05 April 2010

Why Thought Balloons Burst

Having traced the development of American comics thought balloons, their typical use, and alternate systems of narration, I approach the question of why they’ve virtually disappeared from mainstream American comics. Why did one comics publisher recently tell a star novelist not to use them at all?

This conversation among comics scripters offers several competing explanations:

  • That certain dominant editors in the late 1980s and 1990s, particularly Jim Shooter at Marvel and Cat Yronwode at Eclipse, insisted that magazines move away from the comics techniques that I call “showing the invisible”: thought balloons, sound effects, cutaway views, etc.
  • That comics were supposed to replicate movies, where the big money is, and most movies don’t use narrators or voiceovers to tell characters’ thoughts.
  • That Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Batman stories from the late 1980s and Alan Moore’s scripts for V for Vendetta (1982-89) and Watchmen (1986-87) didn’t use thought balloons, and were so striking and influential that they made the traditional comics narrative style look cheesy.
Within that conversation scripter Steven Grant added another influence:
This is going to sound self-centered, but I know one thing that greatly influenced overuse of the “first person caption as substitute thought balloon” in the mid-80s: my use of the gimmick in the PUNISHER mini series. Now I wasn't particularly influenced by Frank or anyone else when I used them, I just had a vision of The Punisher as someone who felt under no compulsion to explain himself to anyone, but he had been established as keeping a diary/war journal…so the first person captions became essentially this running diary he kept in his head, his dislocated commentary on his situation.
Grant’s use of the “diary/war journal” to help tell his story is what my Six Parameters of Narrative Voice calls a “Paper Trail”: narration through what purports to be a document created within the story.

But why was there such a big artistic change in such a relatively short time? I think a big part of the explanation has to lie in economics. In the 1980s, the major American comics publishers recognized that their audiences had become smaller, older, and found in specialized stores. The companies were no longer publishing for kids picking out what magazine covers grabbed them at the newsstand.

Older comics readers could keep up with more sophisticated storytelling techniques, and wanted it to keep them interested. They wanted scripts that did more showing and less telling. Readers knew the classic characters, so they didn’t need everything spelled out in each issue; instead, they wanted to see those personalities explored more deeply. They wanted more nuanced discussions of heroism and the values or conflicts different characters symbolize.

The result was a a greater emphasis on characters’ internal lives, which made first-person verbal narration more powerful than the third-person omniscient approach that had dominated the first decades of superhero stories.

It’s notable, however, that most adventure comics aren’t really told in the first person. They continue to include scenes that the central character/narrator can’t be privy to: villains conspiring, for example. But those scenes usually have no verbal narration or commentary. We readers are simply privy to what the hero can’t see, for the sake of the story.

Of course, it would have been possible for comics creators to focus on one character’s thoughts while continuing to use thought balloons. But once third-person narrative captions went away, that freed up space at the edges of panels, and captions don’t block as much art as thought balloons and their tails. (They’re also a lot easier to produce on a computer.)

The first-person narrative approach, once the exception, has become so established that creators can now play with readers’ expectations for it. For instance, Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman scripts from 2003 track both title characters’ thoughts in each scene through two set of narrative captions in contrasting colors. The result is dramatic, though also easily parodied.

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