Research Point: comic book lettering

This is my exploration into the evolution of lettering to typography in comic books.

Historically comic books were hand lettered, while this is not the case anymore the hand lettered style remains.

Adding text to represent speech happened long before the creation of comic books, some examples are over 270 years old and show primitive examples of the now familiar speech balloon.

Multi panelled sequential art first appeared around the 1870’s, usually before then image and text would be on separate alternate pages. By the turn of the century images and words in balloons was well established, this could be considered as the birth of the comic book.

The lettering would normally be carried out by the artist and in their own handwriting this would keep costs down making the project much more financially viable. An invention known as the Ames guide helped to make aligning and arranging the lettering easier more uniform and professional looking.

The Ames lettering guide, was used for 70 years in the professional comic book production, eventually it even became a discipline of its own, comic book production is laborious and it needed a faster process to achieve profitable results, eventually the role of the artist was split into penciller, inker, and letterer, in the 1930’s as comics started to print in colour a new role was introduced, colourist. Lettering became a focused skill and each letterer would have his own style.

These days professional comics are coloured, lettered and sometimes even pencilled and inked digitally. Like the silver age of comics the fonts are just as unique, there is no standard font that is used for comics, some comic studios will favour a collection of typefaces to give a certain look to their folio of titles.

A Typeface thats often mistakenly associated with comics wasn’t actually designed for them, that font is Microsoft’s Comic Sans. The typeface was originally created for software intended for autistic children, created by Vincent Connaire it was developed in 1994 for a specific programme but ended up being removed due to a technical sizing issue, instead it became bundled with windows pc’s and has been misused and mocked every since.

The font is based on two key graphic novels The Watchmen and the dark knight returns, both books are hand lettered, Dave Gibbons illustrated and lettered the watchmen and John Costanza lettered The dark knight returns, Vincent Connaire copied the handwritten style of the characters and comic sans was born. Dave Gibbons hates the font and in an interview has even said he wished he had been asked, he said “I think what he came up with was vastly inferior, certainly to John Costanza’s lettering and I think also to mine. And I’d have much rather they’d just come to John or me and said: “‘Look, can you do some hand lettering for us?’ I’m sure we would have done it really, really cheaply and I’m sure that what’s out there would look a lot cleaner and a lot better.” but one thing ion particular seems to really bothers him “What really bugs me is the letter ‘I’ in it because in comic books you only use the capital letter ‘I’, which is the one with the crossbars on it, for the first person pronoun. You never use it as a capitalisation of a word or within a word but I believe in Comic Sans that is the only letter ‘I’ that is available. So the whole thing always looks wrong to me. I think it’s a blight, an absolute blight on modern culture”

The fonts in use in the modern comics of today certainly pay tribute to the art form started at the turn of the century, I think they would look out pf place if they was used for any other purpose, equally to use a normal sans serif font would be to sacrifice a lot of tone and character.

Below is a selection of comics including the hand lettered (first three) the remaining images I believe to be computer fonts, but there is no way of really knowing without close analysis, comparing the letterers work or asking the question directly.

A selection of professional comic book fonts can be found below, this shows how many subtle variations are available.



A summary of my learnings.

  • First use of dialogue over the image and primitive speech balloon.
  • the ames lettering guide and how to use one (if you can find one in the uk, I can not!).
  • Comic book was hand lettered for 70 years.
  • comic process being compartmentalised and lettering become its own sought after discipline.
  • Hand lettered Styles being unique to the letterer, almost like a signature.
  • Like the hand leterrers ther is a wide range of comic centric fonts, to preserve hand written feel.
  • Comic sans, inspired by, but not a comic font.
  • Dave Gibbons, loves lettering, hates comic sans.

exercise: playing with words

I was asked to print out a selection of “s” words and arrange them in a way that represents the word.

The first thing I noticed was how limiting the cut paper version were, it really started my thought process up and gave me some limitations, This made me talk to myself, I said things like “how can I change the colour/shape” and “this would be easier if I could..” I can see now exactly where this exercise was taking my process. The limitations aren’t there to make it difficult but to invent solutions to the problem, the right tools being unavailable at that time forces an unexpected approach. I really enjoyed this exercise and it certainly unlocked new doors to displaying the written message.


