What are Speech Bubbles?

J. Beam

Speech bubbles are a visual means of conveying words spoken by characters in comic books and comic strips. They have been used in conjunction with drawn characters since comics first began appearing as early satirical drawings in the 19th century. These bubbles are clearly identifiable as intentionally drawn shapes containing text located next to an illustrated character.

Comic strips typically include speech bubbles for their "speaking" characters.
Comic strips typically include speech bubbles for their "speaking" characters.

Not to be confused with captions, which are generally reserved for narration rather than dialogue and take the form of squares of text attached above or below the panel, speech bubbles are contained within the panel and used to convey the dialogue of cartoon characters. They indicate spoken words, while thought bubbles indicate a character’s thoughts and are differentiated by their shape. Thought bubbles are generally cloud-shaped or circular with an increasingly smaller chain of circles directed at the character in thought, while speech is typically distinguished by pointed tails directed to the speaking character.

Speech bubble are seen often in graphic novels.
Speech bubble are seen often in graphic novels.

There are different types and shapes of speech bubbles used to help convey the tone of the dialogue to the reader. For example, angry speech or shouting may be indicated by text inside jagged-edged bubbles. Normal conversation is usually indicated by text inside simple circular or square-shaped balloons. The difference in shapes may vary with the artist and the cultural influence of the comic. For example, Manga artists may utilize them differently than American artists.

The location of speech bubbles is important to keep the illustrated dialogue flowing. The tail generally helps identify who has spoken the words they contain. It usually points to speaking character, but if a character is off-panel and cannot be seen, the tail may be pointed off panel or may be pointed inward toward the bubble itself. Broadcast speech bubbles indicating radio or television dialogue generally have jagged, lightening-bolt tails.

Speech bubbles are essential for expressing spoken dialogue and anything meant to be audible in comics. Comic strip artists must carefully choose and place them in order to communicate the proper meaning and not to confuse the reader. From basic balloons to those expressing emotion, thought, or even action, such as the "Z" speech bubble indicating sleep, their proper use helps bring comic strips and graphic novels to life for their readers.

Speech bubbles may be seen in the Peanuts comic strip.
Speech bubbles may be seen in the Peanuts comic strip.

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Discussion Comments


@Grivusange -- I loved "Tumbleweeds," too! Loved the name of the town -- Grimy Gulch.

Sometimes "Dilbert" uses bubbles, but I think these are usually more for thoughts than speech. I can't remember if "Doonesbury" uses bubbles or not. I don't think so. That may have been the first time I remember a comic that didn't use the bubbles.

I also remember my dad explaining to me how you could tell who was saying what in the comic strips, by which way the "tail" on the speech bubble was pointing. My first words I read aloud were when I was about three and was reading “The Wizard of Id.” I said, “Sire, the natives are restless.” My family was stunned, to say the least.


I caught on fairly quickly that a speech bubble with nonsense characters ("@%$#%") meant that the character was using profanity. I always thought it much more imaginative than anything the characters might say.

I remember in "Tumbleweeds," one of the Indians, Screaming Flea, always spoke in extremely flowery speech and this was reflected in his speech bubbles. The chief would get discouraged with the tribe and you'd see a huge "SIGH!" in his speech bubble. "Tumbleweeds" was always one of my favorite comics. It didn't make fun of Native Americans. They were usually the ones in the comic who had the most good sense.

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