Mindy Newell: Up, Up And Away In My Beautiful Balloon
I wanted to write about word balloons, which I’m pretty sure hasn’t been talked about here at ComicMix before, at least since I arrived here, is it coming on three years already? And now I’m incredibly frustrated and possibly going crazy.
I got the idea from seeing a piece in Entertainment Weekly featuring an interview with Scott McCloud in which he talked about the use of word balloons in comics. I thought I set the magazine aside to use as a reference – and I’ve been tearing about the house for over an hour looking for it. Can’t find it anywhere…and I even went through my recycle bin. And I went to EW’s website, but have you been there recently? It’s H-O-R-R-I-B-L-E! Supposedly it was “redesigned,” but it looks more like it was hacked into by The Onion’s staff, or maybe the same goons from North Korea who hacked into Sony. I mean, what kind of website doesn’t have a search engine icon?? Go ahead, go try searching the site for an old article… even a recap of Downton Abbey from two weeks ago. Unless I’m blind, it just ain’t there, folks – and if I am, please let me know how to search the EW website down below in the comments!
But back to word balloons.
If I could get a nickel for every time someone, upon learning that I’ve written comics, has said something like so you put the words in those little balloons, I’d be a rich lady. Maybe not part of the 1%, but at least a member of the 7%. Well, I do, actually. Put the words in the balloons, I mean. Only it all starts on the written page, whether it’s done as a full script or in what’s often called “Marvel style.”
I think I’ve said this before, but for me, when I’m really in the zone as I’m writing a story, it’s like watching a movie unfold in my head and all I’m doing is transcribing. As Scott pointed out in that article and in his brilliant Understanding Comics, the trick is, since it’s a visual medium, to convey the emotion behind the lettered words. And by using the art of the balloon, not only in its lettering, but in its presentation and placement within the panel. For example, if I were writing a key scene in a story between Clark Kent and Lois Lane in which Lois Lane has had enough of the bullshit, my script would look like this:
Lois: Well, you know what, Clark….
Lois: (big, bold letters in a big, bold balloon, because she’s done with the whole situation) GO FUCK YOURSELF AND THE ROCKET YOU FLEW IN ON!
Not that I could ever get away with that particular terminology in DC land. Well, I could if it was Vertigo.
If you’re lucky and you’ve got a great artist and a great letterer who really get it – and I have been – the final result will really hit the reader. If you’re not lucky, and you’ve got a hack artist and a hack letterer – and I’ve been there, too – the final result is just another panel among many, and that key moment will leave the reader skimming the page and feeling nothing.
Another trick I’ve used when writing scripts is what I call the “Howard Hawks” method. Film director Howard Hawks (The Thing from Another World, His Girl Friday) was known for his ability to have his actors talk the way real people talk, i.e., interrupting each other, overlapping, talking to themselves while the other person is continuing to talk, conversations going on in the background – he was so good at directing his actors in this that quite often you have to watch a scene at least twice to get everything. (Watch those two movies I reference above, and this time don’t pay attention to the main action– listen for what’s going on in the background. It’s quite a kick– for instance, did you know that the leading man and the leading lady in The Thing from Another World were sleeping together? I bet the censors didn’t catch that either, which is probably why it got through the finished cut. And of course Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell were superb at talking over one another in Friday.
The way you do this in comics is to have the balloons themselves overlapping and trying to crowd each other out. In that EW piece, a panel from one of Scott’s comics – I believe it is the upcoming The Sculptor, for which he is getting tremendous praise – has his character walking through Times Square, in his own world – but Scott gives you the sense of the thousands of people crowding and walking through the area with word balloons “floating” everywhere – bits of conversation that are going on around the main character which he doesn’t really hear except as the “buzz” of the city. Again, as a reader, because of the placement of the balloons, the number of balloon, the art of the balloon, you are with the character, not just a casual bystander.
Mindy: (faintly lined balloon with small letters, she’s whispering to herself) shit, it’s 6:27. mike is gonna kill me. better wrap this up.
Mindy: Let me know if any of you find that EW piece, okay, guys? See ya next week. And thanks.