This page by Kevin Huizenga plays with one of the most recognizable conventions of comics language: the balloon. The metaphor of a bag inflated by air floating on the top of the page is here taken literally, at service of a poetic meta-commentary.
The story – featuring his recurrent character Glenn Ganges – was first published in Kramers Ergot 7 (2007), in a gigantic format (16”x21”) 1. Size matters and Huizenga makes the most out of the large page by exploring the possibilities of the changes of scale in the trajectory of the ‘flight’ from Glenn’s living room to the sky, and the distinct levels of detail that can be achieved by high altitudes; for example, the profusion of small balloons over the suburban landscape and the suggestion of height are favored by the verticality of the second tier.
Reading Huizenga’s page against the grain of the concept of speech balloon may be fruitful to understand the very ambiguous and unstable nature of the comics reading. Groensteen defines the balloon as a space delimited by a trace that surrounds the words pronounced by the characters (2007: 207). Such description can be bracketed in two parts, as follows.
The first part of this definition is related to the idea that the balloon demarcates a region of the page that should not be taken as an element of the fictional space. The balloon hides parts of the image from the reader, causing what Groensteen calls an effect of concealment (2009: 70). Inside the borders, illusion is suspended and the text denounces the opacity of the page:
“[T]he cohabitation of the drawing and the balloon generates a tension, since the three-dimensional space constructed by the cartoonist is contradicted by the presence within it of this piece that is added, a stranger to the representative illusion” (2009: 69)
In this page, however, Huizenga blurs this contract and emphasizes this instability of the comics language. The balloons hold an ambiguous status: they surely signal a differentiated zone, but at the same time, they also belong to the fictional universe, refusing to behave as intruding objects to be disregarded – as normally balloons do.
The second part of Groensteen’s definition refers to “the words pronounced by the characters”, raising a second tension between the verbal and the visual. A balloon usually points to the existence of an utterance – and, therefore, also implies the existence of a speaker. But here we have neither words, nor characters. The balloons are filled with scrawls , and apart from a brief appearance of the “hero” Glenn Ganges (perhaps just to justify the title) what is left for the reader is just an assemblage of houses, a suburban landscape viewed from above.
But even with no text, the balloon still indicates a presence of something being said, no matter how illegible. The same goes for the characters: even if we can’t see them (because they are too distant), they are implied by the tail, which works as an arrow, to refer to the speaker (Fresnault-Deruelle, 1970: 149). Despite its discreteness, the tail is considered as an important device, an intermediary between text and image, the iconic and the linguistic (Fresnault-Deruelle, 1970: 149). In Huizenga’s story, the tail also occupies a double meaning, behaving not only as a sign to point to who’s speaking, but also as comets’ tails, in the last panel of the story.
Moreover, the absence of text inside the balloons does not mean there is no text. Huizenga goes further in his subversion of the the hierarchical conventions between the balloon and the panel (Groensteen, 2009: 68). Instead of placing text inside the balloons, Huizenga writes the lines of dialogues in the margins, surrounding the page grid.
The text is composed basically by everyday conversational patterns, a collection of sentences, chunks of expressions used to keep routine conversation going. The content lacks specificity and function more as illocutionary speech acts (Searle or Austin come to mind) – pragmatical little statements used to do things with words, such as expressing gratitude (“thanks for that”), agreement (“fine by me”), request (“come here a minute”), indifference (“oh well, whatever”), disbelief (“you can’t be serious”) etc. Among these sentences, the theme of memory appears as a leitmotif (“try to remember. please don’t forget”).
In his blog (that not coincidentally happens to be entitled The Balloonist) Huizenga explains that the page was inspired by Frank King’s Sunday pages “involving flying up and looking down on the landscape below” (in the second panel, Huizenga even cites one of Frank King’s panels, drawn from the same point of view).
By playing with the multiple meanings of balloon, Huizenga positions the reader in a kind of God-like perspective, as someone who can see everyone from above and hear everything 2.
Forceville, C., T. Veale, e K. Feyaerts (2010). “Balloonics: the visuals of balloons in comics”, The Rise and Reason of Comics and Graphic Literature: Critical Essays on the Form. (Goggin, Joyce, e Dan Hassler-Forest) (McFarland)
Fresnault-Deruelle, P. (1970) “Le verbal dans les bandes dessinées”. In : Communications 15.1: 145-161.
Groensteen, T. (2009) The System of Comics (Univ. Press of Mississippi)
Groensteen, T. (2007) La bande dessinée: mode d’emploi (Brussels: Les impressions nouvelles)
Huizenga, K. (2008) “Balloon”, Kramers Ergot #7 (Buenaventura Press)
King, F. (ca. 1930) Gasoline Alley Sunday Page, quoted by Kevin Huizenga, “Homage to King”, 5 May 2011, <http://kevinh.blogspot.com/2011/05/homage-to-king.html>. Accessed 8 June 2011.