Where did the speech balloon come from?

Lew Stringer debunks the idea that Beano and The Dandy invented the speech balloon
with a look at some older comics, like this 1917 cover of Picture Fun No. 428, which uses word balloons AND the then-current wads and wads of text, as originated in The Yellow Kid.

Stringer is talking about the BRITISH history of comics, but comics history buffs worldwide will enjoy this.


  1. I always thought they were descended from the Middle Ages artwork such as annunciation “angel banners.” Like this: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v225/heygregory/ut_nat.jpg

    Even this 1777 editorial cartoon uses speech balloons. http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v225/heygregory/geowash.jpg

  2. patrick ford says:

    Le Bois Protat woodcut from 1370 has word balloons. It also happens to be the earliest known European woodcut.

  3. I’ve heard that the words near Achilles’ and Ajax’s mouths on this vase depict their speech. I can’t read Ancient Greek, but I think they’re supposed to be calling out what they’ve rolled in a game of dice.


  4. The notion that anyone “invented” speech balloons in the 1930s is a little bizarre. Even if British comics were somehow devoid of them until then, they were already a standard feature of US comics before 1910, so it was just a matter of time before the Brits picked up the idea.

  5. The Beat says:

    Ben McCool, proud Brummie, is always telling me about thinks the ENglish invented that I had no idea about. I think every country has their own mythology of who invented what.

    That Greek vase is amazing! I’ve seen it many times before but had no idea that it was a proto-comic

  6. Zoomy says:

    For the record, I’m British, and I had no idea there was a belief that the Dandy had invented speech bubbles. I’m not sure if that makes me more ignorant or less…

  7. Julian says:

    Speech balloons have been around on woodcuts since before comics. Just because Outcault didn’t use them (and even then he was participating in the tradition in his own way) doesn’t mean they hadn’t been invented yet.

  8. Karen says:

    Cruikshank was using them in the late-18th/early-19th century:

    But I agree with Gregory, up top, that they descend from the banderoles in medieval illuminations, especially annunciation scenes:

  9. Steve Leialoha says:

    There are Egyptian hieroglyphics that have cartouches with pointy things to indicate the speaker. I’ve seem Mayan bas relief carvings with word groups encircled with lines emanating towards a speaker. This has been around a very long time. However, the question of when and where it became the norm in modern comics is still worth pinning down.

  10. Even leaving out the idea of pre-newspaper antecedents, there were LOTS of comics using only word balloons for text long before these examples. I’m not sure what the controversy is here, or where this whole idea that they were invented later comes from. :/

    But, just because it’s awesome, here’s a 1905 Winsor McCay strip that’s all word balloons: http://www.comicstriplibrary.org/display/949

  11. JC LEBOURDAIS says:

    The Bayeux Tapestry from the middle ages had text captions (cartouches) emanating directly from the characters’ mouths.
    In Comics, ZIG ET PUCE from Alain St Ogan did it first.

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