Robot 6

Quote of the day | Joe Hill on the fall, and rise, of thought balloons

“My dad did his script for American Vampire, and he showed it to me, and I didn’t have a lot to tell him, but the one thing I did have to say was, ‘Dad, they don’t use thought balloons any more.’ And he was shocked, he was scandalized, he couldn’t understand why you don’t use thought balloons. And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, it just doesn’t look cool any more.’ […] But I don’t know, maybe it’s time for thought balloons to come back. If surf rock can rise again, surely there’s room for thought balloons. […] The problem is thought balloons have always been used expositionally. It’s always like, ‘My God, if I don’t turn off the tractor beam, the alien Zurg …’ or whatever it is, and it’s just like, ‘Uh, no one thinks this.’ If the thought balloons were like, Reed Richards, like, looking at Dark Phoenix and she’s in the Dark Phoenix thong or whatever and the thought balloon was like, ‘Man, I’d like to do her,’ that would be fresh.”

Locke & Key writer Joe Hill, bestselling author and son of Stephen King,
talking with CBR TV  at WonderCon about, well, thought balloons



And that’s exactly how Brian Bendis used thought balloons when he gave them a try last in “Mighty Avengers.” He used them to show the difference between what a character was saying and what he/she was thinking, not as exposition. Effective. They didn’t last long, though.

Dear lord, he is his dad’s spitting image. Which probably means something sinister is afoot, if I know the works of Stephen King. He must have made a deal with the devil to get a clone or something.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Walt Simonson was using thoughts balloons on his Hawkgirl run. A year earlier than Bendis on Mighty Avengers.

I agree with Augie De Blieck Jr. and fully support the rehabilitation of the thought balloon: not only can it be a very effective storytelling tool, if used imaginatively, it’s also one of those things you can only do in comics! Plus, they look cool.

There should be more thought balloons like the ones in Impulse that had little pictures in them.

As a letterer, I feel that thought balloons are a little antiquated for modern comics. IMO exposition and inner monologue are best served as captions that more easily complement the art (i.e. they can be place anywhere within a page/panel without a “tail”). I would have to agree that the concept of expressing what a character is thinking as opposed to what they are saying works if it serves the story as whole, but not just for sake of novelty.

I’m eager for thought balloons to come back as well just on general principle.

I think it was in the recent Green Arrow (Nocenti), I thought I would try again, and it seemed that Ollie was speaking his thoughts aloud. I found that a bit strange–like the early days of bluetooth cellphones when I couldn’t tell if someone was speaking on a phone or mentally ill.

@ Marc C

I don’t think that Bluetooth / mentally ill / Is that person talking to me? thing has quite been solved yet!

Huh…I remember Stephen King saying in interviews around when American Vampire came out that his EDITOR had told me that thought balloons weren’t used anymore, and I thought “Who are these idiots who are telling Stephen King how to write?” But it being his son just telling him “Hey, people don’t really use those anymore…” makes more sense, and makes the editors at Vertigo look better!

I am *ALL* for the thought balloon making a comeback, personally.

Thought balloons are still used all the time. It’s just that they’re now in the shape of boxes. Same basic thing, just different presentation.

@Brandon, Normally I’d agree with you, about leaning towards caption boxes so it can compliment the artwork, but I see too many comics these days, so poorly drawn (story-telling-wise) that the reader can’t follow who’s thoughts the captions are saying.

At least with thought balloons these poor artists work can be somewhat salvaged. Unless the artist is strong with his craft, and will concentrate on panels that actually tell the story and aren’t just pin-ups, then yes, caption boxes work. I just haven’t seen many comics these days that can do that.

Francis Dawson

March 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I’d like to see more saws cutting logs to denote sleeping.

Jake Earlewine

March 20, 2012 at 6:18 pm

I like thought balloons. Some writers know how to use them. Some don’t.

I think I’ll call my new band the Thought Balloons.

First time I hear about this.

Funny thing–Stephen King once wrote the file card for the G.I. Joe villain Crystal Ball, the Cobra hypnotist. A Joe member who was released at the same time, Sneak Peek, was named and modeled after Stephen’s other son, Owen, who also had a hand in crafting Crystal Ball’s bio.

