That Hand on Your Shoulder

Interesting article by Joe McCulloch at Comics Comics regarding the scarcity of old-fashioned thought balloons in todays genre comics and elsewhere (via The Beat).

McCulloch pulls out a few examples of legitimate uses for the bulgy Edsel of comics iconography like Mazzucchelli’s picto-bubbles in Asterios Polyp, but he’s most enthusiastic for its streamlined descendent, the caption-style interior narration—especially the floating word bursts found in some manga.

McCulloch does a good job of enumerating the perceived advantages of thought captions (with or without borders) over balloons, but I’d like to toss out one more possibility.

The question I find most interesting is why do traditional word balloons seem more patronizing by their very nature? In Ware or Mazzuccelli’s hands, that quality is ironically re-channeled, but I think it’s still there. In the Shirow Miwa example that McCulloch offers, I think it’s there too.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that any thought caption made into a thought balloon is going to take on that patronizing quality, even if the phrasing is identical. It isn’t just the hokey word choices like in the above Ditko Dr. Strange panel, it’s the graphic device itself.

I don’t even think it’s the shape. The Shirow example McCulloch offers is just a jagged little slab—nothing goofy—but it still carries that spoon-feeding connotation for me. Even if it was a caption-like rectangle with square bubbles pointing to the character, I think the effect would be similar.

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.

The fact that McCulloch reserves his most enthusiastic endorsement for modern Manga’s floating thought bursts feels right to me. If there’s one thing Manga has been doing right for years, it’s creating in readers a sense of participation in the lives of its protagonists. Participation in their innermost thoughts is a logical next step.

Discussion (42)¬

  1. Sandra says:

    I’ve been giving this a lot of thought (and I was so happy with the way you pointed out some of the advantages of thought bubbles in Making Comics). I’m sad if there’s editorial dictates against thought bubbles.

    I agree that Miller’s DKR has better, more stream of consciousness narration than most, but I’d prefer it if more of it were in bubbles.

    My take is that caption narrative might appear less patronizing initially, but after the initial “Hey, cool” I’m definitely coming down on the pro–thought-bubble side. A great example of someone who does this right is Xaime Hernandez. (I’m not talking about those short vignettes with illustrations to Ray’s diary.) If he can say something with silence, or with a facial expression, he will, but he’s not against using thought bubbles when they do work. There’s an interesting use of a thought bubble in Wig Wam Bam (or poss. Flies on the Ceiling), for example, when two women are speaking on the phone and they both think the other has got it wrong so they both think the same thing, but about each other.

    In the long run, and this is what made the Sin City movie sound so silly compared to the books, is that a caption narrative is voice over. Of course, even worse is third person caption narrative—for example, I really love Claremont’s work (still do), but I think most of the old stuff should lose the captions and tell it with pictures. It’s like it’s just a way to show how good they can write. Write with pictures instead.

    So personally, I think that Ditko/Lee panel is OK. That same text in a caption would be even worse. Dr. Strange’s powers are so strange that just leaving the picture uncommented would’ve left some heads scratching, I guess? Maybe it could work without it or with a better phrasing. (I suck at English, which is part of the reason why I want to write in Lojban, because English doesn’t have anything like “ti terbandu” which would’ve been a great thought to put in there. It means something like “defend against this peril”, if that makes sense.) I guess the problem is with the text—as long as it’s something that you can really imagine that character thinking, it’s great, but if it becomes like a story the character is thinking, it isn’t improved by putting it in a caption.

    Thought balloons are something you can’t do in another medium. Voice over you can, and it’s often dorky in my opinion.

    The comments over at McCulloch’s thread have some good insight. One good point they bring up is that the same balloon-style has been co-opted as “animal speak”, something that I remember bothering me to no end when I was a kid. The case could be made that Snoopy thinks it and the kids can’t hear it, but I read some (I guess European?) Pink Panther comic books where the humans definitely reacted to the Pink Panther’s thoughts as if it were regular speech. Garfield, arguably, is somewhere in between.

    I don’t think the Death Note example works better because the bubbles aren’t there. I think it would work better (for me) with them there, but different regions seem to have had different conventions about this.

    Maybe it’s just the case, like with the hated-by-me but popular ALL CAPS STYLE, that my position is the loony minority, but I do think that they should’ve listened to Stephen King and brought thought bubbles back. It’s our language. Don’t flub it just because Miller and Bendis love films.

