we’re looking for. The third column does as well, but I included it to point out that middle line is smaller than the ones above and below it, which gives it an amateur, tagged-on look (unless this bubble is nearly square, in which case it’s actually more appropriate than the others). The fourth column has large top and bottom lines as well as the narrow middle, which gives it a concave “anti-bubble” look, and doesn’t fit into any bubbles very well.
Let’s take a look at the example of lettering that just “puts text in the bubble” without any particular regard for how it flows:
The key point to avoid here is the extremely varied line lengths. If your bubbles look like the one bubble on the right, with long and short lines, either words need to be broken up (in the rare instance this is your only option), or individual lines need to be adjusted to deliver the information in a more “natural” fashion. With some slight editing, we can make this bubble look quite nice:
Now what makes this different than the previous example? First, the letters are arranged in a manner that takes advantage of the available line space more efficiently. Secondly, when some parts did not fit very well, I used some of the ideas I’ve mentioned previously to make them fit. The words “Major-General” and “I’ve information” are both exceptionally wide at their default levels, and run into the edges of the bubbles. So I set both of those lines to 93% width and –25 tracking.
This made a large “step” effect, where the lines “vegetable/animal, and/mineral,” were very nearly the same size. To fix this, I set the word “vegetable” to 103% width and +25 tracking, so the bubble tapers down to the bottom. For the same reason, I did the same thing to “of a modern”
On the left bubble, I simply lowered the width of “general” on the last line to 93% and –50 tracking while enlarging “Major-“ to 105% and +25 tracking. This avoids the problem where your last line in a bubble is longer than the one above it (well, it still is here, but not by a material amount). This particular issue is occasionally unavoidable, but it’s best to minimize the damage wherever possible. It’s a stylistic issue to be aware of, but not overly concerned about.
Let’s discuss a bit about various text layout inside balloons. Specifically, putting punctuation on a separate line. Yes, I know it’s a common thing to see in manga. However, it doesn’t look very good in English, so we’re going to place the exclamation marks adjacent to “Brown”. If you really need to add several exclamation marks, then just reduce the font width a tad, lower the tracking, or (and easiest) simply rearrange the bubble:
Voila! Small changes, and we get a nicely arranged bubble.
Now, if your exclamations are an independent thought from the dialogue in question, put them on their own line (usually they already have their own bubble), rather than sticking them to the nearest text. In our case, if the “!!!” was unrelated to suddenly seeing John Brown, then it would go on its own line, as in the first example.
And now what happens when we have a positively unworkable bubble? If it contained a single character or a single column of text, and you’re faced with the daunting task of filling that with text? The solution is fairly simple, fortunately.
If your narrow bubble doesn’t cover much of the actual art, or if the portion of the art isn’t something that’s going to be missed, just expand your bubbles. Drag the borders into the margin, over some of the rest of the panel, etc. This will give you the kind of space you need. It’s not the best solution, granted, but you’ll find that a lot of times you’re dealing with text bubbles overlaying margins that aren’t over anything. Just white space and gradients:
Here, all I did was rotate the bubble, then shortened it to fit the actual text it contained (no sense in more space than I need). If this had been the bubble on the left, I could have expanded it vertically quite a bit to give me more writing space. The bubble on the right could expand downward a bit (not too much, as it’ll start to cover the notebook), and the tail would have to be adjusted, of course. And none of the art was covered up. You’ll find that you rarely have to do this, and when you do, there’s usually room to expand your bubbles in the panel without harming the art.
If the idea of altering the “art” of the panel doesn’t particularly appeal to you, there are a few other ways of fitting text. Notably lowering the size, breaking up your words, reducing letter width by an extremely high amount, and adding a white outline (with a second, thinner black outline around this, only where it exceeds the bubble’s space). I prefer simply adjusting the bubble as necessary (only when it doesn’t overlay important parts of the image—this is very important, you don’t want your bubbles running rampant and taking over the panels) to these methods, but it’s your choice as to what looks best in each situation.
If you have any questions/comments/what have you, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.