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Friday, 27 April 2012

The Demise of the Thought Bubble

Many people would argue that we are currently living a renaissance for the comic book as there are more interesting, exciting and innovative comic books on the market today then there ever has been. This is mainly due to fans becoming creators and, as with film, when this becomes the case more mature, ground-breaking and barrier-smashing work is produced. But at what price?

As with all progress, there has been a casualty. There has been something which has disappeared from my most loved of mediums. The thought bubble. What has happened to this delightful convention?

Perversely, it seems that when comic book readers started to sit up and take notice of the writers over the artists, that the thought bubble began to fade from the public comic book consciousness. The chief champions and agents of this change, in my opinion, were Alan Moore and Frank Miller. They did not kill the thought bubble but rather forced its evolution into the narrative box. The thought bubble became less about what the character was thinking at that stage and more like a diary entry – the “handwritten” narrative boxes of Miller's Batman :Year one being such an example. The boxes seem to be afterthoughts rather than the character's real-time thoughts. Now, it is without doubt that Miller and Moore are among the best writers of comic books and this could be due in part to their reluctance to use the thought bubble. But it is also indicative of a watershed within the comic book form. Thought bubbles seem frivolous and comedic and the use of a narrative box with it's sharp edges, is more mature and dignified. But could this mean we are in danger of taking our loved art-form too seriously?

Whilst this evolution from bubble to box undoubtedly proved popular with the older audience, it seems a shame that this evolution lead to an eradication of the thought bubble. One of the most disturbing side effects of this eradication seems to be less text and more artwork in comic books. Which, contrary to the origin of the demise of the thought bubble, is leading to a re-emergence of the importance of the artist. This in itself is not a bad thing, the artwork in comic books today is stunning. However, it has led to comic books that read more like story boards for film productions, rather than a stand alone medium. (Also meaning that the comic book you wait for all month is finished in about ten minutes, rather than a satisfying twenty minutes.)

It could be argued that the thought bubble disappeared as it no longer resonates with a more mature and sophisticated readership. It lays bare too much; the educated reader likes to draw his own conclusions. This results in more close-up panels of character's faces while we try to fathom out what they are thinking, rather than actually reading their thoughts. However, is this just writer's being lazy, leaving the reader to pick up the slack? Wouldn't it be better to actually read the words of the your favourite character's thoughts, to step inside their mind?

I miss this insight into the thinkings of my favourite characters and I miss the aesthetic pleasure of the thought bubble. It simply looks like a comic book. And this draws me back to this question that keeps playing on my mind: if our comic books are losing what makes them comic books and becoming more like films – then what is the point of the comic book? What place does the comic book have in the future of our media saturated world? Will they all become just trailers for upcoming films? Prequels to TV series? Storyboards?

Bring back the thought bubble!


  1. I agree 100%. I am using them in my graphic novel and I think they are a literary tool that I find important and useful in my narrative. I am writing in 3rd person so hearing the duplicitous thoughts of one of my villians is important in setting up the scene. I want the reader to feel for one of my 2 main characters as she innocently falls for his sociopathic conning and lies completely unaware. Without the thought bubble - it would make no sense. The thought bubble adds the opportunity to show hypocrisy, duplicity, and comedic opportunities where the characters aren't sharing every bit of wry internal dialogue they have. I don't think it should be overused...but neither do I think it should be eliminated entirely for 'aesthetic' reasons over communicating and creating an emotional response in the reader. Thanks for this!

    1. Good to know someone agrees with me.
      Best of luck with your writing project, sound exciting!