> Lettering Roundtable: Thinking About Thought Balloons, and Other Abandoned Storytelling Techniques
Lettering Roundtable: Thinking About Thought Balloons, and Other Abandoned Storytelling Techniques
A discussion with Tony Isabella, Lee Nordling, Mark Verheiden, Lovern Kindzierski, Richard Starkings, John Ostrander, Steve Leialoha, Todd Klein, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Steven Grant, Trina Robbins, Marv Wolfman, Tim Eldred, Howard Cruse, Jackie Estrada, Bob Ingersoll and Steve Lieber.
Page from TOMORROW STORIES #8 by Alan Moore and Rick Veitch
Tony Isabella: My disregard for movies and TV in general comes from their
adverse effect on the comics art form and industry to which I devoted
Comics try to imitate movies to such a degree that we end up doing
second-rate movies in our comics instead of first-rate comics. We abandon
useful storytelling tools just because they aren't cinematic enough.
We're into our second -- maybe third -- decade of too many comics creators
who see the comics as mere stepping stones to Hollywood.
I enjoy movies and TV. But I don't hold them to the same standards that I
hold comics. Because I don't think they're as good as good comics.
I should add that, since I'm more into story than flash, I believe, a good
story is a good story... and I don't need big-screen flash for it to be a
Lee Nordling: No... but scale CAN be a contributor to the way the story is
supposed to be experienced. Lawrence of Arabia on TV or the big screen? No
brainer. Big screen. Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai? Same answer.
Sure, any of those films can be enjoyed without the big screen... but that
doesn't mean that SOMETHING isn't missing. It's not just flash.
The comics equivalent is the use of space on a page for effect, and I
remember the double-gatefold explosion at the end of Ronin. Great use of
Kurt Busiek: The flipside of that -- I saw THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN in a movie
theater, and thought it was lousy. Empty, shallow and dull. A few years
later, it came on TV and I was much more caught up in it -- watched it all
the way through and liked it a lot.
The intimacy of the small screen changed the context -- in the movie
theater, the big vistas of western geography seemed more important, and
there wasn't a whole lot done with them, while the quiet character interplay
got lost. On TV, those vista were reduced down to the idea of them more
than the reality, and the idea was more important to the characters.
Meanwhile the character stuff seemed to suit the small screen better -- not
that "character stuff" always does, just that it does here -- and came
forward as the heart of the story.
Context is part of storytelling.
Mark Verheiden: I'm curious, which storytelling tools are we talking about?
Lee: I assume Tony is referring to the ways the different media use
time... although he could've been referring to the growing use of the 180 degree
film rule by comics artists.
Lovern Kindzierski: What's the 180 degree film rule?
Lee: I'm sure one of our storyboard artists can give a more precise
definition... but it involves not having the camera/eye cross the 180 degree line
of a circle -- with the character/actor at the center -- and show the
character in another film cut from the opposite side, because the
character/actor will seem to be looking in the opposite direction of the
previous shot. It can be very disorienting in film, and first-time directors
have a really tough time with this.
Richard Starkings: How about THOUGHT BALLOONS? What happened to them?
John Ostrander: I once had an editor who told me i couldn't use thought
balloons because they didn't have them in movies. I tried pointing out that
the images in movies, well, moved. Were not static. Different medium. Then
the defense was that I couldn't use them because some writers -- not me, of
course -- used them badly. So any technique that is used badly can no longer
be used? The editor just stopped listening.
Kurt: Thought balloons are almost dead, flashbacks are often discouraged,
third-person narrative captions haven't vanished, but they've
diminished to the point of standing out where they're used -- unless
they're used so minimally that they're the sort of thing you'd see in
a Jack Ryan movie, identifying a place and maybe a time, little more.
The rationale for all of these is usually film rationale. They're all
novelistic tricks, well, thought balloons aren't, per se, but
articulating the character's thoughts, often as directly as dialogue,
In addition, sound effects have been under attack from various
quarters for decades now -- they may be the only thing Cat Yronwode and
Jim Shooter ever agreed on -- and have diminished, though not disappeared.
And then there's footnotes, not actually a narrative tool, but
virtually dead as well...
Steve Leialoha: Now with Sin City we got the reverse, where Frank's Voice
Over captions in the printed version becomes the V/O in the film version,
telling us the characters thoughts.