  2. One curious fact about that Ditko panel: at least part of what Dr. Strange “thinks” in that thought bubble isn’t mere rumination but is, rather, a silent, interior pronunciation of a magic formula: “By the powers at my command, I place etc.”

    That half of his “thought” is performative in character: he’s not describing the world around him; he’s reshaping the world with his thought. Performative speech (and here, I would argue, performative thought) can’t be divorced from the circumstances in which you’re speaking or thinking. Think how strange it would have been for that magical incantation to have been placed in a caption, in the manner of Miller’s DKR.

    (Actually, any effort to imagine Frank Miller deciding in 1985 to embark on a reboot of Dr. Strange is pretty strange.)

  3. DreamTales says:

    No thought balloons? I guess something must have happened since I stopped reading new comics 20 years ago. I couldn’t imagine doing without them. Using text dialogue for narration, in addition to character thought balloons, allows you to have the same character narrating the story two ways – as the protagonist living it and the narrator / survivor telling it from his / her perspective. Also, if you have multiple internal dialogues among your characters it just helps keep them straight.

    Yes, though balloons can be a bit ironic, but it can be fun to play up the irony, especially if the comic is meant to be funny or self-referential.

    Sorry, I think the Manga thought bursts look kind of clunky, but then again I’m probably just out of it. To me, Ditko’s Dr. Strange represents the apogee of comic art.

  4. […] 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? […] […]

  5. talcotts says:

    A big part of the problem with traditional though bubbles comes from the fact that they were more descriptive than reactionary. No one (or few people) think things like “I need to dodge this laser beam” but that is something that works in a voiceover. That’s why I don’t think it’s fair to place caption dialogue in thought bubbles and compare the two. They are (or should be) two entirely different kinds of dialogue. Thought balloons are an aspect of the moment, while captions are outside of it.

    Coming at this from an indie/auto-bio comics angle (with a poetry background), I find that the bulk of my writing happens in caption boxes. Those caption boxes always come from me, the writer, and are outside of the moment captured in the comic. Thought bubbles, on the other hand, happen within the scene, and come from the character version of me. In this way, I think that thought bubbles are less like thought captions than they are like speech balloons, and serve a different narrative purpose.

  6. Phlip says:

    Oh, were thought-balloons going out of the oO{ group think } of today’s non-Manga graphic novelists? Sorry I didn’t get the memo!!


  7. Garth Wallace says:

    Barry’s #3 is the first thing I thought of.

    Then there’s the relatively recent trend of color-coding caption boxes to associate them with the characters thinking them (or, as in Superman/Batman, adding the character’s symbol to a corner for the same purpose). While this is occasionally used to good effect (Deadpool’s “little yellow boxes, how much fun we’ll have!”), most of the time it comes off as awkward, basically the writer trying to get the practical effect of thought balloons without actually using them, an “if all you’ve got is a hammer” situation.

  8. Felipo says:

    Love the article. Thanks for pointing it out!
    I noticed over the weekend that a good majority of French comics have rectangular speech bubbles where we have rounded ones.

    Any insight as to why that is?

    I have a working hypothesis for why we have rounded ones (mostly because it looks more “drawn”) but then that should have translated into the French comics, no?

    Did it just happen that way or is there a contextual explanation?

  9. John Allison says:

    Could thought bubbles have partly passed from popularity partly due to the shift from hand-lettering to computer lettering in the 1990s? As type and balloons became more graphical and uniform, the thought bubble seemed out of place and it’s the real graphic masters like Chris Ware who feel able to reclaim it?

    Or maybe innocence is dead and we find them a bit cheesy nowadays. I was never able to draw a good one!

    • Scott says:

      Y’know, it’s true, they’re a bitch to draw and only a few like Ware could even make them look half-way decent. I know a trick for doing them in Illustrator, but it’s an esoteric skill these days.

      Of course in a world where horrific design crimes grow ever more common, maybe we’re all just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

      • Sandra says:

        For inkscape, they’re reasonably easy to use using spiro splines, and before that I used beziers. For others (inkluding older versions of inkscape, gimp, and I guess illustrator?) you can put a bunch of ellipses (why do you call them ovals in Making Comics? They’re not egg shaped!) in a cluster and Union them so they share their outline.

        • Scott says:

          Crap! I did use “oval” incorrectly, didn’t I?

          • Sandra says:

            Yeah, a couple times in page 203 at least. You’re also using the idiom “breaking the fourth wall” in a novel manner in an earlier chapter.

