Image and Narrative
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Issue 14. Painting / portrait

The Battle over the Balloon.
The conflictual institutionalization of the speech balloon in various European cultures

Author: Pascal Lefèvre
Published: July 2006

Abstract (E): Early 20th century the comic strip with balloons was a commercial success in the USA, but in Europe artists continued making comics with captions for several decades. This article traces the story of cultural battle over conflicting practices and ideologies between Europe and the USA.

Abstract (F): Au début du 20e siècle, les bandes dessinées à phylactères remportaient un grand succès commercial aux Etats-Unis, mais en Europe les artistes continuaient à utiliser pendant plusieurs décennies encore un système de légendes ajoutées en-dessous des images. Cet article retrace l’histoire de ce conflit tant pratique qu’idéologique entre l’Europe et les Etats-Unis.

keywords: balloon, text, image, history, comics


Although nowadays the speech balloon seems a typical element of the comic strip, this was not always the case. For a very long time, text was put completely apart, placed under a tier of drawn pictures. Separation of the verbal part from the pictorial part was the dominant model of the comic strip in the 19 th century. The balloon was in 19 th century no new device: forerunners can be traced back to the Middle Ages and even to the Egyptians, though the balloon was in those ancient times mostly used in another context (Smolderen 2002, Pennacchioni, 1982: 24-25). Modern speech balloons were used in cartoons in the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, but seldom in narrative comic strips: sometimes a balloon was visible in the pictorial part of a comic strip which used texts under the panels.

It was only in 1900, when the American Frederick Burr Opper started using the balloon on a regular basis in his comic strips ( Happy Hooligan and Alphonse and Gaston) for the Sunday Pages, that his American colleagues such as Swinnerton and Dirks adopted the technique (Blackbeard, 2002d). Marschall (1989:60) states that Opper's balloons were more than superfluous accompaniment to visual action: “With his strips, readers were just as dependent upon words as pictures; the comic strip had finally become a synthesis of artwork and text.” Within a few years time, the balloon conquered the American comics pages. One can say that with the advent of the balloon, the characters acquired a voice and the comics became talkative. In other words, comics got out of their silent era sooner than cinema. The use of balloons encourages intensive dialogue writing more than text captions do. Balloons not only integrated text within the frames of the pictures themselves, but they also directly indicated the speaker. Moreover, the text in the balloon has a “script-like” quality, which is less in contrast with the drawings than the typeset captions. For Blackbeard (2002a), the relatively prompt adaptation of speech balloons in US comics was the result of the freedom that the newspaper media had to follow the demands of the readers - both kids and adults - in the US.

While the comic strip with balloons was almost immediately a commercial success in the USA, European artists were remarkably slow in adopting this so-called 'American model'. Although American comics with balloons were reprinted as early as 1904 in France (Guillot, 1996: 56), the technique of the balloon did not seem to impress the European artists, and they continued making comic strips with captions for several decades. But by mid-20th century, the balloons had also conquered the European comics, expelling the long captions of the past. In contrast, some Latin-American countries such as Mexico and Argentine were much quiter to adapt the new device (See Aurrecoechea & Bartra, 1989).

Surprisingly, until now little research has been devoted to this interesting phenomenon. The scarce historical literature - by academics and fans – has primarily concentrated on national comics' histories and it does not always offer an in-depth description of this crucial balloon breakthrough. There is a primary lack of statistical data comparing the amount of comics with captions against the amount of comics with balloons. [1] So for the present, we must rely on the views of the specialists. New or additional information was obtained for this paper in two ways: firstly, an inquiry by the Internet and secondly, by a modest sample research of Flemish newspapers and early comics criticism. The response was not sufficient to paint a complete picture of the advent of the balloon in each European country, although some comics' historians put forward interesting remarks. [2] Therefore this paper can only tentatively reconstruct the institutionalization of the balloon in Europe.



The balloon in Europe


As noted above, the technique of the balloon was not unknown to European artists at the beginning of the 20 th century, but they continued to put text in captions under a tier of drawn panels. The breakthrough of the balloon in European countries may have differed in some aspects from country to country. Some countries (such as Great Britain and Portugal) seem to have been a little faster in adopting this new technique than countries such as the Netherlands, where captions remained popular till the 1960s. Interestingly, one European country was from the start more favourable to balloons, namely Great Britain. Because it and the USA shared the same language, it was certainly less complicated to publish American comics there. Kidson (2002a) states that the use of speech balloons was initially restricted in the weekly comics to humorous strips. Until the 1940s balloons were not used in action or adventure comic strips – although there were comparatively few of those. The reason for this difference between the genres is not clear. Moreover the speech balloons did not replace the text captions below the panels - they were additional to them, and remained that way until Scottish publishers began to produce comics during the 1930s. Resistance to speech balloons, explains Kidson (2002a), seems to have been passive rather than active. With lengthy text captions retained in all comics, speech balloons were largely redundant (the early instances tend to be very brief and incomplete: one cannot read the stories only by the balloons, one has to read the captions as well). In the British newspapers comic strips with balloons and without captions appeared during the early 1920s.

