The Art of Conversation Part 2, representing dialogue in comics.

One of the greatest limitations of dialogue in comics is the lack of space. The general rule of thumb is as follows; up to nine panels a page, with up to fifty words per panel. What you don’t realize until you start writing comics is that fifty words is not a lot. Especially if you are trying to depict a conversation. But you don’t have to feel like you are constantly butting up against an upper word limit. Read on to see some of the ways dialogue can shoulder more narrative weight than just the words written on the page.

Writing dialogue for comics is as much about balancing its place on top of the art as it is about driving the narrative. Too much dialogue, and it will overbear the art, too little, and you may be selling the story short. Oftentimes it can feel like the images and words are at odds with each other, constantly vying for the limited real estate on any given panel. But this shouldn’t be the case. There are ways to represent dialogue that allows it to work in tandem with the visual narrative of the story as opposed to against it. In this article, I want to explore less about what dialogue is saying and more about what it doesn’t need to say because of its visual representation.

Take Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman as a prime example. The comic often deals with vast stories concerning profound ideas, and Gaiman is masterful at reducing that sort of exposition to short, clear and concise runs of dialogue or narration. Several of the characters speak with a grandiose rhetoric akin to the characters of epic poems and plays which the comic often pays homage to. Writers of said literature like Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer as well as is great thinkers like Caesar, Al-Rashid and Paine appear as characters, giving weight to this style of dialogue.

But I want to focus on the representation of dialogue, not just the dialogue itself. Specifically those instances where Gaiman’s command of his craft allows the visual representation of dialogue, usually in the form of more colloquial conversation, to act as its own narrative vehicle to show more than what the dialogue alone infers.

Let’s look at an example below. We will compare both the dialogue itself, as well as its visual representation.

In this example, I want to focus predominantly on the first panel which has three character speak: Cain, Abel and the Raven called Daniel. When Cain speaks, he opens with an insult, not only that, but his dialogue is full of multisyllabic words. Through this piece of dialogue, we get a sense of his character in regards to his intelligence, his arrogance, and his disdain for his brother.

But visually, the slightly smaller size of the text shows he is speaking more quietly than the other two speakers, meaning he doesn’t necessarily want to be heard. The visual representation gives us a little extra about his personality that the dialogue doesn’t show.

Next, the Raven speaks, and I love the visual representation of his dialogue. The messy speech bubble with the yellow border, almost as if it has been scratched into the page (chicken scratching’s is perhaps a good phrase to apply to the border lines), has a different lettering style that shows his dialogue shouldn’t be read with a normal sounding voice, subtly instructing readers to apply a voice that might resemble more closely a raven’s caw. But on top of that, Daniel has a distinctly more colloquial style of speech. Across the example, you can hear his use of casual greetings, contractions and expletives, which juxtaposes Daniel to the upper class dialogue style of Cain both in terms of dialogue and visual representation of said dialogue.

Finally, we have Abel, whose dialogue is dominated by his stutter.

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” Becomes…

“Ruhruhruhruhreally? I uh I uh huhhadn’t noticed.”

What is wonderful about this is that the stutter works phonetically as opposed to just repeating the first few letters of the stuttered word, but also that entire words are repeated. This use of dialogue expresses Abel’s shy and reserved personality but also creates a distinct voice that we recognize. Visually, the elongation of words means his speech bubble must be larger and therefore takes up more space.

Within the confines of one panel and three speech bubbles, we have a grip of all three characters’ personality thanks solely to their dialogue, both as dialogue itself and it’s representation. Now that you recognise this, you could identify who was speaking by the speech bubbles alone.

Instances of this linguistic and visual duality can be found all over but this next example occurs in my favourite story arc Season of Mist.

My own photo from the trade paperback. Please don’t sue me.

Here in this example, the lofty speaker that is Cain from the previous example delivers Lucifer a message from Morpheus. The self-assuredness heard when he is in the presence of his sibling who cannot challenge him is absent here. Instead, now in the presence of someone he has no power over, Cain stumbles more in his speech.

Message. Yes. Right. Um.”

He struggles to collect his thoughts before finding his feet. But in the second panel, just as he is about to get into his flow with the grand style of dialogue he feels more befitting of himself, Lucifer denies him. On the third panel, Cain delivers the content of the message begrudgingly succinctly, but finishes with “There” showing him as deliberately petulant because he was made to feel subjugated like the way he treats his brother. Again, we are gaining a more rounded perception of his personality through not only his dialogue but how it is represented. Both instances of Cain’s weakness are stuck onto the main speech bubbles. In panel one, his scrambling thoughts are perched on the main body of dialogue, and in panel three his petulance is tacked onto the end like an afterthought. His own dialogue visually kept separate from the necessary dialogue.

