San Diego Comic-Con: The Art and Magic of Comics Lettering

A presentation on lettering from Comicraft's Richard Starkings

Room 8 on Thursday at the San Diego Comic-Con had Richard Starkings preface the crowd that had come to hear him speak that he would be giving two hours of class that he would give to his students in forty minutes. Starkings founded Comicraft, a studio that trains and employs letterers.

The presentation was opened with Starkings showing photos he had taken of the coffee shop he visits in his neighborhood. With each picture he asked the audience what text they saw. Needless to say there were words and sentences everywhere. Beyond the offerings of beverages and food, there were motivational phrases, simple informational instructions, etc. “We walk through comic books all the time,” he told the audience. I’ve been reading comic books for over forty decades and I’ve never heard this before. He’s right. Words are everywhere. Starkings went on to say that America has more much text present in front of businesses than where he grew up in England. Continuing to look at the pictures he said, “Lettering is two dimensional ninety-nine percent of the time. Artwork is two dimensional.” Lettering is unquestionably a form of art.

He then showed the exteriors of buildings from comic strips and books, again asking the audience to notice the text. He asked where the words were. The majority of the text was shown above the entrance to the store fronts. Comic books are store fronts — the title is always at the top.

Positioning of dialogue balloons was then discussed. Examples of good and poor placement were shown. A good artist will know how to create artwork that leaves enough space for the letterer. Sometimes the writer comes in after the artwork has been completed and adds more text, complicating things for the letterer. Starkings recalled that once a writer had really overloaded a panel after the artwork was completed and Comicraft didn’t know what to do without inserting a considerable amount of it over the art. The work was sent in with the panel stuffed with text and after that the writer never did that again.

Thankfully this late insertion of dialogue occurred when lettering was done with computers. In the past this wouldn’t have been as easy due to the lettering being done directly onto the comic book page. One of Starkings’s jobs was to the letter the iconic The Killing Joke written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. He said that he didn’t want to ruin the artwork of that series with his work after seeing what Bolland had created with the visuals.

Starkings also stated some wisdom that was obvious once I heard it. “Balloons are called balloons because they float.” Dialogue balloons should be placed up in the panels, not down at the bottom. Hearing this I started thinking of all the comics I had read, and he was right. They should be placed up in the panels.

Taking questions from the audience at the end of the presentation one truth was also revealed: when asked if there was one font that shouldn’t be used for comics, Starkings answered, “We shall never speak of comic sans again.” This drew strong laughter from the audience. He closed by saying that before using a computer those who want to letter should be apt lettering by hand, making the transition to computer easier.

Two days later I visited Starkings at his booth on the floor of the convention to talk with him further. I asked him about the continuing disappearance of sounds in comics that I’ve observed. He said that he enjoys sounds in comics because that’s one of the joys of the medium. Sounds increase the visuals. He showed me examples from some of his own books, Ask For Mercy: Book One: The Key To Forever and The Beef. The second book had a wide range of texts used to tell the story and they were a perfect match to the artwork.

I strongly encourage anyone who has the opportunity to hear Mr. Starkings speak do so. His insight and talents are immeasurable.

To order a digital copy of Ask For Mercy go to

To order a print copy of The Beef go to

To order a digital copy of The Beef go to


Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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