Friday, March 19, 2010

Thoughts about thought bubbles, speech balloons, and narration boxes

Blog@Newsarama just linked to two separate articles about thought bubbles and speech balloons in modern comics.

I'll get the one out of the way quickly: The Twilight Graphic Novel, despite having apparently first-rate artwork, has absolutely miserable lettering.

There's no letterer credited; the only credits go to Meyer for story and Kim for "art and adaptation," and while I suppose Kim could've done it, I'd have a hard time believing that any artist would go to such great pains to screw up her own work. The one thing I'm sure of is that there is no way in Hell that a professional letterer worked on this book, as any professional letterer worth his or her salt wouldn't have just popped open Photoshop, slapped some Times New Roman down in a ridiculously huge ellipse, added a few horrible and inconsistent tails that look more like fried worms than anything I've ever seen in a comic, and called it a day.

Yes, the type is set in Times New Roman. The only place that font should show up in a comic book is in the pages of the Daily Planet.

Here's a sample of the work:

Looking at it, I have to think that some low-level editorial assistant with no typographical (or graphical) background slapped this together. Sort of shameful, considering the sheer volume of good (a) letterers (b) graphic designers (c) comic book fonts out there.

On to the second part, which is about thought balloons/bubbles in comics. Previously everywhere, today they are becoming pariahs. Joe McCulloch's post was spurred by a recent piece on Stephen King (who was a comic-book junkie as a kid and is penning some comics of his own now):
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?”

Joe McCulloch goes on, in his analysis, to say that they're not exactly dead (it's not some industry-wide convention to ban them), but they are fewer in number and have been stylistically changed from the kind of thought bubble you might see coming from the heads of Garfield or Snoopy.
I mean, I presume everyone here and Stephen King realizes that he’s not learning ‘comics’ from this experience so much as Vertigo procedure, which naturally will encompass a lot of elements of comics-at-large, although it’s also bound to enforce its own particularities of usage. Hopefully a less acclimated reader doesn’t come to believe thought balloons have been “phased out” entirely, because that’s not true, not even in front-of-Previews genre comics—I just caught one today flipping through a recent Savage Dragon, and I know a few Marvel series keep ‘em visible. Among bookshelves, as high-profile a critical darling as Asterios Polyp made sure to include thought balloons among David Mazzucchelli’s encyclopedic formal array, in both the purely iconographic manner seen above and ‘with words.’ Chris Ware’s a user too, and I imagine Archie hasn’t kicked the habit. Yes, the use of thought balloons isn’t the same as it was in fifty years ago, but it’s not like King is laboring under an industry prohibition.

He has a bunch of examples to show the visual differences between then and now, and between the different methods today. It's interesting to see how people use them now--in quotation marks in blocks of narration, where they're used more as a character's off-camera voice-over of a flashback; as thought balloons meant to imitate real thoughts--using clipped sentences with less punctuation, to reflect a stream-of-consciousness quality that contrasts with the full sentences of dialogue; as internal dialogue, placed (thanks to computerized layout software that wasn't available 70 years ago) directly in space on the scene, separated out from the background only by some white space and white outlines.

Taking King's case as an example, McCulloch proposes some possible aesthetic reasons for the demise of the thought balloon and its "chain" or "tail" of small bubbles leading back to the character's head:
I can only speculate as to why King’s editors didn’t want him to use the tool; Vertigo doesn’t maintain a necessarily uniform line of books (although I can’t think of any titles that use thought balloons at the moment), but it does tends to prize a certain stylized maturity of verisimilitude in its various fantasies and horrors. They’re cool, and 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....

