A lot of people think of comic books as movies that don’t move, or as literature with pictures. But both those descriptions have a certain preconceived bias behind them; namely, they try to define comics relative to other media. They assume automatically that comic books are forever to live under the shadow of visual art or of literature; sequential art, explicitly or implicitly, is relegated to the status of a derivative form. In reality, as comics studies pioneers like Will Eisner and Scott McCloud have written, comics have a language of their own, a rich language with its own codes and conventions, its own vocabulary, idioms, slang, and visual wordplay.
This new series is dedicated to those particular storytelling tricks that can be achieved in comics, and how various artists and writers have leveraged the possibilities provided by the medium. In this first installment, I want to talk about onomatopoeia.
Onomatopoeia is the use of words for sounds that resemble phonetically the sound they describe. Within comics its use was far more common in the Golden and Silver Ages. Nowadays, while it is still utilised, there has been a marked decline in its popularity as a storytelling tool. While it can no longer be considered a staple of comics as a whole, I’m inclined to think there’s nothing that exemplifies the uniqueness of comics as a medium quite like those big, bold coloured letters following a landed punch or machine gun fire.
I have a particular fondness for onomatopoeia when it’s used well. It’s arguable that a major reason artists now tend to economise its use is that it can easily be distracting, or come across as showy or corny. When deployed appropriately, however, it can also add to the environment and embellish a beat of action. Take for example the series of panels on the right, from Fraction, Aja, and Hollingsworth’s incredible run on Hawkeye. There is a steady buildup from panel to panel in the top half of the selection as a faraway object closes in. It grows larger in size over the course of the first six panels, and to emphasise the impact of the crash, the artist uses stylised block lettering that melds into the upper parts of the panel structure and art. Not only is it a great look; it’s also an efficient use of panel space and an effective integration of words into the illustration itself.
Such use of sound effects gives comics a special advantage over traditional prose, where most often the text cannot break out of format in a disruptive manner that conveys the nature of loud noises or disruptive environmental changes within the story. It can also convey in a single word what takes most prose a complete sentence to convey. Unlike film, the moment is frozen. The instance of impact lingers in its permanence, the shattered glass hangs in the air and we can soak in the fine details. The words hover above, like a visual exclamation mark to emphasise an action.
Even though onomatopoeia is often used in bombastic situations, it can also be used to convey the subtleties of a story and enrich the narrative. Certain stories benefit from it more than others because relying on sound in a medium like comic books is ill-advised. In fact, one of my pet peeves is any story in prose or comics that would logically necessitate the use of sound (one obvious example is Batman: Fortunate Son, a comic based around rock music where we can’t even hear the music in question).
Sometimes, though, certain comics undeniably benefit from the visualisation of sound. As a character, the Marvel vigilante Daredevil is in a unique position, blind but aided by a sonar-like sixth sense. Writing a character that can’t rely on regular sight can be challenging, particularly in a visual medium like comics where sight is the only sense with which the work interfaces. Yet the depiction of his powers within the unique form of comics lends itself to, almost demands, the visual depiction of sound, and provides writers with clever ways to convey certain elements of his senses, overcoming the limitations of a static medium.
In the first issue of the Marvel Now Daredevil run, scripted by Mark Waid and gorgeously illustrated by Chris Samnee, we see an excellent example of onomatopoeia serving both character and story. As seen on the left, Daredevil is huddled on top of a tiny balcony, having rescued a young girl. He locates her based on a the faint ticking coming from her direction. He originally attributes this to a watch she is wearing. As the scene unfolds, he listens more closely and realises there is no watch. The ticking is coming from inside her. She is being used as a human bomb.
This is an outstanding use of a standard element of the medium to misdirect the reader. Visually, we see what appears to be a watch only to have the writers fake out the reader for a great third-act twist that simultaneously complicates the story and ups the stakes for the hero. It’s also a great example of the character’s sensory abilities being used to solve a problem where his lack of conventional sight would lead him astray. This particular run of Daredevil is full of novel uses of sound-illustration like this.
Onomatopoeia can be more than just clutter on a panel, and it can even do more than simply compensate for the lack of auditory expression offered by the medium. It can be an expressive tool that enhances the art by aligning the actions depicted on panel and giving them a directional flow in the same way that swalloops and waftarons depict motion and smell, respectively. Similar to illustrative effects used to depict other, non-visual sensory indicators, onomatopoeia helps flesh out the world and make it burst with life and motion in the minds of readers.
These are just a few of the many applications of visualised sound in comics. It’s interesting that where a medium is lacking, artists often find a way around that limitation, or even reinvent the form to creatively incorporate or suggest elements that can’t be depicted directly. It can be even more refreshing to see creators subvert the form and use its limitations to their advantage.