For those getting into comic books, it may be hard to decipher some of the traditional comic book grammar. Certain type styles and uses of grammar are used to express different tones and scenarios to the reader. This may leave readers wondering how to read comic books. Most of these idiosyncrasies stem from established traditions but there are some modern trends and personal opinions mixed in.
The majority of these conventions have been established by the two comic book powerhouses Marvel and DC over the years, but in some cases, editors may have different opinions and preferences. Sometimes this can be due to what works in a particular panel or due to space limitations.
Whatever the case may be, we decided to create a guide for those who want to learn how to read comic books but are struggling to get past some of the grammatical nuances.
Here’s our guide on
How to Read Comic Books – Comic Book Grammar
Now let’s take a look at every convention used in comic books and what they mean. If we missed any out or you have any questions, leave a comment below and we will do our best to add the answer to this article for you.
Angle Brackets (Foreign Languages)
This is one of the less straightforward conventions to understand when learning how to read comic books. It may not be clear upon seeing this the first time but when you see dialogue enclosed in “less than” and “greater than” symbols it means the character is speaking a foreign language. This is made clearer sometimes when an editor’s not (which you will learn about in the next section) denotes what language the character is speaking.
An asterisk found within dialogue bubble serve as an editor’s note, directing the reader’s attention to a caption located elsewhere on the panel or page. These captions typically provide additional information that was originally found in a separate issue or comic book, or breakdown an acronym the reader needs to understand.
Balloon tails are used to show where/who a dialogue bubble is coming from. There are actually rules to how they should be used.
These include things like the balloon tail should direct attention towards a character’s mouth, as though an unseen line extended from the tail’s end to their face. The artist should steer clear of positioning the tail in a more general vicinity of the character, such as their hand or leg.
Instead, the tail should conclude around 50-60% of the space between the balloon and the character’s head. Of course these rules are inevitably broken at times. As every rule is inevitably broken within artistic endeavours.
When reading comic books you’ll notice that a lot of dialogue will have single words and phrases that are in bold. Usually, these will also be in italic. It’s very rare that they’re found in just bold. Both of these conventions are simply used to show that a character is emphasising a word or phrase in their dialogue. E.g. in the example above you can see Sharon Carter emphasising the word “really” when describing Steve Rogers’ condition to Nick Fury.
Breath Marks (Fireflies, Crow’s Feet or Whiskers)
Breath marks are used to illustrate a character is creating a sound caused by inhaling or exhaling e.g. a cough, sneeze, wheezing etc. These can usually be identified by three little dashes that come before and after whatever breathing action they are describing. This is demonstrating in the example above where Spider-Man can be seen coughing due to some kind of gas.
Burst Balloons (Shout Balloons)
Burst Balloons are used to show a character shouting or screaming in their dialogue. These are not to be confused with radio balloons. Burst balloons have more sporadic and random edges than radio balloons. Just like regular balloons, some of the words in the dialogue are often written in bold for emphasis.
There are four different type of captions found in comic books: Internal Monologue, Location & Time, Editorial, and Spoken”.
Internal monologues captions – are used to express the characters “internal dialogue” with themselves. In modern comics these have largely been thrown into prominence as a replacement to the old-fashioned speech bubble. These are usually written in italics. We can see example of this in the above comic panel where Daredevil is telling the reader that he should be in bed with his flu rather than out fighting crime.
Location & time captions – is used to set the scene for the reader and let them know the time and location everything is taking place.
Editorial Captions – These are used as a way for the editor or writer to narrate to the reader and explain important details.
Spoken Captions – These are used to show speech that is emanating from a character that isn’t currently on screen. Spoken Captions can be identified by their enclosing speech/quotation marks.
A Double Dash is used to show when a character is interrupted mid-speech. This is not to be confused with the ellipses (more on that later…)
In the above example we can see Cynthia cutting off Deadpool’s polite greeting mid-sentence to insult him.
Double Outline Balloons
Double Outline Balloons are used to create the same effect as Burst Balloons. They depict characters shouting or screaming. The only difference here being the stylistic choice the artist has chosen is usually used to describe an unearthly or altered emotional state.
In the illustration above Doctor Fate can be seen shouting. Due to him being an earthly god the double outline is more appropriate than the standard Burst Balloon.
Just like how they’re usually used in grammar, ellipses are used to denote a pause in the character’s speech. However, in comics it can also be used to continue dialogue that was not finished in another panel. There is only supposed to be three periods in an Ellipsis but you will often find that writers will use four or more.
In the example above you can see Dr. Lenore Mornay speaking to Luke Cage at a funeral with the ellipsis being used as a pause in her speech.
Hyphenating is used to fit words into balloons when there isn’t enough space for them. In the example shown above one of Fixer’s goons is using the word “wisecrack”. However, due to it not fitting all on one line without invading the space of the other bubble it’s hyphenated.
This allows the word to be continued on the next line without confusing the reader or compromising readability of the sentence.