I only like sound effects when they don't cover up the art, or are worked in
from the start -- the way you see them in Walt Simonson's work is a great
It seems that the trend is to eliminate all the unique things that comics
Kurt: That's my gripe with it -- I don't mind the idea of limiting
technique, but I'd prefer to choose what I use, and where I choose to
Eschewing thought balloons as a creative choice can result in
interesting approaches. Eschewing them as a blanket formula, though,
is just dumb.
And the objections to any of this stuff boil down, in most cases, to,
Well, yeah. It's a comic book. If that's something to be embarrassed
about, make a movie or write a book. If not, then let's have access
to everything comics can do, all the tools in the workshop. Because
we don't have access to everything movies can do, and we shouldn't
settle for half measures.
Rich: So, do Marvel, DC and Dark Horse editors issue edicts regarding
thought balloons and sfx?
Kurt: At times, they have. I've been lucky enough to work with editors
who'll support thought balloons if I want to do it -- and I did,
occasionally, in AVENGERS -- but I was also told that the EIC and publisher
hated them, and looked aversely on creators that used them.
Bold words in lettering are another comics technique that's been
diminishing over time, as I expect you've noticed -- there was a time
at Marvel that Shooter set rules for how they could be used, and it
was very minimal. Again, his reasoning was that it was too comic-booky.
At Valiant, he banned FX.
Rich: Have you used thought balloons in a script and been told not to?
Kurt: Not flat-out, but I've been told that it was a career-damaging
technique. I was told flat-out not to use any flashbacks -- Bill Jemas
hated them, and Joe Quesada doesn't like them much.
Rich: I do remember noting that captions became the preferred internal
narrative of choice following Miller's use of them in ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN.
Page from ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz
Kurt: And Miller used 'em really well, too.
But my reaction to that was, "Great, another technique that can be used
well!" Unfortunately, many others thought, "Great, a replacement
They must have missed DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN, where Frank used
third-person directed captions beautifully, too.
Todd Klein: I think Frank was a big influence regarding the decline of
thought balloons, as was WATCHMEN, which also had no thought balloons I
think, but both Miller and Moore were making personal style choices, not
trying to set down rules for others. And perhaps it was in reaction to the
overuse of thought balloons in earlier DC and Marvel books, I'm thinking
especially of the Mort Weisinger era Superman books where everyone thought
through every move they made in labored detail.
Keith R.A. DeCandido: It actually all kind of happened at once. He didn't
really do it on DAREDEVIL in his first run, though he had a few straight
first-person-narrated stories -- like the Ben Urich issue, #179, which was
published in 1982.
However, in 1986, he went crazy with it, in DARK KNIGHT, in his return to
DAREDEVIL and in ELEKTRA:ASSASSIN and then again in BATMAN: YEAR ONE in
Rich: Yes, Miller used the same conceit elsewhere, but I specifically
remember conversations with Marvel editors Greg Wright and Dan Chichester
regarding ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN and how the use of captions made thought
balloons look silly. Chichester attempted something similar in one of the
Epic SHADOWLINE books, with not very good results. Archie later made it a
rule that writers had to use Batman's internal narrative in LEGENDS OF THE
DARK KNIGHT, which has led to some strangely omniscient first person Batman
captions in the Loeb/Sale books I've lettered when scenes require location
Page from BATMAN: YEAR ONE by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
I never liked the Jim Gordon handwriting captions in YEAR ONE -- sorry, Todd
-- partly because they were hard to read on newsprint and partly because
thereafter writers were asking me for similar caption styles. There are only
so many ways you can make handwriting look good in comic book captions and
before long you're going to have major problems with ascenders and
descenders. Computer lettering makes it much easier to adjust this kind of
thing, but when you're in mid flow with a pen and a 'd' comes up against a
'y' on the line above... What? I'm getting too lettering-specific for you?
Steven Grant: As much fun as it is to credit Frank with stuff, first person
captions were well established in comics prior to Frank putting pen to his
first issue of DAREDEVIL -- but, yes, he made full use of them in DD. I
remember both Steve Englehart and Steve Gerber using them in stories in the
mid-'70s, and I'm pretty sure Marv used them in TOMB OF DRACULA, and even
THOSE weren't anywhere near the first use. This is going to sound
self-centered, but I know one thing that greatly influenced overuse of the
"first person caption as substitute thought balloon" in the mid-80s: my use
of the gimmick in the PUNISHER mini series. Now I wasn't particularly
influenced by Frank or anyone else when I used them, I just had a vision of
The Punisher as someone who felt under no compulsion to explain himself to
anyone, but he had been established as keeping a diary/war journal -- which,
frankly, I thought was a stupid idea; yeah, that's smart, write down all of
your transgressions and strategies so that anyone getting ahold of your book
can either prosecute you or outmaneuver you -- so the first person captions
became essentially this running diary he kept in his head, his dislocated
commentary on his situation. For a lot of editors, Frank fell into rarified
territory -- "sure, HE can do it, because he's FRANK, but you're not, so
forget it" -- but I was considered a low-ranking in the heirarchy of comics
writers, and if >I< could do it, hell, it's open season for ANYONE.
