August 15, 2009

This week: Balloon Shape.

This entry isn't about what you probably think it's going to be about. I suspect you think I'm either going to talk about the various shapes of balloons you can use in your comics, (round, cloud, square, unfurling scroll, etc.) or about how to compose your balloons within your comic panels.

Neither of those would be worth discussing on Comic Tools, not because they're not important, but because they're both extremely broad subjects of discussion which are very, very well discussed in many books and websites already. The reason I let myself get away with tutorials on comic tools is that I only talk about things I call "mental tools," little tips and tricks that you can keep in your mental toolbox and use to make your art easier and better. Subjects of broad aesthetic discussion are for the artist in you- Comic Tools blog is for the craftsman in you.

This week I want to bring something clearly into everyone's mental focus that they may or may not think of, but which very few people think of enough, if at all: The shape of the outline of the balloon is as important as the shape formed by the negative space inside the balloon, and the shape of the negative space inside the balloon is as important as the shape of the words inside the balloon. The words, the negative space, and the balloon's outline all have to combine into a single, pleasing form.

Many cartoonists, and most beginning cartoonists, look at text as something they have to either put over or cram into their art. This is because most young cartoonists "just want to draw," and don't want to have to deal with it. By the time anyone has gotten to a point of being even a little professional they've at least caved in to the idea that they actually have to leave room for balloons or their work will look like shit and be totally unreadable. Most even go to the effort to compose their pages by using the balloons as a visual element to lead the eye through the page, recognizing them as a part of the image and not just something they have to make room for.

But many professionals, even many good ones, stop there. They'll compose the balloons on the page, but they don't think about composing the balloon itself. And thus their balloons keep making their art look worse, and thus they keep hating text.

An average of 30% of your comic page might well be word balloon by area- it's worth taking the time not to make a third of your page look like garbage.

The problem with text, from a drawing perspective, is you can only do so much to change it, especially if you're working off a script you can't re-write. Those words are going to be that size and that spacing. You can't draw the word from a different angle, or from above, or in perspective to make it thinner. It's frustrating, how unmoldable they are, how undeterrably horizontal. All you can really do is stack them into a shape that's easy to draw a balloon around.

Most young cartoonists don't even TRY. I'm sure every one of you has seen a comic with one or more of these mistakes:
The problem on the top left is different from all the others in that it's a mistake made by cartoonists who are just starting to try to address the relationship of their text to the balloon but don't quite have the hang of it. I did it for awhile and so did many of my classmates at SVA. It happens when you keep drawing your balloons around your words and leaving huge amounts of space around them here but almost crashing the edge against a letter somewhere else. The teacher or a fellow student will say "You need to be leaving more equal space around your words, imagine there's a forcefield around the letters you can't cross." But then you take them too literally and you draw these spandex-fit balloons that really are like drawing a forcefield around the text.

If you're still doing that? It's time to graduate. although it IS important you have space around your words, it's not important that the space around them be equal. It's important that the space around them, and the words themselves, form a pleasing shape.

Let's take a phrase and I'll show you what I mean.

Below I've misspelled "I am a very hot Paleontologist, yes." seven times, in different arrangements. I've eliminated some, approved of others, and I'm iffy on one. Have a look at them and then I'll explain why.

Alright, now below are those same arrangements, but with the shape of the letters emphasized:

1 is just a boring shape, and being rectangular it's hard to form a pleasing oval around. But it used space pretty efficiently, so I marked it as lukewarm, a shape I might use is I had to but one I'd avoid when composing my page.

2 and 3 are pointy, nasty shapes that waste previous room on my page with empty and not very artful lumps of negative space. I can do better, and I can think of no reason why I'd use them.

4 and 5 are both more efficient at using their space and form stable shapes that are easy to draw a balloon around. I like to plan versions that will float as well as versions that I can bodge against the panel border if I need to, so I have options when I got to compose the panel.

6 is another inefficent waste of space.

7 is not only a better shape, but it's more compact, despite being an extra line. Should I choose to put this balloon in a corner this will take up the least of my drawing and do so very attractively.

When composing a page I figure out the best balloon shapes for the text first, and I compose only with the ones that pass. This way I know for sure that the text will look great later- I've already eliminated all the bad options!

Doing this not only makes the page look better, it makes the page read better. Text that gets forgotten till later usually gets crammed in, and cramped text actually has quite a detrimental effect on a reader. Read these two balloons with identical text, and pay attention to your eye strain, and even your level of stress, as you read one, and then the other:

If you're running a balloon up against the side of a page you also have to decide whether you're going to have the letters run flush against the border or be centered in the balloon. You have to draw the balloon differently for both. Also, you either have to have the balloon up against the border or totally away from it, having them tough forms and unattractive and awkward to draw around tangent:

When everything is working well, the reader should notice as little as possible that they're even reading. It's for this reason that I'm also typically of the opinion that text should be kept absolutely as simple and innocuous as possible. The goal is to be not noticed, so as not to pull the reader out of the story.
Using very regular, innocuous text also make composing much easier. However, as anyone who's read my comics knows, I DO think there's times where it's appropriate to draw attention to the text for effect:

I think a lot of folks associate bad lettering with digital, or computer lettering, either as seen in crappy mainstream comics or in englich Manga translations where the letterer is rarely an artist, such as these examples:
They're hilariously bad, to be sure. But let's not forget that plenty of great artists who did all their lettering by hand have made the same mistakes. Bill Watterson constantly ran out of room and had to bodge the rest of a long word in by drawing all the letters small, and Winsor McCay, one of the greatest cartoonists of all time, may well have been the worst letterer of all time. (Which is odd, since his title lettering was breathtaking. I think it's because he thought of the titles as drawing and his balloons as text.)

