The Problem with American Vampires Is That They Just Don’t Think


Thursday, March 18, 2010

A few days ago Robot 6 directed me to probably my favorite piece of comics publishing hype in a while, a short interview with Stephen King promoting the new Vertigo series American Vampire—King is scripting a back-up feature for issues #1-5, his first-ever original work for comics (as opposed to the various adaptations of his prose over at Marvel). Specifically, I was fascinated by a short bit concerning the comic’s editing process and how it bumped up against King’s take on the form:

One example:Thought bubbles—those puffy, dotted clouds that were a staple of early comics—have been phased out. “I got this kind of embarrassed call from the editors saying, ‘Ah, Steve, we don’t do that anymore.’ ‘You don’t do that anymore?’ I said. ‘No, when the characters speak, they speak. If they’re thinking, you try to put that across in the narration, in the little narration boxes.’” So King happily re-wrote to fit the new style—though he still laments the loss of the thought bubble. “I think it’s a shame to lose that arrow out of your quiver. One of the nice things about the written word as opposed to the spoken word in a movie is that you can go into a character’s thoughts. You do it in books all the time, right?”

This is great for several reasons, not the least of them being the mental image of our ky?-level candidate folding his legs and meditatively accepting instruction; I mean, forgive the presumptuousness, but I think that Stephen King maybe, probably, almost certainly could just petition his editor for a special thought ballooning exception, but he won’t, because he wants to understand how comics are done. Indeed, King was brought on to the project after its initialization, and is duly credited below primary writer Scott Snyder and artist Rafael Albuquerque on the cover, in keeping with a supplementary scribe’s status—by all visible indication, he’s going native.

But that got me thinking—which tribe? And what’s their damn problem with thought balloons (as I call ’em)? It’s helpful to take closer look at what’s being said, and—since the comic in question was released just today—what’s being done.

I mean, I presume everyone here and Stephen King realizes that he’s not learning ‘comics’ from this experience so much as Vertigo procedure, which naturally will encompass a lot of elements of comics-at-large, although it’s also bound to enforce its own particularities of usage. Hopefully a less acclimated reader doesn’t come to believe thought balloons have been “phased out” entirely, because that’s not true, not even in front-of-Previews genre comics—I just caught one today flipping through a recent Savage Dragon, and I know a few Marvel series keep ’em visible. Among bookshelves, as high-profile a critical darling as Asterios Polyp made sure to include thought balloons among David Mazzucchelli’s encyclopedic formal array, in both the purely iconographic manner seen above and ‘with words.’ Chris Ware’s a user too, and I imagine Archie hasn’t kicked the habit. Yes, the use of thought balloons isn’t the same as it was in fifty years ago, but it’s not like King is laboring under an industry prohibition.

One of the nice things about the written word as opposed to the spoken word in a movie is that you can go into a character’s thoughts.” I really shouldn’t read too much into King’s comment, since quotes can be quite innocently shifted by context, but it seems he’s maintaining a separation of function between narrative captions and thought balloons, as if narration and ‘thought’ are discreet on the comics page. There’s historical precedent for that, sure.

Take this panel from “Ghastly” Graham Ingels and the good people of EC—the caption up top serves as the narrator’s voice while the thought balloon leaps into a character’s head, nice and clean (and spacious too). Sometimes the story’s horror host narrates, or sometimes an unnamed narrator, or possibly Wally Wood. Over half a century later, the same segregation of narration and thought can be observed in one of the biggest selling comics of 2009, The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, which flaunts the ultimate in omniscient narration through as many panel-topping lines as William Gaines could fathom, God mostly in his heading heaven and mortals left to muse and remark when He allows it. Personally, I still imagine it’s Woody talking.

Yet some of the old EC stories allowed narration to become thought too:

Note the present tense; here you’ve got the character’s immediate impression of his fate. He’s thinking as it happens, in much the same manner superhero characters would after thought balloons died down in use. Think Frank Miller’s bones-cracking-she’s-good-fast-I-fly type of running commentary, and all of its descendants—not an exclusive or historically definitive list, but it’s all caption-based narration as a substitute for thought balloons, as in taking their place.