Augie – yeah but in Bendis’ hands, it just turned into yammering white noise, in the same way that all dialogue, spoken or thought, is just chattering drivel when Bendis writes it. Someone who uses language more economically, effectively, and with greater artistry, a Brian Azzarello, for example, could probably do something really interesting with thought bubbles.

(Wait, is it ok to call them “bubbles”? Is that faux pas?)

Brandon – you’re right, the caption box does fit in better with modern art, from a practical and aesthetic point of view. The thought balloon just for its own sake does seem rather a gimmick but it might bring a new dimension depending on how its used and by whom.

Two different kinds of thinking, in my opinion:

1) caption box is exactly that–a first person narration. Sometimes a recollection, other times, a present-tense narration. In many cases, the caption box is used to indicate a person speaking aloud when the art is showing something else. For example if Detective Jones is interrogating Joe the Poolshark who recalls the evening of the murder, the art may illustrate the scene while the spoken dialogue would be overlaid in captions because it isn’t being spoken IN the scene.

2) thought balloons are very good at showing us incidental thoughts. The “wow, she’s hot” thoughts or the part where you shake a guy’s hand and say “Pleased to meet you” but think inwardly “jerk.” From my childhood, the Chris Claremont Uncanny X-Men thought balloons which amounted to paragraphs of personal reflection and exposition did not look good on the page. But short, emotional bursts of unspoken thought are perfect for the thought balloon.

Funny, this weekend I just bought the 1st American Vampire trade. I haven’t read much yet beyond King’s intro, and he mentioned it there too — he didn’t know that thought balloons aren’t used anymore, until his son told him and he had a tough time wrapping his head around that.

I’ve heard good things about this series. I’m looking forward to reading it.

And, I also would support the judicious return of thought balloons — it’s one of the things that make comics a unique medium.

Although we might get a lot of “Jeez, I need to find a toilet!”

“From my childhood, the Chris Claremont Uncanny X-Men thought balloons which amounted to paragraphs of personal reflection and exposition did not look good on the page”

Except they worked. Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-men was wildly popular– he defined the language of mainstream comics for his time, and he was responsible for the massive popularity of dozens of characters, all without having to spend his career dodging complaints that he didn’t provide enough value to his readers for the money they were spending.

Two problems with caption boxes:
1) Who is talking?

Watchmen used lettering to note Rorschach’s Journal.

DC currently uses little icons in team books (which doesn’t work).
In “Identity Crisis”, they used color, which worked a little bit better, but it was still hard to figure out, which of course takes the reader out of the action.

2) The boxes aren’t linked to the speech balloons, so they are presented out of narrative time. You read the caption first (because it usually lies at the top of the panel) and then the balloon texts. A word balloon followed by a thought balloon does work which cannot be replicated by a word balloon and then a caption box.

(Here’s where that training pays off.) [thought balloon]
(I hope.) [thought balloon]
“Dragon! Are you gonna help me out?! Oboy!” [speech balloon]
[Kitty Pryde in Uncanny X-Men #168]

A recent issue of “Scalped” used caption boxes to great affect, contrasting with the visual action (or lack thereof).

Here’s an experiment:
Take an old Silver Age issue of Superman. Re-letter the story so that the thought balloons are now captioned.

How does this change the storytelling?

Here’s how Claremont uses captions and thought balloons. Try to tell the story without thought balloons:

Myself, I miss word balloons on superhero covers. Or any descriptive text.

Does anyone else have a problem with a professional writer, the son of one of America’s most popular novelists, answering a technical question about the craft with, “I don’t know… it just doesn’t look cool anymore…”?


If this is the kind of critical thinking that gets a person paid to write comics, that we would make us bother to follow their comments at a professional panel discussion held at a convention we must pay big money to attend, if this is the kind artistic talent these days that determines trends in the industry, well, I think there’s a lot more to be worried about than thought balloons.

Leave a Comment


Browse the Robot 6 Archives