Mastering the Comic Balloon

If there was a defining symbol of comics as a medium, it’s the comic balloon.. bubble… Holding shape for the text. Heck, we even plopped one in our Webcomic Alliance logo. So, at some point as a cartoonist, you need to master the balloon. But not just the balloon itself, but the flow of the writing and how to make your comic reader-friendly. The comic strip medium’s key component is brevity, and readers like to be able to read your work (that takes you HOURS to create) in less than a minute. Your job, like it or not, is to set up your comic to be absorbed quickly. So how about some starter rules?

5 Rules of Comic Balloons

  1. Easy Does it. The top writing skill you should focus on fine-tuning is brevity. Some even say the key to humor IS brevity. Find the shortest phrase/sentence needed for each balloon, your readers will appreciate it. I, myself, am guilty of being long-winded, especially with my one characters who tends to be cumbersome and elaborate. Other than that, I try to keep everything as conchie as possible. That’s my excuse, find your own ;0)
  2. Keep it Clean. Balloons should be a holding shape for your text, by showcasing it and allowing it to breathe.. Not competing with it. Best to stick to a simple and clean format.. Allow the text to do its job.
  3. Make Your Point. The tails are extremely important. Which way they point is detrimental to how a reader follows along. Keep them big enough to grab attention, but not take over. And for heaven’s sake.. Have them point to somewhere NEAR the character’s mouth. No more talking ankles.
  4. Keep it in Order. People, in the US we read LEFT TO RIGHT first, and then TOP TO BOTTOM. Your balloons should follow suit. Although it may be easer sometimes, disrupting the flow of your writing can be lethal for a comic strip. And it lengthens that “under-a-minute” lifespan a typical reader wants to hang out reading your confusing comic.
  5. Pretend We’re All Far-Sighted. Keep that text big enough to read. Actually, make it another point size bigger, while you’re at it. Not everyone can read 7 point type. Devote a large section of each panel to the text, bubbles, and tails. If you’re unsure if you’ll have enough room, make more room. Better to have too much than too little.

And now for a little tutorial.

I remember the days where I would hand-write the text for each comic. But I have sloppy hand writing and now resort to fonts. I also remember the days, in my naivety,  when I would ink the balloon.. Scan it.,.. And add the text in later. Very few people have the estimating ability to pull that off. As much as I brag about being a good planner… I do not have this capability. I have found the best way is to create the balloons and text in Illustrator, but there is still some guess-work in figuring our how big or small to draw your characters. Which is why it’s highly recommended to write your comic first, so you know how much text you are dealing with. Anyway, without further ado, a quick demonstration on how I create balloons in Illustrator:

The holding shape. I usually use the rounded rectangle box, with the corner radius set to 0.5. You can use an oval, or any combination of rounded shapes, but I find the rounded rectangle works best for me. White fill with black stroke. I use a calligraphy brush stroke I created so the line looks less harsh and more like it matches my own line work.

The tail. Using the same fill and stroke, I select the pen tool and make the tail, but do not connect the final points. That way the white “bleeds” right into the balloon shape, making the two elements appear as one. This is very helpful if you need to rearrange, flip, or resize the tail. Best way is to start the path on the bubble, the next point around the mouth of the character, and finally the last point back to the bubble.

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  1. What I don’t understand about lettering in Illustrator, is once you import you comic, then do all the lettering on top of it, then what? Export is as a tif and then resize to web size in photoshop? I just letter in photoshop and save that extra step, unless you can export out of illustrator to a specific size, but then, doesn’t it export the whole artboard as part of your image… or do you resize your artboard first… it just seems like a lot of extra work unless there’s something I’m missing.

    • I think Dawn (like me) does all her work in Illustrator so there isn’t that extra step you’re referring to.

      Illustrator does allow you to export to a specific size. But one of the drawbacks I struggle with in Illustrator is that if anything is showing – even outside the artboard, it adds that to your export. At least it does in CS3 (may have changed in newer versions).

      That being said – I love the fact that by drawing in vector, I’ve eliminated any concerns over resolution – and you can’t argue with file size!

      • Yes vector definitely has its advantages, but it’s very limiting for complex coloring. So it’s only going to be useful as a primary drawing tool for certain types of comic styles.

