10 Jan 2016

Eisner (Ch3.2) Comics and Sequential Art, ‘Framing Speech’


by Corry Shores

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Will Eisner

Comics & Sequential Art



Framing Speech

Brief summary: 
To show speech and its sonic qualities, comics artists use speech balloons, which may take on different shapes and lettering types to indicate different things about the nature and sonic qualities of the speech. As speech requires time to be spoken, speech balloons add a dimension of temporal duration to the comics panel.


Eisner will discuss the function of speech balloons in comics timing (see the prior section, section 3.1, on timing). [He calls speech balloons a “desperation device,” but I am not sure what he means with that term. Perhaps he means that the cartoonist would prefer some better way to communicate dialogue, but they have little other recourse than to use balloons. Perhaps they are problematic because they confuse the visual imagery with imaginary or artificial looking elements.] “The balloon is a desperation device. It attempts to capture and make visible an ethereal element: sound.” [And since these sounds can only occur through an enduring duration,] “The arrangement of balloons which surround speech – their position in relation to each other, or to the action, or their position with respect to the speaker, contribute to the measurement of time” (26). [He also says that word balloons are “disciplinary” but I again do not know exactly the meaning of the term in this usage. I suppose it means that the word balloons in a way command the reader to read the contents exactly as they are written in the balloon, to read the balloons in the proper order, and to hear the sounds in their head, rather than I suppose how the rest of the visual imagery invites the reader to explore it at one’s own leisure. Also, it seems he is saying that we have an implicit understanding of how speech fills temporal duration, which we then project onto the visual imagery, as if the still image were occupying a block of time during which activity is taking place.] “They are disciplinary in that they demand cooperation from the reader. A major requirement is that they be read in a prescribed sequence in order to know who speaks first. They address our subliminal understanding of the duration of speech” (26).

[Eisner then shows some cartoon illustrations, but he seems to make a point through them that is not made in the rest of his text. (Of course, as a cartoonist, the visual components are not supposed to do nothing more than visualize the text, but rather image and text cooperate or take turns in conveying the information, in comics) This is a fascinating speculation to explain how word balloons are not entirely an arbitrary form but rather have some origin in actual physical experience. We might think of how when outside on a cold winter day we can see our breath while speaking. A cloud of mist literally billows out of our mouths as we speak. Word balloons, then, can be thought of as the breath clouds that normally go unnoticed when people talk to each other.]

 photo Eisner. Comics and Sequential Art. time timing.Vert.2_zpskawhdvko.jpg

Eisner then notes two important ways that word balloons in comics are read: {1} in the same order across the page as text (thus for Westerners, left-to-right while top-to-bottom), and {2} “in relation to the position of the speaker” (26) [... by which I think he means that we read each balloon as being the speech of the figure it seems to be emanating from, and perhaps the position of the speakers in relation to one another indicates who is speaking first, but I am not sure. In the Little Nemo example we examined before in section 1.7.2 of Groensteen’s System of Comics, it seemed like there was background dialogue that is to be read first, and then foreground dialogue second, after the sonic atmosphere is established.

 photo Little Nemo singing sequence panel_zpslxjc19cv.jpg


Eisner notes that the earlier known word balloons were ribbons emanating from the mouth of the speaker. [I think of very ribbonlike ones from Medieval works. Here is a detail from Bernhard Strigel's The Annunciation to Saint Anne (ca. 1505-1510). (Full image can be seen here.).

 photo Strigel. 3 Annunciation Saint Anne. detail wiki larger.crop._zps1j0p6npl.jpg
[From Wikimedia Commons]

The Wikipedia page for “Speech Scroll” shows some other examples. Here for instance is a  “Teotihuacan stick-ball player with a bi-color speech scroll”.

Teotihuacan speech scroll. wiki
[From wikipedia]

] Eisner even draws an ancient Mayan frieze to show how brackets served as speech indicators (see the curly-brackets pointing out from the figures’ mouths).

 photo Eisner. Comics and Sequential Art. Maya_zpsmjobdqif.jpg

He explains that as the word balloon evolved, it came to take on more sophisticated roles in the story telling.

As his illustrations demonstrate [although it is not stated in the text], the shape of the balloon tells us whether the dialogue is normal speech, thinking, or sound coming from a technological device.

 photo Eisner. Comics and Sequential Art. Baloon types_zpsvfjw8hm4.jpg

Eisner then discusses the lettering inside the balloons. Although its style indicates something of the personality and artistic style of the creator, they also can have stylized features which tell us something about the character who is speaking and the way they sound while speaking making those utterances. For example, by using foreign lettering styles we might “hear” their foreign accent (27). Comics might also “provide dignity” by using type-set lettering. Yet, while “Typesetting does have a kind of inherent authority” to it, it also “has a ‘mechanical’ effect that intrudes on the personality of free-hand art.” Thus “Its use must be carefully considered because of its effect on the ‘message’ as well” (27).

 photo Eisner. Comics and Sequential Art. type set balloon_zpsej743snv.jpg


Works cited:

Will Eisner. Comics & Sequential Art. Tamarac, Florida: Poorhouse Press, 1985.



Image Credits:

Will Eisner. Comics & Sequential Art. Copyright Will Eisner. Tamarac, Florida: Poorhouse Press, 1985.

Bernhard Strigel. The Annunciation to Saint Anne (ca. 1505-1510). Cropped from this detail on wikimedia commons:


The full painting can be viewed here:

Winsor McCay. Little Nemo in Slumberland. 1906-07-01. Obtained gratefully from the Comic Strip Library.


Teotihuacan stick-ball player. Wikipedia:

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