Menu Close

Signifying Silence: The Empty Speech Balloon

By Lauren Chivington

“There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourse” – Michel Foucault

As sound effects explode across the page and characters fill balloons with their speech, the empty speech balloon (ESB) appears to contrast with the typical grammar of comics. Curiously, the scholarship on this oxymoronic device is seemingly empty as well. Is the ESB truly empty, devoid of meaning, and therefore not worth our time? While there is an abundance of scholarship on the speech balloon and its centrality to the comic medium, there is widespread scholarly silence on the ESB relative to how often the device is used. The ESB may be disconcerting to those used to viewing them as an unfinished portion of the completed work—a space intentionally made for vocal expression but not filled with this expression. However, the ESB in its very emptiness reveals core tenets of the comic medium that lurk beneath the surface, unnoticed. Just as the empty stage is the foundation of theatrical performance, the ESB is the foundation of comic language. If—as the subheading of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics tells us—comics are “the invisible art,” what is truer to the artform than a graphic convention of invisibility so effective that it has been taken for granted? The rebellious ESB, as it fills the page and creates space for itself, reveals a deeper understanding of comic theory, language, and voice even as it appears to be working against them.

ESBs allow for numerous kinds of silences—many of which have not yet been explored—and have the potential for a vast number of applications. In this article I will pinpoint some of these applications by distinguishing three main categories of relational dynamics (i.e., empathy, antipathy, and sympathy) between the artist/writer, the work, and the reader/observer.1 Through this method we discover silences brought about by ESBs distancing the observer from expected comic syntax and/or from the speaker of “empty” words, drawing the observer closer to those silenced by forces of misogyny, loss, and death, and hailing the observer to bring their own voice into the “silent” comic world of ESBs. These kinds of visual silences show how ESBs can be used to elicit different emotions—and sometimes actions—in the reader. ESBs change the way we think about speech inside and outside of comic studies. The following relational analysis is only one of many possible ways to consider the ESB; many more can and should be used.2 Recognizing and understanding what the ESB is doing and can do is central to understanding the comic medium.

ESBs are just one player in this analysis, however. The following article proposes dynamic relationships between the artist/writer (often the same person, often not, often multiple of each), the character (or characters), the reader/observer (one individual experiencing the work as a text, as a visual piece, and as a synthesis of the two),3 and one or more ESBs. ESBs have been and can be used to create closeness to and/or distance between these players.

The ESB is an important contribution to the comic medium that unearths previously invisible truths about the comic medium even as it appears to contradict our traditional understanding of comic convention. As scholars Hillary Chute and Patrick Jagoda said in their introduction to a special issue of Critical Inquiry on comics and media: “comics is a form with a peculiar syntax; among its most basic elements are…speech balloons” (3). The ESB is therefore at the heart of comic meaning-making.

Artist/writers have used ESBs to depict thoughts—as and in clouds, not balloons—and experiences that make false the traditional prescriptions that “the speech balloon must therefore be purely conventional” and that ESBs merely show “that a character has no thoughts” (Carrier 29-31). ESBs also impact the experience of the comic reader/observer, asking them to question why the artist/writer chose to use an ESB, what the reader/observer expected to be inside the balloon, what could be placed inside that space, and why the character is unable to express themselves audibly to other characters and/or to the reader/observer. Paying attention to ESBs will improve the field of comic studies by helping us acknowledge the potentiality of negative space/negative speech, opening infinite possibilities for artist/writers, their characters, and for reader/observers to experience comic art. More broadly speaking, ESBs cause us to question comic language and, by extension, our understanding of speech and silence.

The wit and play of the ESB depends upon the comic tradition of the speech balloon. Developed from speech scrolls dating back to as early as 900 AD (Hull 341) and bubble-text found as far back as the second  century BCE (Daley), scrolls or “banderoles” in the eighteenth century started to appear more like words being blown out of the mouth, though still without a discernible “tail” to connote the speaker, such as in Bernhard Strigel’s 1507 piece titled Saint Anne and Angel (FIG 1). In the late nineteenth century, Rudolph Dirks’ The Katzenjammer Kids and Richard F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid made speech look more like physical balloons with strings (FIG 2). The Yellow Kid established many comic conventions in the U.S. and marked the mainstream advent of speech balloons as dialogue. In the early twentieth century, the speech balloon took off, replacing captioning for most serials. By the time Action Comics #1 was set to print, speech balloons had the tails we now recognize as conventional. Because the ESBs found in the course of this research have the traditional comic “tails”—the earliest dating back to the 1950s—it can be assumed for now that the ESB is a more recent narrative invention than the modern speech balloon. The history of the ESB has yet to be recorded.

