22 March 2009

Nate Peikos’s Comics Punctuation

Through Laura Koenig's Bib-Laura-graphy (easier to say than it looks), I found letterer Nate Peikos's helpful “Comics Grammar & Tradition” article at Blambot.

I think the topic of this article would be better labeled as American comics punctuation--i.e., the markings around words that silently clue us into how those words should sound and what they mean. But it's still a handy guide to:

  • how American comics have developed their own punctuation system alongside that for prose.
  • how a lot of that system has no stronger justification than "tradition."
Take, for example, the fact that comics are usually lettered in all-capital letters, except that there are two forms of the capital I. Peikos writes:

This is probably the biggest mistake seen amongst amateur letterers. An "I" with the crossbars on top and bottom is virtually only used for the personal pronoun, "I." The only other allowable use of the "crossbar I" is in abbreviations. Any other instance of the letter should just be the vertical stroke version. Although I would debate it, you occasionally see the "crossbar I" used in the first letter of the first word of a sentence, or the first letter of someone's name.
I hadn't noticed this until I read Todd Klein's section of The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering, but sure enough it's part of the system.

Then there's this rule, which I came across first in the Image Comics guidelines reprinted in Peter David's Writing for Comics:

There is no Em or En dash in comics. It's always a double dash and it's only used when a character's speech is interrupted.

The double dash and the ellipsis are often mistakenly thought to be interchangeable. That's not the case in comics, even though it's rife in comic scripts. For the record, there are only TWO dashes in a double dash. It sounds like common sense, but you'd be surprised.
I heartily agree with Peikos's stickling about the ellipsis mark, as explained at greater length here. However, I also think that comics' adherence for the double-dash instead of the M-dash is an unnecessary relic of the Great Typewriter Squeeze. (I've touched on this aspect of comics punctuation before as well.)

I'm drafting some scripts for comics set during the Revolutionary War, and one of my first decisions was that they would include em-dashes, reflecting the typography of the time.

Peikos's Blambot site also offers a variety of digital fonts for dialogue and sound effects.


Anonymous said...

The double dash in comics also substitutes for the semi-colon. The semi-colon is basically non-existent in North American comics, although I see them once in a great while. And I think I've used them once or twice, but mostly find myself changing my own scripted semi-colons into double dashes when I'm lettering pages.

The double dash is also used in comics to set off phrases within a sentence--as in other written prose--not just at the end of a broken off sentence.

Jack Kirby's writing often included triple dashes.

J. L. Bell said...

Some people think—or hope—the semicolon is dying off in American prose as well.