Ballons & Borders – Episode 5

Balloons & Borders transcript

Hi and welcome back to lesson 5 of our comics tutorial. Today we’re going to be talking about words. Now while it’s perfectly possible to make comics with no words in them, a speech balloon is what most people think of when they hear the word “comics”. A speech ballon can be shaped in many ways. It can give off emotions, like anger, frustration or even love. You can hear people’s thoughts with a thought balloon or even a caption, much like the voice over in a movie, or you can have you characters whisper or shout in a number of ways. You can also put sound effects in your comic to help us understand what’s going on. A few words about speech balloons: They should always be placed in least intrusive areas of the panel – usually in the top – and the “tails” of the balloons should point towards whoever is speaking. If possible, towards their mouth, as that where the sound is coming from. Beware of the reading order, and be careful where you place your speaking characters, so you don’t have tails criss-crossing and confusing your readers. If you draw your speech balloons first and put the text in afterwards, you might end up with balloons that are either to small or too large. That’s exactly why I always text my comics before I start sketching. In the old days, before computers, us cartoonists had a much rougher time than now. Making lay-outs and texting has never been easier. Before computers, measuring out the borders or “gutters” between panels was done with a ruler and texting was usually done by hand. Today we can rely on layout programs and computer fonts for that. Later, you can print out your entire comic and trace the frames and balloons on a lightbox. That’s what I do, anyway. I like the hand-drawn look of it. Some artists make their own font, so their texting looks like their own handwriting. However cool that sounds – and it DOES sound cool – I would advice against it, unless you have a lot of time on your hands and the skills needed to follow through. Go online and look for free fonts, see what you can find that fits your story. I often use a place called, but there are lots of places online where you can find free fonts. Just make sure you’re not spending days looking and wind up with a trial version of something you can’t really use. A lot of sites advertise free fonts, and then when you click through, they still want your money. When deciding on what font to use, you need to think of the tone or voice of your story. Is it a whacky cartoon or a horror story? The font is part of that. You might also need some special characters for your language, so make sure the font has those before downloading. In the last episode we talked about layouts and thumbnails. Using my thumbnails as a guideline, I do rough sketches of my entire story. I do that in print size or even smaller. This is still the planning phase, I don’t want to be worrying about the details or what paper to use for the final comic. What I then do is I scan my rough sketches and paste them in an InDesign document. Some use Photoshop or Illustrator. I’d say use whatever program you’re most comfortable with. First, make a standard page that fits the format you want to use. US comics for example are taller and narrower than European comics. Find a comic on your shelf that fits what you want and measure it, use that as your standard. While you’re at it, measure the space between the panels, often referred to as “the gutters”, use that as well. You will notice, that there is no “industry standard” to how wide the gutter should be or how thick the frames are. Pick a standard you like – and stick with it! Experiment, but be consistent within the story, you can change it up for the next project if you want. In your layout program of choice, set a standard bleed for the entire page and make a standard border. If you don’t plan on letting your art go all the way to the edge of the paper, you don’t need to worry about bleed. But if you’re doing a cover, you will need it for the print shop anyway, so… I always draw the finished panels by hand, so in my layout document I just make a box to represent the gutter, copy that and paste it wherever I need it. The text is a little trickier. If you did what I recommended in lesson 1 and 2, and wrote and actual script for your comic, you’ll have your dialogue in a word document or the like, so you can easily paste it in your text boxes in your layout document. Begin with pasting it all in on box, and cut the dialogue as you go along. Don’t worry about placing it to begin with, just do the boring work of getting it on the right pages. Use the same standard box for all text, one with no frame. Make sure dialogue is centered and captions are left aligned. When you’ve finished pasting in your dialogue, adjust your boxes, and maybe even edit down some lines, or divide in two separate balloons, if your dialogue is too long. As a rule, two or three sentences per balloon is quite enough. You don’t want the reader to loose their place or their interest. When I’ve done the tedious work of layouting my entire story this way, I feel like I need a reward. And that reward is printing it out and actually start drawing. So let’s go on to lesson 6: Perspective drawing and backgrounds!

18 Responses to “Ballons & Borders – Episode 5”

  1. Brannagh Waslh April 14, 2014 at 12:26 am #

    I’m just wondering what that thing is called you draw on. Not the Wacom tablet the thing that you use pencil and paper on. If you could answer it would be much appreciated.

    • Palle Schmidt April 14, 2014 at 7:58 am #

      Hi Branagh,

      Not sure I know what you mean by what I use to draw with pen and paper on… The lightbox? The table?

      I use mainly Photoshop for coloring and adjustments to the art. For lettering and borders I use InDesign.

      Hope this answers your question. If not, please write again.

      – Palle

  2. Brannagh Waslh April 14, 2014 at 12:35 am #

    Also what program do you use

  3. Line Gregersen April 30, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    The only thing this webside needs is a “next video” button 😉

  4. Tammy May 20, 2014 at 10:48 pm #

    I am really enjoying these videos, and am finding them very helpful. I have one question about this one though. You said to put the speech balloons above the drawing / sketch of the character, why is it wrong to put it below? Sometimes that seems to be the only place it fits when I’m drawing it out otherwise I’ll end up with way too much speech at the top. So is this an absolute rule that you should never place it below?

    • Tammy May 20, 2014 at 11:02 pm #

      I suppose I should have paid more attention before commenting. I re-watched the video and seen that you suggested to put the speech balloon in the open areas which is ‘usually’ toward the top, so I’m assuming it is OK to put it down below the character if it’s needed. Or am I still not understanding it correctly?

