In comics there are few features more ubiquitous than the speech balloon, which is usually accompanied by a tail. The balloon tail is widely acknowledged to point to one or more visible, or invisible, sources of communication. If a balloon deviates from the standard oval form, it is not uncommon for the tail to follow suit stylistically, while at other times balloon tails, or a lack thereof, may be the primary indicator that text is not typical dialogue (e.g. certain types of thought balloon). Another variable of the balloon tail is length, which, as Steven Tillotson’s Untitled Ape’s Epic Adventure demonstrates, is able to contextualise speech without affecting its delivery.
Untitled Ape’s Epic Adventure is essentially one big, strange, journey. Following the onset of a flood, the titular ape sets off in search of his estranged family, picking up a cynical Cat companion along the way. You could say that Ape hasn’t been in town for a while. In line with his gormless, alien, appearance, he is largely at a remove from his environment. Tillotson’s use of long-tailed balloons as standard helps to convey that sense of detachment.
One of the main contributions of the tails throughout is the establishment of distance and the freedom to make the balloons work with the environment. For a comic with epic in its title, you’d expect there to be a certain amount of spectacle involved; the long-tailed balloons help to establish a sense of scale that often leaves the characters miniturised. At times this distance reflects a literal bird’s eye view, but it also emphasizes the relation between the characters and their environments. The balloons don’t crowd them or detract from their place within the picture as a whole. This is important when the characters find themselves in large open spaces where the full picture builds a sense of isolation even if they themselves maintain a casual and offbeat tone.
In general, the tails do not greatly affect the manner of speech in the comic. The delivery of dialogue is quite dry throughout. Accordingly, changes to speech patterns are employed sparingly, via occasional switches to caps, flourishes of text colour and by a wavier form of balloon frame. These changes are often used when the character’s guards are up. Where scale and perspective are dramatically altered, the speech balloons and text are usually of a consistent size and style, regardless of the length of the tail. It seems as though the sound is freely travelling through empty space, with the added bonus that the balloons then cover the less busy areas of the panels. This enables the shifts in scale and perspective (or mood) to take place without destabilizing the rapport or rhythms of speech of the characters.
The distance, aided by the long tails, may also be used to create discord. On one page where the characters are seen from a good way off, Cat asks Ape about his chequered past, which is casually sidestepped. It’s a quiet moment, under a setting sun, that seems like it could just fade out subtly between pages. Instead, the next page contains a hellscape.
Speech balloons also contribute to another more conceptual form of distance in the comic. When Ape and Cat come to the aid of a dog who has been left stranded by the flood, the frame of the balloon encroaches on her speech, obscuring the edges of her sentences. The reader, unable to fully take in what is being said, likely assumes a similar position to the characters, who simply aren’t listening. Without another balloon of similar dimensions and appearance, the long tail adds to the distance. The dog’s speech floats freely above them while being physically cut off and is thus implied to lack significance, refocusing attention on Ape as he sits silently. Even when the speech manages to fit within the balloon in the next panel, implying that Ape is now listening, that sense of detachment remains.
Long tails aren’t simply used in panels that contain the two primary characters. For example, one panel sees the feature helping to establish power relations between Ape’s former master and his hell-dwelling goons. He stands, miniaturised, in front of the beasts that tower in front of him. The balloon tail starts out in proportion to the character and leads to a balloon that reigns over the monsters, who remain silent. Again, there is no embellishment of speech, which combined with a lack of response, establishes a quiet subservience.
The use of the long tails as default may not work for every comic. The casual nature of their use here is no doubt helped by the off-kilter nature of Untitled Ape’s delivery, but Tillotson makes sure that the balloons are not to be worked around. Rather, they are put to work by the tails.
Do you have any thoughts on the use of balloon tails in this comic or others? If so, let me know below.
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