A Meditation on the Mysteries of Speech Bubbles
By Lauren Bryant
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from making comics, it’s that comics are actually pretty hard to make. In my experience, it’s difficult to grasp how much thought goes into their composition until you try your hand at it. Knowing how to draw and write is not enough. In fact, learning to combine those two is part of the challenge. Such is the case with speech bubbles.
On a surface level, speech bubbles seem pretty simple. Just little bundles of words superimposed over an image. Should be easy to execute, right? Well, that’s what I thought. As it turns out, trying to fit in dialogue over a picture I’ve already drawn can be quite frustrating. I have found myself either stuck covering up important parts of the image with a nicely shaped bubble or attempting to mold the text around the crucial elements of the picture, creating some sort of weird, deformed blob of words. Of course, there are plenty of comics that can pull off the more amorphous word balloon look, such as Bob Thaves’ Frank and Ernest, but somehow I couldn’t do the same. And I couldn’t even begin to understand how so many comics out there managed to fit in standard enclosed bubbles without ruining the balance of the comic.
Another issue I ran into was knowing how big to make the text. A commonly shared piece of advice among comics creators is to always draw big and shrink down later. This makes it easier for you to draw everything in more detail, not to mention you get the added benefit of mistakes seemingly vanishing when shrunken down. However, this method makes it more difficult to figure out how big your text should be. You have to ensure that your comic is readable after it is reduced in size, so that as many people as possible can read and enjoy it. This means that you will probably have to tweak the way you letter a little bit. When I started lettering, I constantly worried about making the text too small, so I was always sure to make it a good size, even if it sacrificed panel space. As it turned out, I kept on making my text bigger than necessary without realizing. It wouldn’t be until I saw it printed out or posted online that I would realize that I probably could have gone down a few font sizes.
Knowing how much room you need to legibly letter your comic is something you figure out with practice, and it can ultimately come down to personal preference. Looking at a page of newspaper strips, it’s clear that there is no one universal text size. As an example, compare Frank and Ernest to Darrin Bell’s Candorville. Their lettering sizes and styles are drastically different, but ultimately each artist chose what they thought worked best with their comic, which besides legibility is probably the most important thing an artist should focus on when making speech bubbles.
Speaking of finding what works for your comic, you have a lot of options to choose from for speech bubble shapes. Circles, ovals, rectangles, amorphous blobs…what the heck, you might be able to get away with a triangle if you have the right aesthetic going. If you can’t fit your bubble neatly into the panel, you can have it up against the edge of the comic, like in Darrin Bell’s Candorville. Some people, however, don’t like the way this looks, and avoid touching the edge altogether. And of course, you can use variations of any of these shapes to convey different things, such as the cloud-like exterior of the thought bubble or a spiky bubble to indicate yelling. You can get pretty abstract with their shape if you want, since they’re an abstract concept anyways. If you just don’t want to deal with bubbles at all, you can easily forgo them by having the text floating in or under the panel, like in Hank Ketcham’s Dennis The Menace. In short, there’s a lot of artistic freedom in this particular matter, so it’s not as confusing to figure out. It is, however, always worth experimenting with speech bubble shapes, because there are a lot of cool things you could do that can add new depth to your comic. It’s most definitely an area I hope to explore more in the future.
So maybe speech bubbles don’t seem as simple anymore. But who says that’s a bad thing? It just means there’s a lot to them, and even more you can do with them. They’re strange creatures, but they’re an important part of the comics medium. Plus, they’re fun to think about (or maybe that’s just me). Learning more about them can be beneficial to one’s understanding of making or reading comics, so if it’s something that interests you, you can always look into Scott McCloud’s books Understanding Comics and Making Comics. Believe me, I’ve barely scratched the surface!