Figure 1
Figure 2

In order to distinguish the ESB from the modern speech balloon’s peculiar syntax, a moment should be taken to discuss what the ESB is not. The comic reader has grown accustomed to traditional significations of silence in various ways throughout comic history. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series gives several excellent instances of these visual silences. For example, the conventional ellipsis that communicates a pause in both sound and time in comic language is shown in different panels as being at different times either inside of a speech balloon or drawn into the panel itself with no speech balloon at all (see O’Malley). Ellipsis length varies from the usual three periods to as many as fourteen to denote a much longer period of silence (see O’Malley). Silence is signified through words as well, in one instance via the writing “(WEIRD PAUSE)” in the image, without a balloon (see O’Malley). In a notable panel, the word “SILENCE” (O’Malley) is written into the panel itself over a crowd of people with no mouths (FIG 3) (O’Malley). Especially interesting about this panel is the fact that it appears to have a speech balloon tail attached to it without a balloon around the word. While these techniques contain the same lack of audible sound as the ESB to the characters within the panels as well as to the reader, the ESB is distinct from these methods. The omission of any signification or cueing from ESBs is notable: as they break the comic convention for signifying silence, they indicate to us that something new is happening. For answers about this comic anomaly, let’s turn outward and explore the concept the ESB exists within: negation.

Figure 3

ESBs bring similar questions about silence and absence to comics as those Robert Rauschenberg brought to painting with his series “White Paintings” and John Cage brought to music with his composition “4’33’’” in the early 1950s. Like Rauschenberg’s white paintings, ESBs exemplify what he called “the plastic fullness of nothing” (Winn) in an important way. In her book Economy of the Unlost (1999), contemporary artist Anne Carson gives us some insight into the topic of silence and absence in her chapter on negation. Carson writes that negation “lends itself to scary word play, to unanswerable puns, to the sort of reasoning that turns inside out when you stare at it” (100). These unanswerable puns are intrinsic to ESBs.

An oxymoron in and of itself, the ESB is filled with pregnant silences that can manifest in a silent scream, such as that in the first volume of Marzena Sowa’s autobiographical Marzi comic, a “deafening silence” (Una 89), such as that in Una’s Becoming Unbecoming, and further narrative manifestations of contradictions. One key contradiction interrogated here is the way in which ESBs have been used to give “voice” to the silenced; however, the other contradictions that ESBs create and exist within also warrant inquiry. Scott McCloud reminds us in Understanding Comics that all comics—not just ESBs—are audibly silent. McCloud says: “do you hear what I’m saying?…if you do, have your ears checked, because no one said a word” (McCloud 25). ESBs then are visual signs of silences that can emulate audible silences, visual silences, and more. Although they are already recognized as being used with intent, they can also be used to affect closeness, distance, empathy, antipathy, sympathy, and so on by using negative space. 

Just as the iconic images of the hourglasses/facial profiles shape and reshape the way the viewer perceives the subject of an image, ESBs in their void give shape to what the reader/observer perceives as being the subject of the image. By using the spaces around and in-between what the reader/observer is paying attention to, ESBs for example allow and compel the reader/observer to empathize with trauma survivors, laugh at politicians, and place their own thoughts—implicitly or explicitly—within the page. Though, as I will show, ESBs can be used to affect empathetic and sympathetic actions and reactions in the reader/observer, the initial discomfort and stigma surrounding negative space is just one of the possible answers as to why the ESB has not been properly studied.

Another possible reason why the ESB has not yet been studied can be found within the linear process of comic creation. The layered approach to typical comic creation means that there is a point at which all speech balloons are empty, suspended in silence. Because of this, those familiar with the comic creation process are trained to see ESBs as a meaningless and incomplete portion of the larger work. This issue of incompletion is problematic for the study of ESBs in a literal as well as figurative way. For example, when digging through archives of comic materials in search of instances of ESBs and their many uses, one might find an example of unpublished original art, such as this twentieth century piece by Arnold Roth of a man eating a bird (FIG 4) (Roth). The panels show a man eating a bird while the final panel is of an ESB. It is unclear whether this piece is an example of the intentional usage of an ESB or if it has simply not been lettered yet. Though the context would seem to lend itself to the speech balloon being filled with a visualization of birdsong, the artist could be intentionally defying this expectation. This uncertainty of artist intent based on a lack of available information is one of the many difficulties that the ESB raises for both the researcher and the reader.

Figure 4

Artists have used ESBs to elicit a distancing, antipathetical reaction in the reader/observer toward a subject or subjects. By using ESBs to show “empty” words and thus undermine the speaking character, artists are meeting our preconceptions about ESBs being empty and meaningless even as they undermine those preconceptions by using the ESB in a meaningful way. Artists have used distancing techniques in other media to great effect, but the ESB is a unique way in which this technique can be used in comics. One place the antipathetical usage of the ESB can be seen is in editorial/political cartooning. It can be argued that this process of pushing the reader/observer away from the subject simultaneously brings the reader/observer closer to the artist/writer’s perspective, though as always authorial motivations are difficult to parse with any certainty. For example, nationally syndicated cartoonist Steve Breen used an ESB in this 2004 cartoon (FIG 5)—interestingly found under the tag “speech balloon”—to undermine what the subject, John Kerry, is saying (or not saying), and in so doing distances the reader/observer from Kerry. In the image, Kerry appears to be actively speaking, but his words have fallen out of the speech balloon and into a jumble on the ground, leaving Kerry’s speech balloon empty. At this moment, one of Kerry’s campaign workers says to the other: “actually, his message could use a little cohesion” (Breen).

