Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Don’t Talk to Me Like That

Using customised spellings to indicate that a character is speaking in a strong accent is a comic device as old as standardised spelling (or is that “standardized”?). Perhaps even older: consider Shakespeare’s Captain Fluellen in Henry V, praising “falorous” men, and eating “pread”. And it has been used in comics for ages. Here’s the Yellow Kid on a visit to Scotland, with his shirt emblazoned with R F Outcault’s idea of Brooklynese.

Lately, Joss Whedon has been using customised spelling to give accents to some of the Slayers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, but that seems to be an attempt to add colour rather than raise a laugh.

The champion user of funny accents recently has been Brian Azzarello in the Dr 13 series in Tales of the Unexpected.

I really don’t like it.

For one thing, it badly affects the pace at which the comic can be read. When reading words, we don’t normally pick out every letter: we see the shapes of words and grab the most likely candidate from our vocabularies – like predictive text messaging software, only a thousand times more efficient. It’s why we stumble over unfamiliar names, and why proofreading requires such concentration. And when we run across something like this …

… we are back in infants’ school, spelling out the individual sounds of the letters one by one and piecing them together. Our fourth-gear cruise through the word balloons crashes down to a first-gear crawl.

For another thing, using customised spelling for accents implies that there is one particular accent which is the correct way to read regular spelling. In British literature, that has traditionally been the educated middle-class accent known as “received pronunciation” or “BBC English”. Accents presented in customised spelling are usually a way of laughing at foreigners and the poor. When the novelist and Scottish Nationalist Alasdair Gray has the voices of his Scots characters presented in standard spelling and his English characters in customised spelling, he is making a strong political point.

And Azzarello does indeed seem to be using customised spelling to make the Spanish Captain Fear into (even more of) a joke. But I have yet another, practical problem with it all.

Brian Azzarello presumably pronounces standardised spellings in one of the many and varied American accents. I pronounce them in one of the many and varied English accents. We have different ideas about how letters and combinations of letters should sound. That’s why dictionaries use a special phonetic alphabet, whose sounds are internationally consistent, to indicate pronunciation. But the accents in Dr 13 aren’t in the phonetic alphabet, and, sometimes, the way they read to me makes no sense at all. This, for example, is how an avatar of Grant Morrison speaks, but even with the knowledge that it is supposed to be a Scottish accent, I can’t work it out.

“Ercu”? Anyone?

So all this is a bit of a blot on Dr 13’s copybook. But, as I hope to show in a later post, it is a very large and interesting copybook otherwise.


“The Yellow Kid in Edinburgh” by R F Outcault, New York Journal, 13 February 1897, reprinted in R F Outcault The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics, Kitchen Sink Press, 1995

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight issue 1 "The Long Way Home" part 1 by Joss Whedon (script), Georges Jeanty (pencils), Andy Owens (inks), Dave Stewart (colours), Richard Starkings & Comicraft's Jimmy (letters) and Scott Allie (editor), Dark Horse Comics, March 2007

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 3 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), Tales of the Unexpected issue 3, DC Comics, February 2007

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 4 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), Tales of the Unexpected issue 4, DC Comics, March 2007

Dr 13 “Architecture & Mortality” part 6 by Brian Azzarello (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Bob Schreck (editor), Tales of the Unexpected issue 6, DC Comics, May 2007


Baal said...

I'd agree with you in books (I think it's the author of trainspotting that has me completely turned off on his work for writing that way. correct me if i'm wrong) but I think it works in comics. I think it adds a flavor that you miss not getting spoken word or the time a book can devote to getting you in that mindset.

Andrew Hickey said...

I agree totally that it causes huge problems. The worst example is in Guys (one of the Cerebus phonebooks) - being from a family of Scousers, I was amazed at how accurately Dave Sim managed to get the vocabulary and speech patterns in his Harrison Starkey and Richard George, and how absolutely wrong his attempts at phonetic spelling of that accent were...

Walaka said...

Ah same to remember that thay trahd this fer a gud lang tame when Moira Mactaggart was furst entraduced in the X-men minny yairs ago...

And it didn't work then either.

I agree with Baal, though, that in a reduced form, it works in comics: maybe just a word or two now and again, or one particular phoneme that is consistently tweaked.

But I think you're right that too much of it makes reading like solving a rebus.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Although isn't that sometimes the point? If someone's accent is deep enough and significantly different than what you're used to hearing, it's difficult to understand what they're saying. You really have to concentrate on their speech.

Trying to solve a rebus -- or, more to the point, a phonetic version of actual speech -- applies that same level of concentration in a visual form.

Case in point. My mother's sister-in-law is from Southern Tennesse and speaks with a deep accent. When she met my brother's five-year-old, she asked, "Whal, ainchoo amos preshus thang? Naw, yall cumere antel yer auntie howol yar!" My niece took a moment to try to process that and eventually responded politely, "Fine, thank you."

That only works visually if you force the more-or-less phonetic version of the speech, and it reinforces the difficulty in understanding the dialect for someone not used to it.