I haven’t thought about this much but it’s true – there is a difference between the two as Sunday Comic Debt points out in their article. The author states that manga is more willing “to be experimentive with their word balloons” with very fancy thought balloons, overlapping a character with a halo and no lines, balloons converging with the drawing and becoming one, and maybe a character’s face within the balloon to specify who is talking. Western comics, on the other hand, usually have a very rigid ballooning system with clearly defined speech balloons, a tail, and even “cords” as I’ll call them to connect one speech balloon to another as all coming from the same person.
I used to read Western comic books but have moved on to manga as it became more available here in the States. I’ve never gone back to reading Western comic books mainly because I’m not that interested in reading superhero comics any longer. If you’re into comics and manga, you may have heard about Stan Lee’s collaboration with Shaman King artist Hiroyuki Takei on the new manga series Ultimo. I tried to read the first chapter of this series and I had to stop by the second or third page. Why? Because of the text boxes and the dialogue. Emotions were being described in text rather than shown and describing the situation rather than just showing it. It’s the dilemma Scott McCloud pointed out in Understanding Comics – that Western comics have to describe what the character is feeling and doing rather than just showing the image and having the reader draw the conclusion of how the character feels or what their action.
But can manga artists really be lauded as being more experimental or is that “experimentation” just a result of their fore-bearers? Comics had their roots on the Sunday comics with their fixed boxes, speech balloons, and more rigid panels. Manga grew with woodblocks, varied themes of daily life, and lack of speech balloons; later expanded by Tezuka with cinematic storytelling. Each industry grew from what came before, each artist tuning their craft as McCloud would call it, and with each generation a new style would be born.
What that Sunday Comic Debt article forgot to look into is the indie comic books. Comics by non-mainstream publishers tend to be more expressive with uncommon drawing styles and speech balloons. They’re more willing to break from the mold and try something new.
In the end, just as long as the story is told and understood by it’s audience, then does it really matter if manga speech balloons are more expressive than western comics?