In the other European countries it was primarily in the 1930s when things began to change drastically. Two important evolutions popularized the balloon in Europe. Firstly, by the 1930s local artists in some European countries were creating popular comics with balloons: in Germany Fritz Gareis with Bilderbogen des kleinen Lebens (from 1924), in France Alain Saint-Ogan with Zig et Puce (from 1925), in Sweden Elov Persson with Kronblom (from 1927), in Belgium Hergé with Tintin (from 1929), in Austria Ladislaus Kmoch with Tobias Seicherl (from 1930). Secondly and even more important was the boom of new publications with American comics in various European countries. [3] All these new local European comics magazines published American comics in full colour and with balloons. Their success was immediate, but was slowed down by the events of World War II. Once peace reigned again in Europe, there was no stopping the importation of the ‘American way of life' into Western Europe. In some countries, though, especially the Netherlands, some artists continued creating comics with captions. Moreover, even by that time, numerous conservative educators were still not laying down their arms and kept attacking the comics medium, encouraged by the mid-1950s witch-hunt of comic books in the USA.

In addition to the explanation put forward regarding the breakthrough of the balloon in the 1930s, an interesting parallel should be indicated (Peeters, 1991:82; 1998:97; Opstal, 1994:19). Until the end of the 1920s cinema was still in its silent era, with intertitles placed between the shots; this was somewhat comparable to to separation of the captions and the panels of a comic strip. Almost in the same period when actors began to talk audibly in film, the Europeans accepted that characters in comics acquired a ‘personal' voice by means of balloons. Of course, it is impossible to prove a clear correlation or any causal links, but the concurrence of two quite comparable events is striking.



Reasons for the delay


So, why did it take so long before the balloon was accepted by the Europeans? It seems that for many decades in various European countries similar arguments were deployed against the balloon and similar tactics were developed to block its advance. Blackbeard (2002d) seems to imply that European publishers didn't follow the demands of their public as readily as the Americans. Though this may be largely true, nevertheless there was also a mass demand for cheap entertainment in Europe, and daily newspapers (like Daily Mail, Petit Journal or Berliner Morgenpost) delivered a more sensational and entertaining approach (Gildea, 1996: 367).

But while, at the beginning of the 20th century; in America reading comics was quickly promoted as a family activity, in Europe comics were mostly published in publications for children and were therefore considered as a children's medium (Blanchard, 1969:186; Bertieri, 1980:60; Bunk, 1980:12; Giromini, 1996:99; Renonciat, 1997; Dias de Deus, 1997; Castelli & Boni, 1998:11; Maas, 1998:155, Martín, 1998:77; Blackbeard, 2002a). For decades, explains Groensteen (2000: 31-32), educators had the monopoly of discourse on comics in France: "Comics are seen as intrinsically bad because they tend to take the place of 'real books', an attitude which crystallizes a double confrontation; between the written word and the world of images, on the one hand; between educational literature and pure entertainment on the other. Children's books and magazines had always been intended to educate and moralize, to support and complete the work of parents and teachers. But the illustrated press, comic albums and popular serialized novels turn their backs on this mission; their sole aim is to amuse and entertain." Comics were considered as just an intermediate phase for children on the way to their proper destination, the real literature. Therefore comics had to be closely supervised by book and magazine publishers and, by teachers and parents as well. Captions with rhyming texts were considered more educative and more poetic than balloon texts (Giromini, 1996: 99). The polarization between the visual system and the verbal system was well rooted in the European way of thinking at the beginning of the 20th century (Lefèvre & Dierick, 1998: 20). Renonciat (quoted by Groensteen, 2000: 34) states that the ‘imprisonment of the verbal expression in the visual system' was perceived as an attack and, consequently, the balloon became a central target for the critics of the comic strip. In addition, the fact that the balloon was perceived as an American technique or style made it as such an object of suspicion (Giromini, 1996: 99).

This difference in view regarding balloons may explain why early adaptations of the technique in some European countries were rather isolated cases and without follow-up. Examples of the early uses of balloons by European artists are in Portugal Raphael Bordallo Pinheiro in several short stories (especially from the 1880s) and in France Sam et Sap (Rose Candide & G. Le Cordier1908).

