08 May 2008

Speech Balloon Variety in Oz: The Manga

In its use of the comics form, David Hutchison's Oz: The Manga didn't impress me quite as much as Michael Cavallaro's adaptation of the same novel, which is also manga-influenced. But I found one element of Hutchison's graphic storytelling very interesting: the speech balloons.

(Bear with me here.)

For this comic, Hutchison developed a complex system of using different balloon shapes and different type treatments for his various characters' speeches. The full system doesn't kick in until halfway through chapter/issue 4. (That's also the first point where I saw him cutting and pasting art electronically to save time; perhaps that coincided with a shift to all-digital production.)

Ordinary human and animal speech appears in tall oval balloons. At first those balloons appear hand-drawn, but after chapter 4 they're exactly elliptical. There are some standard balloon variations that we see in many other comics, such as a jagged shape for a yell, a dashed outline for a whisper, and a cloud shape for the rare expressed thoughts.
This panel shows the balloon variation among Dorothy's three companions. The Cowardly Lion has an ordinary, smooth oval balloon. The Scarecrow's balloons are more rectilinear, especially after chapter 4. The Tin Woodman's balloons are shaped like elliptical gears, reflecting his mechanical makeup. (The Lion's balloons turn a bit wavery as he feels the effects of the poppy field and the Wizard's courage in a bottle.)

When the Wizard appears in a different incarnation to each traveler, each guise has its own balloon style:

  • The giant head's balloons have dark borders and Sand type.
  • The pretty lady has ordinary human balloons--with drop shadows behind them.
  • The beast has craggy balloons and boldface italic lettering.
  • The fireball has a wavery balloon and rounded lettering with long serifs.
When the humbug Wizard speaks from a hiding-place, his balloons have wavery outlines, with bubbles attached. But as soon as Dorothy lays eyes on the little man, he starts to speak in the same simple balloons as she.

Among the books' antagonists, the wildcat in the poppy field has a fanged or hairy balloon. The wolves' balloons have ragged black borders and a special typeface while the bees speak inside a different type of jagged border. The Winged Monkeys' speeches appear in white lettering on irregular black fields; these balloons don't have tapering tails like all the others, just spattery trails of black leading to the speakers.

The Wicked Witch of the West is set off from other human characters by her speech balloons. After the book's chapter 4, she's the only human character whose oval balloons are hand-drawn, and her words appear in a different font, with more variations in stroke thickness and a hint of serifs. Oz: The Manga is a veritable tutorial in creating different speech balloon formats.

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