I can only speculate as to why King’s editors didn’t want him to use the tool; Vertigo doesn’t maintain a necessarily uniform line of books (although I can’t think of any titles that use thought balloons at the moment), but it does tends to prize a certain stylized maturity of verisimilitude in its various fantasies and horrors. They’re cool, and captions can be a likewise cool device, sharp-edged and—this is vital—aloof from the thinking character, hanging away from their head or drifting through entirely unrelated scenes, panels with no characters at all. In contrast, thought balloons have a ‘chain’ that latches them to the applicable thinker, a forced, perhaps confining intimacy, very revealing in looking so silly like fresh thoughts would seem if seen. Some writers have duly exploited this quality; witness Alan Moore’s famous Weeping Gorilla of the admired Wildstorm series Promethea (as seen at the top of this post), a typically dense construct that matches the nakedly emotional aspect of the device with the mega-merchandising mania of Garfield—surely one of the form’s most prolific thinkers—as allegorical for the shallow appeal of mass media trends, with equal emphasis on the shallow and the appeal.

Plus, thought balloons simply aren’t as versatile: you can’t stretch them out over the course of a story, they offer less opportunity for word-image consonance/dissonance—they simply don’t seem as ‘literary,’ in that they don’t allegorize a descriptive passage of prose giving way to dialogue, and thereby can be dubbed unsophisticated. I don’t agree, and neither does comics-at-large, even a few of the shared-universe superheroes, carrying their extra burden of functioning as a flickering window into some simulacrum of a parallel reality—it may just be a sharp object with which to assert one’s comic-bookiness, but Oliver Queen could at any moment encounter a child-murdering villain that needs putting down post-haste, and it’s preferable to have every arrow in the quiver.

Looking at the completed, King-scripted segment of American Vampire #1, well—first of all, it’s a very EC-styled piece, complete with a narrating host introducing himself to the reader and a twist-style ending, even though it’s just part one of a continuing thing. The narrator’s also an observing character, and really doesn’t do a ton of narrating; most of the captions actually serve to carry dialogue into flashbacks or panels in which speaking characters don’t appear, another simple function of their versatility. Still:

This could have been swapped out with “Wallopin’ websnappers, gotta write this down!” or something even more authentic. It’s a caption expressing a thought, which, don’t get me wrong, is perfectly valid, and written so that it flows well from captions on the prior page, and it might have been written like that from the start and King was referring to something else in this interview—I doubt I’d have missed potential balloon usage if I wasn’t looking for it.

The question has been begged, though—why not use a thought balloon? Is it too silly? Is it unsophisticated? Will it mess with the narrative flow? Does one less element mean one less source of potential error along the production line? I can’t provide the answers alone, but luckily there’s a whole bunch of popular genre comics out there mass produced at a steady, serialized pace to use for direct comparison’s sake, without all the habits known to North American comic books.

To your right, you can see a 2001 panel from Shirow Miwa’s Dogs, a manga about attractive people shooting each other. I didn’t have to dig through the bookcase to find it; you can probably track it down at any big box bookseller, since publisher Viz has given it a nice deluxe format push. Note the word balloon. It’s not a common sight in manga, not so traditionally mounted, but there it is, chain and all, in a cool and stylish book. It doesn’t have to look like a cloud — it’s more of a woozy balloon, like atmosphere burning off the character’s head, a little pointed to caricature surprise. A bit like how Ghastly draws it in that one EC panel halfway up the page, as a matter of fact.

Moreover, the balloon’s text is noticeably different from the dialogue to its right, or Miwa’s diverse use of narration — past tense, present tense, in captions, between panels, stamped right by characters’ heads, but always written complete. In contrast the thought balloon text is clipped and curt, an unwitting burp of realization. Specialized, but direct, adding color and immediacy to the character’s reaction by the special, personal, emotive quality of the device, its very difference from the story’s other narrative techniques. You don’t have to go brief — offhand, I recall a Grant Morrison story (in 2004’s DC Comics Presents Mystery in Space) where he omits all punctuation or capitalization in packed-to-bursting thought balloons, to better convey the unrefined character of immediate wonder — but by maintaining a responsive difference in the way thought balloons are deployed, you can modulate the story’s tone.