Particularly after the mini-series was unexpectedly very popular. It's at
that point, for instance, that Mark Gruenwald starts pounding the gimmick
into the ground in CAPTAIN AMERICA. This isn't just self-delusion; I
actually did have writers tell me to my face that, basically, my using it
took it out of the realm of gimmicks only the mighty were given access to
and opened it to the common man. I think they meant it as a compliment, but
I'm still not sure...
Keith: One of the interesting things I noticed when I was editing the Marvel
novels that were published from 1994-2000 was that a lot of the comics
writers who did stories for me -- who had almost no experience in prose --
had trouble understanding the third-person-centric point of view which I, as
Editor, insisted on, mainly because it was one thing prose can do that
comics can't. They also had everybody yelling and talking with emphasis
every third word. It basically read like every character was being played
by DeForrest Kelley. The yelling was mainly because, until clear,
easy-to-read computer lettering became the norm, exclamation points ended a
large majority of sentences in comics because a period might be missed in a
hand-lettered, newsprint comic.
But boy does that not work in prose... *laughs*
Not sure what my point is, except to say that each medium has its own
storytelling methods. I'm not really clear as to why so many mainstream
comics editors are uninterested in using the ones that work for comics, but
I also take heart in the fact that, like every other hip trend, this too
Rich: Did Jim Shooter and cat yronwode DISLIKE sfx?
Kurt: Yes. Jim used to say that if he made a big noise, a giant word didn't
appear in mid-air, so they were unrealistic and dumb. It was pointed out to
him that when he talked, bubbles with the words in didn't appear over his
head, either, but he didn't seem to think that was the same thing.
He did, however, think that word balloons should be separated from the
art as much as possible -- jam 'em up into the corner, even if it meant an
overlong tail. He didn't like them floating in the middle of the art. Me, I
thought that the graphic combination of words and pictures was the point.
Steven: You silly aesthete you. Actually, that was fairly common
Marvel philosophy at the time. When I first started working with Marvel,
Roger Stern and maybe Jim Salicrup, I forget, taught me how to place
balloons, a key point of which was to anchor them wherever possible to a
panel border, especially a corner, and, failing that, to another balloon.
Kurt: cat also hated anything with roachlegs -- >sigh< or >gulp< or like
Rich: Ah -- Orzechowski calls them "fireflies!"
Page from THE WIZARD'S TALE by Kurt Busiek and Dave Wentzel
Kurt: cat wanted it sounded out, pointing out that you wouldn't see it as
dialogue in a novel. I pointed out that you didn't see such things spelled
out, either -- you wouldn't read someone saying, "Hhhh," which was her
version of a sigh. You'd get a sentence reading, "He sighed," and this was
the comics version of that. I rewrote every part of THE WIZARD'S TALE that
had words like that in it to get rid of them, so I didn't have to do it her
way. Then, when we switched to Wildstorm, I put a bunch of 'em back.
Steven: But would a caption saying "He sighed." be so wrong?
Kurt: Depending on the narrative style of the story, no, but I don't see it
as superior to ">sigh<" by any stretch.
In this particular story, there were only two captions -- "Once upon a
time..." at the beginning, and "...and they lived happily ever after" at the
end. So it wouldn't have worked there.
Mark: Thought balloons were the only thing that came to mind when the
question came up, so I'm glad I asked -- and I just used thought balloons in
an upcoming SUPERMAN, and several one or two panel flashbacks, so these
conventions clearly aren't totally dead! -- but they'll pry SFX out of my
cold, dead hands...
Besides, I'm not sure that a general stylistic evolution is necessarily a
bad thing, since our collective visual vocabulary is changing every day.
Audiences are capable of accepting and processing way more information now,
without being led by the nose. Wasn't too long ago that movie grammar
insisted that for audiences to understand how characters got from place to
place, we had to see them exit, get in a car, drive, get out of the car and
enter. And I'm not sure that novelistic conventions are any more valid than
film conventions when it comes to the singular artform that is comics... In
comics, third person narrative captions were often the comic-book equivalent
of the car transition.
