Interesting object: The speech balloon

From 18th-century caricaturists to Desperate Dan, the art of talking in picture-form has a long and (mostly) distinguished history

This week marks the anniversary of the publication of both the first and the last issues of The Dandy (1937-2012). That means it's also the birthday of Desperate Dan, Korky the Cat and, according to the book British Comics – A Cultural History, the speech balloon.

The Dandy, it says, created "a new kind of picture strip that dispensed with text captions underneath the pictures and used speech balloons for dialogue". As it turns out, The Dandy didn't innovate so much as standardise; the speech balloon has a much longer history, from thigh-slapping medieval speech scrolls ("Ego sum angelus domini at te missus") to smartphone SMS bubbles ("They got no semi-skimmed, is full-fat OK?").

For centuries, artists struggled manfully with ways of codifying the idea of reported speech in graphic form. The manuscript of Das Evangeliar Heinrichs des Löwen, a gospel book dating from around 1175, features characters that appear to be lumbering about carrying cue cards. But within a couple of hundred years the use of speech scrolls, or banderoles, had become standard, emerging incongruously from people's mouths, looking a bit like massive supermarket till receipts and about as difficult to read.

Banderoles began to disappear as artists realised that, along with halos and wings, they didn't particularly embody values of realism. But into the 18th and 19th centuries, master caricaturists such as James Gillray and George Cruikshank began using more rounded speech balloons to attribute phrases to Nelson, Napoleon, the royal family and prominent politicians of the day.

You could draw a direct line between Gillray's pillorying of George III and the front covers of Private Eye. Allegedly Peter Cook's idea, Private Eye's satirical speech balloons have become immediately recognisable, with famous examples such as George W Bush's countdown to war ("10, 9, 8, 9, 5, 7, 2..."), Rupert Murdoch answering his critics during the phone hacking scandal ("I overhear what you're saying") and President FW De Klerk's reaction to the release of Mandela ("This is a black day for South Africa").

By 1900, American comics had begun to use speech balloons instead of extended text captions (which, according to comic artist Lew Stringer, were deployed in order to convince parents that comics had some literary merit). The Yellow Kid, published in the New York Journal and thought of as the first proper newspaper strip, cemented the speech balloon within the panel, making the comic easier to read and the scene more immediate. Words had become part of the action.

"Comic strips are about getting as much information as you can into as small a space as you can," says comic artist Woodrow Phoenix. "All the things that helped you to do that evolved very quickly, within a few years of The Yellow Kid." Today we understand and use all these modern hieroglyphs instinctively: cloud-shaped bubbles to indicate thought, 'Z' to denote sleep, jagged bubbles to indicate screams, '!' for surprise, jagged tails for voices emerging from the radio or television, a light bulb for realisation, a musical note for singing. It's a shorthand that's increasingly useful in this era of texts and tweets – but if we can't thank The Dandy for inventing it, we can at least thank them for nicking the idea from the Americans and hauling it across the Atlantic.

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