      • Yup, I use Illustrator. Back when I did my comic in PS, I would actually ink the balloons by hand and scan it in, so I rarely had to make a bubble in the program itself.

        Ken- when you export, or save-for-web, there should be a little checkbox that says “use artboards” in the corner. This will crop out whatever is outside the artboard. I have CS4, but I thought was was in CS2 and 3 as well.

  2. And then go into the points on the balloon path and tweak them ever so slightly to lose that mechanical look even more. The brush stroke helps, but a slightly less than perfect shape will also blend in better with hand-drawn artwork.

  3. I always draw the tails by hand (well, via WACOM). I think it makes them look more organic (or “old school”), if that’s the style you’re working in. I’m not a fan of the computer-drawn look of balloon tails in an organically drawn comic, but maybe that’s just me.

    • I agree Mark. I use circles (usually tweaked), but I always draw the tail. I tried hand drawing the bubbles, but I spent so much time redrawing them and I was never satisfied.

      • to each his(her) own, I say. I thought the simple shape of a rounded rectangle looked sleeker and less obtrusive than my older process where I drew the balloon myself. I do use a calligraphic brush stroke on it, to help it blend a bit into the artwork.

  4. If you’re using Photoshop like many other webcomics artists, try this:

    Use the shape tool – it will create a vector shape that can be easily manipulated. Select the Pen from the Toolbar in the Shape options, and then press the + key and add your tail.

    From there, select your Layer Style (at the bottom of the Layers Palette, select Stroke, and set it to ‘Inside.’

    You now have a vector Word Balloon in Photoshop that you can reuse, resize and modify the tail as needed.

    • Thats what I use to make my comic, elements 6 I believe! Elements has shapes built into it, it also has word bubbles. The problem w/ the word bubbles is the tails are poorly designed.

      • I used to use PS Elements 2. I had another version or two of PS, but PSE2 seemed to work just fine. I migrated fully over to CS4 only recently.

        • Thats how I make them as well! I just wish there was a way for my tails to look more sweeping and less stiff as they head toward the character. I haven’t yet figured out how to master, or even make that cresting moon shape in the tail.

          • Jynksie, you can use the pen tool to make the sweeping or cresting moon shape tail. Here’s what I do in PS. First I make all the balloons around the text. Then I go back and use the pen tool to make all the tales.

            First click on the balloon where you want the tail to come out of, then click towards the speaker, curving it as you go, then click back in the balloon, curving that one too, then close off the shape and fill. Then, once all the tails are on the balloons, I stroke it inside at 10px with black.

            Hope this helps.

          • oh crap! I got it backwards…start your tail from the area of the speaker, then click in the balloon, then move over a little, click again in the balloon, then curve it back to the start point, fill then stroke…sorry for the confusion.

          • Karl- that’s basically how I make tails in AI, too. If I don’t fully close the tail (leave open as it intersects with the balloon shape), I can fill the shape and make the balloon and tail appear to be one shape.

  5. Nice tutorial. I used to do my strip in photoshop (inks, colors, effects) then import it into Illustrator to create the dialog. When I made the word balloons
    in Illustrator I would make the shape of the balloon then do the tail on a layer below the balloon then merge the two shapes together. True, this is some extra steps, but it is an alternative and guarantees you line up the tail and balloon without having the strokes look “off”. I would agree that Illustrator has a bit of a learning curve for complex coloring.

    • oh, there’s another method too in Illustrator (so many ways to do it, no way is wrong) Make your balloon shape, then do the tail, click on both shapes and merge…kapow! You’ve made a word balloon 😀

      • nice tip Karl! Like I said above, if you don’t close the tail (just 3 points), you can fill both it and the balloon and not even have to merge the shapes. Plus, I like having the black outline of the tail slightly intersect with the balloon.. gives my balloons their own quasi-style and look less rigid.

  6. Pingback: Webcomic Alliance - Video: Drawing Balloons in Adobe Illustrator

  7. Just found this site, and it’s been a huge help. Does anyone know how to connect multiple word balloons using Manga Studio 4? I use the Character/Word Balloon tool and can’t figure it out. Thanks to anyone who can help!

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