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Sometimes, in movies, you see people (2-3 persons) talking while we zoom into a flower or some seemingly unrelated shots or shots that have symbolic meaning. I am wondering if it makes sense to do that in a comics book, because it would be harder to understand what's happening, because the text bubbles would make it impossible to know who's talking since we can't hear the voices of the people talking.

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  • A graphic novel would be rather dull if it was just pictures of people's faces and conversation. You definitely should try and show other things, and there are many ways to link dialog to speaker, not least of which is having each character speak in a distinctive way.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 31, 2022 at 11:38
  • Alan Moore actually used this technique in Watchmen. Feb 1, 2022 at 13:59

3 Answers 3

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Word balloons can point anywhere on the page

In the example below, dialog is not trapped inside individual panels. Yet, the flow of dialog is still very easy to follow because it follows 1 simple design rule:

top-to-bottom depicts time

Words that are higher on the page, are read before words lower on the page:

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There's more going on in the scene than just dialog and time

Notice how the balloons waiver right and left. To the casual eye the balloons are just moved to the empty spaces of the art work.

But for anyone paying attention the balloons are communicating something more. The main character is reaching a conclusion. As he speaks, his word balloons progress to the right – this character is not just saying words, he is convincing himself of a radicalized point-of-view. The balloon that is farthest to the right is his most extreme statement (but not all the way, he has not completely radicalized).

Reading top to bottom, the inset panel starts with a close-up of this character. His expression is is angry, upset, assigning blame. Notice how the 'world' inside this panel is missing, the background is a color gradient suggesting he is 'heating up' with rage and it is blocking out his perception of the world – he is isolated in this emotion.

The dialog that aligns horizontally with this panel are the words that go with this moment, even though half the balloons are outside of the panel pointing elsewhere.

Moving down the page, the angry 'internal' panel disappears. In the exact spot we now see his friend who is attempting to talk him down. The friend occupies the same approximate volume as the 'angry' panel. He is acting as a conscience in counterpoint to the radical emotions.

The friend's word balloons pull the dialog back to the left – he is literally turning the direction of the conversation. There is a short gap in the dialog (top to bottom) where we see the main character has changed. He is no longer isolated. He is sad, not angry. The last lines are all the way to the left as we are grounded again in the world (quite literally as we see his feet touching the ground, in parallel with these final words).

Comics have not been trapped inside sequential storyboard boxes since the 1960s

There are 8 lines of dialog and at least 3 story beats in this 'scene', but only 2 'panels' which are nested not sequential. It follows the 1 rule – the inset panel begins just slightly ahead in time, reading from top to bottom. Casual readers will have no problem navigating the page.

But the artwork is rich in its own symbolic language. The character's hand escapes from the 'inner' box, a 3D-layer effect that also subtly implies his inner conflict is manifesting into action. His thoughts are no longer contained.

His angry word balloons have completely escaped the inner panel, hovering over a background of pollution – there is no ambiguity here: the artwork is filled with cues telling an emotional story.

There are 2 characters speaking, but only 1 of them is depicted twice, because that character changes. The speech balloons point to character mouths, but not necessarily inside the visual 'moment' they are associated with. Panels do not indicate time, or 'camera' POV – a movie cannot do this.

Time is represented by flowing the dialog balloons top to bottom regardless of the artwork, but the real point of the scene is the main character having an inward moment that makes him angry, while his friend is pulling him out of that emotional hole – visually represented with an internal panel, surrounded by a borderless representation of 'reality' which is not hemmed in by a panel box.

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  • Who knew Sonic the Hedgehog was so deep?
    – wetcircuit
    Jan 31, 2022 at 16:14
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You only need to worry about

Continuity

The reader has an expectation of continuity, that is:

  1. if a character was speaking in the previous panel, and the conversation continues on the same topic in the same speaking style in the symbolic panel, then the reader will attribute the speech bubble to the last speaking character.

  2. if two characters were speaking, the same applies from above, with the added benefit that the speech bubble pointing to one side will be attributed again to the character whose speech bubble pointed to that side earlier.

  3. if you are opening on a symbolic panel with multiple characters speaking, then either you provide the non-symbolic panel afterward to clarify who said what, or refer to the conversation later, attributing it to some characters.

  4. if you abruptly change topic, language style and show a symbolic panel, only to return to a different panel with a different conversation, it may be quite jarring. It could become a narrative device if done repeatedly and eventually clarified. I have seen this happening in some mangas in which the action shifts abruptly to weirdly symbolic panels in which some unknown voices talk about weird topics. It is clarified later on that the voice belong to supernatural entities that are toying with our world and their casual conversation is just to show that they don't care about us. In this case the repetition establishes continuity, so that the reader knows what to expect from these symbolic panels.

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Two devices I've seen used to make it clear which characters are talking when they're not in-panel are:

  • give all characters a unique style/color for their speech bubbles
  • draw their face in the speech bubble

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