Kurt: Granted -- but that just gets back to John Ostrander's point about
other people doing it badly.
Mark: I'm not sure that novelistic conventions are any more valid than
film conventions when it comes to the singular artform that is comics...
Kurt: I wouldn't say so either -- I'd say they're both valid, as are
advertising conventions, poetic conventions and more.
I think that too often, the bulk of comics creators all race off in the same
direction, following the latest trend. I don't think editors should be
chivvying the others along, too, making sure they all limit themselves in
the same way.
I like captionless comics, I like first-person narrative, I like
third-person omniscient, third-person directed, shifting third-person
directed, thought balloons, minimal captions, multiple first-person
narrative tracks and more.
I want to have it all available, and use what tells the story best.
Steven: Right. You have to figure out what works for the particular story.
Trina Robbins: I use thought balloons in GoGirl!, and in the educational
graphic novel series I'm currently working on, and will use them until
George Bush declares it a punishable offense.
Marv Wolfman: It's something that's been bothering me for a long time. I
feel too many people as they grow up are embarrassed by the comic book
conventions. It's as if by changing them they make them more mature.
Well, put a guy in a Superman or Spider-Man costume and no matter how many
or few captions you have it is by nature a little juvenile.
You can do stories that are well written and touch on adult themes but the
essence is still wish fulfillment fantasy. And there's nothing wrong with
But to be embarrassed by the specifics that make comics unique is ludicrous.
There is nothing wrong with captions, thought balloons or even sound effects
if the story calls for them. But then I think the majority of the people who
make the decisions about such stuff are, as I say, probably embarrassed by
the entire medium.
Tim Eldred: I've been following this topic with interest, since I've
developed some opinions about them over the years as well.
Generally, I try to avoid thought balloons for one basic reason: I think
it's much more natural to keep the interplay entirely at the
dialogue-and-body-language level. That, after all, is how we see other
people interact in real life.
But comics aren't real life, right? Every work of fiction is simply a
contained viewpoint. Every medium has its own grab-bag of shortcuts. The
choice of container dictates the ones you use. But when any of those
shortcuts are used to excess, they call attention to the container itself,
I think one reason people dump on thought balloons so much is that they were
so heavily used in the past, particularly in the 60s and 70s. Let me toss
out a speculation here, and maybe some of you can confirm or deny...
Back in the Marvel bullpen, when there wasn't time to write a full script,
the penciller was given a story outline, and it was his job to break this
down into panels which would be scripted later. Once the penciller was done,
the writer was basically stuck with those pictures. Naturally, there must
have been many situations where a writer was looking for a nuance that was
absent in the art, and provided it instead with words. And if the pose or
expression didn't support a particular bit of dialogue, then a thought
balloon would be a sensible substitute.
Perhaps this practice got enough stories out of logjams that it soon became
common to toss in all the thought balloons you wanted, and everyone simply
got used to it.
Jump forward to later years, when scripts are fully written prior to
pencilling, and writers continue to use thought balloons despite the
opportunity that now exists to write more stage direction instead. Thus,
lots of thought balloons where only a few are necessary.
Ditto sound effects? I dunno, just speculating...
John: Interesting. Most books were done plot first when I started. Today,
many publishers want full script -- and there are pros and cons to this as
well -- so, depending on who I'm working with, I might trust them to convey
what I want conveyed with just body language and a look. But if its an
artist I DON'T know as well, I'm a little more leery. When it's plot first,
I can play off what the artist does more. Full script -- I don't have that
luxury. Not that there aren't plenty of advantages going full script but
hoping the artist will put in the body language when you don't know them --
Like Kurt, I prefer to be allowed my full tool bag and not be denied
something because of someone else's THEORY. When Bob Layton over at Valiant
restricted use of thought balloons, I asked him if he was willing to have me
pick some of his brushes at random and tell him he couldn't use them
anymore. That didn't work, either.
Marv: I really do think it's an embarrassment issue because so many
writers have decided that instead of third person omniscient narrator
captions they do first person caps which is essentially thought balloons
without bubbles. I think they feel that the bubbles make it look kiddy. To
me it's those folk who insist they're not trekkies but trekkers as if one
dumb word is more mature than the other.
First person narration, which you find in almost 90% of detective novels, is
just like thought balloons or first person captions.
Kurt: I don't think so -- I think another mistake that's made is that so
many people do think that first-person narrative and thought balloons are
the same thing.
They're similar, yes, but not quite the same. Narrative tends to be more
considered, and that's a distancing tool -- it makes the reader feel more
like an observer, less like they've got a sense of immediacy, of engagement
in the material.