A more complicated example now, from a more popular comic:

This is from Tsugumi Ohba’s & Takeshi Obata’s Death Note, a jillion-selling series that’s been translated into every tongue from here to Mars and has no doubt set up permanent residency at your local mega chain bookstore, much like the works of one Stephen King. It’s a thriller, and here’s a famous sequence where two characters try to out-think one another while playing tennis; the rigor of their thinking is matched by the physicality of their game. This is half a page of many. Their thoughts float without borders. Free.

Quickly, our point of view closes in. Speed lines obliterate the background, the crown – anything but them. The dueling narration grows larger, literally bigger on the page. Then!

As we grow yet closer, the space between them closes. The panel border between them is devoured as their once-restrained analysis erupts into active thought, into a thought balloon, or rather a manga-style radiating thought area, a variant, commemorating the arrival of passion on the scene. It’s punctuation, a completely intuitive means of segueing between subtle attitudes  with, paradoxically, all the unsubtle force the comics form can manage – it’s nuance by way of explosion.

This is the sophistication of the thought balloon, not potential, not theory: this is practical. You don’t have to lay down a bubbly cloud, you don’t have to abide by North American tradition, you just need to seize the force of iconography at the heart of the comics medium and create lovely differentiations between textual vessels. And I admit, it’s easier to do for a writer/artist like Miwa, or even an artist like Obata, who at least gets to dictate the shape of the containers. It’s comics-as-comics, and doesn’t track so well with prose, and maybe if the object is to be literary, or to show a prose writer how the scriptwriting process goes, you’d want to skip it all.

It’s not enough for me, though, to hear that’s just how it’s done, ’cause that’s just how you do it. As a duly compensated representative of the thought balloon lobby with an MA in over-reading, I’d like more from my passing quotes, better from my hype.

Labels: , , , ,

41 Responses to “The Problem with American Vampires Is That They Just Don’t Think”
  1. While you’re right in saying thought balloons haven’t been completely phased out by any means they’re more of a throwback or artistic flourish than the norm in mainstream (read: Marvel and DC) comics. I wouldn’t call that a “peculiarity of usage”, since there isn’t anything peculiar about it; it’s the industry (again: Marvel/DC) norm. For the type of comic King is writing it makes sense for him to adapt to that style, since the device might make his work seem amateur or dated. In a book like Asterios Polyp the narration in a thought balloon isn’t likely the type of narration King is using here, so it works. Likewise, I think it works in Manga because of the medium’s inherently exaggerated style. In today’s “super-serious, baby-killin, woman in refrigerator” comics thought balloons seem out of place.

  2. T. Hodler says:

    I am very likely misremembering, but I believe the no-thought-balloons style of writing was greatly influenced by early Alan Moore, after he tried to do without them entirely in V for Vendetta, which was apparently a pretty radical concept at the time (or at least I’ve heard it presented as such). Moore continued in that style for a while, and was obviously the primary inspiration for the Vertigo feel.

    • T. Hodler says:

      Yeah, I found it. Moore writes about it in his V for Vendetta afterword:

      “…Dave [Lloyd] was giving me his ideas of how he actually wanted to approach the strip in terms of layout and execution. These included the absolute banning of sound effects, and, as an an afterthought, the utter eradication of thought balloons into the bargain. As a writer, this terrified me. I wasn’t so much bothered about the sound effects, but without thought balloons, how was I going to get over all the nuances of character that I needed to make the book satisfying on a literary level? …

      “A couple of days later, I wrote back to Dave telling him … that not only would we do without thought balloons and sound effects but I was willing to get rid of most of the caption boxes as well and just rely entirely on pictures and dialogue.”

      Obviously the captions came back with a vengeance in Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s work in general, which both set the tone for later Vertigo work.

      I’m with you, though: I always enjoy a well-placed thought balloon.

