11 November 2007

Balloons and Other Ways Comics Show the Invisible

Probably the most visible hallmark of comics style is the use of speech balloons. For centuries artists have conveyed the idea that people are speaking by writing words into their art and connecting those words to particular figures. Over the last hundred years comics artists have developed sophisticated systems of using words in balloons to convey tone, emotion, pace, sources of sound, and other aspects of speech. In fact, in some ways this approach outperforms prose in conveying the nuances of how we talk. Here’s a small sampling of variations from Web Comic Triage.

Seeing speech balloons in a picture book or illustrated novel seems to cue people into saying those books have a "comics" style. I think that's another big reason why people view Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen as different from other picture books. As the page image back here shows, Sendak sprinkled some speech balloons into his recipe.

Another example of such a hybrid is the recent bestseller Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Jeff Kinney conceived that as a novel with some comics-style illustrations supplementing and commenting on the prose. When his story was first published in installments on FunBrain.com a couple of years back, the web format called for art on every page. I noticed then that other websites were reviewing Wimpy Kid as a webcomic--it had come to look as much like a comic as like a novel.

Speech balloons are just one part of the visual language of comics that makes visible many experiences that we can't ordinarily see in a still image. In addition to spoken words, these things include:

  • Verbal thoughts. Words can appear in puffy thought balloons. Artists can also depict thoughts visually, showing a character's fantasy or fear or plan.
  • Nonverbal emotions and states of mind, conveyed through beads of sweat popping off a forehead (as in the "Mr. Wonderful" comic in today's New York Times Magazine), cultural symbols (broken heart, bleeding nose, birds circling the head), chibi versions of characters acting out their emotions, and more.
  • Sound effects. POW! sssssss. Fwapfwapfwapfwapfwap... These visual elements are especially difficult to deal with in translations since the letter forms themselves become integral to the art.
  • Motion and impact. Different artists convey speed by adding motion lines behind the moving object, blurring the object, blurring the background, and/or drawing multiple images.
  • Labels from the narrator for the benefit of the reader.
Some critics even see this visual language as crucial to distinguishing comics from other forms of sequential art. R. C. Harvey reportedly says in The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History that Hal Foster's Prince Valiant is "not comics" because of its resolute separation of words and pictures; it famously doesn't include speech balloons. Other critics say that's ridiculously judgmental, that Prince Valiant has earned its place among comics through longevity and graphic quality. All I can say is that one look at Prince Valiant shows that it's different from everything else on the funny pages. It alone uses pictures and prose like a traditional picture book.

Traditional picture-book storytelling eschews the visual language of comics in favor of a more realistic approach. That may seem odd, considering that picture books abound in talking animals, cartoonish people, magic, and other unrealistic things. But still, it's rare to see the techniques listed above in today's full-color picture books.

Picture-book artists seem most comfortable with the less verbal and symbolic and the most visual of those techniques. Eric Rohmann's My Friend Rabbit has motion lines, for example. (His more traditional Cinder-Eyed Cats does not.) Robert McCloskey's Lentil used a few motion lines and a lot of musical notes--almost necessary for telling a story about music.

It's still a rare picture book which incorporates sound effects into the art or shows characters' speeches and thoughts inside balloons, however. And when an artist does use those techniques, as in Little Vampire Goes to School, librarians seem to be shelving those books with "graphic novels" simply because they all use the visual language of comics.


Anonymous said...

Without really meaning to, my wife Cece has used speech balloons in all 5 of her published books and both of the ones that are coming down the pike. Even her baby board books.

Further, in Sock Monkey Goes to Hollywood, Sock Monkey is seen clapping and he has little clap balloons coming from his hands.

I think it really helps move the story along and it gets rid of a lot of """"" and saids.

-Sam R.

J. L. Bell said...

Exactly! The comics forms work efficiently, and American kids pick up the code very early. So in terms of storytelling, there's no reason not to use them where they work.