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August 11, 2009

Things I Miss, Part 2: Thought Balloons

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Every once in a while, I feel like an old curmudgeon reading comics. Take for example thought balloons. I have a feeling (but I hope I'm wrong about this) that the younger generation of comics readers has no fond memories regarding the bubbles that used to define the format. I suppose in many ways they are indicative of the silly funny books that inspired such derision from the culture at large for so many years. But hear me out on this, because I think the replacement for thought balloons is worse.

Here's what I'm talking about. Time was, you got a full story from comics: An omniscient narrator (okay, sometimes that narrator did nothing more than say such things as "Meanwhile, at the Daily Planet..."), dialogue balloons coming from all the main characters, and thought balloons, which were how you learned your favorite characters' innermost thoughts, worries, desires, and hopes. It's how many an interesting subplot was hatched. It's how creators conveyed the heartbreak of an unrequited crush. It's how you got to know everyone better.

Several years ago, comics did away with all that and replaced the omniscient narrator with first-person narration from the protagonist. Virtually every comic became a four-color version of Sex and the City ("I couldn't help but wonder, was Lex Luthor trying to destroy the world with this new death ray?"). Actually, it often got worse than that, because the new narrative panels gave writers license to unload all their macho, Hemingway-esque melodramatic verse ("I feel another rib crack with his latest punch. My insides burn with white-hot intensity as I begin to lose consciousness.") Enough of that already, seriously. I know we're talking about superheroes here, but come on. It's not better than just getting clear, concise thoughts summed up in one convenient little balloon. Plus, having a first-person narrator just seems to break the fourth wall.

It's not too late for the thought balloon. Chris Claremont is keeping it alive in X-Men Forever, and that's as it should be. He was, after all, one who pioneered its use in the first place. Others had done it before, but few packed more much information into one tiny panel.

So come on, writers and editors. Consider the poor thought balloon and think (no pun intended) about how good it would be to see its white, fluffy goodness again.