large empty word balloon

5 Common Webcomics Lettering Mistakes

I randomly link-hopped to a variety of webcomics over the weekend, curious to see what was out there.

I saw that Sturgeon’s Law is still in effect.  If anything, it’s low-balling it.

I also saw a few mistakes where a quick fix would make a lot of webcomics look a whole lot better.  So, in my attempt to be constructive, I’ll point out a few of the flaws. The old saw about how the reader shouldn’t see the lettering is violated in every one of these problems.  And not in the good way.  

These mistakes stick out like sore thumbs to me:


1. Using a Standard Operating System Font

Using a system font for dialogue

I saw more than a few webcomics that were using Arial or Verdana or some other standard system font that’s better used in writing letters or setting type on a website.

Don’t do that.  Use a font that’s designed for comics.  Blambot has a few free ones.  Comicraft has some great ones that you’ll have to pay for.  There are other random free fonts out there, too, to use.  All of them would be better than Calibri Light or Helvetica Neue. 

Now that I’ve said that, if possible try not to use the free fonts.  Everyone else is using them.  And most of the people using them are making bad webcomics that you don’t want to be associated with.  You want your webcomic to stick out, to look less common, right?  Don’t use a common font, if you can help it.  (Hint: Take advantage of Comicraft’s sale on New Year’s Day.)


2. Balloons Overlapping Borders

Comics lettering: Word balloons overlap border panels

Sometimes, you either need to move the balloons or shrink your art or change your dialogue.  Having balloons randomly overlapping panels by this little bit drives me nuts.

The fix is really easy.  Don’t let the words or the balloon appear outside the panel border.  In the cases you see here, the words aren’t so close to the edge of the balloon that the artist couldn’t have just let the border lay over top of the balloon and cut it off before it went outside.  If that’s the case, cut off the edge of that balloon.

In cases like that, I also like the technique of connecting the balloon to the border and eliminating the border where the two intersect.  Here’s my solution:

Comics Lettering: Word balloons attach to borders

I mocked this up in a minute by just painting a white line over the edge of the balloon and the panel border in a new layer above them both.  If I were being very picky, I’d probably also push the two balloons in that second panel together rather than using the connector between them.


3. Dialogue Appearing Off-Center Inside the Balloon

We all know how important it is to create your dialogue in a diamond shape so it fits best inside the oval of your balloon, right?  That’s the hard part.

Dialogue not centered inside a word balloon.

The easy part is to center the text inside the balloon.  This might be the easiest fix of them all.  Just move that block of text around to leave the same amount of white space all around the words. Give it some time before giving it a final proofread and I bet you’d find it somewhere.  I have to think this mistake is usually made because the letterer is just going too fast and doesn’t look twice.  (Or that they shifted the text layer accidentally at some point, but that’s a bit of a reach. I’m trying to give the benefit of the doubt here somehow…)


4. Tails are Too Wide or Too Narrow

This is tough to explain.  It’s a judgment call.  There’s no formula. But —


Word balloon tails are too wide

— that looks awful. (The balloon thickness problem in the right panel is my mistake in the creation of this image, not the original comics’.)

Just try to make the tail of your balloon be a consistent width where it joins up with the balloon from panel to panel. And make it a proportion that looks good.  I saw a lot of really fat tails that look like weird stubs.  I have to think that’s because the user isn’t familiar with the tools they’re using.  They don’t see these wide tails anywhere in their other comics, do they?  Or, worse, is this the cargo cult case where so many webcomics artists before them have done it so badly that they think it’s what they’re supposed to do now?  

I’m horrified just thinking about it.


5.  Tucking a Tail Behind Another Balloon.  And Crossing the Streams.

It can be tough to fit in a lot of balloons in a single panel, particularly when two people are going back and forth. 

Word balloon tails crossing under a balloon

Do what you have to do to move the balloons around so the tail doesn’t need to slide under another balloon like this.

For further research, study pages filled with conversation.  Watch how the balloon tails snake around, and the way the balloons stack up to keep everything steady. I’d recommend Chris Eliopoulos’ lettering on “Ultimate Spider-Man,” which had lots of these back-and-forth conversations, or Tom Orzechowski’s work on “X-Men”, which was just jam packed with dialogue.  To see someone who knew how and when to butt a balloon up against a border, study John Workman’s lettering, perhaps in Walter Simonsson’s “Thor” work.

None of these are examples I’m making up.  In three of the cases, I lifted exact panels from webcomics I saw and then went to work removing everything except the balloons and tails. The struggle is real.

The good news, four out of five of these issues are very easily solved. That last example is a little trickier and will take some practice and experimentation to get right.


  • George Tramountanas September 15, 2016 at 6:55 pm

    I love this! You’ve listed handy sites before where a person can learn about coloring and penciling – do you have any suggestions for a site where one can learn about how to letter?

    • Augie September 16, 2016 at 12:16 pm

      I wish I could. I don’t think there is one. Obviously, read Todd Klein’s blog. And Nate Piekos occasionally posts stuff to social media, but there’s not one good site that I know of off the top of my head. You just need the Comicraft book and the DC Guide to Comics and Lettering and you’re done. That’s all you get. The Digital Webbing Lettering board was a hot spot for letterers a decade ago, but I think that’s empty now. The archives might prove interesting, and a lot of today’s letterers came up from there, too.

      Don’t go giving me new ideas for new websites to start now! heh

  • Colin Taylor September 16, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    Rule # 5 is one I’ve known about for years for whatever reason. I’m therefore endlessly interested by the fact that regular (very regular) 2000ad letterer Ellie De Ville breaks this rule on an frequent basis AND makes its work.

    Just goes to show all rules are there to be broken.

    Mind ask UK letterer extraordinaire Jim Campbell of the most important rules and you’ll get a quick lesson in the rights and wrongs of a crossbar I (capital i that is).

    • augiedb September 16, 2016 at 3:05 pm

      Colin – Yeah, there’s always a choice between “bad” lettering and style. Sometimes, it can work. I left out the whole disclaimer that I probably should have kept in there that any of these “mistakes” can be ignored under the right circumstances. But all of the examples I saw were more “mistakes” than “style.” 😉

      Yes, the crossbar-I is a thing of pure madness. Amazingly, I didn’t see too many problems with that one when I looked at those dozens of webcomics. It might be partial blindness from all the extremely bad font choices I saw otherwise, though.

  • dancondonjones September 17, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with point 2. I quite like those balloons sticking out of the box.

    The lettering mistake I hate (and I still see in professional comics) is having one balloon above and to the right of another balloon so you don’t know what order to read them in. I regularly make the wrong guess in these situations.

    • ani September 18, 2016 at 6:59 pm

      I’ll have to agree. sometimes I feel that it’s fine to have word balloons stick out of a panel, and may even help with some transitions.

      • Augie September 18, 2016 at 10:30 pm

        Yes, if the balloon is sticking out of the panel to guide the eye to the next panel — commonly when you need an obvious clue to read down instead of across — I think it can work. When it’s an example like this one, though, and the balloon is just sloppily poking out for no reason, I don’t like it.

        But, if it works for you, I won’t try to argue with you into hating something. Life is too short. 😉


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