Ode To The Thought Bubble
When those puffy clouds of confusion, emotional turmoil, and crippling self-doubt went away from comics, so did a large part of what made superheroes super.
A non-comic book fan walking out of Avengers: Endgame or Wonder Woman may understand why superheroes are cool — movies, after all, are all about spectacle and nothing delivers that better than comics — but they may not grasp why there is such a deep level of devotion to these people among the hardcore. It’s dismissed as “fanboying” or “fangirling.”
If they had the temerity to actually visit a comic shop after seeing a movie, they likely won’t find any more answers. Not among the current crop of comics anyway. That’s because recent comics (in an effort to be more like movies themselves) have, by and large, mostly done away with that vital piece of connective tissue that makes liking a character become loving them.
The thought bubble.
It was a device that comic writers wielded mightily in the early days. As most were frustrated novelists (Stanley Lieber famously saved his “real” name for the eventual Great American Novel he was going to write, and published his silly comic books under the pen name “Stan Lee”), this allowed them to showcase something unique to comics. They could combine the visual spectacle of a movie or television show with the narrative introspection of a novel. This was something comics did that other media couldn’t. If you came in now, however, sure you’d see a lot of brightly-colored people punching each other into walls, but you’d be missing something integral. True fans know the real battles were always fought between the ears.
This is where “cool” characters become beloved friends to readers. If you removed the thought bubble from above, you’d get a lot of necessary exposition, but you’d never get a glimpse at Dazzler considering her career trajectory or Nightcrawler’s “do you like me? Circle yes or no” grade school insecurity. They go from cool looking characters to people. Relatable, identifiable people. In fact, Nightcrawler’s Catholic guilt and struggle with his own humanity is such a core element of the character — and why he resonates so much with so many people — it’s no wonder he’s rarely progressed beyond “cool teleporting weirdo” in the movie adaptations. He almost more than any other is a cerebral, internal, emotional figure.
(It’s also why he gets connects so deeply with Wolverine)
The thought bubble is where the meat of the characters has always been. It’s why fans react so strongly when the movies even come close to the internal, emotional core of these people. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, when Vision scoops Scarlet Witch into his arms, it plays one way for some of the audience (an artificial man embracing his heroic humanity) and quite another for fans who have spent years deeply, intimately embroiled in the emotional quagmire of these two characters — one of the strangest and most compelling love stories in all of comics.
We know where this goes. We know how they feel about each other, the confusion and the love and the terror that makes up their decades-long relationship. Because we’ve been in their heads, literally.
They are two freaks attracted to each other and unsure what to do about it. It’s what grounds them, and keeps them from being just “robot loves mutant.” We see ourselves in them, our own confused fumblings around tentative relationships and emotional connections that no one else understand.
Only in the thought bubble can you see that heroes don’t just arrive on the scene fully formed. They learn, they grow, they get used to the idea that this is their life now. The metaphors are obvious and many. We love these people not for the cool shit they do, but for the very uncool shit they think and worry about. Just like us.
On the surface, something like the above is the dramatic final frame of a victorious Avengers battle. The crowd showering them with adoration, the weary but undaunted heroes waving back, happy with a job well done. But the thought bubble opens the door to doubt, the idea of “well, this is OK for now, but what happens tomorrow?” You don’t put down this comic, wipe your hands, and think, “The Avengers have saved the day for good once again!” You leave thinking, “Yeah, what about next time? What if they fail?” Again, it’s why Avengers: Infinity War worked so well for both movie and comic audiences. It was one of the first times the ending wasn’t pre-determined. The good guys did not win. For movie audiences, this was a shock. For comic book fans, this was a nod to the comics that never wrapped up smoothly, that always dealt with death and loss, and that typically had heroes standing around in a haze unsure of what to do next.
The internal lives of these characters and our ability to see our own insecurities and confusion, our own loves and loses, and even how we’d react if we suddenly had to stare down a rampaging Juggernaut is why there is more than just fanboy/-girling here. There is a connection and a love that grew over time. In a way, we either feel like we raised some of these characters ourselves (so closely were we in tuned with their emotional development) or we were raised alongside them. That is why comic fandom will always be a level deeper.
When Star Wars first came out, everyone in that audience was a Tabula Rasa. We all mostly started from the same footing. There wasn’t the same kind of pre-hype or incessant casting news or endless trailer and TV spot loops leading up to it. We came, we saw, and some of us walked away forever enthralled with these characters and worlds. But when people took their seats for The Avengers or The Dark Knight or Captain Marvel, some in that crowd knew these names and people intimately, and for years had them all to themselves. There was a connection forged over time and one that was possibly inexplicable to the casual observer. But it explains the enthusiasm. We knew them like family members. Their good, their bad, and their deepest secrets.
So when modern comics streamlined and became more visual in their storytelling (again, to mimic movies and hopefully provide a more seamless transition for people curious by the influx of comic book movies), they relied on the existing audience already knowing these deep thoughts well, so they could survive with hints and cryptic dialogue. But the medium itself lost something. It got too slick. Too clean. Too, well, good.
We love the sloppiness, the clumsiness, and the embarrassing secret diary messes that are these characters’ heads. It’s why we go back. It’s not for the punching and the laser battles and the “BOOMS,” it’s for the feels.
Oh, and we also miss the omniscient narrator boxes. Especially when they just flat out fuck with the characters.