I think it's just easier to see mistakes in digital lettering, and that mistakes look worse in digital lettering, because everything is so regular and clean. Doing things by hand gives you a little leeway.

Two of my favorite letterers who use digital are Steven Griffin and Bryan Lee O'Malley.

Just look at the letter shapes in this spread from Hawaiian Dick, which Steve colors and letters:

They're immaculate. They sit there like perfect jewels. I envy the shit out of this guy. You can't see it here, but his colors make me foam at the mouth with jealous rage too.

I've always loved Bryan's combo if hand drawn balloons and computer text (some of the most tasteful computer text I've ever seen), but what's really unique and interesting about his lettering is how most of the time he composes his balloons so they only have one or two worse across running down his distinctive tall balloons in a punchy column.

Sometimes he'll let them get wider and grow into fat circles, but unlike just about every letterer I've ever seen, O'Malley defaults to the vertical, rather than the horizontal. The result is that instead of reading a block of text, I meander through the character's words as they speak. It makes for a unique reading experience.

Next week: The marvelous erasers of Japan


Raluca Z said...

I remember how frustrating it was when I had to let someone else do the typesetting for me for a while. It was excruciating to tell her how I wanted my types. I actually did a tutorial/how-I-do-it for this sole purpose

Overall I consider that the bubble-text-page relationship is all about esthetics and personal preferences. I find vertical proportioned bubbles more appealing precisely for that sort of special "reading" you mentioned. You have put it well with the balloon shape and negative space inside it.

Another thing I noticed (which has something to do with bubbles and typesetting) is the way the script writer breaks the text into chunks with meaning. It can work well or suck monumentally. Fortunately I do my own stories and script.

Comic Tools said...

Raluca- That's a fine looking tutorial, I'll post it later this week as a follow up.

You also bring up a great point with how the meaning of text can be enhanced by line breaks, something I chose not to cover in this entry, but which is also important.

Rivkah said...

Personally, I'm not a huge proponent of vertical balloons. I think there are occasional exceptions, but for the most part, they seem to be commonly used now thanks to the commonality of translated manga. The difference is that Japanese is typically read top to bottom. The text itself is vertical! But roman characters are read horizontal, and the breakup of horizontal text in vertical balloons looks, to me at least, awkward. But of course, typesetters have no choice when it comes to manga because the balloons are already made.

Vertical text layout also presents a greater challenge for figuring out how to break up lines. For example:

"He was an anonymous donor."

I would balloon that:

He was an

For text of that shape, a vertical balloon would present an awful lot of space at the top and bottom, so in order to get it to fit well into a vertical balloon, you'd have to do something like this:

He was
an ano-

See how longer words often get broken up? As a book typesetter, I have an ingrained loathing for breaking up words between lines of text and go out of my way to avoid them as much as possible because used to often, it can break up the flow of reading. However, it begins to become an incredibly common problem as a typesetter continues to letter in a vertical format and presents a headache, imho, best left avoided.

However, in the end, my personal theory is that overall text and balloon shape is best determined by the shape of the panel itself. Vertical balloons fit well into vertical panels. Horizontal balloons fit well into horizontal panels. Round balloons fit well into square panels.

I personally prefer slightly more horizontal text shape than round in my own panels (though it wavers between the two and rarely goes vertical), but to each their own for whatever's best appropriate for the art. :)

Comic Tools said...

Yeah, actually, that's my only disagreement with the tutorial that I might bring up, is to me breaking up a word with a hyphen to make it fit is like breaking your kid's feet to get him into smaller shoes. He'll fit, but he ain't gonna run too good any more.

Anton Emdin said...

Yes - it always astounds me that brilliant artists will do lettering and (even worse) sound effects using some crappy freeware font that doesn't gel with the art.

It's all part and parcel of the same thing.

Thanks for posting!

Jordan said...

Something from a design background you might want to consider:

You mentioned the elements in a speech bubble are text, negative space, and balloon, but the principle of organization starts at the smallest atomic unit, the letter.

We tend to visually group things that are closer and understand them by their similarities and differences. In C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Tumnus confuses Lucy's place of origin as "War Drobe" in the land of "Spare Oom."

Thus, for clear and easy reading, letters should be closer together than words, words should be closer together than lines of text, and lines of text should be closer together than passages of text are to other elements.

Specifically, you should have an increase of negative space between

letters < words < lines < blocks [bubbles to connected bubbles] < other elements [bubble to the rest of the panel].

A simple unified theory of spacing.

Notice, Matt, that you already do this intuitively.

Anonymous said...

Snap, this is one of those "can of worms" topics.

I for one, would really appreciate it if you'd bravely continue to delve into this unwieldy subject.

One thing that struck me, is your condemnation "forcefield" balloon. While this is often terrible, I think it can be qualified and used correctly. Here is an example:

Notice how Toth's balloon shape is conforming to the shape of the text block. However he does this while still maintaining comfortable negative space. In my opinion, these are highly appealing shapes.

Anton Emdin said...

I totally agree with Westival.

I've used this style often, and it can look really good. Kaz does it a lot in Underworld.

Of course, you can't follow the shape of the words too closely. I think that's where it can go pear shaped (literally!).

Comic Tools said...

Jordan: Fantastic point, as always. God do I love the comments I get here.

Kiel: Something very close to following the letters can indeed look good, but a true forcefield like I often see in student comics almost always looks shitty.

I still have to say almost because I have a friend Liz Baillie who does the forcefield and anything else in her work would look stupid. My balloons on her work would look stupid. But Liz draws them in a way that's visually clear and pleasing, somehow. I maintain that normally it's something to be stayed the hell away from.

vollsticks said...

Where do you stand on the use of ellipse templates for word balloons?