Speech balloons are both the ugliest and the most efficient way of combining words and pictures. Rather than struggle to convey a message purely with images, cartoonists simply write out their message and tie it to the picture using the tail on a balloon.
|Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon|
|Wally Wood in MAD|
But over the years, some artists have come up with interesting methods of combining words and pictures in a more unified visual statement. They rose to the challenge and did some pretty cool things with speech balloons.
In 1430, an artist known only as the Rohan Master painted this picture of a man being judged by his god at the hour of his death:
|Note the devil trying to steal the man's soul in the upper left. Fortunately, St. Michael the Archangel comes to the rescue until God can render his judgment.|
|These stylish banderoles were the predecessors to modern speech balloons|
In this next example, Jorge Gonzalez uses word balloons as design objects in an almost abstract field of soft values:
Rather than detract from the composition, these speech balloons actually create it. They strengthen the design with high contrast focal points. This page could hang in any modern art museum.
Next we have the brilliant John Cuneo's treatment of a string quartet:
While the other musicians are thinking about lofty subjects such as "the Donizetti cycle" and "Fyodor Druzhnin," the crocodile is thinking about
I love that speech balloon, drawn with the same tremulous line as the rest of the drawing. For me, its purple hue and the smeared letters are a marvelous blend of form and content.
And finally, I don't know of another 20th century artist who was smarter or more playful about blending written text and visual image than Saul Steinberg.
For 99.9% of comic art, the speech balloon has been little more than a truce line separating text and pictures. But imaginative artists who aim for something more than peaceful coexistence between the two, and who aren't afraid of the extra work, have done some marvelous things with speech balloons.