|Ephemeral landscapes: of the page, fundaments . . .
The sound and silence of the page:
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There can be no debate that what is most recognizably comic about modern comics is the balloon. Whether it contains speech, or thoughts, or anguished cries, or the noises of machines, the balloon is the comic icon par excellence.
Even when it is out of the frame or missing from entire pages, because the balloon equals sound or speech, the reader understands such scenes to be quiet.
Speech banners that we would recognize today, with a pointer at someone's mouth, appear very, very early, in illuminated manuscripts. Perhaps the graphic coupling of speech and speaker began as marginal doodles, but the banner is firmly entrenched in French illuminations before the Bayeux Tapestry and is in common use in 1300 (Camille 1992: 8, 129).
The speech banner comes and goes, from 11th century through the time of Hogarth in the 18th. But Hogarth and the higher-class image makers seemed reluctant to integrate speech and image so tightly, to the apparent detriment of the image, and the 18th-century banner is more likely to be found in the cruder political satires or caricatures.
Someone, somewhere figured out that the shape and real-world nature of balloons, or fumetti (puffs of smoke, the Italian name for comics) were more suitable impersonations of sound, because they "float". And more balloons, more sound.
A comic called Radio.
As "modern" comic conventions advanced, different shapes and configurations of balloon became conventional signs for other things than speech, including thoughts, feelings, the workings of other senses, secret superhuman powers, and even time and distance.
The balloon can stand in for a speaker "off-stage," out of the frame.
If the minimal use of balloons implies lack of speech, or proto-speech, then an overdose of balloons must be very noisy.
While evolving graphic customs may have allowed speech and noise to sometimes dispense with the edges of balloons, the absence or presence of balloon outlines connotes different kinds of sonic impression, so that readers can distinguish what a character says from what a character hears. . . .
Or from what a character says and what we "hear" from a voice-over narration.
The relation or contrast between image and balloon might suggest quiet, even disembodied speech. . . .
Or the volume of a scream might vapourize the balloon and fill the entire panel.
At their most sophisticated (and funniest), "words" that are meant to be sound effects can tell a complete story.
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