A narrative caption -- "The razor-bats came at me. I ducked." is "cooler" --
and by that I mean less intense, not niftier -- than a thought balloon
reading, say, "Aaah! Razor-bats! Gotta duck--!"
They may carry the same information, but they affect the reader in a
different way. The narrative caption is narrative -- someone telling you a
story, even if it's present-tense -- while the thought balloon is
internalized dialogue -- someone verbalizing things to himself, and we're
That's why the Punisher's "war journal entry" caption narratives worked so
well for him, but the same sort of thing works less well for Spider-Man.
The Punisher is cool, distant, considered -- he comes across as mysterious
and methodical, and the reader observes more than engages. Spider-Man is all
emotion, and you want that engagement.
You can, of course, simply write thought-balloons and put 'em in captions,
but it's not how they're usually done, and it often reads strangely when it
is done that way.
To expand on your suggestion that it's embarrassment, I think this is a big
part of it -- that sense of engagement, of being "caught up" in a juvenile
story, is what fuels the embarrassment, as much as or more than the shape of
the thought balloons. It's the distancing factor of narrative that makes it
"sophisticated," and thus perceived as less juvenile.
But distancing the reader isn't the way to appeal to young readers. I don't
see anything wrong with a book aimed at 20-year-old readers having that
distance; I think it's a terrible idea for a book aimed at 10-year-olds.
Which may be a contributoring reason -- as this sort of thing has taken hold
over the last twenty-plus years -- as to why there are so few books that
successfully reach 10-year-olds.
Page from THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marv: I do think thought balloons are very useful but, like everything, you
should do them for the right reasons. When Spider-Man did it back in the 60s
it was to show the difference between his physical actions and what was
going through his mind at the time, the dichotomy is what made the character
On the other hand, I never used them with Dracula because I purposely didn't
want you to know what was in his thoughts. I wanted his actions to fight
against what he said. I think having thought balloons lets you inside your
character but they have to be done for the right reason, not to give info
that could be done another way. Since we all have running commentaries
inside our minds as we go about our daily lives, they are actually more a
reflection of reality. Removing them simply because they're reminiscent of
kiddy comics is simply a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
John: I completely agree on the difference in the first person narration vs
thought balloon. When I'm doing GRIMJACK where we use a lot of first person
narrative, I have to be careful I'm NOT doing thought balloons OR simply
describing what you already see. GrimJack COMMENTS on the situation --
giving thoughts AND feelings in a way that is very different from thought
balloons. At least to me. I don't often use thought balloons with GrimJack,
Steven: There were originally a lot of good reasons for curtailing
many of those techniques, as most were overused and wrongly used mainly to
dumb down the comics. The main function of thought balloons had become idiot
exposition -- Spider-Man swinging over Dr. Octopus beating up some cops and
thinking, "That's Dr. Octopus -- beating up some cops!" But the thought
balloon never really died, it just morphed into the first person narration
caption, which is to some extent far more flexible. It's one thing to have
The Punisher pithily reflecting on his situation in a caption, another to
have the same thing in a thought balloon, the latter being fairly idiotic
under most circumstances; the narrative remove of the caption is what gives
it effect. But way too many people have likewise reverted it to mere idiot
exposition, which is the real bane of comics.
But many old, retired techniques are worth mining now for new possibilities.
One I've fallen in love with, and am using in my "Weird Date" stories in THE
ESCAPIST, is the illustrated narrative caption, which was common in '50s
love comics but will be familiar with anyone who read Carmine Infantino's
FLASH, ADAM STRANGE, BATMAN or science fiction stories of the '60s: A
usually narrow panel that's pure narrative, except for one drawing that
maintains some mood or movement, like a futuristic cityscape, or a lit
candle in a candleholder, etc. It can be used as a great transitional
gimmick, or to get a point, action or emotion across that doesn't require a
whole drawing, or to connote the passage of time. In my first 'Weird Date'
story, for instance, my heroine was waiting in a restaurant for a date that
has apparently stood her up, and the illustrated narrative panel in the
scene shows a mostly empty wine bottle and two wine glasses, one with just a
trace of wine in the bottom and the other knocked over. Without my having
to spell it out, it got across not only the amount she had inadvertently
drunk but the suggestion that enough time had passed for her to drink that
much, and added, I think, to the overall emotional effect.
