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

By Suzanne Covey

Most structural study of comics tends to split content into a visual image/verbal 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 function as dialog and narration respectively.

Figure 1. Simplified Comic Book Markup Language (CBML) Structure  

An example of this dichotomy is seen in the Comic Book Markup Language (CBML) being developed by John Walsh at Indiana University.[1] CBML is an XML application usually used in conjunction with a digitized image of a comic page, for the purpose of turning the elements of the work into searchable data. Figure 1 depicts a simplified overview of the CBML structure, and a sample of CBML markup for a single comic panel [Figure 2][2] is shown in Figure 3 and Figure 4. Like most taxonomies of comics, CBML assumes that text will appear either in caption boxes or text balloons.

Figure 2. Sample Single Comic Panel from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman DC Comics / Vertigo
Figure 3. Sample CBML for Single Comic Panel from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman  
Figure 4. Close up of Sample CBML in Figure 3  

Scott McCloud has a more complicated taxonomy for text. He is interested more in the relationship between image and text, how they interact, and which predominates, than in defining their characteristics. His scheme breaks text into seven categories of image/text combinations: Word Specific, Picture Specific, Duo-Specific, Additive, Parallel, Montage, and Interdependent. All non-traditional text is lumped into a single category, Montage.[3]

Such schemes overlook or oversimplify text that falls into neither category, such as sound effects and text that appear as a part of the background. Lynn Johnston's long-running newspaper strip, For Better or For Worse, is particularly rich in both types of textual elements. Johnston uses them mainly for comic effect, but they also can carry cultural information and social commentary, often of a satirical nature.

Figure 5. Sound Effects and Background Text Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

For example, take the typical Sunday strip for July 1, 2001.[4] [Figure 5] Its narrative text is made up entirely of elements that have no place in either the CBML scheme or McCloud's categories. Elly Patterson, the strip's protagonist, is shown shopping in a supermarket as a thunderstorm begins. She cleverly decides to make herself rain gear out of the plastic trash bags she is purchasing. By the time she has finished and gone outside in this getup, the sun is shining. It's an old comic gag, but it is Johnston's sound effects and detailed depictions of the background that make it seem fresh and original.

There are no normal balloons and no captions in this strip, yet there is a lot of text. There are signs on store fronts ("SAVE a BUCK", "Leather Loft"), products ("ULTRA TRASH", "GREAT GARDENS "), the sound of thunder (“KA-BOOM!”), some descriptive words, ("SNIP SNIP CUT CUT..") and picture balloons-- speech balloons with no words, only pictures.

This paper examines the ways Johnston stretches the boundaries of traditional comics sound effects and her use of what might be called "hidden text" in panel backgrounds, both of which are often made to carry cultural information and comment.

Sound Effects

Sound effects have long been a staple of comics, particularly those featuring superheroes and other action figures. Indeed, they have become a kind of cliché; journalists find it irresistible to include "Pow! Blam!" and the like in headlines when writing about comics.

Johnson's use of sound effects goes far beyond those found in action comics. Rather than limiting sounds to depictions of violence, she employs them to render 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, as was seen in Figure 5.

For the purposes of this study, sound effects are categorized as “Descriptive," that is, words, usually verbs, that don't attempt to reproduce the sounds they depict, and “Onomatopoeic," words that do approximate the sounds to some degree. Visually rendered sound effects lacking text are not considered here.

Descriptive Sounds

Descriptive sound effects can add a humorous clarification to a situation, serve to emphasize an action already visually depicted, or add a metaphoric layer to a scene.

The placement of sound effect text can add or amplify meaning. Text located in the upper part of a panel suggests that the sound precedes the action shown, while text along the bottom of the panel can indicate a low-frequency sound.

Text filling the background of a panel suggests that the sound is pervading the atmosphere.

"Ka-Boom" is a special case sound effect. It's a borderline descriptive word (that is, it sounds slightly onomatopoeic), and is of course a superhero staple. Johnston uses it in different ways depending on the setting.

Onomatopoeic Sounds

In addition to her imaginative use of descriptive sound effects, Johnston makes deft and original use of more traditional onomatopoeic sounds. Her treatment of dogs, kids, music, and household sounds will be examined here, with a special look at what could be called her “signature sound".


Johnston has a lot of fun with dogs, and they are in fact some of her most vivid characters: bumbling, loveable Farley, eager, excitable Edgar and classy, ladylike Dixie. The dogs do not talk, or even think in words in the Snoopy manner, but their personalities are emphasized and enhanced by sound effects.

Other animals find voice (or at least sound) within her strips:

Even seemingly quiet pets make noises:


Kids are major contributors to the suburban soundscape, and their sounds are another of Johnston's specialties.


Johnston usually depicts music as loud, often unpleasant noise.

Music gives Johnston opportunities for visual madrigalisms too:

It isn't until April starts making music, first on harmonica, then on guitar, that we start to see music regularly depicted with musical notation.


Household sounds in their infinite variety are well represented, and are among Johnston's most original sound creations:


Various kinds of machines add their distinctive voices to the household soundscape.

Signature Sound

There is one sound effect that Johnston uses so often it could be called her "signature sound": "Whappita".

Background Text

Johnston revels in background details that reflect the sea of text in which we all swim: books, magazines, records, advertising, signage, and items on supermarket shelves. She says that the hiring of assistants to help her with inking and coloring has freed her up to add greater detail to her backgrounds.[26] Ironically, this comes at a time when the continuing shrinkage of space allowed individual comic strips in newspapers makes it difficult to decipher many of Johnston's clever background texts. Their wit and irony, however, can be appreciated in the published anthologies.


