If you didn’t know, there’s a discussion of thought balloons on the internet which 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 Scott McCloud weighs in with his opinion that thought balloons are by their very nature insulting. Barry Deutsch counters with some nice examples. And now Jeet Heer discusses word balloons in general. I love discussions about the formal aspects of comics and having so many well-known and well-read people discussing word balloons has me swooning.
Let me toss out a few thoughts.
Yeah, thought balloons are often cumbersome and, I agree with McCloud, often distance the reader instead of bringing the reader in. I didn’t read many superhero comics as a kid, but I did read X-Men and Chris Claremont made me see the evil potential of the thought balloon. Oftentimes a character of his would throw a punch while crowded by three paragraphs of thought. It totally destroyed the realistic sense of time in those comics.
Balloons compete for physical space within the panel and so seem part of that space. This makes a certain sense for speech balloons, since sound can exist within a space and can sometimes take over a space. Yet thoughts are silent. So the very nature of thought balloons seems counter-intuitive: how can a thought take up physical space? And yet sometimes our thoughts can do this. Often, we are so distracted by our mental musings that we don’t see what’s going on around us. A few months ago, I almost hit a young man as I was pulling into a parking space because he was so intent on dialing his cell phone that he didn’t notice me and walked right into the vacant space I was attempting to fill. Luckily, I noticed him and avoided squishing him with my car, but he never even looked up. I don’t think he ever knew I was there. Now, if I were to draw this as a comic I would put a huge word balloon behind the young man, filled with the numbers he was dialing, and the balloon would obstruct the background, obstructing the view of the car. Something like this:
I’m planning on doing something like this in Carnivale, so we’ll see how well this actually works, but my point is that thought balloons are a tool and I think it’s a bad idea to deny the use of any tool outright . Let me quote Dan Clowes on this: “Consider using all of the ‘hokey’ devices available in the comics vocabulary (thought balloons, sound effects, etc.). They are no less inherently neutral than a comma or a whisper or a lap dissolve and it is only their debased usage that has made them so” (Modern Cartoonist 12). In other words, word balloons are only cumbersome because they are used in cumbersome ways. The fault lies with the tool user, not the tool.
Heer’s article is mostly a list of interesting uses of balloons, bubbles, and boxes. I agree that what Clowes has been doing with these in recent stories is fascinating. His often obstruction of word balloons both creates mystery and reveals character. I just want to add that Thierry Groensteen covers words balloons and their various uses in The System of Comics. He even categorizes some different types (77-78), which Heer says he would like to see a full accounting of. One thing Groensteen points out that I find interesting is that what’s in a panel can sometimes be “innocuous and empty” (84), meaning that the contents can seem unimportant and may even be overlooked by the reader. Yet the content of a word balloon is always deemed as important. Readers read every word in a balloon, while they may not look at every line in a panel. As Groensteen hints, I think this can be used to guide a reader’s eye across a page. If the content of word balloons is always “must read” content, then it can act as a gravitational force in the page. Groensteen himself pays special attention to the shape of balloons and their tails, and how these also can lead a reader’s eye across a page. He also pays special attention to the shape of the balloon and what that signifies. Going back to McCulloch and McCloud’s discussion of balloons versus boxes, it is easier to give iconic shape to a balloon than a box. In other words, a balloon can be made in various ways to denote the nature of the content: dotted line, jagged line, dripping edges, etc. This is not as easy to do with a text box.