This one is pretty direct, I picked a point and had all my lines emanate from that point, cutting out with the polygon lasso tool and repositioning, this needed a thick type so the word would still read correctly


Not a word I use a lot but I wanted to personify the word, to make it into a figure and make the “S” a face, the word is laying down face up, to make it feel more human I added in a bent leg too.


This one was quite tricky, I toyed with patterns such as spots and floral, in the end the stripes seemed to win, part of style is standing out and this allowed me to make a bold contrasting background.


I wanted a 60’s-70’s hippy feel to this one, I could have went biblical and used the other type of stoned but that seemed a lot harder.


Thick and lumpy, or a spongy pudding is the. first thing that I think of as stodgy, I was going to add custard but I felt the distorted letters was enough and didn’t want to skew the message


Very similar to the cut paper version except I added a long shadow to give it scale and some environment, this seemed to make it stiffness a little clearer


I added two layers here blurring one and then using layer masks to combine the hard edge where the shadow starts to the soft diffused edges where the shadow drops off.


I used an image of an orange here to create the colour and a texture, which was placed over some type that I had turned to a smart object and warped. I wanted to show something distinct that we associate with squeezing, an orange seemed the natural choice. the type needed to be bold and the tracking of the characters set very close to give it enough of an imprint for the pattern to take effect.


Short and square, this was another where the word took on a human form, I used the t as make shift legs, at this point I was avoiding embellishing the words too much, something as the exercise went on I found myself more an more reliant on.


angled italic type feels like its moving, I added in a fade and racer red colour, I tried to steer away from blurring here although a second layer could have had some blurred motion lines for effect.

Sordid (a)

there was two versions of this, in my paper version I tried to make evil eyes, in this version I kept it simpler. This again seemed the obvious thing to do.

Sordid (b)

I think this version muddies up the clear message of the first, one embellishment should be enough or its clearly the wrong choice.


The paper version of this highlighted the words his tie, in this version I have done the same, but simplified to tie, and made the “i” character a tie. This again may be one idea too far but they do work together so this may be a rule well broken.


irritated red to a relieved calm blue, the relief is so great that it gives a floating feeling.


I Wanted the words to sag on the bottom as the liquid soaked material begins to change shape it didn’t see enough so I added n some droplets


Like my paper version, this word is half buried in. the snow, I also added some blurred snow to imply motion and that the event is still ongoing, as snowy would suggest present tense. Snowed would still work but the copy would be solid black.


My colour choice here comes from Robert De Nero’s grumpy father character in one of the Focker films, he remarks on Ben Stillers car saying “They say a genius picks green” so I went with that colour, its also the colour they use in the breaking bad titles which is based on the periodic table, not sure what the significance is but culturally it seemed like the right choice. I added in e=mc2, this was similar to the paper version, the colour and font choice made this work a lot better, I was able to separate the hidden message and the different typeface allowed me some room to add the second message. I overlaid the “c2” slightly and cut into the “A” this was an attempt to force the viewer to read both.


Shiny and leaning forward, like a shark or a sports car.


another simple, one just a very slight type which I stretched with the vertical scale setting in photoshop, the trick was to try not to destroy the look of the font, I was just on the edge of good taste here.


some crazy clipping masks, beans are always going to be silly and the different fonts and their orientation gave it a manic nutty feel.


shrinking violet, the shy again is a slight font, displayed small in a colour very similar, this one doesn’t really work past the gimmick, if the copy was important this would be a big fail.


serious underlining, serious orientation, serious font, and an exclamation point. This one could be either underworked or just no joking matter.


I wanted a hand written font, at a slight angle decorated with a nice ink blot, that sums up school days for me. Ink stained pencil case!


like squat I wanted to get something square to give it a sense of scale.


Carry on Typesetting! I couldn’t help but draw inspiration from the old carry on films when I saw the word saucy, I used a round soft typeface that felt like it would be used a lot in the 60’s-70’s, again I wanted to personify the word, it wouldn’t be saucy if it didn’t feel like a person, I then threw some fishnets on it, and used red light district hues, added a bevel to render the soft round fleshy shapes


A dangerous red, in a safe green box with a thick solid wall.