While the fairly negative sentiments and opinions regarding comics were widespread in Europe, it was primarily the fascist regimes of Spain, Germany and Italy, resisting American cultural influences strongly, that took the most drastic steps (Martin, 1978:228, Giromini, 1996:128; Gori, 2002b). Under those dictatorships old style comics with captions again became dominant; the Italian fascist regime even ruled balloons out. Gori (2002b) explains: "At the beginning of 1942, all the "disguised" American comics were banned again, and disappeared; at the same time the balloons were banned, and the captions reintroduced. At the end of 1943, the panels were also banned (!), but in the chaos of the so-called "Repubblica di Salò" (RSI), after September 1943, most such directives were ignored." (See also Castelli & Bono, 1998:14). Curiously, balloons were also not welcome in post-war Communist regimes such as East Germany (Lettkemann & Scholz, 1994:7) or Hungary (Tóth, 1997).

The resistance to balloons in the decades before the 1930s was expressed not only in a clear dominance of old style comic strips with captions, but also in two other strategies. Firstly, gag comics with no text became very popular in the 1920s and the 1930s. The Swedish artist Oscar Jacobsson started in 1920 with Adamson and others soon followed this example: in the States (e.g. Henry by Carl Anderson, 1932), in France (e.g. Aventures du Professeur Nimbus by André Daix, 1934) and in Danmark ( Ferd'nand by Mik, 1937) (Groensteen, 1998: 95). Wordless comics can be seen as a way of evading the tricky choice between captions or balloons. It was also a practical way of dealing with international distribution in the multilingual context of Europe. The second strategy against the balloon consisted of adapting American comic strips to the European model: thus the balloons were erased and replaced by captions. Even European comics with speech balloons were sometimes adapted: when, in 1930, Tintin au Pays des Soviets was republished in the French magazine Cśur Vaillants, captions were added (Peeters, 1991:81-82; 1998:95).

For the moment, examples from Italy, Portugal, Spain, France, Hungary, Sweden and, the Flemish part of Belgium are reported. After World War II a growing number of West European comics artists forgot about captions and integrated balloons into their panels; and, by the early 1960s the balloon was, in most West European countries, the dominant technique – except in the Netherlands. But this does not mean that the resistance was completely over: some educators still continued their attacks (for example Decaigny, 1955:14-16). But those critics were just a rearguard action; the popularity of the new comics model with the readers was soon decisive in the battle over the balloon.





What may look today like a mere stylistic choice regarding a text container was thus actually the arena of a far-reaching cultural battle over conflicting practices and ideologies between Europe and the United States of America. It took several decades before the battle was finished, before the Europeans adopted the so-called ‘American technique'. This was also part of the progress from a culture that privileged the written word to a more visual oriented mass culture in the second part of the 20 th century.




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[1] A exception is Baudart (2005:62-63) who studied the period between 1945 and 1950 in Belgium, he counted 53,9% of comics with balloons, 17,3% comics with captios under the panels and 28,1% silent comics. In comparision a limited sample survey of the 1930s showed twice as much comics with captions.

[2] In May 2002 an inquiry was mailed to various comics historians and to two discussion lists. The chosen forums were the Platinum Age group for comics before the 1930s and the Comics Scholar List I thank Daniele Barbieri, Bill Blackbeard, Margreet de Heer, Leonardo De Sá, Ian Lewis Gordon, Leonardi Gori, Gianfranco Goria, Domingos Isabelinho, Michel Kempeneers, Mike Kidson, Andy Konkykru, Gunnar Krantz, Andrei Molotiu, Jonathan Nolan, Leonard Rifas, John F. Ronan, Thierry Smolderen, Huib van Opstal and Arnold L. Wagner for their help.

[3] Walt Disney's creation Mickey Mouse was internationally the most popular title: Italy (Topolino, 1932), France (Journal de Mickey, 1934), Spain (Mickey, 1935), Portugal (Mickey, 1935), Great Britain (Mickey Mouse Weekly, 1936), Jugoslavia (Mikijeve Novine, 1936 & Mickeystrip, 1940), Switzerland (Micky-Maus-Zeitung, 1937), Sweden (Musse Pigg tidningen, 1937), and Poland (Gazetka Miki, 1938). But titles with adventure stories were also popular: in Italy (L'Avventuroso, 1934) and in Spain (Aventurero, 1935) and in Portugal (O Mosquito, 1936). American comics were also published in other countries such as the Netherlands (Doe Mee, 1936), Belgium (Bravo, 1936; Spirou & Robbedoes, 1938) and Finland.


Pascal Lefèvre teaches comics at the Saint Lucas Arts School in Brussels.



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