Word Balloons in Visual Space
by Jeet Heer
Monday, March 22, 2010
Joe’s excellent post on thought balloons got me thinking about comics balloons (or text frames) in general: not just thought balloons but also word balloons, narrative boxes, and labels (like the famous arrows in Dick Tracy which diagrammatically call attention to two-way-radio-watches and other items of interest). It would be great to have a history of text frames in comics. There have been stabs here and there by scholars. Thierry Smolderen’s “Of Labels, Loops, and Bubbles” in Comic Art #8 is a good start.
About thought balloons: When did they emerge? I know Harold Gray was very chary of using them: he only used thought balloons a handful of times in his 44 year run on Little Orphan Annie. I think this was deliberate. While his characters where gabby they were also secretive – this is true not just of Warbucks but even Annie, who never says all she knows. Gray wanted to keep his characters mysterious, hence he avoided thought balloons.
Here are a few thoughts on word balloons as physical objects:
Many cartoonists use text frames in a strictly utilitarian fashion, to convey dialogue and information. More interesting is the use of these frames as physical objects within the larger visual space of the panel and the page. Dan Clowes is a master of this technique. In his recent “Wilson” story in the New Yorker and the earlier “Mister Wonderful” serial in the New York Times Magazines, he uses text frames not just as boxes or balloons to hold words but as objects in their own right which can sometimes be hidden by other text frames, or placed partially off-panel so they can’t be fully read. Ken Parille, writing in Blog Flume about “Mister Wonderful”, notes, “To show Marshall’s self-involvement, Clowes superimposes Marshall’s narration boxes (perhaps a better term would be ‘interior monologue boxes’) onto Natalie’s word balloons. At first, her words are completely inaccessible to us because we are ‘hearing’ through Marshall; but as he begins to pay more attention to her – and less to himself – her words become more visible-audible with each passing panel. It’s an interesting way to show how we can simultaneously be aware of different things – our thoughts and another’s speech – and how our awareness can change.”
Clowes has some important precursors. In a Little Nemo Sunday page from January 02, 1910, King Morpheus has the gout and is great pain. His shouts of anguish aren’t regular balloons but more like little explosive bursts, which dominate the page and cover over the main characters.
In a Gasoline Alley daily strip from June 28, 1940, Frank King shows two women in a restaurant. He wants to create some distance from these characters, one of whom is an unsympathetic schemer, so in one panel we see them through a window which covers up part of their word balloon.
Evidence of Fletcher Hanks’ artistry can be seen in “The Superfiend” from Fantastic #10 (reprinted in You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation! By Fletcher Hanks, edited by Paul Karasik). On the first page, Starburst uses his “long-range television finder” to read the thoughts of the Superfiend, “Civilization must be destroyed!” This noble sentiment doesn’t appear in a thought balloon but rather in a word balloon (presumably because Starburst can “hear” what the Superfiend is saying). Equally intriguing is the way the word balloon isn’t confined within the television screen but bursts out of it, making it seem like an act of aggression rather than a passing thought.
In a story called “Slab” from Eclipse Magazine #1 (1981), Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers experimented with overlapping word balloons. As Gary Groth noted at the time, “Rogers (or Englehart) uses a density of word balloons to suggest confusion at a crowded airport. This may be a wrongheaded attempt to translate filmic language to the comics form. This effect works well in film (I am thinking of Robert Altman’s overlapping soundtracks), but not in comics for the same reason it has never, to my knowledge, worked in prose: the words on the printed page must be sub-vocalized. We cannot let them wash over us in the same way we can in a film. The reader cannot simply subliminally acknowledge dialogue on the printed page as he can acknowledge and subordinate disconnected dialogue in film. Words on a page must be read. The effect in a comic, then, is distraction.” (Comics Journal #65). Groth might have been right about this story in particular but he was wrong in general. As Clowes has demonstrated, overlapping word balloons can be effective technique. As with anything in the arts, techniques don’t exist in isolation of the overall effect. Any technique can be put to good use by an intelligent artist.
Labels: Daniel Clowes, Fletcher Hanks, Frank King, Gary Groth, Gasoline Alley, Harold Gray, Little Nemo, Little Orphan Annie, Marshall Rogers, Steve Englehart, text frames, thought balloons, Winsor McCay, word balloons