Tried to turn this into a deflated sorry for itself downturned mouth, the word is too short to be legible and extremely distorted, the colours also help reflect the mood but this one isn’t my favourite from this group.


grimly mocking or cynical, I wanted this to be spiky and cutting.

Research point: Magazine typography study

This research asked me to explore lesser used characters and also to use the identifont website to identify the typeface from a magazine I have to hand.

Below I selected some of my most recently used fonts and added the pangram and some extra characters ion the top row to see how they worked with the main alphabet, its interesting to see the similarity and the differences in their construction, the @ symbol and ampersand being the two that seem to offer the most unique shapes.

I read an interesting book about type (just my type by Simon Garfield) and I’m sure I remember one of the type designers talking about the ampersand being the character that showcases the artform of type design. They really do vary and the curved shapes take on a life of their own. I imagine they must really enjoy designing that character.

I found a copy of Imagine fx magazine, and started to go through the identifont process, I answered many questions before I was confident that it had found the most likely fonts.
Questions like “What style are the diagonal strokes of the upper-case ‘K’?” and What shape is the dot on the ‘?’ it found the font very quickly, and luckily I had it on my computer the font was Gotham.

Here is the isolated Gotham font for comparison.

Gotham is also recognisable as the font that Barack Obama used in his Hope campaign.

The Design Behind Color Rush – Milwaukee Art Museum Blog

Gotham Knight

Its a great looking strong typeface, with many variations, so great and this is no surprise that DC comics also used to use it, Gotham being the city that the DC character Batman has sworn to protect.

Exercise: A typographic jigsaw puzzle

For this exercise I was asked to analyse the pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and using a page of deconstructed characters trace the correct shapes onto the page.

I fetched a ruler and removed the deconstructed text from my folder so I could lay the tracing paper comfortably without it moving, using a blue pencil I took the. “e” and “o” characters and made a mark from the baseline and another at the top of the character this would be the “x” height, and from there I could establish the median line from there I took the tallest character and established my ascender line, by marking at the top of the terminal.

Now it was just a case of careful observation, I looked at the serifs the letter height and case. I messed up the very first character, I mistook it for a t but now I realise it was likely the tail from the “u” figure. The head serif of the “t” would take it over the median line, I repeated this mistake later on, not realising until I studied afterwards.

The foot serifs were a good indication. as some had a single foot and some double, the bowl shapes also helped distinguish a “c” from the other bowled charcaters such as “d” and “q” although the example was quite small, and the subtle changes in the serifs and terminals were easily missed.

All in all I had a lot of fun putting this puzzle back together and it was a worthwhile anatomical typographic lesson.

Research point: Vernacular typography

For this research I was asked to find examples of vernacular photography in my local area. I visited the high street, and cafes in search for examples of “native” signage. The definition of vernacular typography is quite broad, it is often made by non designers, it could be something very well crafted or something very basic, hand drawn or painted.

This one appealed to me, at first because it looked like it was intentionally coloured or defaced, I tried to look for a hidden message, of course its just been sloppily repaired with a black pen. Whoever repaired it has paid some attention to the base and median lines but couldn’t recreate the geometric precision of the machine cut letters. I found it held some charm so wanted to include it.

This one was on a board outside a food stall, its pretty direct and no thrills. they have used some colour and a crude drop shadow effect, they have kept the message all in white, which means it reads through to the end or at least til the bolder characters. However it looks like it is supposed to read “Traditional german Sausage. Bratwurst served in a baguette.” but it actually reads “Traditional german Sausage Bratwurst, served in a a baguette”, maybe they was trying to say “Traditional german Bratwurst Sausage, served in a baguette.” The “leading” if we can call it that when hand drawn varies too affecting how we read it, “bratwurst” seems to be almost like a tick, standing alone in the middle of the message.

This of course does not matter too much, the sign is temporary, almost disposable in nature and serves its purpose for any bratwurst hungry customer. The hand made nature of the sign, the way the characters vary in height and the leading also seems to be ignored all make it feel very informal.