  3. Excellent post, Joe. I love thought balloons. They are a fundamental piece of the comic book language. And I believe it is for this reason that Vertigo and other mainstream comic book publishers have willfully eliminated them. I think they are embarrassed by thought balloons. To me, the elimination is evidence of the publishers’ desperate yearning to legitimize the comic book form in the eyes of the non-comic-book-reading consensus and marketplace. I believe the publishers are hyper-sensitive to being dismissed by those who’s approval they covet. Thought balloons are a visual reminder to the reader that they are indeed reading a comic book. When publishers don’t have enough faith or belief in the fundamental narrative tools of the form they publish I think there may be a problem.

    Eliminating thought balloons could be a business decision. Maybe publishers are making inroads into new markets of readers who never would have picked up a comic book before. Since there aren’t any thought balloons, it must be a more, as you say, sophisticated, and therefore legitimate, reading experience.

    I remember reading an interview with Joe Casey who wanted to get rid of thought balloons during a stint on X-men, but the editors wouldn’t let him, but they later implemented the no-thought-balloon policy after his run? I could be wrong. But Casey’s (I believe it was Casey) motive for getting rid of thought balloons was purely for a narrative purpose. Without the use of thought balloons the reader is then able to project the emotion onto the character as to what they are thinking, which is closer to real life, I guess. Of course captions wouldn’t serve to communicate characters’ internal dialogue either and more onus would be placed on the artist’s ability to get the characters to “act” and render emotional states.

    This could be a phase, like the elimination of the guitar solo in rock music. Soon it might be cool again to have thought balloons.

    Also, I thought you made an excellent point about tense in relation to thought balloons vs. captions. Thought balloons allow for a clear, direct, within-the-moment signal to the reader that this character is thinking this thing at this time. While I think captions sever that connection. Captions have a more ambiguous time designation inserting a margin for confusion.

  4. Makes sense that omitting thought balloons would’ve started with creators as influential as Moore and Lloyd on a significant work like “V.” Still I blame publishers’ inferiority complex toward their medium for the blanket policy of eliminating thought balloons, instead of doing it when it serves to improve specific books and stories.

  5. Evan Dorkin says:

    Thought balloons work to keep the writer’s existence invisible, the thoughts are attributed by the reader to the specific character, and not to a storyteller, or as I find is more often the case these days, the writer. I think writers like having folks notice their hand at work these days (perhaps they always have to some degree — certainly Stan Lee did, and his acolytes, and the Marvel editorial style of butting in constantly and making jokes, and the purple prose crowd that jammed 70’s comics full of whatever they were reading and high on at the time to make you darn well understand that “I am writing here, so take me seriously”) – for me the narrative captions too often make plain the touch of the writer, there is the “look at me, I’m writing here, really writing here” aspect to so much of it. Especially in the most heavy-handed and egregious Spillane-isms and attempts at poetry in the wake of Miller and Moore and Gaiman. Thought balloons don’t allow for the deathless (or deadly) prose that counts as writing in many modern comics, the money shots that get written up in Wizard and CBR Best of lists at year’s end, that get used as personal quotes on fan e-mail and blog posts. In a lot of ways it comes back to cool, and I do think the inferiority complex kicks in as well, along with the bizarre, desperate need for “reality” in a genre populated by crying mega-wrestlers fighting gods and monsters while somehow avoiding battle with North Korea or the cure for cancer.

    I’ve used both approaches, and the funny thing is, thought balloons do seem strange in modern superhero comics, I find myself trying to avoid using them when doing a long underwear script that isn’t a full-on gagbook. Even though in my own work I prefer to use the basics, thought balloons, popped exclamation points and question marks, whatever. So what the hell do I know. Actually, I try to avoid narrative captions as much as possible, unless the story calls for it for some specific reason. But I try to maintain the character’s voice, and not turn “him” into a stand-in for “me”, the writer. Ben Grimm shouldn’t have a knack for simile so very often, if yo catch me. I think the writer’s voice being apparent is one thing, the writer’s hand, not always welcome. Not necessarily a truth, but an opinion, for basic narrative work. Thought balloons are invisible, unless they’re written badly, narrative captions are often laced with self-satisfaction. And thought balloons are certainly an odd device, because no one thinks as cleanly and — if written poorly — on the4 nose as the average thought balloon purports. But no one really thinks like Mickey Spillane after the fact, either, and that’s been pretty accepted since Frank Miller threw it though the comics window with enough force to impress it in the minds of many, many comics writers.