Joint Balloons are usually used to convey an interrupted train of thought. In essence, joined speech bubbles from the same character within a single panel of a comic book help showcase the character’s focused or unbroken communication. It’s also a stylistic choice in the sense it allows dialogue to take more space vertically without compromising the shape of a traditional speech bubble or taking up too much horizontal space.
Joining Balloons With Connectors
Joining Balloons with Connectors are usually used for a few different reasons:
Continuity of Dialogue – Joining speech bubbles with connectors indicates that the dialogue or conversation continues from one panel to another. This helps maintain the flow of communication between characters and prevents repetition of the same dialogue in each panel.
Rapid Exchange – Joined speech bubbles with connectors can represent a rapid exchange of words or an intense conversation where characters are speaking quickly and responding immediately to each other. This is the most common use for this convention. The overlapping of the interacting characters is usually illustrated by making the the speech balloons overlap too.
Separate Ideas – They can also be used when a character expressed to separate ideas one after the other.
In the example shown above Daredevil and Black Widow are having a rapid exchange of words. The fact that they’re almost interrupting each other is shown by the fact their speech balloons are overlapping.
Music / Singing
The presence of Music in comic books can be recognised in the form of musical notes. A stream of notes from an instrument in a characters possession would suggest that the instrument is currently being played, a lone music note or notes without words in a speech balloon would usually denote a character is whistling, and if speech within a balloon is enclosed within musical notes (akin to the way speech marks are used) this would mean a character is singing.
Off-Panel Dialogue can be expressed in a few ways. One of which we already discussed (spoken captions). The other two are using tailless balloons and having the tail of balloons bump against the panel border.
In the above example we can see Peter Parker in hospital with Mary Jane at his bedside whilst a Nurse speaks to a patient’s family member behind the door.
Question Mark (Exclamation Point)
Questions marks are coupled with exclamation points when a question is shouted by a character.
Quotation Marks are used in comic books in two ways. The first we discussed in the section about captions (when there’s occurring dialogue off-screen). Quotation Marks are also used within speech balloons when a character is quoting another character (or themselves as we can see Human Torch doing in the example above on the right.)
Radio Balloons (Broadcast Balloons, Electric Balloons)
Radio Balloons are used whenever audio is transmitted through any type of electric device (including radios, TVs, computers, phones or any device that uses a speaker).
Pretty straightforward, onomatopoeias are used in comic books to provide sound effects for the reader to get a mental picture of what sounds are resonating in the setting. These are often words like BOOM! THOK! & CRASH.
As you can see in the example shown above Wolverine’s claws have a signature “SNIKT” sound that they make when they’re drawn. Interestingly, this is actually a sound effect that is unique to Wolverine’s claws and not found anywhere else in comic books.
If we were to have ordered this list in the order of the most important concept to grasp when learning how to read comics, this would’ve been at the top of the list. But for the sake of simplicity we opted to use alphabetical order instead.
The general convention for speech balloons/bubbles is that they should be read from left to right starting with the speech bubble that’s placed the highest first.
In some cases characters will have signature speech bubbles. These are used to be a visual representation of the character’s voice. For example Deadpool’s speech bubbles are yellow to resemble the narrators voice because of his tendency to break the fourth wall and Venom (when the symbiote speaks on its own) has a black bubble with rough edges. The characteristic of rough edges is often used to display the ruggedness of monstrous creature’s voices in comic books.
Speech bubbles can also be used to illustrate a characters current physical or mental state. For example wavy balloons are used to show a character is hurt.
When showing a character’s telepathic thoughts, comic book creators traditionally expressed this using thought balloons with breath marks on each corner or italics. However, modern day comics often abandon this practice and use more illustrative methods to make it obvious the character is speaking telepathically using things such as:
Distinctive coloring – The text or speech bubble representing telepathic speech may be colored differently from regular dialogue, such as using a different shade or color to make it stand out.
No Speech Bubble – In some cases, Telepathic communication may be depicted without a traditional speech bubble. Instead, thoughts or words may appear directly on the page, usually surrounded by a stylized border or background to indicate that it’s telepathic communication.
Character Reactions – Other characters in the scene might react or respond to telepathic communication, indicating that they are receiving thoughts or messages.
Caption Boxes: Sometimes, telepathic communication may be presented through caption boxes rather than speech bubbles, with a caption indicating that they are communicating telepathically.
As mentioned before, compared to their widespread use in the past, these have largely become a lot less common. Monologue captions are a lot more common than speech balloons are these days. That being said, they are still a very prominent fixture in modern comic books.
When the dialogue is much smaller than usual and leaves a lot of free space in the balloon, this usually means the character is whispering. In the example above we see Blackstar whisper to Hulk (before said whisper sends Hulk flying after creating a shockwave).
In some cases, whispers can also be illustrated using dashed outlines, a greyed out text and outline or lowercase text.
There’s a lot to get your head around when it comes to learning how to read comic books but when we take into account the context of the characters and the situations they’re in a lot can be deduced using intuition. And when there’s anything you’re unsure about… Everything Geek is always there to lend a hand!