Figure 5

ESBs have been used by cartoonists to critique the subject and/or distance the character from the reader/observer by depicting the subject with “empty” words or thoughts. This technique aligns the ESB with strongly negative or laughable connotations, which is in stark contrast to the reverent and empathy-inducing ways other comic artists have used ESBs. This 1999 editorial cartoon by Mike Ritter (FIG 6)—found under the tag “speech bubble”—appears to be in keeping with the Breen comic’s use of ESBs as a satirical device. In the image, Bill Clinton speaks from a podium into a massive ESB while holding a stack of papers labeled “Kosovo Policy.” A label at the top of the panel reads “The Limitations of Air Power” (Ritter). wever, because the full title of this piece is “The Limitations of Air Power…’Would I lie to you, baby?,’” there is a chance that this specific visual joke at the expense of Bill Clinton is not the exact one the artist wanted to create.

Figure 6

Another example of an artist using ESBs to elicit antipathy for and distance from a character in the mind of the reader/observer can be found in this 1998 editorial cartoon by Nick Anderson entitled “The 90’s” (FIG 7), alternatively titled “Everything’s About Nothing.” Riffing off the Seinfeld show concept as a show about nothing, a panel in this comic shows ESBs being “spoken” by two subjects, with the top label reading “Debates about nothing….” Interestingly, the next panel is of a subject saying: “yada yada yada”—another Seinfeld joke—under the label “Media stories about nothing….” (Anderson). In doing this, Anderson has provided us with a perfect juxtaposition of an ESB, the different functions of a speech balloon that “says” nothing, and how visual jokes are different and elicit nuanced responses of antipathy and distance in the reader/observer.

Figure 7

In the previous examples, the ESB has been used as a tool by the artist/writer to cause antipathy for the character(s) in the reader/observer. This is still in keeping with comic language to a point, as the ESB is not a subject. However, ESBs can be given subjecthood by the artist. An excellent example of ESBs attaining subjecthood can be found in another Mike Ritter editorial cartoon—this one from 2003—titled “Feingold-McCain Speech Police”(FIG 8) (Ritter). In this editorial cartoon, the ESB is still being used to induce antipathy toward and distance from a subject. However, the ESB is being deployed in a completely different way to a completely different effect. In the cartoon, a burly police officer with a “no” icon on his cap, “federal election admin.” and another “no” icon on his badge, and “McCain- Feingold Speech Police” on his arm is handcuffed to an ESB, the tail of which is tucked very loosely into the handcuff. This cartoon and Ritter’s visual joke about the impossibility and absurdity of chaining speech makes the ESB a subject warranting pathos from the reader/observer and the policeman the undermined, satirized, antipathetic character. This cartoon’s use of the ESB raises many questions regarding the “possession” of speech, the comic interpretation of that possession (or lack thereof), and how ESBs can be used to signify both no speech and all speech in the abstract. This ESB is not unique in its representation of all speech, however. After all, anyone who has seen a “chat” function on a website is familiar with ESBs being used as the icon for abstracted speech, the infinite source of infinite language. This particular ESB is unique in that it further breaks comic convention by simply being in physical interaction with the rest of the image rather than being relegated to the space of speech, independent from the characters’ experiences.

Figure 8

Placing the speech police comic in conversation with this 1984 editorial cartoon by Jim Kammerud titled “Voiceless” (FIG 9) reveals something important about the ESB. In this cartoon, the adversarial figures from the Ritter cartoon (i.e., the police) are put into a pathetic subject position relative to the reader/observer. In the cartoon, several police officers attempt to speak to a reporter, but a man in a suit labeled “ED”—here signifying Edward Jennings, the president of The Ohio State University at the time—walks by whistling and holding the police officers’ mouths, which are emitting ESBs. Further inspection of the image shows that the police officers have no mouths. This visual language relegating speech to mouths is an interesting move to be depicted in a visual medium. Once again, the ESBs are being used as abstractions, this time in the much more physical way of standing in for the officers’ voices, and with their voices their agency. These cartoons illustrate the silencing of and silencing by the police, with the artists using ESBs to create the context for the reader/observer’s antipathy and distance or empathy and closeness to the subject. The Kammerud panel is just one example of an artist/writer using ESBs to elicit empathy in the reader. There are two other very important graphic narratives in which the ESBs and the empathy they elicit in the reader/observer are central to their stories.

