Word baloon 80 2.jpgThis month we’re mixing it up at the Gutter, with the editors writing about something outside their usual domain. This week Ian Driscoll writes about comics. Well, mostly comics.

When the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published twelve editorial cartoons, several of which depicted the prophet Muhammad, well, you probably remember. Outcry. Controversy. Embassies on fire. All because, as was widely (and only semi-accurately – more on this later) reported at the time, Islam forbids depiction of the prophet.

At the time, it raised a question in my mind: why, if you can’t draw a picture of Muhammad, is it okay to write his name down? Because if there’s one things comics teach us, it’s that words and pictures are the same thing.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. At the time of the to the Jyllands-Posten controversy, reaction to the cartoons was explained by aniconism, the practice of shunning the graphic representation of divine beings or religious figures: basically, it was widely reported that Islam forbids depiction of the prophet Muhammad. The truth is a bit more complicated.  

Since Wikipedia explains it most succinctly, I’ll quote them: “Within Muslim communities, views have varied regarding pictorial representations. Shi’a Islam has been generally tolerant of pictorial representations of human figures, including Muhammad. Contemporary Sunni Islam generally forbids any pictorial representation of Muhammad, but has had periods allowing depictions of Muhammad’s face covered with a veil or as a featureless void emanating light.”

Next, a word about semiotics. (Sorry – I’m getting to the comics soon, I swear.) Semiotics uses the term “sign” to describe something that stands for something else. Signs include words, gestures, sounds, even scents and yes, pictures. Of course, this is problematized by the fact that these signs exist within closed linguistic systems. For example, words only ever refer to other words: try to describe a chair, and you use words; try to define those words and you use yet more words. There’s always a barrier between the signs and what they stand for. Which is even further complicated by the lack of single referents for any of these signs. For example, there is no single, agreed on, Platonic idea of the chair. Each person reading this article pictures a different chair when they read the word. Or, as Jack Nance puts it: my dog barks some. Point being, same thing goes for a picture of a dog as for the word “dog”. Think of the little silhouettes you see on “no dogs” signs at restaurants or on angry peoples’ lawns. They don’t mean no “this dog”; they mean no “idea of dog”.

This words = pictures = ideas equation is, in large part, what comics run on. They’re all about words and pictures working together, and maybe the reason they work so well together is that they’re essentially the same thing.

Take the word balloon, for example.

Word balloons, word-, speech- or dialogue-bubbles (if you want to get really high falutin about it, and potentially open another front of potential religious offense, you can even call them phylacteries) – whatever you call them, they’re the nexus of the comic book word/image intersection/crosspollination.

Comics often reduce words or ideas to symbols. The typographical swear ($#!+@*&) is probably the most widely recognized, but it quickly gets more abstract than that. All on its own, a question mark can stand for a question or a general attitude of puzzlement. In Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3, an exclamation point can stand in for a surprised reaction to a situation, a shout of rage or even a tough-guy one-liner, depending on context (and who’s reading).

In the same series, we also see a word balloon – a transparent one, devoid of dialogue – imply an entireWord balloon 250.jpg conversation. Two characters stand across the counter from one another at a convenience store. The word balloon emerges from one character to “lasso” a newspaper sitting on the counter between them, limning their discussion, while simultaneously becoming part of the illustration proper, as opposed to a layer placed on top of it. (Alan Moore does something similar in later issues of Promethea, with word balloons becoming three-dimensional – there’s something vaguely unsettling about the image.)

We3 also shows us huge, ragged pure black word balloons to express the mute/anti-verbal rage of the monstrous animal #4, literalizing the synesthesiac words-as-shapes-and-colours (which is to say, as pictures) idea.

Not that this is anything new, or the exclusive domain of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore and their collaborators. The word balloon has been crossing the gutter between word and image for as long as comics have been around. An issue of Flaming Carrot featured a gag where a character’s speech balloon became so weighted down by the speaker’s rhetoric that it fell and impaled him. Herge’s characters in Tintin frequently spoke in typographics, and the Yellow Kid wore his word balloons.

The size and shape of the word balloon also comments on its content, and vice versa. Little words in a big balloon = whispering. Big words in a medium balloon = shouting. All upper case = talking normally, whereas mixed-case = a Neil Gaiman character talking normally. During the 90s, DC tried to introduce a new convention for speech by animal characters, where the tail of the balloon was a combination of a speech balloon tail and a thought balloon tail (the trail of little ovals leading to a cloud shape). I could never figure out what it was supposed to sound like.

But maybe that’s the point – it doesn’t have to sound like anything, as long as it looks like it sounds like something. Any resemblance to the voice of any religious figure is entirely in your head.


Ian Driscoll is just sayin’.

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