Plus, thought balloons simply aren’t as versatile: you can’t stretch them out over the course of a story, they offer less opportunity for word-image consonance/dissonance—they simply don’t seem as ‘literary,’ in that they don’t allegorize a descriptive passage of prose giving way to dialogue, and thereby can be dubbed unsophisticated. I don’t agree, and neither does comics-at-large, even a few of the shared-universe superheroes, carrying their extra burden of functioning as a flickering window into some simulacrum of a parallel reality—it may just be a sharp object with which to assert one’s comic-bookiness, but Oliver Queen could at any moment encounter a child-murdering villain that needs putting down post-haste, and it’s preferable to have every arrow in the quiver.

If I were to guess, I think it's all part of the trend that Manga introduced into American comics so many years ago. Whereas US comic books started by emulating newspaper comic strips (which had previously emulated single-panel newspaper editorial comics), Japanese Manga began—unknown to those of us in the US—emulating movies. That filmic quality, with its dramatic angles and "camera moves", has completely overtaken comics now. And the lack of access to a character's thoughts is part of that. In film, you reveal character and emotion by showing or by dialogue. Overheard thoughts are done in movies today pretty much only for comic effect. And everyone knows that one thing that modern comics are NOT is comical. They are SERIOUS. (!!!)

For our part, in BABYMOUSE and SQUISH, we don't use thought-bubble dialogue (monologue?). Instead, we use thought bubbles to encapsulate fantasies, flashbacks (occasionally with dialogue, as they are mini scenes), or other visualizations. A big part of that is the fact that Babymouse is constantly engaging in little soliloquies, and the border between her thoughts and reality is very thin—sometimes other characters overhear her, sometimes not, and often the Narrator has a comment to make about what she says.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Tucson wrap-up

I had a great time down at the Tucson Festival of Books last weekend--met some passionate librarians, had a fantastic panel with two other graphic novelists (Frank Beddor and Maxwell Eaton III), and saw THOUSANDS of enthusiastic readers (don't have a final estimate on the entire weekend, but Saturday's attendance was 60,000 people; last year--the FIRST year of the festival--the weekend's entire attendance was 50,000).

But, I'm nowhere near as good of a blogger as Lisa Yee. She's thorough enough to shame the rest of us.

Some choice pics from her Peep Files:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Matthew Holm at Tucson Festival of Books this Sunday!

For anyone in the Tucson, Ariz., area, I'll be at the Tucson Festival of Books this Sunday, March 14. Here's my schedule of events:

Story Blanket: Matthew Holm

When: Sunday 10:30 AM - 11:00 AM
Where: Story Blanket
Genre: Children/Youth

This is "story time." I'll be reading aloud from BABYMOUSE: BURNS RUBBER, as best I can (it's not so easy to read aloud from a graphic novel).

Alyss, Babymouse and The Flying Beavers: Writing Graphic Novels

Three authors/illustrators will talk about creating graphic novels for children and teens. They will share their process of writing and illustrating graphic novels and the appeal of these novels for kids.

When: Sunday 11:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Where: Education Building - Room 353
Genre: Children/Youth
Matthew Holm
Frank Beddor
Maxwell Eaton III

A Thousand Words Made Easy: A Workshop on Cartooning
In this workshop for children ages 9-12, the author of the popular comic series on Babymouse will show how he creates his cartoons for these books and will invite kids to try their hand at illustrating a special event through cartoons.
Workshop / Sun 1:00 PM - 02:00 PM
Education Building - Room 351


When: Sunday 2:30 PM - 3:00 PM
Where: Children's Autographing Area
Genre: Children/Youth

What do you do when your kids are "stuck" at reading?

Imagine this scenario:

Your first child is a precocious kid. She asks you to read aloud books like The Secret Garden or House at Pooh Corner when she's barely four years old... She seriously takes off in second grade, and by third grade she's devouring Harry Potter (all of them that were printed by that date, anyway) and anything else she can get her hands on... nothing is too difficult, too obscure, or too big for her.

