Beyond the Balloon: Sound Effects and Background Text in Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse

Suzanne J. Covey
University of Florida

Most structural study of comics tends to split content into an image/text dichotomy. Text is ordinarily confined to a text balloon, which supposes a speaker, or a caption box, wherein a narrator is either made explicit or implied. Even when the balloons or boxes per se are absent, they are nonetheless understood to be present and function as dialog and narration respectively.

This taxonomy overlooks text that falls into neither category, e.g., sound effects and background text. Lynn Johnston's long running newspaper strip, For Better or For Worse, is particularly rich in both. Johnston uses them mainly for comic effect, but they also carry cultural information and social commentary, often of a satirical nature.

This presentation will illustrate the ways Johnston stretches the boundaries of traditional sound effects beyond the "Pow!" cliché, rendering the dense soundscape of contemporary suburban life: lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, computers, music, dogs charging through a house, children fighting and eating, In many cases, an entire strip is carried by little if any text other than sound effects.

In addition, the "hidden text" in panel backgrounds will be examined. Johnston revels in details that reflect the sea of text in which we all swim: books, magazines, records, advertising, signage, and items on supermarket shelves. While the continuing shrinkage of space allowed individual strips in newspapers makes it difficult to make out many of Johnston's background texts, their wit and irony can be appreciated in the reprint collections.

Finally, the importance of including this kind of text in our taxonomy of comics will be illustrated by the implications this has for online document markup, specifically XML.

The University of Florida's Third Annual Conference on Comics; October 29-30, 2004; Gainesville, Florida.


Parrish Baker, Howard Cruse, Brian Clevinger, Marc Shahboz, Jose Villarrubia.


CLASSC, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of English, Alachua County Library District, Xerographic Copy Center, University of Florida Libraries, Goerings Book Store, Alternative Comics.