Comic Books Have Rules!

Comic books are considered the easiest form of literature, because of their simplicity and their immersive illustrations. But even this simple form has many grammatical rules behind its creation. In the process of creating comic books, these rules must be considered with great regard and attention. Here are some rules that you probably didn’t know:



An asterisk in a dialogue references a narrative caption in a panel, page or a previous issue. This is mainly a note from the writer or author that informs the reader about the situation so that the reader can be aware of the flow of actions in the story.

Balloon Tail


If possible, a balloon tail should point to a character’s mouth as if an invisible line is directed to the characters face. A balloon tail pointing to another area other than the face e.g.: “hand, leg or waist” is inappropriate. A tail shouldn’t be exceedingly distant from the character’s head.

Italic Bold


Italicized bold is used when emphasis is placed on a word or a sentence. This enables the reader to seize the correct, fitting meaning of the accentuated part. Italics indicate a special voice tone mostly “deadpan voices”.

Breath Marks


Breath marks are generally three compact, little dashes arranged like quotation marks. Also called “fireflies”, “cat’s whiskers” and “crow’s feet” breath marks frequently border a cough or gasp. If there’s no word between the marks, you get a figure that looks like a tiny blast which indicates that a character is unconscious, dead or has unexpectedly disappeared.

Burst Balloons


Burst Balloons are applied when characters scream their dialogue. These balloons appear in a jaggy and frenzy format. Certain words are enlarged, bolded or underlined mainly to give further emphasis.



Also called “top lining”, “butting borders” or “side-lining”, Anchoring is the best antidote to cure space constraints. It is mainly used because the panel is congested or to shift the rate of the outline used throughout the comic.



Captions are classified as follows:

  1. Location and Time Captions are written in a box often in an italic font. These captions identify the place represented in a panel or they can also refer to the time of an occasion
  2. Narrative Captions demonstrate the author or editor’s voice.
  3. Internal Monologue Captions basically substitute thought balloons. These captions also represent the inner voice of a character.
  4. Spoken Captions are the remarks of characters that don’t appear in the panel using quotation marks.

Double Dash


A Double Dash is only used when a character’s dialogue is interrupted.

Double Outline Balloons


These balloons add emphasis to the dialogue; which is mainly shouted just as in Burst Balloons.



Ellipsis is used when a character’s speech trails off. When a character is speaking and then stops and later recommences in another balloon the first dialogue ends with an ellipsis and the second dialogue starts with another one. Another valid use is when a character’s dialogue is too formal. Ellipsis is also used as an interval in a dialogue when a character experiences a physical distress or a feeling of unease. It is also used when a character is injured or is about to faint.

Emanating Dialogue


Mainly used indoors, an Emanating Dialogue is used when a character isn’t visible in a panel. The tail of their balloon ends at the point of provenance and has a small, star shape burst at its end.

Translated Dialogue


When a character speaks in a foreign language, the dialogue is bordered with a less-than symbol “<” and with a greater-than symbol “>”. It also ends with an asterisk that signifies a caption which clarifies what language the dialogue has been translated from.



Is used to make very long words fit into a balloon.



Italics are probably the most used typeface in comic book typography. They are mainly used in captions, titles or special balloons e.g: “Thought, Radio and Burst Balloons”. Italics are also used to stress non-English words or to emphasize certain words.

Joining Balloons


Joining Balloons share a dialogue which is separated by a diminutive distance that indicates a short hiatus.



Connectors are used in two occasions. The first is when two separate ideas are articulated consecutively. The second occasion is when two characters are speaking in a panel and the dialogue is interchanged between them.



Occasionally you may see lowercase used as an effective and efficient visual cue that indicates a whispered dialogue. Lowercase is also used for non-verbal vocalizations like “uh”, “huh”, “umm”, “err”, “grr”. Any vocalization that isn’t a real word, and is actually more like a noise, should be in lowercase.

Music Notes


A lone music note usually signifies whistling. If a dialogue is surrounded by two Music Notes this indicates that the character is singing. A music dialogue is often italic or tilted and follows a wavy, topsy-turvy baseline.



Numbers in dialogue should be spelled out unless they’re a date, designation, part of a name or a large number.

Off-panel Dialogue


It is a dialogue that is spoken by a character that’s not visible in the panel and probably will be introduced in the second panel. The tail of the balloon usually ends at the panel border; sometimes the balloon is left tailless.

Overlapping Borders


Placing a balloon over a border is never used unless it is absolutely necessary e.g.: “space constraints”. Sometimes it is used to demonstrate a nice artistic shift in the comic book outline.

Question Mark/Exclamation Point Combo


This is mainly used for shouted questions.

Quotation Marks


Quotation Marks are used for spoken captions. If there is a series of captions, you should start each caption with an open quote, but only use the end quote on the final caption in the series. If two or more characters have spoken captions, end quotes should be used as each speaker finishes his or her dialogue before the other one begins. Punctuation on the last line of a quote should always appear before the closing quotation mark.

Radio Balloons


Also called “Electric Balloons”, Radio Balloons appear whenever a speech is transmitted through a radio, robot, TV, telephone, or any type of speaker. In Radio Balloons the font should always be italicized.

Small Dialogue Big Balloon


A very small font size is used to indicate a special expression in a dialogue. This is shown when a character mutters or jabbers something or speaks sheepishly, also when a character is speaking to its own self.

Sound Effects


Sound Effects are mainly noises, not words, that interrupt the dialogue. Most of these interruptions could be “sudden punches, breaking glass, fighting noises, alarms and animal noises”. Sound Effects aren’t punctuated unless you intend them to seem cartoony. They are also considered as the essence of comic book uniqueness from other literary publications.



One space is adequate after any kind of punctuation except an ellipsis or a double dash.

Telepathic Balloons


When a character is speaking telepathically the dialogue is italicized.

Thought Balloons


Thought Balloons express what a character is thinking; the balloon is shaped like a cloud and its tail is made up of small bubbles and should point towards a character’s head (not mouth, as in a standard balloon tails).

Wavy Balloons


Also called “Weak Balloons”, this is used when a character is in physical distress. The balloon and tail are shaky. As a character descends into death or unconsciousness, their dialogue may get smaller and smaller and end with a double set of breath marks.

Whispered Dialogue


Traditionally, whispered dialogue is expressed in a dashed balloon, and sometimes written in a lowercase font.

P.S: Each comic book style e.g.: “ligne claire, atom, caricatured, detailed or film noir” uses its own fonts and balloon shapes.

As you can see, this process of creating comic books is not at all easy. However, let us leave all our concerns about grammar to the writers and illustrators, meanwhile let us enjoy this glorious art form.

Note: This post has been influenced by

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Greg says:


  2. Miriam says:

    Very nice! Needed ideas for my comic book style guide books – thanks for these!

    1. yassernazmy says:

      Glad to be of help!

  3. Not Impressed says:

    “Influenced by”?

    No. No no no.

    This is complete plagiarism from Nate Piekos’ guide. Way to steal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s