In its most basic form, a thought balloon is a cloud-like enclosed shape, usually white, used to visually manifest a particular character’s thoughts. These thoughts can be an inner monologue or any other conscious process, but other characters generally do not recognize or see the contents of thought balloons.
Figure 1 depicts a traditional thought balloon in the comic strip Garfield. Jim Davis, the creator and artist, uses the balloon to show what Garfield is thinking. It is also clear contextually that Garfield is not talking to any other character because there is no other character in the panel.
Another use for the thought balloon is to imply communication between non-human characters without breaking the laws of reality. This is found most commonly in daily comic strips like Garfield. In the example on the left, John speaks with a speech balloon while Garfield speaks with a thought balloon. Using a thought balloon here allows for the characters to communicate without completely shattering normal human constructs.
Currently, the thought balloon is falling out of use in popular comic books. Instead, many creators are adopting something similar, a shape that is used as more of a monologue box. This is meant to be more sophisticated than the old school style of thought balloons, mostly because the monologue box sets more of a narrating tone while the thought balloon is used more in “cartoony” comics.
Figure 3, from a Hawkeye volume, shows Hawkeye’s thoughts in square balloons. Choosing to use this style sets a serious tone for the comic book. Using a traditional thought balloon often can make a comic feel campy and out of date.
While the styles of thought balloons have changed over the years, they are still useful within the world of comic books. They allow space for stories to be told from a character perspective without breaking up artwork or making the story less serious. For a daily comic strip, the traditional style still works because it is still associated with a comedic style of comic writing.
Holm, M. (2010, March 19). Thought about thought bubbles, speech balloons, and narration boxes. In Author/Illustrator Matthew Holm.
Piekos, N. (2013). Comic Book Grammar and Tradition. In Blamblot Comic Fonts and Lettering.
Thought Balloons. (2012, Oct). Discussion board from Comic Book Speak.
Wandtke, T. (2012, June 8). The Meaning of Superhero Comic Books. McFarland: Jefferson, North Carolina. (p. 130).