I wouldn't want to see all these old practices come back wholesale in old
forms, but maybe it's time we recovered them to demonstrate not only what
can be done right with them but to demonstrate that comics as a form AREN'T
film, despite interconnections and similarities. I think we needed that
period where comics became infected with film techniques, but now it's time
to go another step forward, now that we as a medium have had a few years to
step back from them, it's time to reapproach them with a fresh eye and
figure out how to use them better and more creatively.
The thing about thought balloons in particular with a lot of editors is that
they're considered "juvenile" and "comic book" and they want their books to
be perceived as rising above that.
I suddenly feel like doing a story told entirely in telepathy, so no one
uses a single speech balloon... One of the great values of thought balloons
is to establish and explore the dichotomy between what people say and what
they think. If the story demands naturalistic presentation, then thought
balloons are probably not the most appropriate technique.
More to the point, at least in my experience with "the Marvel method," the
thought balloon could be a useful tool for putting across elements that
SHOULD have been in the art but the artist didn't seem fit to draw for some
reason. Unfortunately, you'd end up with things like "That noise around the
corner -- that's GOT to be the Hulk!" Though hopefully presented more
artfully than that... Nuance was kind of a luxury under the Marvel method;
just getting all the basics in was difficult enough...
Howard Cruse: Despite my misgivings -- given that there's no equivalent in
any other literary medium that I can think of -- I've stubbornly held onto
boldfacing in word balloons as a tool for suggesting emphasis and cadence
although not importance. Anytime I've thought of ditching them, I would
think about how visually boring a block of text would become without those
spots of black and have re-pledged my allegiance to interspersed boldface in
all its hokey-ness.
Sometime during the mid-'80s I did become self-conscious about the old
comics convention, which I had absorbed and adopted without much thought
from my teenage years onward, of ending every sentence with an exclamation
point. But by then I was midway through my Wendel series and, knowing that
all the strips would probably be collected in a single book eventually, I
resisted making a big change that would call attention to itself. Once I was
finished with Wendel, though, the exclamation-point count in my stuff
I rarely use thought balloons because they imply that characters could
put their thoughts and motives into words if asked. My characters are
often only hazily aware of their own motives, if that. I enjoy letting
the reader wonder how much a character's words or actions reflect their
deepest inner beings.
I will give no ground on sound effects, though. They remain a dramatic tool
for which there is no alternative in a soundless medium. They also help
combat pretentiousness, since there's no escaping the slight silliness of
spelling out noises in vowels and consonants. These tools are like stage
conventions that have no parallel in everyday life -- like flying in new
scenery or shifting the predominant color of lighting to reflect changes of
mood -- but have proven their value in propelling a story forward while
audiences willingly suspend disbelief.
Page from SUPERNATURAL LAW by Batton Lash
Jackie Estrada: Well said, Howard! Batton uses boldface ital and what he
calls "tweaking" -- using a different font -- to emphasize certain words in
word balloons, following the style Eisner established in THE SPIRIT. We also
use sound effects in "Supernatural Law" for things like "Creeakk" to enhance
the opening of door in a scary scene, or "CRASH" off-panel so that the
on-panel folks stop and say "What was that?"
Kurt: I like that approach quite a bit -- it feels more newspaper-strip than
comic-book, to me, even in comics like CEREBUS. But I like that feel.
We've played with that approach here and there in CONAN -- usually changing
the font for a shouted balloon more than mixing fonts within a balloon, but
I think we've done some of the latter, too.
And when I saw "we," I mean, of course, "Richard."
Bob Ingersoll: Since we're discussing some lettering foibles we don't like,
Kurt, I'll add one of my own -- one that comes from one of your books.
I really don't like lettering that calls attention itself, especially
different fonts for different characters. I find that this device relieves
the writer of trying to come up with distinct voices for the characters, as
the distinction can be made from the different fonts. And this can -- and
often does -- lead to lazy writing, where all the characters voices sound
Kurt: I don't like it when it overloads the book, but everyone's "intrusive"
level is going to be different.
Page from CONAN by Kurt Busiek and Greg Ruth
Bob: Another example of different fonts -- and the one related to Kurt's
work -- is the use of the old-style, courier font -- complete with filled in
"O"s -- used in the captions in CONAN. While I know it's an attempt to bring
the feel of old-style pulp writing -- by having the text boxes look as if
Howard typed them on an old manual typewriter that was in need of cleaning
-- it calls attention to the lettering itself. And, to be honest, I sometime
find the font hard to read; especially when I'm reading the comic on a
moving bus during my commute. So, for all those reasons, I really don't like
that one font choice in CONAN.