The imagery here is one of my favourite elements, the floating ghosts of a jacket potato and a buttered tea cake did amuse me as did the garnish on those beans! That aside we have a sign here that has been made with the aid of a computer. The computer has leant some accuracy and consistency to the sign and the typography, the fonts seem to have been picked to be loud and exciting, a script style typeface with very much comic book styling, a thick key stroke around the characters and a yellow to white gradient, would be at home on most Marvel comic pages, this is partnered with typeface that looks short and wide, similar to copperplate without serifs. they don’t look out of place with each other, and the choice of complimentary colours works. The overall tone doesn’t shout quality and looks quite cheap, as this is a less temporary sign than lets say a chalkboard, this is either very old and hasn’t aged well or is the tone they want to convey to customers, cheap and cheerful.

This is a sign for the cafe in a local park, one of the chalkboards came from here too. A lot more attention to detail here and feels a lot nicer than the cruder chalkboards, which in a way sells themselves a little short, this branding could have been a constant fixture to the chalkboards.

probably about 3 typefaces too many on this one, a chalky looking script type and then a serif font, they’ve used a white font on yellow and then realised that adding the lightest tone on a colour that is tonally similar offers no contrast so a dark keystroke has been added, the phone number is displayed a little thinner, this is one of the most important pieces of information and as a local business they would normally want this to be highly visible. I suspect this has been either designed by a non design type or handed to a sign maker who will literally commit what he is given to his work.

I liked the simplicity of this one, the typeface fits well and mirrors the colour of the ice cream, its quite tasteful, if I could edit it I would remove one of the cones and drop the size down a little to give it some breathing room.

This is Western Town, a lawless place where you have to remove your shoes to enter the saloon! The font looks handwritten as the letters do seem to vary slightly, although it might be the material its printed on. It is styled after many western posters seen in films. The visibility here is helped by a strong contrast and large scale.

This one Liked as it incorporated had drawn elements, it has a lot of charm, and has a christmassy feel with its curly serifs.

This sign is clearly advertising Donuts, and as the sign tells you this isn’t intended as health food. Two different comic typefaces have been used, as well as an additionalscript type. Its a small sign and three fonts seems like a lot. A little donut cartoon is generating some extra excitement, in case the style jump in the fonts dont work and the colours are bright and warm. No doubt many an adult has fell victim to this cheap nasty tacky little sign as a child points at it and starts to gear up for a tantrum.

Another handwritten sign, not as charming as its neighbour, they have kept consistent with the script style lettering, a bolder effort for the heading and a description. Also a typo, there is no spell checker or auto correct in real life.

Exercise: If the face fits

I was asked to make a sample book of typeface, split into serif, sans serif, script decorative and fixed width.

Below was my selection, I was conscious to keep these quite small and picked typefaces that were quite different.

the second part of the exercise asked me to apply the chosen typefaces to different commissions.

This was for a short story, it needed a header and legible comfortable to read copy.

I opted for a script type header, it felt like this would fit nicely as the title was written in the first person, almost like a diary entry. This font wold be ok for a short header but for sustained reading I would need a sans serif font.

For the header I chose Reklame script and the main copy Proxima Nova.

The church leaflet was a other commission that made me think about the tone, they was asking for people with an artistic flourish, in this case as I read on floristry, I decided to use the sort of typeface I would expect a florist to use, I opted for a serif style, big caslon had a nice mix of line weights, it feels a little floral, thin stems and thicker flower petals, again I felt the the main message needed to be separated from the header, I chose the casablanca typeface.

As I am trying uo these notes I can see that both of these types have quite a distinct look if I had to choose again I would go for something a little more neutral.

The next commission was for a boys club, I imagined the short opening questions to be spoken by different people, this was a suitable occasion to break some rules and include more than tasteful amount of typefaces. The message on this was quite text heavy, I wanted to break it up as much as possible, after the initial attention grabbing message we have the main message, after that it goes on to list the activities on. offer and finally the price which is free, this seemed to be a good incentive. to come along and I decided to use heavier type to close. Information hierarchy is impiortant for all these commsions but when it gets very wordy I really wanted to break up the most important, messages, also the tone was anotyher coinsoideration, this was a funactivity for kids so again the differmt voices at the begginngi eas an attemopt at maing it fun.

