The Semantics of Sound

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Illustrations for the ear.“What does an eraser sound like?” The question was floated at a comic
jam not long ago by a cartoonist who’d been slipped a panel to complete. It
showed an artist rubbing himself out. Sidestepping the picture’s metaphor, the
cartoonist instead was racking himself for a sound effect to amplify the action.
The other cartoonists sat at tables throughout the room, their noses burrowed
in unfinished pages. “I know!” someone at the back shouted. “Squinch!” The cartoonist
nodded. “Squinch. Perfect. Thanks.”


It was a purely comics moment, a scene that would be foreign to any other medium. Filmmakers add sound effects in the studio, and only the editor of the rare closed-caption track frets about how it’s spelled. Novelists rarely print sounds on the page. They keep their sensuous cues abstract, letting the reader fill in the details.

But every cartoonist sooner or later has to contend with drawing sound. It’s an essential part of trying to animate a static page. The glee many cartoonists apply to the task has made sound one of the artform’s defining features. You can’t read more than a handful of articles on comics without seeing it mentioned, often in a grating variation of the headline “BIF! BAM! POW! Comics Aren’t for Kids Anymore.”

Sound effects were once reserved for explosions or stiff fists connecting with jaws — Popeye in the 1930s clobbered ruffians with a SPLAT! — though they were far from universal. The first Superman comic (1938’s Action Comics #1) is notable for, among other things, having no sound effects at all, besides the occasional YE-EOW of some cur in Supe’s clutches. After a few false starts, however, sound effects exploded in comics’ 1940s golden age, when superheroes like Captain America and the Sub-Mariner were SOCK-ing and BOFF-ing Nazi hide all across the Axis. By the 1960s, when the Batman TV show emblazoned words like BLAMMO! across the screen, the technique had become entrenched.

As comics developed, so did the way we heard them. In the 1970s, the sound of a naked stoner being electrocuted (ZAP) came to represent the entire underground comics movement. That era also gave us the sound of semen boiling in a spoon, courtesy of S. Clay Wilson (SSSSSS. POIP. BURBLE). Some characters came to be identified by the noises they made: THWIP! (that’s Spider-Man spraying his web); BAMF! (that’s Nightcrawler teleporting — it used to be BAMPF, which is truer to the X-Man’s Teutonic roots). It took some mental contorting to dream up the sound of Wolverine’s adamantium claws unsheathing, but the result (SNIKT) is now as germane to the character as his Gowan coif.

Illustrations for the ear.Sound effects are now a finicky artform, applied with precision. One of its most advanced practitioners is Chris Ware, who cartoons many scenes with nothing but noises to punctuate the tracts of aching silence. His technique reached its zenith in his star-making graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. The book is largely wordless, relying instead on a symphony of onomatopoeia. A nose being blown: SNNZLP. Change put into a vending machine: CLTKTY. A drink falling: DNK.

It was a virtuoso performance, rivalling the very best manga. The Japanese, after all, are the undisputed masters of comic sonics. When American cartoonists were still saving their ears for gatts and jabs, manga artists were sounding out noodles being sucked (SURU SURU), leaves falling off trees (HIRA HIRA), even silence itself (SHIIIN).

Yet not every cartoonist tries to mimic Mother Nature. Such meta-sound effects
as STEP and SUCK have long been used by cartoonists too clever or lazy to invent
their own words. These days, with no act too repulsive or banal to draw, the
notion of a comics sound effect can take on ribald absurdity. Cartoonist Johnny
Ryan draws a character eating an old man’s beard with an EAT, while a hand-puppet
fondles a woman’s breasts with the trifecta of RUB, GROPE and MOLEST. The Earth
explodes with — what else? — EXPLODE. Ryan saves his phonic juices for the
state of male arousal, gracing our language with such melodious concoctions
as SWANG, SPRONG, FWANG, ZONG, WANG… you get the picture. Or rather, you hear
it.

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