Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Elusive Period (Punctuation-Wise)

This is sort of a combination of a "request" post and a "my random thoughts" post. First, the random thought: ever since I was a kid, I've wondered what made some cartoon letterers unwilling to end a sentence with a period.

I know why the "all exclamation points, all the time" rule got started. When cartoons were reproduced in newspapers or comic books, periods would sometimes disappear due to the limitations of reproduction technology. So it was better to use either exclamation points (which had a better chance of being reproduced clearly) or dashes, or no punctuation at all. But years after these limitations had been more or less corrected, and when many letterers were able to use periods all the time without any problem, some people just refused to write "." unless they absolutely couldn't avoid it.

Charles Schulz is the ultimate example. Punctuation in Peanuts consists of the following:

- Exclamation points (for emphatic statements)
- Two or three dots, .. or ... (for statements that continue into the next panel)
- No punctuation (for statements that are complete but not particularly emphatic)

It seems like he'd eliminate punctuation where another cartoonist -- Walt Kelly, say -- would have used a period. (Some of Kelly's early stuff uses the no-punctuation device, like an early strip where Pogo says "It hard to figure out the angles on a worm tad" - no period, no exclamation, no nothing. But he very soon started using periods, and when he turned over the lettering to others, they continued to use periods.)

But to the end of his life, Schulz would use periods in Charlie Brown's letters or Snoopy's novels, but never in the dialogue balloons. Maybe it worked for him, or maybe he'd just been trained not to use periods and never got out of that habit.

Many letterers proved that periods could work beautifully, even in comedy cartoon balloons; Al Wiseman's outstanding lettering for the great Dennis the Menace comic books abounded in periods, and it made the dialogue feel more subtle than if they seemed to be SHOUTING! EVERY! STATEMENT!

And at the same time it was more satisfying than if the sentences just trailed off with no clear ending. Punctuation can have a surprising amount of psychological impact in a cartoon, and a willingness to use a period once in a while can make the characters seem more like they're holding real conversations.

Next, the request, which is connected to the random thought. In comments on a previous post, a commenter asked for an example of Bob Bolling's drawing of the regular versions of the Archie characters. One of the earliest examples is a story from 1963 where the teenage characters flash back to themselves as children. (Both Bolling and Dexter Taylor did "combination" stories like this around this time.) The most striking thing about the story is how much more comfortable Bolling was with writing for these characters as children (as teenagers, they have no clear personalities; as soon as they become little kids, he's on his home turf). But it also serves as a reminder that you could always tell when Bolling did his own lettering on a story: he was literally the only non-superhero person at the whole company who would end a sentence with a period. And the use of periods is one of the many things that gives many of his stories a "softer," sweeter feel than the rest of the company's output.


Muffin MacGuffin said...

I don't know if you read it already, but the webcomic Achewood ( makes excellent use of punctuation. The character Roast Beef's lettering is just a little bit smaller than other characters' and rarely ends with punctuation, which indicates how nervous he is to talk to other characters and his unwillingness to make a statement. Similarly, Chris Onstad occasionally has characters end questions with periods to indicate that the asker wants no answer. It's borderline Walt Kelly in the variance in speech bubble text by character.

Yowp said...

I never thought a lot about it Jamie, but it's consistent with titling elsewhere in newspapers. Headlines and subheads don't have periods, but they'll use question and exclamation marks for emphasis. Same as blogs. The header for this discussion has no end punctuation.