            Don’t worry, Making Comics is still one of the greatest books of all time in my opinion, certainly my favorite among your non-fiction books.

            • I understood the extension of the “breaking the fourth wall” expression as applied to panel layouts. Conventionally the term means a narrative element of a story interacting with the medium of the story itself. (i.e. A character in a movie telling the film orchestra to shut up).

              While in Making Comics the term doesn’t indicate the explicit awareness on part of a fictional character, by breaking a panel, the character does accomplish something that is “outside the word of the story” since the panels themselves don’t exist for the character. So, when breaking the panel (even if the character is unaware of it) the reader is reminded in a jarring way of the medium they are reading. A comparable example is when fights in stage plays spill out into the audience. Even though the characters are unaware of the audience, the effect is a “breaking down” of the barrier between audience and story.

          • Sandra says:

            Re-reading about ovals now, it seems they’re less strictly defined than I thought. I always figured oval = egg shape, i.e. rounded bottom, only one axis of symmetry.

  10. Michael says:

    I want to go on record…I LIKE word balloons. I use them in my stuff and plan on continuing to do so…

  11. D é r k o m a i says:

    I’m all up for others using thought balloons if its what they like, but for me I find them cheesy, and prefer the manga one’s being talked about here. All these counter arguments aren’t swaying me, so either something’s very WRONG with me or it’s all just personal preference. But hey, why bother arguing about it in text? Everyone get back to your comics so we can duke it out in the ring!!

  12. Phlip says:

    What’s cheesy is Scott’s first example – using them for (often redundant) Dramatic Exposition. When I’m hatching one of my evil schemes, the LAST thing I do is recite its narration in my head!


  13. Phlip says:

    Oh, BTW, here’s thought balloons for dramatic exposition regarding evil plans, AND a callout, shaped like an arrow, illustrating something the main character is NOT thinking: http://zeekland.zeroplayer.com/Pigleg_Too/41

  14. […] of the thought balloon, which, despite an editor’s admonition to Stephen King, is far from dead. Scott McCloud adds his two cents as well. Related: Chris Sims explains exactly what’s wrong with the lettering in […]

  15. I love thought balloons! Some of the moments that most satisfy me in my own comics involve them. But my sense of their modern “uncoolness” is very simple: they don’t fit the cinematic approach to comics storytelling that took over some time back. Captions are, as has been said, voice over. Hence they seem cooler. To me, however, the replacement of thought balloons with captions seems contrived and hokey much of the time. It distracts me more than any scalloped bubbles could do.

    But just one more observation: there’s an important distinction between thoughts (which, IMHO, look better in a balloon) and first person narrative (which fits better in captions). But, of course, these are all questions of convention and style and good cartoonist will bend and break them with great results.

    BTW, I reckon the cinematic trend in comics has also happened in much novel-writing too. Stories are told as a series of scenes, through described events and images – with an emphasis on what’s visible. I can understand why film-makers would repeat that old mantra: “show don’t tell” but for novelists it seems a little absurd…

    Basically, though, I think now that the thought balloon is associated with old fashioned “hokey” comics, the only cartoonists who feel comfortable using them are the ones who don’t feel embarrassed by comics’ “hokey” past.

    • Scott says:

      I’m sure you’re right that the cinematic trend is a factor, though one of the dividing lines that separates cinema from traditional comics storytelling is the preponderance of what feels (to me at least) like unmediated, direct experience—and that’s also one of the dividing lines between traditional comics storytelling and life.

      One of the things Manga does at its best, to my eyes, is create a sense of that unfiltered direct sensation which we might label “cinematic” as it lies in that same direction, but which isn’t so much imitating the way film would portray, say, a walk in the woods, as the way it feels to simply take a walk in the woods.

      That said, I think that a lack of hokey-phobia does characterize some of the very best cartoonists of the last two decades: artists who aren’t afraid of their history, their roots, or their pulpy four color dialects.

      I have an ahistorical streak in me, to be sure, so it’s not my cup of tea as an artist, but it still warms my heart as a reader.

