Monday, July 17, 2006

Flashy Comic Book Lettering and Dialogue Balloons

Lettering and dialogue balloons are aspects of comics that often go without comment, generally being unpretentious. When we do notice lettering, it is usually something meant to suggest weirdness: Grant Morrison’s Nebula Man (in JLA: Classified) speaks white lettering in black dialogue balloons, and Chris Bachalo’s Lord Absinth (in Steampunk) has baroque balloons and lettering – the word “French” is coloured like the country’s flag, the word “ladies” is in pink – to communicate his insanity and decadence.

My favourite dialogue balloons in recent comics are in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely WE3. Because the story revolves around animals who can barely speak (and only then though a mechanical device), dialogue is kept to a minimum. Rather than the clichéd “My god--” one character “speaks” an exclamation mark; rather than waste words on an exchange about the morning paper, Morrison and Quitely establish the world of the story by giving the reader a dialogue balloon wrapped around the image of the newspaper the two are looking at. The minimal dialogue keeps things intense.

On a trip to Paris I picked up Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s Le Processus (Delcourt 1993). Le Processus is a weird, Kafkaesque book (the German title of Kafka’s Trial is Der Prozess) that anticipates Alan Moore’s Promethea in having its hero exit the comics page and stand above it (there is an image of him walking on the pages we have just read), and in having him travel from illustrated pages to photographic ones; and Moore approaches, but never reaches, something as outlandish as the bit in which Mathieu’s hero enters “Le Vortex” and the physical page comes apart creating a three dimensional spiral, as in a pop up book. Just before this moment, just before the hero rises above the pages of his story, he walks along the walls of a network of cubicles (anticipating his walking on the gutters between comic book panels): the dialogue balloons of the men in the cubicles do not properly face the reader (they are not on the picture plane); instead they run parallel to the cubicle walls. Their speech takes on a brute physicality and we no longer read the dialogue balloons just to gather what people in the scene are saying; we now think of the dialogue balloons as dialogue balloons, just as our hero will realize he has been living in a comic book and not in the “real” world. Moore cribs this in Promethea, for the same reason, as does Grant Morrison in Flex Mentallo.


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Stephen said...

By the by, in Herge's Tintin characters speak exclamation points a lot -- question marks, too, and other punctuation. It's an old technique.