Lastly for this example, I want to look at the demon who speaks on panel four. She says “Eat his face” (which is I assume is a sort of poetic justice punishment given that half her face is missing). But precisely because of this, her lack of a full set of lips results in the dialogue coming out as “Eazch hizh fazshe”. But at first glance could be an entirely different language. Yet again, another example of how Gaiman writes dialogue that can be visually represented in a unique way, to create a unique character voice.

For one final example on Gaiman, I have a single panel where something incredibly subtle happens but is in fact an incredible trick when representing dialogue visually.

The context here is Cluracan, from the land of Faerie has come to speak to Morpheus before he holds a series of important meetings and Morpheus interrupts him. So what though? Lucifer interrupted Cain in the last example, why am I showing you the same thing again?

First off, can we take a moment to appreciate Morpheus’ speech bubble? It is my favourite speech bubble style of all time (and I realise how sad it sounds when I say things like that). Characterised by the wavy border and white text on black, it gives his speech a sense of otherworldliness that black text on white just doesn’t give you. White backgrounds in speech bubbles feel more open, it creates an impression the sound travels (perhaps as this is also the overwhelmingly dominant form of speech bubbles), so the black background creates the opposite effect. Personally, it has always made me think Morpheus speaks with a slight reverb on his voice. His dialogue doesn’t escape the blackness of the speech bubble, instead reverberates into the darkness behind it.

There is more at play here, though. Cluracan states that “this may not be convenient” just before he launches into his plea. So that of course is the perfect moment that Morpheus interrupts him with his usual bland style of tone. His lack of tone always creates a sense of unshakeable disinterest, but his speech bubble gives us a clue as to how he feels. As he is interrupting the other character very deliberately and is not happy with Cluracan forcing this discussion, you may notice that Morpheus’ speech bubble starts to encroach on Cluracan’s speech bubble. Now there is enough space in the panel composition to allow both speech bubbles adequate space, but no. Morpheus’ speech bubble is literally muscling in, as if it wasn’t going to give Cluracan the physical space to continue, even if he tried to.

So even if Morpheus was hiding his true feelings behind his characteristically ceremonial style of dialogue, the visual representation of it alludes to his true feelings. Gaiman could have had Morpheus open with “This is inconvenient, but…” then follow into the written dialogue. This would be in keeping with his tonal style of dialogue as well as reveal his true feelings, but once again the speech bubble carries an extra narrative responsibility, saving space on the panel and creating deeper sense of character in Morpheus.

Now overlapping speech bubbles is a common practice in comics, sometimes it is done for space saving purposes and sometimes to help identify who is speaking first in a crowded scene. But Gaiman (or Todd Klein, the letterer who deserves as much praise in this article as Gaiman, if not more) in this instance, has the wherewithal to use this practice to their narrative advantage.

Whether these decisions were laid out in the script by Gaiman or applied by Klein at the lettering stage is unknown to me, but for many of Gaiman’s characters, the visual representation of dialogue through speech bubbles work on a literary and visual level simultaneously, telling the reader more, without needing the space to do so.

Ok, let’s quickly move on before I talk about The Sandman all day!

Thanks for reading so far, this article is part of my eBook “The Art of Conversation; Writing Comics and Surviving Kickstarter.” To read the rest of this article (and many others), you can purchase it here: (Full contents below)

Here is a peek at the contents

1. The Art of Conversation, Depicting dialogue in comics (You can read this for free on my blog)

2. The Art of Conversation Part 2, representing dialogue in comics

3. Black holes disguised as white lines; the power of the comic gutter

4. A Picture is Worth 1000 words – how to write a comic script that your artist can use Part 1

5. A Picture is Worth 1000 words – how to write a comic script that your artist can use Part 2

6. Write to the beat of your own drum – How to pace scenes in a comic

7. Piracy and Indie Comics

8. The Internal and External Drives of a Narrative.

9. The terrifying REAL cost of creating a comic issue

10. Lessons that turned a failed comic Kickstarter into a successful one.

11. No Snakes, Only Ladders: Kickstarter Reward structuring

12. Kickstarter Capitalism: the worth of debut and returning creators

13. Surviving your maiden Kickstarter Part 1 – Failure to prepare is preparing to fail

14. Surviving your maiden Kickstarter Part 2 – The Campaign Trail

15. Surviving your maiden Kickstarter Part 3 – Crossing that finishing line


One thought on “The Art of Conversation Part 2, representing dialogue in comics.

  1. Pingback: The Art of Conversation, Depicting dialogue in comics. – Richard Mooney

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s