On History: Speech Balloon Patterns

By | Tuesday, January 05, 2016 Leave a Comment
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a collection of Lyonel Feininger's Kin-Der Kids comics. It's not a long book, since the strip itself only lasted about seven months and was only a weekly strip. The strip had some wonderful renderings and is somewhat reminiscent of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo with regards to style and originality. (Although I can't find any evidence of such, it strikes me that Kin-Der Kids was a direct response from the Chicago Tribune to New York Herald's Little Nemo.)

In Little Nemo, Mccay originally erred on the side of legibility with regard to his storytelling. Even though it's always abundantly clear how the action is taking place and in what order, he still went to the trouble of numbering all of the panels, so readers would never need to worry about what order they were to be read in. A bit overkill, really, and it detracts a bit from the art in my opinion, but he was trying to ensure his story could be read easily in a format that many people were unfamiliar with.

But I found the opposite approach in Kin-Der Kids. While the overall page layouts were straightforward enough, and the illustrations did a good job depicting the actions, the speech balloons proved to be very problematic. Feininger, it seems, expected his audience to read the speech balloons in the order he drew them, which may or may not have been left to right or top to bottom. Even after only a few strips, I found repeated instances where the upper-left-most speech balloon came across like a complete non-sequitur, relative to the story. Until I read the rest of the panel and discovered that it was in fact a response to another speech balloon further down and to the right. It happened enough that if I read anything that didn't seem like it flowed directly from the previous panel, I would scan through all the rest of the dialogue in the panel to see if I should start somewhere else. Sometimes, the initial balloon was indeed just a random bit of background business, but frequently it was a response to something later in the frame.

I had to stop reading pretty soon after starting just because it got annoying and tiring to basically have to read an entire panel just to figure out what order it needed to be read in, and then go back and re-read the panel in the correct order.

Given the early date of comic strips' history we're looking at here (1906) I'm left wondering if A) this was a widespread issue among comics at the time, and B) when did artists eventually agree that left-to-right, top-to-bottom made the most sense for their readers? (Obviously, I'm only talking English-language comics here.) Is there a point we can look to and say, "Yup, here's where everyone agreed that random balloon placement is not the way to go"? It's certainly before we get comic books in play, and I don't know that I have enough insights into comic strips to pinpoint it beyond "sometime before the 1930s."
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