The sounds of silence
One of the biggest pet peeves I notice amongst comics pros is that whenever anything related to comics gets some sort of mainstream media coverage, the title will predictably include a handful of sound effects straight out of the campy Batman TV show of the 1960′s.
Exhibit A, for example: http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2010/05/14/biff-bam-pow-dc-comics-sues-lawyer-over-superman-rights/
You don’t need to read the article, just know that it’s the Wall Street Journal, it’s 2010, and it’s about continuing litigation regarding the creators’ rights struggle over Superman. A fairly serious subject, right? Well, BIFF! BAM! POW! …maybe not so much still to the average journalist or editor with only a passing interest in all this superhero funny business. I’m not picking on this article in particular, it’s just the first to come up in my quick google search. There are many, many others, of course, or there would be nothing to peeve upon.
But that’s interesting, isn’t it? Most people in the world still seem to associate comic books first and foremost with vivid onomatopoeias of violence… and yet there are plenty of comics, especially since the 1980s, that not only forego any “visual aids” for the sounds of people punching each other, but omit any added sound effects whatsoever. Watchmen is probably the best example of this… it didn’t matter how “loud” the events being depicted were supposed to be, they took place in a complete void of silence aside from what we the readers filled in from our own heads. And yet, that process works so naturally you may not even have noticed it. In fact, I seem to recall that after the period of several years where my comics consumption was limited mostly to Vertigo titles that took a similar minimalistic approach, it was actually jarring to go back and read a comic where the ‘WHOK’s and ‘SNIKT’s and ‘BU-THROOM’s once again graced the page.
Comics are a silent medium. That’s why you can theoretically get away with showing something exploding and just let your reader supply how that might sound… but hey, not everyone can be as pure with the idea as Watchmen. Chew is a great comic, but it’s also not afraid to throw in a sound effect here and there. Hell, I was just cracking open one of my graphic novels from Will Eisner himself and, while he does play out many pages in “silence”, you then get to the occasional panel where a door ‘SLAM’s shut as a woman hangs up a phone with a decided ‘CLICK’.
Certainly it would be both counterproductive and hypocritical of me to claim onomatopoeias have no place, seeing as we abandoned that notion all the way back on our fifth page. Sometimes we use them a lot, sometimes a little, sometimes not at all, and I couldn’t honestly tell you which of those three pages I think is the strongest. I like to think that whenever we do use added sounds, it’s not overly gratuitous; for instance, the guns always get a sound effect when they fire, but since Dawn doesn’t like doing much in the way of muzzle flashes I want to make sure people know there are bullets flying. And arguably sometimes it’s even the best, easiest way to convey certain things like multiple firings of a revolver or pressings of a button.
In this week’s comic, I really wanted that ominous sound of a rifle bolt slamming home, where hopefully ‘KA-KLATCH’ will come across as a good enough representation. That’s a whole other can of worms, sometimes we have wildly different ideas of how sounds should be written out, even without getting into other languages. Another reason perhaps to use them as little as possible? Eh. I think they have their place in the toolbox. Plus you get to have visual fun with them at times, like our ‘SPLASH’ from page 163. Overuse them and they may lose their impact (POW!), but to not use them at all is an extreme choice all of its own. Because of Watchmen and Vertigo, is there perhaps a perception that the less sound effects present, the more mature the offering?
Well, we’re somewhere in between, moving back and forth along the scale as we deem necessary. But whew, when I think about it it’s pretty amazing how much effort we sometimes put into the sound design of something with no audio present. The sounds of silence.