Some words (and pictures) in defense of thought balloons

On March 22, 2010 · 3 Comments

Scott McCloud, bouncing off a post by Joe at Comics Comics, explains his preference for thought captions over thought balloons:

The question I find most interesting is why do traditional word balloons seem more patronizing by their very nature? […]

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.

I don’t think Scott’s argument holds water, for four reasons:

1) Logically, shouldn’t Scott also find pointers on speech balloons condescending? If telling the reader who is thinking is spoon-feeding, telling the reader who is speaking must be as well. There’s no reason speech balloons can’t be dispensed with (see Why I Hate Saturn).

(Scott tries to handwave past this by saying maybe thoughts are too just too private, but that seems like a very hazy distinction.)

2) If someone did a comic with old-fashioned thought balloons, but without pointers (so only context told readers which character a thought balloon attached to), would that really resolve anyone’s dislike for the device?

3) No one thinks it’s condescending for a prose writer to specify which character thinks a thought (“Oh, drat, I’ve cut off my ear,” Vince thought.). So why is the visual equivalent of “Vince thought” unacceptable hand-holding?

4) Even if thought balloons “bring a third party into the relationship,” why is that a bad thing? Absolute authorial transparency is an aesthetic goal of some cartoonists (one that can be approached but never achieved), but it’s not better or worse than other aesthetic approaches.

Joe at Comics Comics, in contrast to Scott, argues that thought balloons are more intimate than thought captions:

…captions can be a likewise 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.

I agree with Joe, on this question. There’s a spectrum of integration of words (and their containers) into the comic’s images; the less integrated the words and images, the more aloof the words feel from the images (and the characters).

At one extreme, we have the cartoonists who keep words at arm’s length by placing the words entirely outside the panel — Why I Hate Saturn, Prince Valient.

In the middle is the standard rectangular caption box.

At the other extreme, words are seamlessly integrated into the picture and vice-versa.

In the hands of a good cartoonist, either captions or balloons work well. But I’d argue that the old-fashioned thought balloon has enormous advantages, because of its inherent integration into images. Check out this page from one of my favorite comics, Larry Marder’s Beanworld:

Page from Beanworld, by Larry Marder, copyright 2010 Larry Marder.

This is actually a very complex page. Beanish begins by thinking in words, switches to thinking in images, and then switches again to getting lost in memories that are a mix of words and image – memories from yesterday, as the non-Beanish narrative voice helpfully tells us. Then he switches again to spoken monologue interspersed with visual thoughts. That’s a hell of a lot to get across, but Larry’s expert use of thought balloons makes it all seem straightforward.

Could you do the same thing with captions? Maybe. But it wouldn’t be easy.

Here’s the amazing Kevin Huizenga, showing his character Glenn Ganges either traveling through time or just imagining traveling through time (click on the image to see it bigger):

From “Ganges” #1, copyright Kevin Huizenga

I have two more examples of amazing uses of thought balloons — but they get into some mildly sexual images. If that offends you, or if you’re a minor and you think your parents would be offended if you saw some R-rated content, then pleased don’t click through to view these images.

First, check out this page by Howard Cruse, from his classic short story “Billy Goes Out,” which is available in this collection. Howard uses thought balloons brilliantly to show a parallel narrative; we see Billy’s day and we experience Billy’s thoughts with Billy. A separate narrative voice, not representing Billy’s thoughts, speaks to us through captions. (This page is mildly NSFW.)

Second, look at this page from Dave Sim’s Cerebus. I don’t think any cartoonist has done more experimenting with thought balloons than Sim; to look at one page barely scratches the surface. On this page, Sim uses thought balloons to not only show the back-and-forth between competing thought streams in Cerebus’ head, but also to show their relative volume, their relationship, their emotional content, and to suggest streams of simultaneous, overlapping thought. (This page is safe for work — there’s nothing there that couldn’t be in a PG movie — but Cerebus is kinda obsessed with boobs.)

So why are people so down on thought balloons? It’s not just Scott; as Joe at Comics Comics reports, some mainstream comic book editors are actively discouraging creators from using thought balloons at all.

For some folks (and here I’m definitely not talking about Scott or Joe), thought balloons seem too — well — comic book-y. The dislike of thought balloons is related to how insecure many comic book folks are about comics; we want comics to be acknowledged as a legitimate medium for art. (It’s amazing, and sad, how many comics fans and professionals believe movie adaptations legitimize comics.) Words in captions are closer to the way books do narrative, or perhaps closer to the way movies do voice-overs. Either way, comics seem more like these “legitimate” mediums if they avoid the use of tools that belong, uniquely, to comics.

Thought balloons are iconographic, which is why they can be used so wonderfully in the examples I’ve shared here. But they’re also cartoony, and that’s an approach many folks who want to make sophisticated, literary comics want to avoid.

The irony, of course, is that thought balloons — well used — can be an extremely sophisticated and subtle device. By arbitrarily cutting them out, editors may actually be making their comics less subtle and less sophisticated.

3 Responses to “Some words (and pictures) in defense of thought balloons”

  1. Kip Manley says:

    I always associate their decline and fall with of all things Watchmen, and of all people Alan Moore, who deliberately tried to kill off both the thought balloon and the sound effect as too comic-booky. –Of course I can’t find any relevant cites at the moment beyond a footnote that it was David Lloyd who got him started down this path with V for Vendetta. And he may just be the most visible as opposed to any sort of instigator of the trend. But it does seem to me that he’s eschewed them entirely since then, except for his self-consciously comic-booky stuff like Greyshirt and Jack B. Quick and suchlike. Certainly his “serious” stuff hasn’t used them.

    Which I’ve always thought was a shame, because damn, what Sim could do with either was as you point out amazing. (Sim figured out how to letter an echo! Why would you give up that ability to pander to the more “serious” end of something?)

  2. Barry says:

    Yet another way Alan Moore ruined comics!

    In the comments of Scott’s post, Dylan Horrocks (sp?) said that it comes from the style to make comics more like movies, which seems pretty on-target to me.

  3. Phlip says:

    Awesome examples; thanks. The image in the thought balloon, and the thought balloon that gets too big (lost in thought) are worth their ink!

    Now, let’s do with less spoon-feeding. Slightly less! Users can scroll back, unlike in the olden days when yesterday’s newspaper would now be wrapped around fish.

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