    Cripes, am I still on topic? Oh, yeah, I hate when anyone refers to thought balloons as “speech bubbles”, although both are dopey.

    Still, they’re thought balloons. I think…

    Comics are so weird.

  6. Deco says:

    Great article. I can’t say I _miss_ thought balloons, they can be a bit corny (and if there’s one thing current mainstream stuff WILL NOT BE is corny), but as King says, they’re a great arrow in the quiver: there’s just something about them that is unique. Imagine if the Miller stuff you mention was placed in bubbles: that wouldn’t work; but as you say, their implied immediacy / linkage to the character makes them distinct from the thought-captions: imagine Bendis’ Mighty Avengers simutaneous innner/outer dialogues: those inner-comments wouldn’t (I’d say couldn’t) work in caption boxes. In short, they’re just one of the things that can make comics so much their own thing (or, what I call “good”), along w/swear icons, broken up bubbles, sound-effects, font effects, place/time-setting captions and, you know, the pictures and stuff

  7. Joan de' Arc says:

    Great post.

    I think Ditko perfected the use of thought balloons in SPEEDBALL.

  8. StevenErnest says:

    This is a very thought-provoking article. Wonderful comments, too.

    As a fledgling writer — short stories, comics, etc. — I remember doing a bit of deconstruction of comics’ narrative style. I do think Alan Moore started the trend of completely avoiding the thought balloons, in V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. And Neil Gaiman followed suite in Sandman. Obviously wanting to raise the perception of the comics medium — and they did.

    I remember my young days of reading Spider-man; I loved it when Spidey fretted about being late for class, missing a date — thinking in thought balloons. There was some inconsistency when he would speak this out loud to himself. And years later in the more mature comics, I always enjoyed the insights into character which were conveyed by their thought balloon musings. I still think this is an excellent, viable — and mature — LITERARY method to convey information.

    The last time I looked, comic books were a VISUAL medium. Alan Moore has been oft-quoted about the un-filmability of Watchmen. (Since proven wrong by Zack Snyder, imho.) He has said how there are things that “only comics can do.” Right: and showing thoughts via word balloons has been one of these signature traits.

    Stylistically, I do think that on a beautifully illustrated page, having the narrative or thoughts in a box/caption is visually more appealing than the bubbly cloud of words.

    But for DC’s Vertigo to have an editorial style forced on writers of no thought-balloons is, to me, pretentious — and belies their fear that comics still need to play it safe to be accepted.

    This is the 21st Century, and excellent major studio films are being made of comics, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, 300, Watchmen, etc., with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars. College courses are being taught on comics. The comic book as intelligent medium has arrived. It is no longer in a “ghetto” as Science Fiction was for years.

    “Long live the thought balloons,” THOUGHT StevenErnest.

  9. R. Standfest says:

    Let’s not forget that great homage to E.C. crafted by King– ‘Creepshow,’ which to my mind did a better job of capturing the spirit of E.C. than the ‘Tales from the Crypt’ series ever did. He did adapt his own screenplay into a comic with Berni Wrightson. One of the successful aspects of ‘Creepshow,’ was its use of some of the formal visual devices, as found in genre comics of the 50’s– use of color, speech balloons, abstracted backdrops for psychological emphasis, and a consistent re-consideration of the frame. Using the simplest of effects, Romero and company went a long way in exploring those formal properties as they relate to content, translated onto the movie screen. More so than what alot of other genre comic-based films have attempted to do.

  10. ReggieQueequeg says:

    You know who is GREAT at thought balloons? Peter Bagge.