Kurt: There are some readers who hate the captions in CONAN, and some who
love 'em -- luckily, the balance is pretty substantially on the "love 'em"
side, or we'd stop. The look of them is Richard's execution, but was my
suggestion -- I thought they'd give the book a distinctive flavor, and that
they'd go really well with the look of the art, both Cary's pencils and
I also thought that such a pulp-flavored narrative, in today's comics
market, ran the risk of feeling "old school," and didn't think it'd work
terribly well in straight, conventional captions. It just didn't feel right
to me, when I pictured it mentally. So we tried it, and everyone on the book
liked it enough to go with it.
Harlan Ellison actually called Dark Horse to tell them to clean out the keys
and get a new ribbon. He thought it was a real typewriter, and we just
Bob: Doesn't kill my enjoyment for the book. Just find that one choice not
to my taste.
Kurt: No sweat. I like lettering to be simple and clear, most of the time,
but I also like to try different approaches -- there's no reason the
lettering approach in CONAN should be the same as in CAPTAIN AMERICA.
I don't think P.T. Bridgeport-style balloons work well unless done
comedically, but I think it worked great comedically. And the multiple
styles in SANDMAN were restrained enough to work well for the tone of that
Bob: Oh, I agree. When I said I didn't like lettering to be intrusive, it
was more along the lines multiple font types in a single book, not different
books having a different font style most suited to that book.
But most important is that the font should be readable -- particularly to
those of us plagued by the twin afflictions of aging, nearsighted,
bifocal-corrected eyes which are reading things while on a
bouncing, moving bus.
Rich: In British editorial circles exclamation marks are known as Screamers
--What about exclamation marks on sfx? Yay or Nay?
Kurt: I used to put them in until Jim Salicrup told me not to. His
reasoning, as I recall, was that they're not speech and thus don't get
punctuated. I don't know that I buy that argument, but I don't care so much
one way or the other, and now I leave 'em off just for consistency. It
seemed like a useful rule to me so I use it.
But if I'm using FX lettering for something vocalized -- like, say, Devil
Dinosaur uttering a mighty HRRONNKK! -- I'll punctuate that, because it is
Beyond that, it's personal taste -- I don't much like multiple exclamation
points, but that's not an argument that they can't work. Stan used the hell
out of that key on his typewriter. It's just individual preference, not
stumping for a rule. I took all the exclamation points off the FX in the
Conan spin-off Len Wein and I are co-writing, but that was largely because
it's a spin-off of a book I'm writing, one that uses my approach. Were I
editing rather than co-writing, I'd leave 'em in -- or were I co-writing a
spin-off of a book Len was writing, I'd do it his way. As long as it works,
it works. That's what really matters.
Rich: Double exclamation marks in balloons? Triple exclamation marks? In
comedies? In dramas?
Kurt: Never liked them in any medium... but I think I'd be more open to them
in a comedy.
Steve Lieber: Almost never, unless there are no words in the baloons. Worst
of all is the use of multiple question marks at the end of a sentence: "Why
are you going????" I can only read that as indicative of some sort of
Parkinsonian quaver-stutter or Tourettic tic.
Howard: I disagree. The difference between one and two question marks is the
difference between an inquiry and abject astonishment. Sparing usage of such
devices, of course, is recommended.
Kurt: In those case, I tend to favor WHAT?! over WHAT?? But I can see the
Tony Isabella: In comedies, maybe. But, in drama, well, the exclamation mark
denotes a forceful end to the statement. If the statement is ending in a
question, but still forcefully, I'll use "?!" for the ending.
Steven: My philosophy on SFX is that a few go a long way. You definitely
need SFX when an off-panel action, like someone shooting a gun, is affecting
what's happening on panel; with, say, a prominent BLAM! it's just a picture
of someone gripping their chest and falling with a pained or shocked
expression. The SFX is essential to understanding the scene. On the other
hand, when the Howling Commandos are all charging forward firing machine
guns, you don't want to start filling up the panel with a BUDDA for every
shot being fired because that's just clutter and diminishes the overall
effect, and only having one or two BUDDAs is underkill, so unless you're
going for overkill it's arguably best to leave them out entirely. Too many
people like to make up new sound effects -- was it Len Wein who once had a
thunder/lighting effect that went KRAKADOOM!? -- and those can be
distracting. I used to think familiar SFX like BLAM! were unimaginative,
but now I think they're really more unobtrusive, when used sparingly. We
know BLAM! represents a gunshot, and used properly it and similar SFX can
ratchet up the tension in a scene because the reader doesn't really perceive
them as a separate element; they blend in, like good coloring or lettering.
