Orienting your speech (balloon)

Today’s Wayno / Piraro Bizarro strip, with a detective in a pickle:

(#1) Since the readers of the strip are taking the point of view of the detective, we are in the same pickle (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page.)

How did this happen? Well, first, in this strip, speech balloons are treated as physical objects (containing a representation of speech) that people carry around with them and display to others. So when RH (the hood on the right) is talking to LH (the hood on the left), facing him, with his back to D (the detective), his speech balloon is also facing LH, with its back side to D, so that it can’t be read (by D, or by us).

But wait. This assumes that we are viewing things as if we were in a theater, fixed in our seats while the story unfolds in front of us on stage; what we can see (and hear) depends on how the actors orient themselves. Suppose instead that we’re watching (and listening to) a film; then the cameras (and microphones) go wherever the director wants them to, providing a constantly shifting visual (and auditory) focus on the unfolding narrative.

If the cartoon view is filmic rather than theatrical, then the speech balloons could show us whatever the cartoonist wants us to see — and that can be done even if speech balloons are treated as physical objects (rather than as meta-information). Yes, there are examples.

I know, nobody expects the filmic exposition. (And no, I won’t stop working this Pythonic gag.)

Several of the comics / cartoons that I follow are given to meta-play with the art form: Bizarro, Zippy the Pinhead, and Pearls Before Swine, especially. From postings on this blog on balloon meta-play (from the inventory of my balloon postings):

— in my 10/8/13 posting “Speech balloons in Dingburg”, with this Zippy strip on speech balloons as manufactured objects:

(#2) The line between speech balloons and thought balloons is unclear here, but it seems that whatever is in those balloons is available for everyone (including those of us in the audience) to inspect

— from my 3/30/19 posting “How to use your balloon”, about a Bizarro cartoon:


it treats one of the conventions of cartooning, the speech balloon, as a concrete object. Moreover, one that can be referred to in the cartoon itself. And, finally, self-referentially, inside itself. (It’s like saying, in falsetto, “Say it in falsetto, like this”.)

Now note that the speaker’s balloon isn’t oriented towards the addressee (as in #1), but towards us, the audience — in a filmic view.

— from my 8/2/19 posting “Never go out without a speech balloon”, with a Zippy strip:


If we see this as Zippy racing down the street shouting his message out, we’d expect his balloons to be oriented facing front. But instead we see the contents of the balloons alongside him, which I understand as just the filmic view.

It’s possible that Zippy is behaving, not like a man wearing a sandwich board, displaying his message on his front (and back), but like a moving sign spinner, displaying his messages to everyone around him. Since we get only the side view in three panels of comic strip, I’m going with the filmic view interpretation.

In any case, putting aside strips in which speech balloons are treated as physical objects, the filmic view is the absolutely standard one in the comics. Part of what makes #1 so funny is that it takes the theatrical view. Normally, you see the speech balloons for speakers, no matter how they’re facing in the drawing. As in this Bizarro:


2 Responses to “Orienting your speech (balloon)”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Walt Kelly, in his Pogo strips, occasionally made use of the features of the strip as physical objects; I don’t remember offhand any instances of his doing so with the speech balloons (but I suspect he did), but it was not unusual for one of his characters to lean against the side of the panel as though it was a wall.

  2. Mitch4 Says:

    Here is a Kliban cartoon doing some speech-balloon treatment. This is from years back, of course, but was just recently posted to the rerun feed at GoComics. But that direct-to-image URL leads to a giant unreduced size image. Here is a link instead to a containing page.

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