Seven Uses for Thought Balloons

Reader Micah Wright responded to our Thoughts on Thought Balloons roundtable with a great analysis of the many uses of thought balloons from a single page of 1960s Spider-Man! We thought you’d enjoy it too.

Spidey art


I saw this webpage on your site today, and it struck me that I like Tim Eldred’s idea that over-reliance on thought bubbles comes from a weakness in the Marvel Method, but I’ll take overuse any day if my only other choice is giving up the tool. Uses for thought bubbles shown on the illustrative page from Ditko-era Spider-Man:

  1. enhanced description (1)
  2. subversion of expectations (1)
  3. pinpointing location of unseen character (1,3)
  4. clarification of action (2)
  5. creation/enhancement of suspense (1,2,3,4,5,6)
  6. split time (4)
  7. setting up expectations (6)

Only one of those strikes me as cover for inadequate drawing, and that’s the clarification of action on panel 2 — which is not to say that all uses which clarify action are bad, just that Ditko could have done a better job with that panel.

I love the thought bubble in panel 1. Gobby throws a bat no larger than his hand at us. We have one second to get comfortable with that idea before Spidey reveals that it’s a mechanical bat, which as a completely unknown quantity, has NO upper limit to the threat it poses. It’s a mini version of Robert McKee’s “Gap”. That’s free entertainment, and a major plus for the reader, even if the line was just there to explain why a real bat is farting black smoke in panel 2.

Look at how the balloon enhances panel 6. It’s just two guys facing off — but with the addition of the balloon, tension builds while we’re forced to wait for the outcome of Spidey’s next move (forced to wait because we are stopping to read) — and we wouldn’t have been thinking ahead AT ALL if not for the thought balloon. No way to do that without a thought bubble. Yeah, we don’t need THOSE! Let’s do away with them altogether! 🙂

— Micah

Micah Wright is a writer who has worked in videogames, film, television, animation, graphic novels & comics. He has also released three books of political commentary & graphics. Check out his work at