Figure 9

While the applications of ESBs are vast, perhaps the ESB’s most compelling and important use is as a way through which the artist/writer creates empathy for their characters and often themselves. In the following two graphic narratives, this is even more important because the stories are autobiographical, such that the artist/writer is also to a notable extent the character. This means that the reader/observer is being brought closer to not only the character, but to the character’s creator as well. The value of empathy is immeasurable, especially because in these narratives the ESBs are bringing the reader/observer into an empathetic space that was previously closed to them due to the nature of the silence. Because these characters/writers cannot hear or be heard, they must be seen in order to be understood. Artist/writer Una’s autobiographical graphic narrative Becoming Unbecoming is a great example of the empathetic applications of the ESB.

In Una’s Becoming Unbecoming, ESBs are used to “voice” the silences brought about by oppression and misogyny. The way in which Una tells her story parallels the meaning of her name itself, given on her website as “one, one life, one of many” (Una). This multiplicity is apparent from the very start, as Una dedicates her autobiographical story “to all the others” (Una). Una’s first graphic novel is centered around misogyny, violence toward women, and the silences that these acts create. Becoming Unbecoming recounts the author’s childhood and adolescence in 1970s Yorkshire, a county in which women are being murdered by a local serial killer dubbed the “Yorkshire Ripper” after the notorious “Jack the Ripper.”

The title Becoming Unbecoming evokes a sense of linear progression as well as a sense of a balanced inhalation and exhalation. These themes can be seen throughout the novel in the way Una as a female victim of sexual violence became unbecoming in the eyes of her society, in the way she is constructed and deconstructed by the forces of violent misogyny that surround her, and finally in how Una makes and unmakes her own identity within this oppressive system. Una often uses speech balloons in the conventionally understood way: as an expression of agency and of the ability to speak and be heard by both others in the narrative as well as the reader. But the ESB problematizes these presumptions. As Hilary Chute has said about this work: “Una uses comics’ own grammar to illustrate her form of speechlessness” (163). Although she is illustrating speechlessness, Una has a narrative voice that is given to the reader through narration and thought bubbles.

Una’s narration shows how women are silenced by the forces of misogynistic oppression in an expression that is otherwise made impossible by those very forces. Una is silenced by men who shout over her and call her names like “slut,” invalidating her and her voice (90). Victims of the Yorkshire Ripper are silenced and stripped of agency by their violent death while the surviving victims of the Yorkshire Ripper are silenced by the misogyny underlying Yorkshire society. This misogyny is central to the silencing in the narrative, as the police force do not believe female victim testimony due to the baseless assumption that the Yorkshire Ripper only attacked prostitutes. This assumption was accompanied by a subconscious unwillingness to fully pursue the serial killer due to the assumption that the victims were immoral and the real threat to Yorkshire decency (54).

Una’s silences under these forces of oppression are depicted as a major theme throughout the graphic novel and are exemplified by her use of ESBs. When Una is the victim of sexual violence in childhood and adolescence, her silence is due to being too young to understand what happened to her and not having the language to express what had happened (37). As she gets older and is the victim of both sexual violence and misogyny, Una’s silence grows heavier and the burden of it grows larger and darker (FIG 10)—simultaneously more filled and more silent—as her silence now becomes about blaming herself (46). The coloration of ESBs might call into question their visual emptiness, but the way Una applies them in this instance is not a detraction from but rather an emphasis of the ESB’s power. By showing the incredible burden of silence, Una depicts the necessity of using ESBs for sharing this silence in a world where it is otherwise impossible for her to do.

Figure 10

The burden of silence is depicted in a recurring Sisyphean motif in which Una drags the ESB up a hill (44), with the ESB reaching a huge portion of the page as Una is assaulted again in high school (95). Una plays with the convention of speech balloons even more by showing her ESB being physically encroached upon in the space of the panel by an outside voice shouting at her to “SHUT UP!” (Una 116).

Throughout Becoming Unbecoming, the ESBs belong to Una even though she is not speaking them because they are her silences altered over time. This can be contrasted with some editorial cartooning examples in which the antipathetic subject has stolen the ESBs and the ESBs are therefore not “theirs” despite being in possession of them. Una’s ESB is also given a physical presence in perhaps the most iconic image from the graphic novel: her gripping onto the tail of her ESB as it carries her away (FIG 11). This technique is reminiscent of the old masters’ tradition of depicting proto-speech balloons as scrolls, as opposed to the typical usage of speech balloons as existing separately from the reality of the image. The ESB carries Una above the trees and out of her environment, just as her depiction of silence carries her to a place where she can see clearly and speak about the unspoken. Unfortunately, Una’s various silences—like her description of herself—are those experienced by just one of many.

