Sunday Mailbag

August 23rd, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I want to ask you about the bane of my life – speech bubbles. I create cartoons for a fanzine over here in the UK and have just recently splashed out on an imac and adobe photoshop, is there a facility within photoshop to create speech bubbles and to insert text within them if not is there a software package you recommend?

A: I really don’t deal much with speech bubbles, but I feel your pain. Speech bubbles and especially lettering drive me crazy as well.

With MAD, I am one of the few artists who still draws the speech boxes into the art:


People ask me why in the world I would do that when MAD would create all the boxes themselves when the do the text in production. The answer is quite simple… then I don’t have to spend time drawing and coloring large areas of panels that will be covered with word boxes and never seen. Duh.

On occasion I have a specific job that requires me to do word balloons, like the recent “Super Capers” promotional comic I did.

Recent versions of PhotoShop have vector tools built in that allow you to draw ovals and boxes and such, but I prefer to place the art into Adobe Illustrator and do the text boxes and type there. I find it easier to keep track of everything if I have the text separate from the art. Illustrator makes it simple to create your text balloons and tails, as well as to add the text. Plus you can then save the file as an EPS and send that to the printer, thereby preserving the vector quality of the fonts and balloons. No doubt you can do the same in PhotoShop, but this is just the way I do it.

Doing this is easy, first you prep your art board:

  • Once the PhotoShop art is done, flatten the file and save (I save as a TIFF)
  • Create new Adobe Illustrator page set to whatever specs you need for your project (i.e. comic book page: 6.75″ x 10.5″ plus 1/4 inch bleed, total 7.25″ x 11″).
  • “Place” art in the AI page, center as required (Below is zoom or specific panel)


Now you create your text/word balloons:

  • First type out your text using your favorite comic book font (I like Comic Craft’s “Tim Sale”)


  • Using the Ellipse tool, create an oval that roughly encompasses the text. Fill with while, stroke with 1 pt black. Also make sure the text is “brought to front” via the “Object>Arrange>Bring to Front” command when the text is selected so it’s on top of the balloon.


  • The oval will not be the ideal shape. Using the direct selection arrow, alter the shape of your balloon so it works best with the text. The arrow allows you to click on individual anchor points and either move them directly or grab the ends of the extending “curve control” lines and move them about. You can experiment a bit to learn how these can alter your oval shape to flatten it, extend or blunt the curves, etc.

You can see the red “curve control” lines with the dots on the ends

Moving them alters the balloon shape

  • You can also add anchor points along the oval border to do things like cut off part of the balloon to tuck it under a panel border. You do this with the “Add Anchor Point Tool”:

Anchor points added at the places where the balloon overlaps the panel border

Part of oval deleted with direct selection tool/delete key

Oval ends connected via pen tool

  • Now you want to create the “tail”. If you do this right you can use the same method of direct selecting the anchor points and curve control points to manipulate the tail easily. You start by adding anchor points to the place on the oval border to the area you want the “tail” to come from:

balloon9Anchor Points added to tail opening of balloon

  • Then you delete the area between the new anchor points to create your tail opening.

Area between deleted

  • Now it gets a little tricky. Using the pen tool, click on the anchor point on the left of the opening. Now move the pen tool to approximately where you want the end of the tail to be. Click and HOLD DOWN the mouse, then pull the arrow downwards to the left a little. This will create a “curve” as opposed to a straight tail line (assuming you want a curve to your tail. If not, just click and release at the end point)



  • You then end up with “curve control” lines with the dots on the ends that control the curve of your line.
  • While still using the Pen Tool, press and hold the “Alt/Opt” key on your keyboard. Your pen tool turns into the “Anchor Point Convert”. Click and drag the end of the lower left curve control line and drag it counterclockwise until it’s to the upper right of the end of your tail.



  • Now release the “Alt/Option” key and using the Pen tool click on the other anchor point on the right of your tail opening to complete the path.


  • You can now use the direct selection tool to grab either the anchor point and the end of your tail and move it about, or either of the curve control line endpoints that emanate from the anchor point at the tail’s end to adjust the curve of each of the side of your tail.

You can move the tail about now

Below is how I originally did the balloon in that panel. I placed my opening in a different spot than in this example… that’s something you can’t change after the fact (not easily, anyway) so make sure you create the opening in the place you want it to be.


It sounds complex but once you get the hang of it you can bang these out pretty quickly. Once cdone you can save as an EPS file and send it to the publisher (assuming they have your same font in their system) or you can easily select everything using “Select>All” and then choose “Type>Create Outlines” which converts all your fonts to vectors so no font info is needed. Of course once you do that you cannot go back and edit the type, so save a master of your file first with the fonts intact.

Doubtless there are easier ways out there but this is how I do it, having worked it out on my own.

Thanks to Tat from the UK for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Jeff Zugale says:

    Hey Tom, great to see you using Illustrator for your balloons and type!

    I have a tip for you that might slightly speed up your tail-making task. Instead of hand-cutting the ellipse balloon shape and then adding the tail as you describe, you can use the Pathfinder function. This will let you just very quickly draw your tail as a separate object – I usually start by de-selecting the ellipse, then clicking inside it to create the first point of the tail, then making the point at the tip of the tail, then going back inside to create the last point. This makes a tail-shape that overlays the balloon slightly. I don’t bother to close the shape.

    Once you have the two shapes you can select them both and then use Pathfinder to turn them into a single object. The Pathfinder palette can be opened by using the Window menu; the “unite” function is under “Shape Modes,” the leftmost one in the row.

    It’s a bit less painstaking, and gives you the same results.

    I also like to add a variable line weight to the balloon using the Art Brush feature, but that’s a bit more complex! 🙂

  2. Bearman says:

    If he doesn’t have illustrator, there is a fairly easy way to do it in Photoshop. There is obviously the custom shape tool with speech bubbles but I never seem to be able to get the tail where I want it using it.

    Instead I create an ellipse using white underneath my text, adjust it to size as described above. Then I simplify the layer and using the Polygonal Lasso tool, draw my tail on the same layer (overlapping my original ellipse) and fill it with white. Finally I use the magic wand to select the entire white area and stroke the outline with black.

  3. Tat says:

    Tom, Superb – thanks very much I feel like your giving away the crown jewels for gratis!!, I’m also working through your digital inking tutorial which is proving invaluable for my next deadline (especially now the guys on the fanzine know I’ve bought photoshop :-)).

    Cheers again your fan in Blighty.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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