03 April 2010

Thoughts on Thought Balloons

As early Superman panels showed yesterday, it took a few years for American comics to settle on a way to communicate characters’ thoughts: a new kind of word balloon. But in the last couple of decades, mainstream publishers largely discarded that system, and thought balloons aren’t that common in more artistic “indie” comics, either.

In a recent publicity interview, novelist Stephen King discussed how he learned that DC’s Vertigo imprint no longer uses what the reporter calls “thought bubbles.”

Thought bubbles—those puffy, dotted clouds that were a staple of early comics—have been phased out. “I got this kind of embarrassed call from the editors saying, ‘Ah, Steve, we don’t do that anymore.’ ‘You don’t do that anymore?’ I said. ‘No, when the characters speak, they speak. If they're thinking, you try to put that across in the narration, in the little narration boxes.’”

So King happily re-wrote to fit the new style—though he still laments the loss of the thought bubble. “I think it’s a shame to lose that arrow out of your quiver. One of the nice things about the written word as opposed to the spoken word in a movie is that you can go into a character's thoughts. You do it in books all the time, right?”
King’s interview led Joe McCulloch into a discussion of what thought balloons symbolize.
captions can be a…cool device, sharp-edged and—this is vital—aloof from the thinking character, hanging away from their head or drifting through entirely unrelated scenes, panels with no characters at all. In contrast, thought balloons have a ‘chain’ that latches them to the applicable thinker, a forced, perhaps confining intimacy, very revealing in looking so silly like fresh thoughts would seem if seen.
Scott McCloud expresses a similar understanding in his response:
The important difference for me is that a thought caption—with or without borders—embodies each thought in a way that encourages us to assume ownership of it as we read. We literally bring each sentiment into existence as a thought, creating an instant bond with the character.

The thought balloon, regardless of shape or style, just by virtue of its pointer, brings a third party into the relationship: the author, gently putting his/her hand on our shoulder and pointing to the face of the thinker with the words “he thought.” Maybe thoughts are just too private for that kind of parental intrusion.
Barry Deutsch thought that analysis doesn’t hold up, and, like McCulloch and McCloud, shared some imaginative uses of thought balloons.

TOMORROW: My take on why mainstream comics let thought balloons drift away, deftly intertwined with the weekly Robin.


Ivan Linares said...

I would like to point that Barry Deutsch's comments on the thought balloon was moved to a new address:


Keep up with the good work! Your texts are doing a lot of help on my post-graduation monograph! It's about text balloons in comics, and it's amazing how few academic works were actually written about them...

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the updated link!

I'm delighted these postings are proving helpful. Word balloons go back so many centuries that it's surprising they haven't received serious attention. But then they don't usually appear in "serious" art.