Art of the word balloon – part 1

One of the most distinctive elements of comics must be the word balloon. You know, that crazy little bubble with spoken words in it.
In this article I’ll explain how word balloons started out as a necessary evil. And which demands you as a reader can make of them.

Hybrid art

Comics are a hybrid form of art.
It uses words and pictures together.
In the same way as movies use audio and visuals/
What distinguishes comics from film however, is the fact that comic book timing is in control of the reader. A movie keeps rolling – even if you don’t pay attention for a second. Whereas the comic book reader decides for him/her self where his/her focus goes out to.
That puts a lot of responsibility on the readers shoulders. The writer can only hope he has placed enough hints and clues for the reader to follow him into the story.

The word balloon is an important tool for that.

Comic book legend Will Eisner called word balloons a desperation device. A solution to an unsolvable problem. Because, obviously, in daily life we don’t see spoken text, we hear it.
As some kind of compromise artists wrote dialogue next to the characters. Eventually moving to balloons for clarity.

[Will Eisner states word balloons derived from the visual representation of the breathing that happens when people speak.]


This way, word balloons became an important tool to convey a message. Especially when a writer doesn’t fully trust his artist, it’s much safer for him to put information in a word balloon. If the artist screws up, at least the reader will have the dialogue to make sense of the story.
This can lead to situations where word balloons are so crammed, there’s hardly any room for the artwork.

This can be an economical solution, sometimes an occurrence takes up a lot of artwork (where you don’t want it to, for the sake of ‘flow’ of the story) and it works well to use words to describe the action.
But a good comic book writer should always keep into account that his medium is a visual one.
In Drawing on the funny side of the brain (an old book by Christopher Hart, before he started publishing about manga and girls, if you’re planning to write gags, go check it out!) I found the rule of thumb: “18 words per word balloon, preferably less!”
It always struck a chord with me.
Not only for writing comedy and gags, but for any dialogue in the comic book medium.
When dialogue turns into prose and the artwork into the visual equivalent of “He said”, you’ll end up with a bunch of talking heads.
And the reader wondering why the hell this is a comic in the first place!


As a comic book reader you can assume the information written in word balloons is important. Sure, you can confine yourself to just looking at the art, but then you’ll have to accept you won’t understand all of it.
That does mean you can demand a writer to provide a proper verbal-visual blend. If you run into countless words, burying the artwork, you have every right to complain.


Do you know any examples of comics with a good verbal-visual ratio?
Or maybe comics that use way too much text?
Let me know in the comment section below!

Did you enjoy this article about wordballoons?
Read Part II right here!

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