I work in a visual medium. I make silent coloured rectangles, and show them to people, and hope that it conveys to them story, personality, and amongst other things, sound.
It’s a strange thing to try to convey sound from a picture. Full-blown synaesthetic individuals will actually hear sound based on shapes and colours, due to the cross-over wiring between their senses. And yet we all possess this wiring to some degree. Deep sounds sound round, high pitched sounds sound sharp, and a scale sounds like a staircase ascending or descending. At least, I hope they do for other people, and its not just me and my minimal colour-grapheme synaesthesia. I know that music can write out a basic shape with the twin coordinates of time and pitch, which at its most basic is what sheet music does. There has to be a learned element of association too. Little things like flies make high pitched noises. Big round objects like hollow tree trunks, oil drums and actual drums and tubas make deep round noises. These deep sounds often resonate and die of slowly, giving them a round quality in time, compared to a short sharp sudden stab.
The best known trick for creating sound in a comic is the sound effect – a word in space that describes the noise. It can be a stock sound, like Biff! Pow! or Bang! or a custom noise made up by the writer or letterer. I remember reading Warrior back in the 80s, the British anthology that first saw Alan Moore‘s Miracleman, V for Vendetta and an Addams Family-esque tale of a council house full of monsters called The Bojeffries Saga. Obviously, I was wowed by Moore’s ability to write, to write the crushing religious terror of Miracleman, the complex nuanced and poetic beats of V, and to just be plain old funny and silly at the same time in Bojeffries. I also remember noticing how even the sound effects were better written than normal.
Here’s Kid Miracleman transforming back into Johnny Bates, an interdimensional shunting process that looks like he’s being struck by a lightning bolt.
Lighting bolts in 80s comics would go Krak! or Zap!, maybe with a few extra end letters for emphasis. This one builds up, rumbles and discharges in a much more convincing way. Go on, say it out loud, and hear the thunder. Hear the charge up and stutter as you try to pronounce multiple X’s in a row, the rumble of the R’s, and the final hard stab of the K’s. It’s deafening!
Here, by way of contrast, are the opening panels of the first Bojeffries Saga strip.
No-one has ever captured a squeaky bike better than this. Why does it go “scleec!” instead of “scleek!” or even “skleek!”? C’s instead of K’s are somehow less threatening, more pathetic and well, more squeaky. I really don’t know why, if its the shape of the letters or what. C is protecting itself, curled up like a hedgehog, whereas K is all outward spikes daring you to dash yourself on it. Is it that C also makes a soft S noise, whereas K is uncompromisingly hard? Whatever the cause, C’s work here, and the absence of any C’s in the thunderbolt work just as well. Thanks to Mr Moore, I’ve always been aware of this distinction.
I assume Moore made these up, due to his writing pen being the common thread, and his reputation for detailed scripts. If it was the letterer, then I apologise.
A quick call-out to two other sound effect geniuses before I move on.
I don’t know if it was Walt Simonson or letterer-extraordinaire John Workman who came up with these ones, but they rocked. I’m sure many of you would immediately know what I’m about to say from these names.
Here, the sound effect is an actual word with meaning, literally describing the coming end of the world, while still serving as an onomatopaieac description of the sound. Check out a few more examples here – these pages appeared once per issue like a faraway drum beat of an army approaching.
And finally for other people’s sound effects, I’d like to share with you the greatest subverter of the art form, the late great Seth Fisher.
I really have no words for how awesome he was, and how his death was a loss to the medium.
Now, you can do away with sound effects completely and still tell a story. V for Vendetta did this, and it suited the drabness, realism, and serious tone. Sound effects were far too Adam West Batman for it. Look at the hammer from the Thor strip above. The impact lines are not literally there, but serve as a noise drawn on to the page. The Kirby crackle trail from the hammer acts like the XXXRR from the Miracleman thunderbolt, the build up, and the star shaped impact around the head of the hammer reads as the AKKK!, the release. As with the onomatopaiea, the whole thing sounds like a thunderbolt.
Smaller more innocuous smack lines are common. If someone claps their hands in a comic, you may well show little W shapes around the contact point. This indicator of noise tells the reader that the character is making noise, and thus is clapping rather than praying.
All of which brings me to today’s header drawing – one in an ongoing series of superheroes playing music. Here, Dr Strange, Clea and Wong are having a rather serene musical evening in their groovy Greenwich Village pad. I decided to try and draw the music, and this is what I came up with.
Concentric circles are very sound-y. We all know that sound can radiate from a point like the shape portrays, so they were a natural choice for Wong’s glockenspiel. Compare them though with another drawing of mine, of Black Canary doing her sonic scream.
Both use concentric circles, but for very different effects. Canary’s scream is jagged, whereas Wong’s shapes are harmonious, and a little bit complex, and also a little bit mystical like an Aztec carving of some kind. One is a weapon, the other is music, and the shapes alone convey this, although they’re both aided by context. Wong gets a secondary note dying off on the right, as well as the primary note he’s just struck on the left. The overall effect is hopefully a series of overlapping pleasantly woody notes.
Clea has some strange looking lettering coming from here harp. These are based a little bit on the shapes I see when I listen to Kashmir by Led Zep. They’re rising like a staircase to denote the scale effect of the harp – and also the kind of ethereal, fleeting quality of its music. The stream splits at the top to denote some kind of complexity – she’s not just strumming, but playing some traditional dirge from the Dark Dimension here, no doubts with complex themes of love, death, loss, and being crushed underfoot by Mindless Ones.
Doc has a theremin, the experimental instrument that you play without touching, via the magnetic field of it aerials. It produces noises that one might associate with a UFO hovering – it’s all very fringe science and mysterious. The noise itself should be wavering and repeat itself like an echo, and for reasons I cannot explain, should be vertical like a curtain rippling. (OK, I may be a bit more synaesthetic than I said…) I settled on some curly braces to describe the sound, they’re tall, they stack, and they’re kind of science-y, or at least mathematical.
It was a fun exercise, and one I will no doubt come back to.
I’ll close with a medley of my favourite sound effects from Universe Gun.
The scriiiv! of trhe Drexbox assembler (or any nanomachine cloud) is meant to sound like a printer head in action, and I’m sure also owes something to Alan Moore’s scleeec! Bah-wah-wah of a sonic bomb is pure mouth noises. I’m sure i said it out loud when drawing it. The juicy sound of high heels squashing molecules like berries? You’ll find out soon enough, but I found it interesting how dropping the s from the second instance changes the noise.
Star Girl 3000’s energy blasts always start with a “bz” to give them a kind of retro computer game feel. Its also build up and release sound, you close you mouth for the b and then let air out for the z. Her actual computer game, “Nasty Taxi” makes some great Mario-esque noises when she’s playing it. And finally, Kid Identity’s face change – this has smack lines to indicate the slight displacement of air when he flips his face, and an actual word like Simonson and Workman’s “Doom!” earlier. Pop! is a silly noise, to go with his non-combat fun “recreational” ability, and also describes a sense of sudden change and surprise.
See you in seven (or soon anyway), scribblers of pseudo-sonic sigils! Dr Mike 2000, 24 Nov 2014