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.

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