  16. Hmmm… I type much less coherently on a mobile…

  17. Karl Zimmerman says:

    My wife writes fiction, and IMO she’s very good. One of her rules is “show, don’t tell”; if it’s possible to indicate a character’s reaction by their external behavior, do that rather than tell the reader their thoughts.
    But she often chooses to write stories where she _does_ tell us a character’s thoughts. When she does this, she usually is telling the story mostly from one character’s point of view. She makes it work by making the formal choice to use that point of view.
    Thought captions share that formality, and I think that affects both the composer’s process and the viewer’s perception. It is very easy to use thought bubbles in a haphazard way, without regard to the choice of viewpoint (one always has the connecting bubbles); but the composer must take more care with captions to cue the viewer to whom the caption belongs. It is therefore also much harder with captions to rapidly shift point-of-view from one character to another.
    This isn’t to say that bubbles are always bad. There have been and will be stories where the telling requires the viewer to see the thoughts of more than one character at once — to see a consonance or dissonance between the characters’ thoughts, for example — and captions are not well-suited to that. But perhaps bubbles wouldn’t seem so patronizing if the composer were to choose the story’s narrator carefully.

  18. adam ford says:

    I love ’em, but I think they’re best used when the dialogue within is reflective of actual thought – not like a monologue or a recitation, but broken, disjointed, nonlinear… that’s why things like mazzucelli’s icons-in-thought-bubbles work so well. there’s a nonverbal/preverbal quality to them, just like there is to thought itself.

  19. MaggieL says:

    Speaking of cinematic influences, I wonder if movement from bubbles (a mutant version of speech balloons) to captions was facilitated in some way as the pre-cinema/TV medium of comics felt influence from a other media where internal narration often manifests as a voice-over?

    I’m sure there’s a McLuhan reference in here somewhere…

  20. […] buon Scott McCloud interviene nella discussione, sostenendo di preferire questo modello giapponese. La ragione è che […]

  21. Laroquod says:

    I agree with talcotts: “Thought balloons are an aspect of the moment, while captions are outside of it.” That’s very well put, and how I intended to use them myself. I can see how they could be seen as patronising, but one has to ascribe a meaning to the whole more pointerly nature of a balloon as more leading by the hand; that meaning doesn’t necessarily have to be there. Conversely, I could ascribe a meaning to the caption box as of an edifice, standing with immutable borders, declaring to the readers its words as if from a square tablet of law. And that would seem to make it patronising, too, except that by no means could I show that a significant number of other people interpret the whole squared-off thing the same way (tho, it *is* a reasonable way), and similarly I don’t see any evidence that there is a significant majority of people who feel patronised by even actual arrow-shaped pointers, not to mention amorphous, bubbly, vaguely pointer-like appendages that take their sweet time getting there and seem easily distracted. 8)

  22. Not liking thought balloons means you hate freedom and want the terrorists to win.

    That is all.

  23. Fad23 says:

    One of the things that bothers me about captions at times is the notion that written words should be recorded somewhere, in the way that Rorschach writes in his journal somewhere. In some ways, I feel more distanced from comics that use the caption device. Am I supposed to believe that someone is talking to me? Writing a letter?

    The caption approach, it has been suggested, were inspired by voice-over in film. I’m not sure I agree wholly. In some ways I think of the kind of narration I read in novels. Holden Caulfied might have been talking to me. It’s all in first person and told from a character’s point of view. I can’t remember the last time I saw a third person omniscient caption. Even The Watcher tells his stories in first person. Maybe it was the 19z
    70s. Or reading comics before the mid-80s.

    Wait. Do I remember third person captioning in Tales of the Beanworld? That thing about absorbing trace element through the feet? Do I remember the elimination of the word balloon in Eisner’s later work? I’m rambling now. Check back later.

  24. As Karl Zimmerman says above, thought balloons v. text balloons is a formal device. In a work of fiction, three entities are present. The author, the narrator and the reader.

    If they are enclosed in captions, the words are closer to being those of an unseen author rather than a character’s momentary thoughts.

    I think we have seen less thought balloons because conventional characters, no longer have telling thoughts, they have become rigid and archetypal. Chris Ware’s, Jimmy Corrigan, thinking that he never even talked to the woman in the next cubical, is telling and contemporary.

    A good thought balloon however, appears to erase the barrier between the reader and the character who narrates… and we read ourselves into the comic.

  25. […] usual blogging may be spotty until I’m back on Friday. Feel free to keep debating the merits of thought balloons until then. Posted in […]

  26. Felicity says:

    This must be a subjective thing. My mileage varies. I find thought caption boxes very cold and uninviting, and I miss the warmth and inclusiveness of thought balloons.