Then along comes your second child... She learns to read faster than her older sister (different school system), and is also able to read Junie B. Jones and The Magic Treehouse books (as well as Clementine) by the end of first grade. And then... she stalls. Second grade, third grade go by and she really shows no sign of being interested in longer books. That's not exactly accurate: she has discovered that she loves having longer books read aloud to her: Matilda, the Ranger's Apprentice, Sisters Grimm and so on. But, she shows no sign of desiring to read ahead in the book (unlike her sister), to pick up the book on her own after you close it every night.

Melissa at Book Nut has a great article on strategies for helping kids jump that reading gap that sometimes appears in 2nd or 3rd grade:

1. Find a genre that your child is interested in. ...when I'm at the library, I pick up a few picture books with longer stories that I know C will pick up and read. Fairy and folk tales, books about girls her own age (Moxy Maxwell or Bobby Versus Girls, Accidentally), and general non-fiction, are also all things that she likes.

2. Try Graphic Novels. This was the big winner in our house. Graphic novels like Babymouse and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Dork Diaries and Ellie McDoodle, bridged the gap between early chapter books and more difficult middle grade books for C.

3. Don't push it. You know the saying "at least they're reading"? Think about that. Reading is not supposed to be a chore, it's supposed to be fun. And if they LOVE reading Magic Treehouse (even though you think it's crap), then let them read Magic Treehouse...

4. Have someone else -- a librarian, a friend, a teacher -- suggest books. Sometimes, the reason your child isn't progressing is because it's coming from you, the parent. (Sad, but true.) ... Included in this are fads, which are not always bad. Perhaps part of the reason M read Harry Potter was because everyone around her was reading Harry Potter. Likewise, C willingly reads and loves the Percy Jackson books because they're popular right now.

5. In that same vein, try a parent-child book group. I'm not going to go into details, but rather send you over to Imagination Soup for some great ideas and reasons why this works, and works well.

Oh, and 6. Keep trying. Just because they don't love Saffy's Angel right now, doesn't mean they won't love it later. (We handed the book to her at the end of third grade; she could have read it because she read well enough. But she didn't actually read the book until a month ago, and started it only because she couldn't find anything else to read. She did like it, in the end.) Time and patience, as with everything, is the key.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Looking for the Babymouse Books in Spanish/Español?

I'm often asked about Spanish versions of the BABYMOUSE books. They do exist! But they are published in Spain (i.e., Europe, not the Americas), and there has been some confusion about where to find the books in the USA.

I've now learned that the US distributor of the Spanish-language versions of BABYMOUSE is Lectorum.

Lectorum: Information for Libraries and Educators

Lectorum: Information for Booksellers

... and the link to each book's page at is listed below.

You may, of course, also order from any of the retailers I've listed here. But Lectorum is set up for school and library purchasing, etc. (i.e., the sorts of things your administrators may be concerned about).

Here are the details on each title that has been translated thus far:

Barnes & Noble

(BABYMOUSE: OUR HERO) - ISBN 978-8498670486
Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble

(BABYMOUSE: ROCK STAR) - ISBN 978-8498672503
Barnes & Noble

From Booklist (about the Spanish translation)
Like the previous three graphic novels about Babymouse, this title resonates with the travails of school life—boring classes, uncomfortable bus rides, difficult classmates—which she contrasts with her fantasy of becoming a true legendary rock star. Despite a few Spanish-isms and a few Peninsular Spanish conjugations, Spanish speakers from the Americas will find Mendo’s Spanish translation as irresistible and lively as the rowdy, pink-toned illustrations. The sparsity of truly enticing graphic novels in Spanish for middle readers makes these titles a must acquisition for every library. Grades 3-6. --Isabel Schon

Monday, March 1, 2010

Teaching with Graphic Novels: Updated Resources for Educators

To everyone who saw me at the Nevada Reading Week Conference in Reno this weekend ... thank you! You were great audiences.

I have updated my list of resources for educators, and have also posted PDF versions of my PowerPoint presentations—one on the history of graphic novels and their value in the classroom, and one on activities and resources for teaching with graphic novels.

Go check out the material, then go teach!