The words in a comic do more than simply relay meaning, they create visual cues as well. Since the comic medium functions as both a literary and visual text, images and words perform double duty. This means that the location, size, and shape of the letters on the page provide as much information for the viewer as the words they form.
There are six main ways that comic creators separate text from the images on the comic page, speech balloons, pointers, thought balloons, bursts, whisper balloons, and captions. Speech balloons are the most basic form, and simply contain the text a character says within the story. Pointers, also called tails, actually refers to the wedge-like shape that “points” to the character that speaks. Pointers can be used to draw attention to areas of action or import within the comic, and as a tool for directing the reader’s eye to the next panel in a sequence.
While nearly all balloons have pointers, and function in similar ways, the shape of those balloons signal different types of speech. Thought balloons are specifically scalloped in shape, and tend to use circles as pointers. The distinctive form of these balloons act as cues to the reader that the text contained within is not uttered aloud by the character, but instead gives a glimpse of that individual’s internal state. Like thought balloons, bursts and whisper balloons have specific appearances. Bursts are jagged on the edges to indicate “bursts” of static that might come from the electrical apparatus it points to. While whisper balloons use a broken line of dashes to show that a character is not speaking at full volume.
Captions are the one form of commonly utilized separation devices that doesn’t refer directly to a specific character, but instead serves as a place for narration. They normally indicate a shift in place or time, and are set apart from the images by rectangular boxes.
While all of the above methods are used frequently in comics, this does not mean that text cannot exist without a separation device. Comic creators can choose to place text directly into the image within a panel, un-bound by any type of balloon. This direct method is used occasionally for captions, but rarely for speech between characters. This is because without pointers, and without the “Emily said” or “Patrick thought” used in literature, it is very difficult for readers to know to which character a certain utterance belongs.
Ultimately, the choice of which methods to employ and which to disregard is a choice made by the creator. What works best for the advancement of the narrative as well as for the visual appearance of the page is a decision that must be carefully considered on an individual basis.
Click on the images below to learn more about the different ways text can be used as a visual medium!
ONeil, Dennis. The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. New York: Watson-Guptill, 2008.