    My brother, who is not a huge comics fan got turned on to Hate from me giving him a collection to read, and his favorite thing about it was “the characters were saying one thing, and thinking another!” Just like real life.

    Thought balloons. They are a great tool for comics that can’t be used in any other medium.

  11. Rob Clough says:

    For Marvel, it was Brian Bendis who pretty much eliminated the use of thought balloons. Marvel also made the editorial decision to stop interjecting editorial comments in the comics as well (* see last issue-type comments). Bendis replaced thought balloons with his Mamet-light rapid-fire dialogue as a way of carrying the story (he doesn’t do a lot of narrative captions either).

    Warren Ellis was another big influence, eliminating thought balloons with The Authority in favor of his”widescreen” approach.

    In both cases, writers were trying to make comics look like something other than comics. What’s interesting is that in both instances, the results were very popular with readers and highly influential for other mainstream writers.

  12. Stuart Moore says:

    Interesting discussion. A lot of older fans get very worked up about this, and I think it’s true that thought balloons came to be thought of as unsophisticated in editorial offices. But as a writer, I shy away from them for two completely different reasons. First off, to my eye, they look kind of ugly. Second, and more important, they encourage sloppy viewpoint storytelling. Hopping in and out of different characters’ heads is jarring and usually slows down a scene.

    Thought balloons don’t have to be used that way, of course; they can be confined to one character. But if you do that, you almost might as well use narrative captions instead. There’s a different effect, but not a tremendously different one.

    There are exceptions to all of this, of course. And there’s one place where thought balloons absolutely work: humor. Some punch lines come across best when confined to a single character’s head, and those little puffy clouds hovering over the character’s head only enhance the effect.

  13. David Mazzucchelli says:

    I don’t have them in front of me, but if memory serves, Roy Thomas’ and Barry (Windsor) Smith’s CONAN was the first comic to aggressively eschew thought balloons in what I can only guess was an attempt to adopt a “literary” tone.

  14. Jake Wyckoff says:

    S’funny, ’cause: Thought bubbles/balloons are still used regularly in marketing design and advertising and are generally recognized and understood by the public consumer.

    The abuse of the non-epistolary first-person narrative caption often exasperates me. To whom are you speaking, Mr. Character, sir?

  15. Stuart Moore says:

    Jake: Why is that more irritating in a comic book than in, say, a Junot Diaz novel?

  16. Jake Wyckoff says:

    Stuart: I can’t speak to Junot Diaz, but I recognize the influence of the pulps, Chandler on down. I suppose I always allowed for the possibility that a grizzled PI might one day write his memoirs, and that’s what I’m reading. Thank you, Mr Grizzled PI! Fightin’ Pantyman comics appear to take place in the ongoing present (which they kinda do anyway, by virtue of their periodicalness)– the narrating character will react to the events of the story. But at other times the thought is communicated narration–the character speaks of the events in a conversational fashion–which is simply not the way people think in realtime. Normal people, anyway. I think. Ironically, I think it separates the reader from the material by showing the medium instead of adding the extra dimension of thought as an integrated element.

    And color-coded or logo-anchored captions drive me batty, as well, but maybe that’s my hang-up.

  17. Stuart Moore says:

    I almost wrote Chandler instead of Diaz! It’s all taste, of course; to me a third-person comics narrative voice is no more or less distancing than a first-person one. (In prose, first-person is generally acknowledged as more intimate.) I agree on the color coded captions, for the viewpoint reasons I mentioned.

  18. Rob —
    What’s interesting about Bendis and thought balloons was his later attempt to bring them back in. I know it was unpopular with a lot of readers, but he at least tried to recontextualize the concept within the framework of his style with Mighty Avengers and the interruptive thought balloons between actual spoken words. It was largely used, like Stuart Moore brings up, for humor, though. I thought it was an interesting experiment in using more of the comics vocabulary filtered through his Mamet style, but, again, enough readers seemed to find it annoying enough that he dropped the approach after less than a year.

  19. Thanks for a great piece! I’m an advocate for thought balloons and use them frequently in my all-ages comic. The puffy-cloud design is one of the more iconic elements of the comic form, completely unique and distinctive, and neither seen nor utilized in any other medium I can think of.