I'd like to see colons and semi-colons used regularly in comics, personally.
I find it very useful, with bolding, to bold not specific words but specific
syllables, so that, for instance, a character doesn't say "really?" or
"REALLY?" but "REAlly?" It's all a matter of whether you want the dialogue
to sound FANtastic! or fanTASTic!
Marv: Not only do I agree with using SFX, but I think it certainly hasn't
hurt the sales of Manga to older readers considering they have sound SFX for
everything, including turning the head.
Trina: Sound effects are a major part of manga. In the course of my English
language rewriting of manga for Viz, I've encountered some doozy Japanese
sound effects that I've had to "Americanize" -- Gaba, Doga, Kachi, Gusha
gusha, Jyaki -- and I'm happy to say that several times I have
been able to use "Krakadoom!"
Keith: Speaking of odd comics conventions... @#$#!!
For a time, @#$#!! was the preferred method of denoting curse words. Then it
fell out of favor for some reason, and writers simply wrote PG dialogue,
which is, to my mind, the best way of doing it, as the above always felt
like I was watching bleeped dialogue on TV, a practice I have always
despised. Now, however, it's come back, except it's just a "blackout"
effect, like somebody crossed the curse word out with a Sharpie.
If you ask, I'm willing to bet real money -- not a lot of it, but real money
nonetheless -- that the folks who use it and/or directed its use think that
it's more mature and "edgy," where using odd symbolic characters is
Except it isn't. It's the exact same %$% thing!"
Kurt: I always liked the typographic jumble -- it's got emotion and bounce,
and gives a tone to the dialogue that I can "hear." Admittedly, what I
"hear" is more like "rassafrassin'" than like actual swearing, but it
carries emotion well.
Better than bowdlerized dialogue -- freakin', mother-lovin' buzzards! -- and
better than those blackout things you mention.
Bob: Well $#!+ so do I. I find the black squiggles silly-looking. And
it just doesn't seem right to have street criminals saying "Freaking" or
Keith: A good example of doing it right is THE SHIELD. They use harsher
language than network television, but they still have some restraints. So
they have a heavy emphasis on s**t and goddamn and bitch and such, but no
sign of f**k at all, nor even any variations on it. They just stick with
what they can use instead of coming up with stupid synonyms.
Bob: One more point, that's something that BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and
FARSCAPE did, create their own swear words. When Chrichton said "Frelling"
you just knew what he meant, even if the Hayes Commission did.
Rich: DROKK IT! What in the name of GRUD is wrong with made up swear words?
They're VARKING SCROTNIG.
Lovern: Who can forget "FRAG"?
Steve: I remain a lonely supporter of cropped SFX, and have used them
fairly regularly since I first noticed them in Attilio Micheluzzi's
"Shanghai." There's something compelling in the way they straddle the
line between a purely graphic element and readable text. I've found
that I still get the beat in a panel that a typical sound effect
offers, but it's more...um...subliminal? I think that a reader is less
aware that he has read a sound effect when it's properly cropped, but
he still gets all the impact it would otherwise have.
And since there's no reasonable way to objectively determine what in
God's name would, in fact, constitute a properly cropped sound effect,
I'll note that an improperly cropped one typically reads like it's
coming from off panel.
Good lord. I just reread the above, and I realize that I am now
officially the dorkiest man alive. Somebody should send over a tailor
because I need to have all my pants re-hemmed up past the ankle.
Kurt: There's a great cropped word balloon -- not FX, but as long as we're
talking cursing -- in an early LOVE AND ROCKETS -- a young Hopey is shouting
f**k YOU!, and it's cropped in such a way that it brings across the idea
that she's being blocked, stifled.
I do indicate cropped FX every now and then, but they usually get uncropped
somewhere along the way.
Trina: Actually, what annoys me just as much are all those Vertigo-type
titles that feel they must prove they're for grownups, so they throw in as
many f**ks and s**ts -- or, because they're often British, shites and
bollocks -- as possible.
Keith: Maybe -- but the one doesn't preclude the other. The most literate,
intelligent, thoughtful, complex television show on the air right now is
DEADWOOD, where 95% of the characters curse a blue streak.
Bob: I've had the same reaction. Particularly the FURY mini from Marvel Max.
Sweet Christmas, I don't think there was a page that didn't have the word
f**k in it. And if there was, there were more than enough multi-f**k pages
to keep up the average.
Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you SHOULD do something.
Tony: Individual stylistic evolution... good.
General stylistic evolution... bad.
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