The webcomics blog about webcomics

Looking At Legibility

So your New Year’s resolution is to start a webcomic. Congratulations! Be sure to send a link, and we’ll take a look. But before you get started, there’s something that you ought to pay attention to if you want anybody to read it: you have to make it easy to read. Just like legible handwriting used to be the gatekeeper for reading prose, legible art is the gatekeeper for a comic project.

There are lots of elements to an art style, all of which are outside the scope of what we’re going to be discussing here; go read Comics and Sequential Art or Understanding Comics if you want to work on the mechanics and fundamentals (in fact, everybody reading this should go read them anyway). We also won’t be looking at color (I’ve been reliably informed that my sense of color is such that I shouldn’t be allowed to dress myself), or strip design where the art isn’t a main focus. If your goal is to be the next Ryan North, you’ll have other stuff to work on.

We will discuss certain design choices that make it easy for your reader to tell what’s happening on the screen. Along the way, we’ll have some examples from current and past strips; we will make no judgment if the strip is good or bad. The only question is, does that particular panel demonstrate some characteristic that makes it easy to scan visually?

One last caveat: I’m not an artist myself, and maybe that makes this entire exercise hubristic and arrogant, but oh well. I’m the guy that’s your potential audience, and I’m a lazy, lazy man. The webcomicker that makes it easy for me to read a comic? That’s what I’m gonna read. Those creators have figured out what they want to do with:

  • line
  • framing
  • character differentiation and posing
  • We’ll be taking these one at a time over the next several days. Whether you’re a webcomics creator or just a reader like me, feel free to share what you find makes a webcomic easier to read. If you think that particular points were helpful, or if there are better examples, or if you think I’m full of crap (especially if you think I’m full of crap), the ‘comment’ link is just down there.

    I have worked a lot over the past year to make my lettering quite standardized and legible, and to get the scanning brightness/contrast stuff to make each letter stand out quite properly.

    One thing that used to trouble me a lot was balloon placement. This is especially important in strips that have lots of text and flash-back cut scenes and such.

    I considered using computer speech bubbles in the past, because so many comics are doing it and because it is a bit neater, naturally. However, there are two downsides to it if you’re scanning artwork:

    – Doing the lettering and the drawing at different times can sometimes lead to placement problems.
    – Computer lettering doesn’t allow for certain neat subtle letter effects (like “FEEL MY WRATH” in this comic).

    Also, hand-lettering can give your strip a personalized touch that some readers really appreciate.

    After all, all too often, computerized bubbles look rather similar from one cartoon to another.

    Whereas handwriting always makes your strip look like your strip. You know?

    Those are definitely the two downsides that kept me away from computer-lettering for years. But after awhile, I decided to try and develop a workaround for them both, because I was really sick of doing hand-lettering “cleanup” graphic editing.

    Basically, I still hand-letter my strips like I always did. But after I scan them, I replace all my hand lettering with a font constructed from my own writing. Because I’m basically a robot who has been hand lettering the same way for years, my hand-printing is pretty much always the same size. So, the font I use usually slips into the same alotted spaces without any trouble. And if I ever want to leave certain dialogue areas hand lettered for emotion or emphasis, I can.

    I imagine this method would work for anyone who’d been hand lettering for a long time!

    […] Uncategorized Note: Whatever else this series may or may not have accomplished, it certainly got some feedback. Read through the comments for parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. If you haven’t done so previously, check out the work of Lucas TDS, Paul Southworth, Sylvan Migdal, Shaenon Garrity, Jeph Jacques, Christopher Livingston, Sam Logan, and Christopher B. Wright. That’s a lot of webcomics experience talking, and well worth listening to, especially when they agree with me. Okay, onto Part The Last! […]

    […] So, something PJ wrote got me to thinking about what makes for a good webcomic — archives that you can easily (and freely) navigate are the key advantage of webcomics over their print brethren, despite certain business models to the contrary. Jeff once remarked on the importance of infrastructure, including navigation, forum, and blurb space. And I’ve written about the importance of legibility in artwork. But what else is necessary for a really good webcomic? […]

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