Figure 11

Una uses the ESB throughout Becoming Unbecoming to show the deafening silence of women from around the world who have been victims of sexual violence. The powerful image Una gives us of a world surrounded by ESBs on page 121 anticipates the viral iteration of the “Me Too” movement of 2017,4 in which victims of sexual violence from around the world began to break their collective silence. This use of the ESB to depict a silent scream is also found in the first volume of Polish cartoonist Marzena Sowa’s autobiographical graphic narrative Marzi: A Memoir. Set in Poland in the 1980s and translated into English, the first portion of the story—titled “Little Carp”—gives a sort of voice to the carp who were being killed en masse for a holiday meal. Sowa describes her childhood apartment building as becoming “a giant slaughterhouse echoing with silent screams” (8). The concept of the oppressed masses as well as the depiction of ESBs showing silent screams in Becoming Unbecoming and Marzi can be seen clearly in these panels (FIGS 12-13).

Figure 12
Figure 13

In Becoming Unbecoming, the ESB is an intentional choice that ironically amplifies Una’s silenced voice. In the afterword to the novel, Una claims that her abstract drawings “can be understood as functioning on a more unconscious, symbolic level…” and communicating “something that words perhaps cannot” (203). Children’s literature researchers Catherine Appleton and Kerry Mallan support this perspective, claiming that Una’s use of silence enhances the credibility of the story (54). It should be noted that speech balloons belonging to an interlocutor of Una’s voice or a facilitator of her silence are never empty. The ESB is a reserved space for Una’s mind, which is anything but silent. Unlike some of the editorial cartooning examples in which the non-speaker of an ESB does not own but rather steals it, Una owns her ESBs. Though she is not “speaking” them, she owns them just as she owns her silence. The generation of empathy and closeness to the artist/writer and character that the ESBs cause in the reader/observer enables one without a voice to have one in a very powerful way. ESBs are not just used to depict the inability to speak, however. They can also be used to simulate the experience of not being able to hear.

Cece Bell’s El Deafo uses ESBs to require that the reader experience, in some small way, the deafness that she had to navigate at a young age. Cecelia “Cece” Bell lost most of her hearing when she was four years old after falling ill with meningitis. Bell has spoken about her application of ESBs and speech balloons filled with nonsense words, stating: “It’s the perfect visual way to show how a hard-of-hearing or deaf person might or might not be hearing” (Senn). Bell titled her graphic autobiography after a nickname she reconstituted for herself as a source of power. El Deafo tracks the story of Bell’s life and traces how she discovered and learned to live with and celebrate her deafness.

Cece Bell shows the kinds of silences caused by deafness’ obstruction of internal and external sounds. In a panel that takes place when her hearing was being tested, Bell shows the silence she experienced of the doctor speaking, as well as the silence of the bell being used as part of the test (FIG 14). The hugeness of the ESB here signifies the magnitude of the intended sound to the reader relative to the intended sound of the doctor’s voice, even though Bell’s experience of both sounds is total silence (15). In another frame (FIG 15), Bell uses an ESB to convey that she cannot hear what she herself is saying, but outside of the ESB is an arrow with words explaining what she is saying for the reader’s benefit (109). This panel is a prime example of the double move the artist/writer can affect through ESBs. Unlike satirical panels that typically only use ESBs to distance the reader/observer from the character, in both Becoming Unbecoming and El Deafo the reader/observer is brought closer to the artist/writer and character. However, in these graphic narratives something more complex is occurring, as the ESBs also place the reader/observer in a space of otherness from the narrative. As the reader/observer sees and better understands each character’s situation, they are reminded that this experience is not in fact their own. This dissonance of simultaneous nearness to and distance from the character is a double move in which the ESB accomplishes multiple things at once, both of which impact the reader. Cece Bell’s ESBs promote empathy and comic accessibility to a majority hearing audience.

Figure 14
Figure 15

In “Seeing Sounds / Hearing Pictures – A Round Table on Sound & Comics (part one)” conducted by The Middle Spaces,5 comic studies scholar A. David Lewis commented on deafness in graphic narratives such as El Deafo, claiming that “not only is there a growth in empathy by readers of these works but also an enhanced ability to inhabit experiences well outside their own social spheres” (Lewis). Another example of a comic causing the reader to inhabit the experience of deafness discussed in this round table can be found in the 2012 Hawkeye #19 by Matt Fraction and David Aja. In this special ASL-inclusive issue, protagonist Clint Barton is recovering from a fight from the previous issue and experiences total hearing loss. ESBs are used many times throughout this issue. In these panels (FIGS 16-17), ESBs are used in Barton’s present to contrast the speech balloons with unintelligible marks in them during a flashback to his temporary deafness as a child. This juxtaposition signifies the total and potentially more permanent loss of hearing Barton is experiencing, as the exclusionary discussion between his brother Barney and the nurse mirrors an earlier conversation between Clint’s parents and doctor when he was a child. Because everyone but Clint can hear, the ESBs place the reader/observer in Clint’s position, experiencing otherness as his otherness more than their own. This juxtaposition—which opens the issue—is an important point of identification for the nuance of the ESB as opposed to unintelligible squiggle balloons, implying some sound just as Bell’s gradient text and nonsense words imply some understanding. Another way the creators of this comic facilitate representation while also placing most reader/observers at a distance from the narrative is by using ASL.

