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Madeleine Vasaly

An Introduction to Proofreading Comics

A speech bubble against a blue frame in comic style is set on a yellow background.

If you proofread prose books or magazines, working on your first comic book or graphic novel can be intimidating. A lot of your skills are transferable and will serve you well across media types, but some editorial elements are handled differently.

Reading comics from a range of genres and publishers will help you get familiar with some of the common styles out there. A mainstream superhero series will look and feel different from an indie graphic memoir, and both will look different from a story for younger readers.

But comics tend to share a lot of common conventions, even when the content or format differs. Here are some of the things a proofreader moving from prose to comics will have to learn and watch for.

Two notes:

  • I’m using “comics” as an umbrella term that includes short-form comic books, long-form graphic novels and webcomics.
  • This list is based on what’s common among comics written in English for a North American audience. Those published for other markets may use different conventions.

The crossbar I

Text reading "How is it almost noon? I'm late!" in an all-caps, comic-style font. The letter "I" is written as a single vertical line in "is" and "it," but it has crossbars at the top and bottom in the word "I'm."
Image supplied by Madeleine Vasaly

I sometimes see the en dash described as a calling card among prose editors: the average non-editor probably isn’t familiar with it, but editors know its special uses. The “crossbar I” holds a similar place in the comics world.

The standard convention in comics lettering, which commonly uses all caps, is that the capital letter I is written as a plain vertical line called the “slash I.” However, when it’s being used as the pronoun, it’s the “crossbar I,” which has a horizontal bar at the top and bottom. Some publishers also use the crossbar I in other contexts, such as Roman numerals. 

This style was born in the days of low-quality printing, when a single vertical line risked disappearing on the page. These days, some comics will use the slash I for everything. But letterers and sharp-eyed comics readers will be quick to notice if crossbars appear where they shouldn’t.


Prose copy editors and proofreaders have spent many collective hours changing sets of two hyphens (- -) into em dashes (—). But in comics, the two-hyphen style — often called a double dash — is the standard for midsentence breaks. Although some writers, publishers and letterers will choose to use solid em dashes, double dashes are considered normal and correct.

As for en dashes, only some comics publishers use them — and not in all the same contexts The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) would call for. For example, they might be used for creating compounds like “post–World War II” but not in number ranges, or vice versa.

[Editor’s note: Due to the double dash being automatically converted to an en dash upon publication of this post, the example above has had a hair space added to it. In comics, there would be no space between the two hyphens.]


Comics use emphasis (usually in the form of bold italics) a lot more than most prose books. But frequency isn’t the only difference. 

Text reading "Don't tell me, tell her!" in a comic-style font. The word "her" and the exclamation point are bolded and italicized.
Image supplied by Madeleine Vasaly

In prose, it’s usual for punctuation surrounding italicized text to be italicized only if it “belongs” to that text, like a movie title that ends with a question mark. In comics, punctuation surrounding emphasized text is usually emphasized even if it’s not part of that word or phrase. 

Although this style is sometimes applied to periods, commas, colons and semicolons in prose (CMOS 6.4), it extends to all punctuation marks in comics. When the punctuation in question is one of a pair, like a quotation mark or parenthesis, both marks in the pair generally use the same style. The rules dictating when both are emphasized and when both are roman can vary from publisher to publisher.


In prose writing, two approaches dominate when it comes to numbers: one, spelling out zero through nine and using numerals for anything larger, and two, spelling out zero through one hundred and certain round multiples. 

Numbers in comics, on the other hand, are all over the map. Some publishers follow the “zero through nine” guidelines popular in newspapers and magazines — media where, like in comics, space is at a premium — but you might see zero through twenty spelled out or different treatment depending on hyphenation. Though less common, the “zero through one hundred” rule is also a possibility. In short, assume nothing.

A note on markup

In prose publishing, using Acrobat’s built-in insertion and deletion tools when proofreading in PDF can allow the typesetter to directly accept or reject changes in their layout program, similar to the way a writer can accept edits using Track Changes in Word. In comics, this usually isn’t an option because of the way lettering differs from typesetting.

In the Adobe ecosystem, lettering usually happens in Illustrator (rather than InDesign like book typesetting). As a result, comics publishers and proofreaders are more likely to prefer stamps and/or freehand markup to the built-in PDF tools, which might be unusable or insufficiently visible on the page. And this markup may need to look different from what you use with your prose clients — traditional proofreader’s marks aren’t used as widely in comics, so editors and letterers might not be familiar with them.

Learn more

I go into more depth about these and other conventions and workflow considerations in my new book, The Proofreader’s Guide to Comic Book Style. Letterer Nate Piekos of Blambot also has a helpful guide, “Comic Book Grammar & Tradition,” that lists some common elements of comics.


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2 Comments on “An Introduction to Proofreading Comics”

  • This post grabbed me from the crossbar “I”! A fascinating glimpse into a proofreading niche I know nothing about. I especially enjoyed it on the heels of finishing, this morning, “Roaming,” the latest graphic novel from the glorious Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. Thanks for the enlightening read.


    • I found the “crossbar I” discussion fascinating too! The distinction between the crossbar and slash I feels so natural in text that I’d never actively noticed it while reading graphic novels.


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