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• Production: Aged Comic Cover

• Lettering: Thought Balloons

• Lettering: Opentype Ligatures

• Publishing: Getting Started in the Industry

• Lettering: Gradients in Illustrator

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Lettering: Thought Balloons

Daniel wrote:

"I'm trying to do some webcomics on my website, but I didn't see any tutorials on thought balloons. Do you have one? If so, could you tell me where it is? Thank you very much."

Why, yes — of course! Well at least, we do now...

While the thought balloon has gone out of style the past decade or two, in favor of the boring narrative caption box, we still think they're cool. In fact, they're one of the most unique and powerful aspects of comics! In what other medium can you literally see a character's thoughts? We say it's about time someone brought them back, and Daniel, you may just be the man to do it. After you've read to the bottom of the page, that is.

1. Type in your dialogue and arrange it in a roughly circular shape. We're using our new font HammerHorror.

step 1

2. Using the oval tool, draw a circle that encompasses the text as tightly as possible without touching it. We like to hold down the Option key so it draws outward from the center of the circle.

step 2

Convert this object to a guide by hitting command-5 (or select View > Guides > Make guides).

3. Using the pen tool, click along the oval guide to create the shape that will become the thought balloon. Classic thought balloons alternate large and short gaps, with an occasional double-short if you're in a really crazy mood.

step 3

4. Select Filter > Distort > Pucker & Bloat, check the "preview" box, and slide the slider to the right to "bloat" the shape. The amount will depend on the size of the balloon — smaller balloons require proportionally more bloat to look the same as larger balloons.


5. Last, get the oval tool again, and create the bubbles that lead from the head of the character who's thinking. Draw the first oval directly on top of the nearest small bump, then three or four smaller and rounder circles as they get closer to the head.

step 5

IMPORTANT THOUGHT: A smaller thought balloon should have fewer bumps than a large one in order for them to look like they were drawn with the same hand. Don't ever resize a large balloon down to fit a smaller block of text! Create a fresh small one with fewer bumps and a greater percentage of bloat.

step 7

Once you've created a handful of thought balloons at different shapes and sizes, then you can copy and resize them slightly to fit new blocks of text.

— JG

P.S. The next issue of ELEPHANTMEN is War Toys #3, and it will be in stores Wednesday, April 30th!

cover art

Bonus: Seven Uses For Thought Balloons

A while back, reader Micah Wright responded to our Thoughts on Thought Balloons roundtable with a great analysis of the many uses of thought balloons. We thought you'd enjoy it too...


Saw this webpage on your site today, and it struck me that I like Tim Eldred's idea that over-reliance on thought bubbles comes from a weakness in the Marvel Method, but I'll take overuse any day if my only other choice is giving up the tool. Uses for thought bubbles shown on the illustrative page from Ditko-era Spider-Man:

Spidey art
  1. enhanced description (1)
  2. subversion of expectations (1)
  3. pinpointing location of unseen character (1,3)
  4. clarification of action (2)
  5. creation/enhancement of suspense (1,2,3,4,5,6)
  6. split time (4)
  7. setting up expectations (6)

Only one of those strikes me as cover for inadequate drawing, and that's the clarification of action on panel 2 — which is not to say that all uses which clarify action are bad, just that Ditko could have done a better job with that panel.

I love the thought bubble in panel 1. Gobby throws a bat no larger than his hand at us. We have one second to get comfortable with that idea before Spidey reveals that it's a mechanical bat, which as a completely unknown quantity, has NO upper limit to the threat it poses. It's a mini version of Robert McKee's "Gap". That's free entertainment, and a major plus for the reader, even if the line was just there to explain why a real bat is farting black smoke in panel 2.

Look at how the balloon enhances panel 6. It's just two guys facing off — but with the addition of the balloon, tension builds while we're forced to wait for the outcome of Spidey's next move (forced to wait because we are stopping to read) — and we wouldn't have been thinking ahead AT ALL if not for the thought balloon. No way to do that without a thought bubble. Yeah, we don't need THOSE! Let's do away with them altogether! :)

— Micah

Micah Wright is a writer who has worked in videogames, film, television, animation, graphic novels & comics. He has also released three books of political commentary & graphics. Check out his work at

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