Figure 16
Figure 17

ASL is depicted in this issue when Clint is being communicated to through the language. But Clint and the non-ASL fluent reader are equally unmet by these messages being sent out. Both Cece Bell and Clint Barton are averse to learning and using ASL in these narratives, but while Bell “translates” for the reader during this communication struggle (see FIG 15) the reader is more closely tethered to Clint’s level of understanding, leaving them with less to go on while Barton fights against learning ASL. These are not the only examples of ASL comics, however. This Hawkeye issue utilizes ASL in a more instructional way than an ASL comic from 1992 by Tim Oliphant (Ollie) called “Suzann Says” (FIG 18), a comic that uses icons and translates the ASL for those not fluent in ASL similarly to how Bell translated one panel for those who see her story. It is important then to make note of the lack of translation in Hawkeye #19

Figure 18

Both El Deafo and Hawkeye #19 encourage the reader to step outside their typical experience with comics and imagine instead a world outside of their own experience. This exercise in empathy enabled by ESBs helps fight stereotypes surrounding the deaf community, promote inclusivity in the comic community, and place the reader/observer in a space of closeness to and distance from the characters, allowing for complicated reactions to each text. One of these complex reactions is based on the ESB’s ability to affect the experience of loss.

Georgia Webber’s 2018 debut graphic memoir Dumb: Living Without A Voice interrogates loss in a different way than the previous narratives. Webber recounts a time during which she lost her voice. She chronicles both the emotional and physical pain experienced by this loss. On this page (FIG 19), Webber uses ESBs to express the loss of hypothetical social interactions because of her lack of voice. The ESBs on this page are therefore used not just for Webber’s character, but for everyone else as well. Georgia’s ESBs in this way are doubly silent, in that it is an unrealized speech act—one that could not be realized because of physical limitations preventing her from speaking.

Figure 19

While Webber uses ESBs to depict the loss of hypothetical life, other artists have used ESBs to depict the loss of life in a more literal way. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth features several instances of ESBs (see Ware), a notable one recalling the moment of Jimmy’s grandmother’s death (FIG 20). The panels are at a physical distance from the subject, and the text cues a similar removal, reading, “the sound…of one lung…filling with water” (Ware). As the lung fills with water and the life is drowned out of the grandmother’s body, the ESB deflates. This panel can be directly compared to another panel that uses a rectangular ESB, with text that reads, “the sound of grandma breathing” (FIG 21). Ware’s use of the ESB in these panels creates a distance from the subject, though not one grounded in antipathy. Other cartoonists use ESBs to depict the loss of life in a more empathy-inducing way, such as in this 1985 cartoon by Charles G. Brooks (FIG 22) that serves as a visual obituary for Clarence “Ducky” Nash, the voice of Donald Duck. In the panel, Donald Duck stands over Nash’s grave emitting an ESB, signifying that Donald has lost his voice in both a literal and figurative sense. Brooks’ cartoon brings the reader/observer closer to both the “speaker” of the ESB and to the deceased Nash. The physical voicelessness expressed by this cartoon and by Dumb are presented sadly, but the same loss of voice can be expressed by ESBs with a completely different effect.

Figure 20
Figure 21
Figure 22

This 1959 Pogo comic by Walt Kelly (FIG 23)—one of the oldest ESBs found in the course of this research—uses voicelessness as the visual punchline to a joke. As the ESB is emptied by another character, it is in physical interaction with the rest of the panels and the world within the comic. The fact that a character can physically manipulate the speech balloon brings up questions about whether the characters are aware of the ESBs and, if so, how this impacts the ESB’s relationality to the character/s and to the reader/observer. A comic that also forces these questions upon us is this Crock comic from 1986 by Bill Rechin and Don Wilder (FIG 24). In this comic, Maggot responds to a greeting with an ESB. When asked why he did so by a third character he answers that the other character “can’t read” (Rechin), at which point the third character glances outward at the reader/observer in a deadpan expression. This comic implies that the characters are aware of the speech balloons, and that the characters are in fact silent and must read their speech balloons in order to communicate and be communicated to—just like the reader. ESBs make these conflations between the reader/observer and the character possible. ESBs also allow for the conflation of reader and writer.

Figure 23
Figure 24

As many comic creators have shown us, ESBs can be used to create and play with the dynamics between artist/writers, characters, reader/observers, and the ESBs themselves. Comic creators can interpolate the reader/observer into the comic by using ESBs, blurring the lines between comic reader and comic creator. Moreover, ESBs can be used to elicit reader/observer antipathy and empathy. But it is important to note that they can also be used to elicit sympathy. Because empathy and sympathy are colloquially linked, we shall turn to the Merriam-Webster distinction between the two terms, which informs us that “sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have” (Merriam-Webster). While Cece Bell, Una, Georgia Webber, and others use ESBs to elicit a feeling of empathetic imagining in the reader/observer about situations and feelings that are not their own, other comic creators have used ESBs to invite the reader/observer to engage in a sympathetic sharing of feelings with the character by imagining and possibly writing their own narrative in the ESBs. While the result of this interpolation might render the ESBs filled, the act of the creator reaching out and the initial response of the reader/observer to the opportunity to create their own narrative is the sympathetic element on which I will be focusing. In these sympathetic comics, the reader/observer is asked to inhabit the space of the artist/writer, bringing them closer to the other players in the comic creation and reception dynamic.