The engagement flyer was another one where the tone of the messaging lead my choice of type face. The intro copy is very jovial, it was personable too, so something hand written seemed to fit, I used Reklame in bold then scaled the copy down using regular for the “come and join” then i switched to a more legible font, a sans serif in bold for the important content, I used futura for this, my intention was to offset the curved script typeface with a more geometrically precise one, to close I switched back to futura as although the copy was still jovial it did mention bringing a present so this needed to be clear.

Research Point: collecting type

I was asked to collect examples of type and see what the designers have done to make them legible.

I found this one to be a little confusing, the headline relates to the column on the left, but the size of the image and the contrast makes this the second biggest thing, so I was drawn at first to that. I feel they have tried to combat this with the yellow type, they have also added a thick divider. I wonder if they had put the column on the right it would have a better flow, I would finish reading the headline at the right and with enough dividing space in the column gutters I would then pick up the right trail.

This one felt a little lost on the page, it must be challenging to fit all the content on to pages. for newspaper publication, and still leave it navigable, this one just felt a little too short and would be easily missed, the headline and small body copy also feels disjointed, a sub heading maybe have given it easier passage onto the short stubby 5 columns of copy, I also think the headline has gone for style over substance, I’m not sure what they mean by drumbeat.

This one seemed unusual, the headline is in the middle, we establish that the copy is surrounding it, so far all the things I have found have been scanning issues, if we was reading the content left to right top to bottom it would make sense, but this layout with the large image at the bottom left feels like it was trying to be a bit clever. I also found the image to be somewhat confusing, it seemed to belong to either article, The Queen appeared with a puppet version of herself, and this was attached to the. border which due to the close proximity feels like it belongs to the article below. If this was a wide headline with the text and imaged aligned then it would be clearer.

I found this one to be nice and clear, we have a headline and sub-header over the image, this is sitting on top of the copy like a crown,The drop cap leads in nicely with the orange that was established with the section header we have a small inset with quick tabular information, again with the right hand side column in orange, The hierarchy here has been carefully thought through, I think I would see the header, the image, maybe back to the subheading if the image had taken my interest and then the information. box, as it stands out amongst the copy, if this was all to my liking the same orange would lead me into the article.

This was another that felt like it had clear layout and hierarchy, the dark image above. the copy, the headline. is in white and feels very harmonious with the image, we have some short leading information, the. body text and then finally. some closing information about where to see it.

I liked the way this article was all enclosed, the image becomes host to headings main and sub, and then onto a short amount of copy, encouraging us to continue to page 2 for more. This felt like a good way to fill some small space and to lead into something larger.

I had above a short 5 column article that I felt didn’t work, this one does, although it is lighter on information, this is still essentially a 5 grid but the first 2 is used for an image, this then flows into the header and then the article. The article doesn’t actually centre around the image they have used, I wonder if they are riding on the popularity and public awareness of the “crown” the only mention of the crown is in the caption below the image.

This one I found to be confusing too, at a glance the copy below appears to belong to the image, the text that does belong to the image is very short the headline is also above the image, we have seem this done better above. Again this is only an issue of i was flicking and scanning through the paper.

Exercise: Lorum Ipsum

This exercise asked me to analyse one of the examples from the previous exercise, looking to match the type and layout as close as possible.

Type faces

The type faces used was a heavy san serif, a bold san serif and then finally a serif font for the body copy.
I chose Gotham, in its black and bold variation, I approximated the font size and the leading the headline I was trying to copy was three rows long so this gave me a good indication of size. I guess that a newspaper would have set sizes to work from to keep rhythm to the spacing. For the body, I chose a typeface called Palatino, a serif font, I actually chose this because the way the serifs on the upper terminals went straight down.


The Hierarchy of the page is made from a Header in Uppercase, a sub header, again displayed in uppercase. We then have one last bold sans serif which is teh name of the articles authir and a dotted diving line leads into the copy.

The body is laid out into three columns using justified text, paragraphs are used and a space is offered to help readability.

Exercise: Hierarchy

This exercise asked me to consider the different approach for three different editorial style pages;

• An interview with a tv actor in a tv listings magazine

• A review of a new piece of hardware or software in a specialist computer magazine

• A book review in a newspapers weekend edition.

I first attempted this in adobe photoshop, and quickly decided to use indesign, it really is the best software to use, its tools are so better suited, text is easier to arrange and layout, it can edit and tweak columns and add images with text wrap, it is what the professional’s would use so switching was a good choice.