    The cool kids don’t want their more adult books to be lumped in with “Peanuts” and “Garfield,” so it makes sense for them to eschew the balloons in favor of captions. However, I hope kids’ comics will continue to keep thought balloons in circulation. I can think of no more useful device for climbing inside a character’s head — and the very design of the balloons is an immediate invitation for the reader to step inside.

  20. Chris K says:

    There was an issue of Daredevil post-Miller’s-first-run in 1983 or 1984 written by celebrity guest writer Harlan Ellison (with co-writer Arthur Byron Cover) (and drawn by David Mazzuchelli!). Cover had a column at the time, and did a “behind the scenes” write-up of the issue where he mentioned that they did write the issue with first-person narrative captions… which were then switched to thought balloons by editorial. I can’t say I noticed it at the time – I was 13 – but it’s hilariously obvious now. Like I said, it was after Miller’s first run, but a year or two before his second (the “Born Again” arc), which did go to town with the first person, and I think was the real watershed moment in that trend. But clearly, Marvel couldn’t grasp it at the time…

    Re: Conan. I think I’ve read that the lack of thought balloons was Barry Windsor-Smith’s suggestion, and that it was done to show Conan’s impulsive nature rather than bog down the action with brooding and deliberation; what’s Conan going to think? “I think I’ll stab this guy.” I think Roy Thomas brought thought ballons back when Buscema came on board, but I really don’t know for sure.

    Re: narration in real time. There’s a moment in that Christina Ricci movie “The Opposite of Sex” (narrated first person by Ricci’s character) where Ricci’s death is teased, and then revealed to be a tease by Ricci who chides the audience: “You thought I was dead? Hello? I’m the narrator!” It plays like the writer is being oh-so-impish with the conventions of storytelling, and it’s… kind of amusing, I guess. But it would carry more weight if every single other movie with first person narration I’ve ever seen DIDN’T end with the narrator dying (just like in the EC-shock ending Jog shows)…

    –Chris K

  21. Stuart Moore says:

    SIXTY YEAR OLDS SPOILER: I think you can blame the dying-narrator cliche partly on Sunset Boulevard, where I’m sure it was originally quite a shock in the theaters.

  22. Stuart Moore says:

    Of course, that should have read “Sixty Year OLD.” It wasn’t a spoiler for sixty year olds.

  23. […] Interesting article by Joe McCulloch at Comics Comics regarding the scarcity of old-fashioned thought balloons in todays genre comics and elsewhere (via The Beat). […]

  24. After reading the article, I rifled through my “in-the-bathroom” stack of reading material to Iocate the free 65th anniversary copy of Archie that lives there. In that specific story, I was surprised to find no thought balloons.

    Chuck is the only character who offers his private thoughts (on his work being rejected by a comics publisher), and he does so by speaking aloud to himself. I like to see this as the Archie writers making deft use of Shakespearian soliloquy. It’s classy.

    “Alas, poor Jughead!”

  25. […] McCloud, bouncing off a post by Joe at Comics Comics, explains his preference for thought captions over thought balloons: The question I find most […]

  26. […] Jog takes a look at the many forms and uses of the thought balloon, which, despite an editor's admonition to Stephen King, is far from dead. Scott McCloud adds his two cents as well. Related: Chris Sims explains exactly what's wrong with the lettering in the Twilight graphic novel. […]

  27. jonathan babcock says:

    Funny, I would LOVE to think that thought balloons have been excised because of some actual literary discussion in some well-lit editorial meeting, but I think you find, in today’s comic-book-production world, that doing aesthetically-pleasing thought balloons in the DC digital lettering style just takes too long.

    You can do it, and you can do it well with some training, but it isn’t going to be fast, and that is most likely the reason.


  28. […] Una bella discussione sul tema del balloon si è sviluppata, proprio in questi giorni, a partire da un post sull’eccellente blog magazine americano Comics Comics. […]

  29. Felicity says:

    When good letterists like John Workman or Janice Chiang draw thought balloons, they’re beautiful to behold. I would hate to lose that.

