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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Probably the best known comics convention is the word container. It’s also the most wide-spread outside of comics. Look at your phone the next time you’re texting:

Related image

Those are talk balloons. Read as a panel from a comic book, it’s as if you’re standing just out of frame on the right and the other person is just out of frame on the left. Though are you really “talking”? Maybe the containers should be psychic thought bubbles instead?

Image result for talk bubbles thought bubbles

Conventionally, words of speech are arranged inside circular talk balloons, thought inside cloud-like thought bubbles, and narration inside rectangular caption boxes. Thought bubbles fell out of popular use in mainstream comics in the 80s, and so characters’ thoughts also often appears in caption boxes. Speech containers date to at least medieval manuscripts that include “speech scrolls” arranged near figures’ mouths:

Talk balloons usually have tails or pointers directed at the speaking character. For Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau often draws only single-line pointers with no container around the spoken words:

Image result for doonesbury

No word containers are necessary, but mainstream comics included them in part to make revision easier and so speed production. 1960s Marvel artists Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby would draw a large number of word containers per page, with only a general sense of the dialogue, thoughts, and narration that Stan Lee would later compose for a letterer to add.

Image result for ditko spider-man page

If Lee composed less than the containers implied, the letterer could draw the words larger, creating the impression that a character was shouting—an effect independent of the drawn image. That’s because the containers, unlike the words, are an integral part of the artwork. Like sounds effects, they are a drawn element to be balanced in each panel composition. Speech bubbles rarely contain more than thirty-eight words. While entire comics and certainly sections of comics can be wordless, a word-heavy page might include as many as 230—though under 200 is more common.

Like word rendering, the lines and shapes of a word container are expressive. Jagged, smooth, rounded, angular—the visual qualities imply aural qualities, especially of speech. Dotted lines often indicate whispering, and thick jagged lines shouting. In 1925, Soviet graphic designer Aleksandr Rodchenko produced a now-iconic poster for a publishing house that featured a woman in profile cupping her hand to her mouth and shouting the Russian word for book, with the letters contained and shaped by a bullhorn-like triangle extending from her open mouth.

Image result for rodchenko books

Since speech is a character-defining quality, just the shape of a talk balloon can establish a person’s personality. The speech of Marvel’s android character The Vision first appeared in white, oval talk balloons in 1968, but by 1972 later artists and colorists converted them to yellow, round-edged rectangles to suggest a robotic voice:

Image result for the vision avengers comics

When designing text containers, artists consider whether the lines of the container match the lines of the words or if they meaningfully contrast. Does the container have a background color or texture that carries a connotation too? Is the container simply a framing line, leaving the background image visible—or does the container appear to be cut out of the image, exposing the white of the page beneath? And do all containers follow the same design, or do they vary according to type or character or situation or mood?

For Elektra: Assassin (1987), Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller place the title character’s narration in white rectangles with sharp corners and her partner’s in blue rectangles with flattened corners. When Elektra assumes the persona of an innocent romantic, her rectangles are pink with bubbly corners. In Red Winter (2018), Anneli Furmark contrasts her typical oval talk balloons with rectangular ones with zigzag lines for voices on the phone. The talk balloon around a voice on the television is oval, but its frame cuts off parts of the words, making the container into a kind of window into a different plane. When two characters speak the same words simultaneously in Asterios Polyp (2009), David Mazzuchelli draws their two talk containers, an oval and a square, overlapping with the shared words in their centers:

Image result for asterios polyp "rest in peace"

Though they are not composed and set as lines of poetry, words lettered inside containers resemble stanzas. The containers function like pages in prose texts, forcing arbitrary line breaks, but the units are brief compared to a page of prose, so the containers also create units distinct from sentences and paragraphs or lines and stanzas. They create rhythms unique to comics, and so a writer needs to weigh how to group words into container phrases. Jennifer Egan’s story “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” in A Visit from the Good Squad (2011) was composed in Powerpoint and consists of typeset words and word containers—and so might be considered a comic:

Image result for egan goon squad powerpoint

Image result for egan goon squad powerpoint

These last three examples use human figures as word containers for three different types of text.

Narration (“You have the right to remain silent”):

Speech (“SHUT UP!”):

Thought (“You don’t know what I’m thinking”):

Though word containers are comics best known convention, there doesn’t have to be anything conventional about them.

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