Monday, March 26, 2012
The myth of the speech balloon
I trust that most of you will by now have bought your first day covers of the Royal Mail stamps featuring classic British comics? They really are excellent as is the mini-Dandy No.1 (reprinting 12 of the first issue's 28 pages) and the brief history of comics that accompanies it.
However, there is one little glitch that perpetuates a common myth of British comics. In the folder that comes with the stamps, Graham Kibble-White states "In 1937, DC Thomson launched The Dandy. This landmark title mixed rollicking adventure tales with robust comic strips that featured individual speech balloons rather than text blocks. This innovation made the stories easier to follow and prompted the launch of The Beano in 1938, as well as setting the template for future comics."
It's a mistake that James Chapman also made in his book British Comics, A Cultural History, when he wrote "While they maintained some text stories, Dandy and Beano introduced a new kind of picture strip that dispensed with text captions underneath the pictures and used speech balloons for dialogue."
It's the same myth that was in the BBC Four series Comic Britannia a few years ago. However, the fact is that in December 1937 The Dandy No.1 did not innovate speech balloons in comics, nor was it the first British comic to dispense with text under the panels. Here's a few examples to prove it...
From 1917, twenty years before Dandy No.1, the cover of Picture Fun No.428, with word balloons used in practically every panel...
From 1933, the cover of The Funny Wonder No.1,023, which not only uses speech balloons but also sound effects. (Art by Roy Wilson.)
Inside that same 1933 issue, two strips that use word balloons, dispense with the text under the panels, and even have the sort of rhyming couplets that The Dandy and other DC Thomson comics were known for.
A cover of The Sparkler from July 3rd 1937 (five months before The Dandy was launched) showing word balloons in every panel. (Art by Roy Wilson again.)
That very same week, The Butterfly featured its regular strip Perky, which although features some text it's relegated to the foot of the strip rather than appearing under each panel.
However, in the same issue, this short strip tells the story with word balloons and no text whatsoever...
So, speech balloons and textless strips had been used frequently in British comics long before The Dandy debuted. So how did this myth arise? I'm not sure, but it's one that been doing the rounds for decades and I even believed it myself at one stage. (I may have even written an article or two years ago that's guilty of the same assumption.) It seems to be an error made by some comic historians rather than originating from DC Thomson itself.
Thing is, The Dandy was innovative when it arrived but the reasons why are harder to pin down. For example The Butterfly, Funny Wonder and other comics of the time dispensed with text on some humour strips but The Dandy dispensed with text on most of them. Basically The Dandy took its inspiration from existing British comics and expanded upon it. This gave the impression that The Dandy was a more modern looking and faster paced comic. Also, the tone of The Dandy seemed brasher and not as slick as those from Amalgamated Press. It seemed to have a different attitude than its rival titles, and, yes, that new-kid-on-the-block cockiness did inspire other comics. Perhaps the myth that The Dandy introduced speech balloons to British comics just makes for a simpler soundbite... but it's still wrong.
By the way, despite that, James Chapman's British Comics, A Cultural History is still a cracking read and an absorbing study of the history and sociological significance of comics. Order your copy from Amazon here if you haven't already bought the book.