First I attempted the tv actor interview, I set up my working space and added in a text frame, I set 3 columns and my gutters, my font size was 12 pt, and on this and all the examples I decided to keep to a set rhythm with 12pt as my base, moving up in increments of 8pt and if that seemed to small then 4pt could be dropped.

I imagined this article to be a double page spread with the image on the left, a large header in bold (40pt), this would likely be a typeface that the magazine uses throughout, then a sub header (12pt) to serve as a summary of the content, something to grab the readers attention, this was the same typeface as the header but presented smaller. for this I used Comfortaa a sans serif type with a distinct character. The body copy was 12pt regular and for this I chose Gotham book, purely as it was easy to read over several columns of copy.

The next was the product review in a computer magazine, these articles seem to be very airy, some space the copy is broken up and leans heavy on imagery. the title has to be attention grabbing and preferably offering soem sort of benefit, then header and sub header here is, again in the same house style as the rest of the magazine.

next we have important information, such as title manufacturer & price, these I added in the same font as the copy, its a functional part of the text and needs to be legible, clear and easy to read. The vertical spacing of these elements all move in increments of 4pt or 8pt depending on what looks natural. The main copy has a drop Cap, I noticed these are often a different colour to entice the reader in, the body text here is Proxima Nova at 12pt, I wanted it to wrap around the images and this random free form approach lends itself to adding quotation’s or lifting soem key passages from the copy. Finally the authors name is at the bottom in bold.

The final example of this exercise is a book review to appear in a newspaper, the one thing I noticed about newspapers is that no space is left unfilled. Again I chose a three column layout, there is something a bout three columns that seems to sit naturally regardless of the page size. This one was very simple in comparison to the magazine layouts. A nice bold header, this typeface is called Britannic and is at 24pt, then a 12pt body text at 12pt, with a small image, I imagined that to be the book cover, finished with a bold article by message. this stops short of the bottom of the page and this would likely be filled with the start of a new article, or a very small feature.

Assignment 4 Show Me

assignment 4 asked me to design. my own typeface for a magazine called TYPE, in addition I had to prepare three articles around what males a type face interesting, how a typeface is constructed and the question mark.

The first thing I did was prepare the articles, whilst doing that I began to collect some magazines titles that I liked the look of. It was clear from my favourites I collected I wanted something with a little character, only a few standard looking fonts were included, the ones that could be used elsewhere and maybe. not be obvious they was the same font. The other challenge I had was that this was a magazine about type, sop certain fonts were out of the question, like a handwritten script type for example. I started to think of old printing presses and maybe there was a way. to do something in a modern style. I started to experiment, but even that was its own journey.

I made a grid in photoshop, just three lines for a baseline, median line and an Uppercase height Line, I had thought that the font would be more impactful in uppercase, but didn’t want to shut down any lower case experimentation. The grid was good but very rigid, I didn’t take into account a gutter for each character, I decided to make something that worked for each letter and also offered more versatility. I did some loose scribbling but the grids were too flexible. I. then turned to the ipad and turned on the grids available in the procreate software, this was much better, I could turn the grids off when. they was a distraction draw shapes and curves more acutely, any small mistakes were easy to undo. I had found my preferred workflow.

The first grid I made was too rigid
The second one was more useful

I tried to draw purposefully, looking for a theme or common thread that would weave through my typeface design.

Once I had something to work too I moved the sketches into adobe illustrator, it was here that I added two serifs together and created. a familiar shape, it was from this I decided to base the font, I had read. in my research that typographers will look for something to add, a theme or a method, my serifs together looked like a bat with wings extended. It felt Gothic, like an old printing press maybe, this fit nicely, I called my typeface Barbastelle gothic, named after a genus of a bat.

In adobe illustrator I tried to build with shapes to add some method to the construction and consistency to the shape.
It did help create a flow. The head and tail serifs, I combined to make that. “bat” shape in the P

I had the start of my final design

I really enjoyed this assignment, it felt like a real challenge and was very rewarding, I don’t think my font would find its way. on many font foundry websites but i was pleased with what I created with my new knowledge on the anatomy of a typeface. It is something I would like to have another stab at another time.