  27. Felicity says:

    I remember reading a debate about caption boxes versus thought balloons in either a Marvel Age column (probably Mark’s Remarks) or a letter column somewhere, and the valid point was made that having Wolverine think “I’m the best there is at what I do” in a thought balloon would seem weird. Why would he need to tell himself that? It makes more sense in a caption box, because that way it’s like he’s aware of us watching his adventures and is explaining it to us.

    I remember noticing once that there were no thought balloons or sound effects in Watchmen, and almost no motion lines (with one exception). It was an interesting creative exercise for Moore & Gibbons to assign themselves, and it worked well there, but I wouldn’t want it to become the industry standard.

  28. […] (Jog). The comments are by people like Evan Dorkin and David Mazzucchelli. Then Scott McCloud weighs in with his opinion that thought balloons are by their very nature insulting. Barry Deutsch counters with some nice […]

  29. Lot of good information here, food for thought.

    I’ve seen a few people mention “Breaking the Fourth Wall” in Scott’s earlier book. It should be blatantly obvious how this term applies to graphic storytelling. I’m watching a play, and one of the actors turns to me – an audience member – and asks me something parenthetically, that’s making me realize that I’m watching a play, with actors and I’m sitting in the audience watching. It’s sometimes useful to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief, as in that moment, a roomful of people go from thinking and feeling “these are real people in a real situation” to “whoa, I’m watching an entertaining play with actors and one of them just asked me a question!” Group mental state changes like this can be pretty powerful. I also think that it can also have the inverse effect (like in the psychological concept of transference) of drawing you into the story/plot/drama/action. In comics, as a reader, I feel somewhat conspiratorial; I now know something about the situation, and have been trusted with personal details. Certainly these details may be trivial, but with any relationship, building rapport is important. Getting your target audience/viewers/readers to build relationships with your characters is an important part of bringing people back – whether it’s for re-readability (how many times have I re-read Watchmen?) or to get people to have an emotional interest in reading the next in a serial (don’t miss the next Zot!). You can make a product any reasonable price, I feel, and people will buy it if they have a need that’s being filled. Intimacy can be somewhat lacking in this digital age. Who would you prefer bonding with your children: a cereal box character with a product to sell, or a comic book character with a backstory, agenda and life on the page?

    Regarding thought bubbles versus speech balloons versus narrative boxes, I thought this was all explained pretty well in Scott’s book. I can’t “unsee” these principles now. It is funny to see people debating the usefulness of these tools. If someone is talking, it goes into a speech balloon. If a character is thinking something in the moment (like they say something in the moment) such as “I wonder if she still holds that against me?” then it totally belongs in a thought bubble. It makes perfect sense to me, and I don’t think there is a more appropriate place for it – from a reader’s perspective. If you don’t define a language from the start, it’s hard to read. There’s a purpose for the universality (and flexibility, granted) of the visual medium. Yes, you can play with the rules, but I’m not going to feel comfortable viewing your comic if you start mixing speech with thought, and don’t delineate them in some way. Yes, I will take a page or two to learn the unique vocabulary of your visual design if you have something to say that I want to hear, but I do believe randomness loses readers. Regarding the space for narration, it’s up to the artist to decide what belongs there and what does not. A character might be narrating a story after the fact, answering the questions of a police detective in an interrogation room near the end of the story. Non-linearity rocks. Narration can keep people interested, provide a common thread through an otherwise disjointed storytelling style, and provide information otherwise not imparted via character speech or thought. “Meanwhile…at the Hall of Justice!”

    I think, in the end, after all is said and done (cliches aside), it is the connection…bond…between you the artist and each reader that is the most important part of the equation. You create these characters, situations and environments so that you can tell a story in your own way. There is a trust that is established over time, and readers will learn your style and come to expect certain established elements of style in your work. What works for you, as an artist, will work for your readers – and I don’t think you should change your art simply because of a passing fad, phase or change of industry standard. Your readers will thank you.

    Regarding the mention of the lack of thought balloons in Watchmen, I thought that title was loaded with thought balloons – albeit cleverly disguised as journal entries and “narration.” When I read Watchmen, I can tell what they are saying, what they are thinking and which parts are clearly narration. Is it the use of the concept that’s being debated here, or the style of implementing each type? Deep stuff!

  30. […] McCloud two-fer! The king of comics theory considers the slow disappearance of thought balloons, and English prof/Top Shelf blogger Trevor Dodge sounds off on McCloud’s relevance, […]