02 April 2010

Superman Battles the Challenge of Thought!

This panel is from Action Comics, #6, the sixth comic book to contain a Superman story. Lois Lane and Clark Kent are building that wonderful relationship which, a mere half-century later, convinced fans they were meant to be together forever.

In this panel, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster clue us in on Lois and Clark’s unexpressed thoughts. But to understand that, we have to know the code the creators used to set off characters’ thoughts from their spoken words in the same balloon: parentheses, dashes, and quotation marks.

I assume some American comic-strip creators tackled the challenge of showing thought before Siegel and Shuster, but I don’t know what they came up with. The early strips I could find are surreal tales like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and those characters rarely had unexpressed thoughts. (When Ignatz was puzzled in this strip, Herriman gave him a regular word balloon filled with a big question mark.)

That approach wouldn’t work in a more realistic scene. It’s notable that these examples show Clark Kent thinking secretly; Superman didn’t need to conceal his thoughts in these early stories.

In Action, #11, Clark expressed his thinking inside what later became codified as a “whisper balloon.” Indeed, it’s possible that Clark is whispering to himself here, the way a character in a radio or stage play can speak thoughts aloud while all the other actors pretend to ignore him. But that solution is obviously limited. A hero wouldn’t want to give away his game plan, even quietly, when he was around the Ultra-Humanite or some other villain.

In the early 1940s most American comic books adopted a standard form for showing thoughts: the thought balloon. These word balloons had a trail of ovals to the thinking character rather than a sharply pointing tail, and borders that differed from those of speech balloons, usually by being more cloudy.

Even so, the first of these panels from Action, #64, in 1943 show Siegel and Shuster’s successors pulling out the old technique of parentheses, hyphens, and quotation marks to squeeze a thought into a crowded panel. And they still use dashes and quotation marks inside Superman’s thought balloon to make its meaning doubly clear.

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