Perhaps the most mainstream example of ESBs being used to elicit sympathy comes from The Amazing Spider-Man Issue #45 (1967) by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. A panel featuring ESBs belonging to Spider-Man and other characters (FIG 25) reads, “Another mighty marvel first! Knowing how titanically [sic] talented our riotous readers are, we’re leaving this panel for you to write your own dialogue!” (Lee). In this case, the ESB allows the reader/observer already performing the double vision of interpreting graphic narrative to inhabit the double role of author and other. Another example of “Do It Yourself” sympathetic comics can be found in a 1970 Begats strip by Joe Dennett (FIG 26). The strip proceeds as normal until the last panel, in which there are ESBs for each character and text that reads, “YOU readers! Fill in what our friends are saying!” (Dennett). In both cases, the reader/observer is addressed directly and called to interact with the comic. 

Figure 25
Figure 26

ESBs are so useful for affecting sympathetic reactions in the reader/observer that even non-cartoonists use them. Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander’s 2004 palimpsestic series of acrylic painted comic book pages for instance uses ESBs to speak out against Disney’s comic book series Zé Carioca (FIG 27). Neuenschwander’s decision to paint over the pages’ cliched caricatures of everyday Brazilians and thereby empty their speech balloons enables an abstraction that “offers viewers a clean slate to imagine their own stories and dialogues” (MoMA). All that remains of the prescribed comic book pages are ESBs on plainly colored background panels, enabling and inviting the viewers’ projections as they write their own stories. Columbus, Ohio artist Felicia Dunson—also known as FDZ Graffiti—similarly uses ESBs throughout her work. When interviewed about her use of ESBs, she told me: “if you’re paying attention, you can’t help but fill that empty space in” (Dunson). 

Figure 27

Reviewer Branden W. Joseph tells us that in John Wilcock’s The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol (2010) “the place[s] where an interview with the artist might have appeared, Wilcock cleverly inserted an image of Warhol (appropriated from the cover of Coplans’s book) and added an empty speech balloon issuing forth from his mouth” (Joseph 105-6). Joseph contends that this page (FIG 28) is not in fact a sympathetic device but is rather a way of “reinforcing the impression that Warhol had nothing to say on his own behalf, that there was, behind the surface, nothing there” (105). This example forces the question of whether authorial intent or reader/observer reception is what makes an ESB antipathetic, empathetic, sympathetic, or something still uncharted. There are many more examples of sympathetic comics that are for the express purpose of eliciting sympathetic responses. The “cartoon test”—in which the test subject is given an ESB in some form and asked to fill it in—has been and is still being used by people across a wide variety of fields and motivations, including educators (Gainer et al., Pearce), communication designers (Lee, Ji), doctors (Ferguson et al. 363), and more. While the ESB looks like a simple anomaly of comic convention, it has been used in a variety of ways to convey different kinds of silences and the many shades of meaning therein. In this way, ESBs uncover the self-reflexivity central to the comic medium and cause us to question notions of speech itself. ESBs are used to convey both an inability to put sound into the world and an inability to take sound from it, silences caused by mental and physical factors, active and passive silences, silences that elicit empathy, antipathy, or sympathy, and likely much more. These silences, though visually similar, are thoroughly unique. Uses of ESBs express an abundance of meanings in keeping with an aesthetic tradition of negation. As they break the traditional comic syntax, they show themselves to really be a central convention of the medium that can represent all of comic language. Fortunately, as W.J.T. Mitchell and Art Spiegelman have said, comics have an “unrivalled capacity to reflect on their own status as an infinitely flexible medium” (20). We must make use of this capacity to reflect on the ESB. 

Figure 28

If it is indeed true that, as scholar Tom Gunning has claimed, “the power of comics lies in their ability to derive movement from stillness” (40), then continuing to unlock the secrets of the ESB would help amplify that power. There are many comic artists who have used ESBs to signify additional kinds of silences than those explored here; researching them would give us a more complete understanding of this elusive graphic narrative device and of the comic medium in general. This soundless yet resonant space warrants further study, and we must brave the emptiness and uncertainty to break the silence that surrounds it.


[1] Named as such to make central the constant “double vision” the consumer of the comic medium must perform while interacting with the image and the text.

[2] The ESBs in this work were primarily discovered and analyzed through the available online collection of original artworks in the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, operated by The Ohio State University. Because the ESB is not yet a searchable tag in databases, it was necessary to consult each image individually. It is my hope that this work will help make ESBs a searchable tag in the future.

[3] For example, in reading this work in conjunction with the comic panels inside it, you yourself are an R/O.

