Awkward Word Balloon Placement in Early Comics
by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
As an addendum to my McManus notebook, I’ve been collecting examples of reverse-order word ballooning, that’s to say the tendency of early cartoonists to occasionally have word balloons read from right to left rather than the reading protocol that’s easier in English (from left to right).
A few examples of what I’m talking about:
George Herriman, Major Ozone, Sept. 29, 1906:
Major Ozone: “What! And shut out that fine fresh air? Never, Captain, Never!!”
Captain: “Major, you’d better close your door – it may storm tonight.”
Gene Carr, Bill and the Jones Boys, Jan. 22, 1905:
Motorist: “Yes, but don’t touch that lever or you’ll start the machine.”
Willie: “Kin Jonesey an’ me sit in yer ottermobile w’ile yer gone.”
Foster Morse Follett, The Kid, Jan. 15, 1905:
Mom: “Sure, the kid, he just turned the water off, that’s all!”
Dad: “What happened?”
Jimmy Swinnerton, Jimmy, July 7, 1907:
Mom: “No Jimmy, dear. I think not.”
Jimmy: “Mamma, can I have another dollar? My eye is all well?”
What exactly is going on here? The simplest explanation is that these strips are all done in the early days of newspaper comics, so these are all primitive works done by artists who have yet to master their craft. Yet the explanation of primitivism or incompetence is belied, I think, by the extreme beauty of the art, and also by the fact that that in these comics word balloons are usually properly placed in most panels. These examples occur from time to time but most word balloons are sequenced to read from left to right (the protocol we’re used to in English).
A few theories:
1. The primacy of images over words. The first generation of newspaper comics were very visually splendid. McCay’s work was the peak achievement but he was merely the headman in a large parade of artists whose main talent was visual. Spectacular display was the main selling point of the early comics. So it seems likely that the images came before the words and had priority over the words. That is to say, the artists drew first and the words were added on as an after-thought, often used to clarify what was going on in the picture.
2. Stagecraft. The early comic strips were heavily influenced by stagecraft; often showing two figures standing in the same relation to each other panel after panel, in the mode of a vaudeville routine. If we see the panels as being modeled after a stage, it could be that the artists thought that the clarity they gained form keeping the characters in a fixed relation to each other outweighed the loss of clarity by having the occasional word balloon reversal. Below I’ve given the first panel of the Swinnerton strip excerpted above. As will be seen, in the first panel, Jimmy is posed halfway between his mom (on the left) and his dad (on the right). This positioning of the characters is repeated in the last panel. Perhaps Swinnerton felt that the visual coherence gained from repeating this positioning of characters was more important than having the word balloons read from left to right in the last panel.
3. A different reading protocol. This is the most difficult concept to explain but after spending time with cartoons from the early 20th century (and also previous centuries) it’s hard to avoid the fact that they have a different type of reading than what we are used to. The early comics aren’t meant to be skimmed or read quickly. They have a density of visual and verbal information that takes time to process. So the occasionally reversed word balloon could be tolerated because the reader was supposed to be spending time on the comics, deciphering them slowly.