  30. […] has lead to a discussion of word balloons in general. As far as I can tell, the discussion starts here with Joe McCulloch (Jog). The comments are by people like Evan Dorkin and David Mazzucchelli. Then […]

  31. Ebrey says:

    I think the codification of the “Vertigo style” has led to most Vertigo series becoming formulaic and boring, Vertigo was a big deal in the 90s. Nowadays, Image does middlebrow comics better. Image comics allow more experimental art (see: Jonathan Hickman) which is a big problem with Vertigo.

    Frank Miller is the best writer of narrative captions, bar none. Narrative captions are mostly about seeming cool and nobody’s definition of cool is as fascinating as Miller’s.

  32. XyphaP says:

    Thought balloons may not be an industry norm, but they certainly aren’t a pariah. Amazing Spider-man (ironically the “regular” counterpart to the thought balloon eschewing Ultimate SPiderman) has definitely had thought balloons that were not a reminiscent throwback, and is still being used as more than prosaic rendering of thoughts. #623, the closest one, has thought balloon words jumbled all together, sometimes in varying sizes to each other, and, in a particularly interesting scene, Peter’s thinking about his future plans when something interrupts him, compelling him into verbal speech describing the situation. That may just be on the Waid issues, though.

  33. […] Jog, the critic's critic, discusses a dying piece of comics grammar, the thought balloon: Plus, thought balloons simply aren’t as versatile: you can’t stretch them out over the course […]

  34. Tuomas says:

    I think one thing that though balloons can do that narrative boxes simply can’t do well is illustrate moments when someone is saying something, but AT THE SAME TIME thinking something totally different. A simple example: imagine a panel in a comic book where a character says “I love you!”, but at the same time thinks “I hate you!”. Now, if the artist puts “I love you!” in a speech bubble and “I hate you!” in a thought balloon below it, the effect is that the character is saying one thing and simultaneously thinking the other. Now, if you tried to express that with narration boxes, it wouldn’t have the same effect, as narrative boxes are less tied to a specific moment and have a more timeless, detached quality than thought balloons. In a typical Vertigo style the narration is usually done IN RETROSPECT, so in the narration the character is actually recounting something that has already happened to her in the past. Done in this style, our example panel would have a speech bubble saying “I love you!”, and a narrative box saying something like “But really I hated him.”. Now, this would convey the same general idea as the first example, but the effect the simultaneous juxtaposition of speech and thought would be lost. Even if the narrative panel was done in an “immediate” and not in a “retrospective” style, the effect would not be the same. If you’d replace the “I hate you!” thought balloons with a narrative box with the same text, the effect of a simultaneous speech and thought would be diminished, because narrative boxes aren’t attached to a SPECIFIC MOMENT in the way thought balloons are.

    From this you could draw a more general theory: thought balloons are useful when you want to attach a thought a character is having to a specific moment in time and space. Of course this is not the only way a writer or artist can put thought balloons into good use, but I think this is one example where they have a clear advantage over narration boxes.

  35. […] Vertigo editor asked him not to use thought balloons in his work on American Vampire. An article in Comics Comics Mag brought this to our attention, and sparked discussion. Why do some editors now discourage, or even […]

  36. […] Vertigo editor asked him not to use thought balloons in his work on American Vampire. An article in Comics Comics Mag brought this to our attention, and sparked discussion. Why do some editors now discourage, or even […]

  37. Tim Young says:

    We discussed this article and the whole “thought balloon” issue in our podcast episode “Thoughts on Thought Balloons”:
    Hope you’ll take a listen!

  38. […] Lobbyist of the Year: Joe “Jog” McCulloch, Thought Balloon Lobby […]

  39. […] McCulloch: Essay on Thought Balloons (“The Problem with American Vampires Is That They Just Don’t […]

  40. […] (tie). “The Problem with American Vampires Is That They Just Don’t Think”, by Joe McCulloch (5 votes). I voted for this one. Obviously I’m horribly biased as I consider […]

Leave a Reply