While characters in For Better or For Worse are seldom seen reading books other than when the kids are studying, they all read magazines, including comic books. Often the context in which the reading takes place is satirical:

Johnston loves to show racks of products on store shelves, including magazines.

Consumer Products


Whereas toys were previously considered as noisemakers, their associated background text makes them emblems of over-abundance and violence as well.

Dog Food

Marketing treatment extends to dog food, too, although it's clearly aimed at the humans.


Snacks and junk food are well represented with background text.


Johnston reserves some of her sharpest barbs for breakfast cereals.


Clothes are, of course, status symbols for the kids, and Johnston has fun with designer names.


Grooming products are a source of amusement too.

Figure 18. Video Store Textuality Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.


Signs are everywhere in Johnston's backgrounds. Sometimes they carry the main plot or message of the panel or strip, and sometimes they merely make jokes or comments about the foreground action.

Johnson seems especially fascinated by the offerings in upscale coffee shops.

Last but by no means least, we have the modern airport.


Lynn Johnston's genius can be seen in every aspect of her work. Her long-running, open-ended plot lines, her willingness to tackle controversial and difficult thematic material, and her compassionate look at families made up of distinct individuals are all quite properly celebrated. The fact that these are combined with her crisp yet fluid drawing style, her deft ability to age her characters in real time while keeping them recognizable even after long absences, and the sheer exuberance of fine detail in her panel settings, makes For Better or For Worse a body of work unique among contemporary comic strips

As this consideration of Johnston's work has shown, sound effects and background text can convey information, humor, and social commentary in ways so subtle they seldom draw notice, let alone comment. It is important, therefore, that this textual material be better represented in XML schemas and other structural frameworks that seek to define a formal structural framework for comics.

Figure 20. CBML soundEffect and backgroundElement  

As a start in this direction, I would propose consideration of some expanded tagging within CBML. The element "soundEffect" exists now; attributes of type (values of "descriptive" or "onomatopoeic"), location, source and agent could be added. In addition, an element named "backgroundFeature" could be defined with similar attributes. See Figure 20 for examples of these new tags. Formalizing a place for them in the encoding structure would draw attention to their importance and facilitate study of them in the future.


[1] Comic Book Markup Language,
[2] Neil Gaiman, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Dream Country (New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, c1990), p. 16, panel 7.
[3] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, (New York: Perennial, 2000), p. 154.
[4] Lynn Johnston, With This Ring (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 2003), p. 74. All references are given parenthetically as WTR.
[5] Lynn Johnston, Just One More Hug (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1984), p. 122. All references are given parenthetically as JOMH.
[6] Lynn Johnston, Pushing 40 (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1988), p.87. All references are given parenthetically as P40.
[7] Lynn Johnston, It Must Be Nice to Be Little (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1983), p. 106. All references are given parenthetically as NTBL.
[8] Lynn Johnston, Growing Like a Weed (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1997), p.76. All references are given parenthetically as GLW.
[9] Lynn Johnston, The Big 5-0 (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 2000), p.95. All references are given parenthetically as B50.
[10] Lynn Johnston, A Look Inside… For Better or For Worse (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1989), p.195. All references are given parenthetically as LI.
[11] Lynn Johnston, "There Goes My Baby" (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1993), p. 8. All references are given parenthetically as TGMB. The lyrics to this "sentimental" song which moves Michael to tears, are hilarious:
[12] Lynn Johnston, Sunshine and Shadow (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1999), p. 14. All references are given parenthetically as S&S.
[13] Lynn Johnston, It's All Downhill From Here (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1987), p. 44. All references are given parenthetically as ADFH.
[14] Lynn Johnston, Graduation: A Time For Change (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2001), p.87. All references are given parenthetically as GTFC.
[15] Lynn Johnston, If This is a Lecture, How Long Will It Be? (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1990), p. 110. All references are given parenthetically as HLWIB.
[16] Lynn Johnston, The Last Straw (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1985), p.50. All references are given parenthetically as LS.
[17] Lynn Johnston, Keep the Home Fries Burning (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1986), p. 93. All references are given parenthetically as KHFB.
[18] Lynn Johnston, What, Me Pregnant? (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1991), p. 110. All references are given parenthetically as WMP.
[19] Lynn Johnston, Middle Age Spread (Kansas City: Andrews, 1998), p. 95. All references are given parenthetically as MAS.
[20] Lynn Johnston, Love Just Screws Everything Up (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1996), p. 108. All references are given parenthetically as LJSEU.
[21] Lynn Johnston, Things Are Looking Up… (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1992), p. 79. All references are given parenthetically as TALU.
[22] Lynn Johnston, Striking a Chord (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 2005), p. 107. All references are given parenthetically as SC.
[23] Strip for January 27, 2004. Recent strips are archived at the For Better or For Worse website, All references are given parenthetically as Website.
[24] Lynn Johnston, Is This "One of Those Days," Daddy? (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1982), p. 121. All references are given parenthetically as OTDD.
[25] Lynn Johnston, Starting from Scratch (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1995), p. 26. All references are given parenthetically as SFS.
[26] Lynn Johnston, Suddenly Silver (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2004, p. 190. All references are given parenthetically as SS.
[27] Lynn Johnston, I've Got Those One More Washload Blues (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1981), p. 36. All references are given parenthetically as OMWB.

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