[4] “For information on the “Me Too” movement, please visit

[5] Readers can find this round table panel by using the following link:


Works Cited

Anderson, Nick. The 90’s [Everything’s about nothing]. 1998. Used with permission from the Nick Anderson Collection, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The Ohio State University.

Appleton, Catherine, and Kerry Mallan. “Filling the Silence: Giving Voice to Gender Violence in Una’s Graphic Novel Becoming Unbecoming.” International Research in Children’s Literature, vol. 11, no. 1, 2018, pp. 47-64.

Bell, Cece. El Deafo. Amulet Books, 2017.

Breen, Steve. Actually, His Message Could Use a Little Cohesion. 7 May 2004. Used with permission from the Jimmy Margulies Collection, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The Ohio State University.

Brooks, Charles G. Clarence ‘Ducky’ Nash. 22 Feb, 1985. Used with permission from Charles Brooks Collection, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The Ohio State University.

Carrier, David. The Aesthetics of Comics. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Carson, Anne. Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos With Paul Celan (Martin Classical Lectures. New Series). Princeton University Press, 1999.

Chute, Hillary L., and Patrick Jagoda. “Special Issue: Comics & Media.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 3, 2014, pp. 1-10.

Daley, Jason. “Ancient Comics Line This Roman-Era Tomb in Jordan”. Smithsonian Magazine. Sept. 27th, 2018.

Dennett, Joe. Begats. 1970. Used with permission from the International Museum of Cartoon Art Collection and Records, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

Ferguson, Shirley M., and Et al. “Perception of Humor in Patients With Temporal Lobe Epilepsy: A Cartoon Test as an Indicator of Neuropsychological Deficit.” Archives of General Psychiatry, vol. 21, no. 3, 1 Sept. 1969, p. 363.

Gainer, Jesse, et al. “The Elementary Bubble Project: Exploring Critical Media Literacy in a Fourth-Grade Classroom”. Vol. 62, 8, The Reading Teacher, 2009.

Gunning, Tom. “The Art of Succession.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 3, 2014, pp. 36-51.

Hull, Kerry Michael. “Verbal Art and Performance in Ch’orti’ and Maya Hieroglyphic Writing”. The University of Texas at Austin. 2003. Page 341. 

Joseph, Branden W. “One-Dimensional Man.” Art Journal, vol. 57, no. 4, 1998, pp. 105–109.

Kammerud, Jim. Voiceless. 27 April, 1984. Used with permission from the Jim Kammerud Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

Kelly, Walt. Pogo. 24 July, 1959. Used with permission from The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

Lee, Ji. Talk Back: The Bubble Project. Mark Batty Publisher, 2006. 

Lee, Stan and Romita, John. “The Amazing Spider-Man Issue #45”. Marvel. 1967.

Lewis, A. David. “Seeing Sounds / Hearing Pictures – A Round Table on Sound & Comics (Part One)”. The Middle Spaces, June 4th, 2019.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics (The Invisible Art). HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

Merriam-Webster. “What’s the difference between ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’?”,do%20not%20necessarily%20share%20them.

Mitchell, W.J.T., and Art Spiegelman. “Public Conversation: What the %$#! Happened to Comics? WJT Mitchell and Art Spiegelman.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 3, 2014, pp. 20-35.

MoMA. 2007.

Oliphant, Tim. Suzann Says. 29 Jan. 1992. Used with permission from the Mark J. Cohen and Rose Marie McDaniel Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

O’Malley, Bryan Lee. Scott Pilgrim Vol. 3: Scott Pilgrim & The Infinite Sadness. Oni Press, 2012.

Pearce, Glenn. “’Ehrr … What’s Up Doc?’: Using Cartoon Tests to Evaluate Educational Drama Programmes.” Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, vol. 8, no. 2, 2003, pp. 157–169.

Rechin, Bill. Crock. 14 April, 1986. Used with permission from the Tim Rosenthal Collection, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Ritter, Mike. The Limitations of Air Power…”Would I lie to you, baby?”. 24 Mar, 1999. Used with permission from the Michael Ritter Papers and Collection of Original Art, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

Ritter, Mike. Feingold-McCain Speech Police. 2003. Used with permission from the Michael Ritter Papers and Collection of Original Art, The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.

Roth, Arnold. [man eats bird]. Used with permission from the Arnold Roth Deposit Collection, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, The Ohio State University.

Sava, Oliver. “Hawkeye #19 Uses Deafness to Help a Broken Clint Barton Find His Voice”, 2014. 1798270866.

Senn, Jan. “12 Fast Facts About Cece Bell.” Kent State Magazine. Friday, Oct. 4, 2019.

Sowa, Marzena. Little Carp (Marzi #1). Dupuis, 2010. 

Una. Becoming Unbecoming. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016.

Winn, Steven. “’Silence’ at Berkeley Art Museum.” SFGate, San Francisco Chronicle, 23 Jan. 2013.

Related Articles