      • Palle Schmidt May 24, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

        Hey Tammy, you are absolutely correct 🙂 The preferred place to put the balloons is above, but what’s important is the reading order. You could try tracing the page with just frames and balloons, see if it makes sense. If the reading order is clear even without the art, you’re good!

        Thanks for asking, hope the answer was helpful.

  5. Jamie Sims November 28, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

    Hi Palle. Thanks for these videos, they are really helpful.
    Can you tell me if there is a reason most comic dialogue is all in CAPS? One of my favourites (Saga) is not all caps, but it’s the only one I’ve seen. Do you feel there’s any benefit either way?
    Also, what about font sizing? Does it need to be consistent?

    • Palle Schmidt November 28, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

      Ouch, you got me there, Jamie! I’m afraid I have no idea why comics fonts are in all caps. My guess is caps are more readable when written by hand (which is how it used to be done).

      As to your question on consistency, I do think you should keep it all the same font and font size, except for effect – screaming and whispering springs to mind. Some letterers even do special fonts for some characters to make them stand out. But excessive variation can tend to be annoying.

      Glad you like the videos – thanks for signing up!

      • Palle Schmidt November 28, 2014 at 8:27 pm #

        PS: I call it “texting” in the video. I believe the correct word is “lettering”. My bad.

  6. leandro December 8, 2015 at 12:14 pm #

    Hi Palle,

    you’re doing a grat job with these videos!
    I have a question: I am a bit confused about the of drawing/lettering stages. If I didn’t get it wrong, we should make text BEFORE sketching. But I see in the video that you add text on the computer on a paper that already contain the drawing phase with the blu pencil. And if it’s like this, how i can do that if the scanner don’t detect the blu lines?
    Also, in the bonus video I see that you start sketching with empy baloons, that means you didn’t text before drawing.
    it shoud be like this:
    – thumbnails
    – text with a sofware on computer
    – sketching with blu pencil
    -inking on the lightbox keeping the original paper with the blu pencil in order to experiment different inking styles
    Maybe this is can be a silly question but I want to be clear the relation of the various steps.
    Thank you and sorry for my English

    • Palle Schmidt December 16, 2015 at 9:00 pm #

      Hi Leandro, thanks for your questions! First off, when you say “we should make text BEFORE sketching”, let me correct the misunderstanding that you “should” do anything! People make comics in a lot of different ways, I’m trying to give you my method. But even that varies. And you’re right, I do rough sketches before the lettering (I wrongly use the term “texting” in this video. Sorry!). That’s how I know where to place borders and word balloons.

      Regarding your scanner question, it does pick up the blue line. You can remove it later, if you want. I usually do my rough sketches in blue, but there’s really no reason for it, since I ink on a lightbox. To clarify, here’s the breakdown of my drawing process:
      – Thumbnails
      – Rough sketches (which I then scan in)
      – Lettering and borders (in InDesign, then printed)
      – Sketching on top of my printed lettered roughs
      – Inking on the lightbox.

      If I’m in a hurry, I can print my roughs out in blue and ink directly on top of it. But I usually go with the lightbox, where I can get a nice, clean start without all the grubbiness of the sketched pages.

      Hope this answers your questions. If not, please write again!


      • leandro December 22, 2015 at 2:29 pm #

        Hi Palle,
        thank you for the answer!
        Just to be sure I got it:
        Rough sketches and then lettering borders is what you explain in the video at 5:02 ca. And that is clear! But I still have a doubt…when you print the sketches with lettering and border, you use to make balloons and layers by hands with the help of lightbox, but what about lettering? In the inking stage i should mark the lettering by hand as well, otherwise how can i have the lettering while I Ink on the lightbox?

        Thank you in advance, I really appreciate your help:D

        • Palle Schmidt January 9, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

          The lettering is in the computer and included on the printout for reference. When I scan the inked pages (done on a lightbox), I then replace the rough sketch with the finished art (with empty balloons). So the lettering is all done in InDesign, only the borders and balloons are done by hand. Hope that clears it up!

          • leandro January 10, 2016 at 9:13 pm #

            Yes! now everythink is clear!:) Thank you very much

  7. Bernadette Baca August 25, 2016 at 7:54 pm #

    I am a former elementary art teacher, & want to do comics. I don’t have any knowledge of photoshop, adobe, or other well known graphic art programs. Is there a good program I can buy specifically for comics? Or is it going to be to my advantage to learn one of the well known programs

    • Palle Schmidt September 22, 2016 at 9:05 pm #

      Sorry, I missed this comment initially, luckily you sent me this question via email. Here’s my reply so others can benefit as well:

      Hi Bernadette,

      I use Photoshop mainly for coloring and clean-up and try to do as much as I can by hand 🙂 I learned both by using the program and by sitting at a studio with a bunch of other illustrators.

      You might get some ideas from this blogpost:

      Don’t forget to read the comments below, there are a few recommendations from other readers.

      And if you want to color digitally, there is this little guide:

      I letter my comics in InDesign, which is also a paid program, perfect for putting together a whole comic book (or any other book or magazine).

      Before we all had computers, people lettered by hand, which is also a possibility. Except if your handwriting looks awful.

      I Googled for “Photoshop alternatives” and found this:

      Maybe there’s something you can use there. I’ve heard of Gimp but never used it. I’m sure there are tons of things out there to try. But that’s a few pointers to get you started.

      Hope this is helpful!

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