Speech balloons (also speech bubbles, dialogue balloons, or word balloons) are a graphic convention used most commonly in comic books, comics, and cartoons to allow words (and much less often, pictures) to be understood as representing a character's speech or thoughts. A formal distinction is often made between the balloon that indicates speech and the one that indicates thoughts; the balloon that conveys thoughts is often referred to as a thought bubble or conversation cloud.
The most common is the speech bubble. It is used in two forms for two circumstances: an in-panel character and an off-panel character. An in-panel character (one who is fully or mostly visible in the panel of the strip of comic that the reader is viewing) uses a bubble with a pointer, termed a tail, directed towards the speaker.
When one character has multiple balloons within a panel, often only the balloon nearest to the speaker's head has a tail, and the others are connected to it in sequence by narrow bands. This style is often used in Mad Magazine, due to its "call-and-response" dialogue-based humor.
An off-panel character (the comic book equivalent of being "off screen") has several options, some of them rather unconventional. The first is a standard speech bubble with a tail pointing toward the speaker's position (sometimes seen with a symbol at the end to represent specific characters). The second option, which originated in manga, has the tail pointing into the bubble, instead of out. (This tail is still pointing towards the speaker.) The third option replaces the tail with a sort of bottleneck that connects with the side of the panel. It can be seen in the works of Marjane Satrapi (author of Persepolis).
In American comics, a bubble without a tail means that the speaker is not merely outside the reader's field of view, but also invisible to the viewpoint character, often as an unspecified member of a crowd.
Characters distant (in space or time) from the scene of the panel can still speak, in squared bubbles without a tail; this usage, equivalent to voice-over for movies, is not uncommon in American comics for dramatic contrast. In contrast to captions, the corners of such balloons never coincide with those of the panel; for further distinction, they often have a double outline, a different background color, or quotation marks.
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