As the whizzes, pops and bangs scare the seagulls on another Bonfire night, either celebrating or lamenting Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up the King and Parliament*, here are some panels that have probably popped up on more than one blog today. I’m sorry to break up the layout, but they are, at least, in gloriously stark black and white, as artist David Lloyd intended.
That the clock tower apparently blows up in silence, and that the fireworks are accompanied by no whizzes, pops or bangs, is a reminder of another of Lloyd’s intentions. As he put it when interviewed for the Comics Britannia TV series:
”The idea of getting rid of thought balloons and sound effects was motivated by me wanting to get people to read comics who didn’t normally read comics, because one of the things that often puts people off is the “Bam! Pow! Zap!’ stuff. Everybody knows that when a gun goes off it goes ‘Bang!’, so you don’t actually need to tell them, not if they’re intelligent adults. And thought balloons were a kind of artificiality that you don’t get in any other kind of entertainment.”
We’ll leave aside for the moment the question of whether people who don’t normally read comics were ever likely to pick up Warrior issue 1, with its gaudy cartoon cover. In the longer run, many such people probably have read the collected paperback V for Vendetta.
We’ll also leave aside the dismissal of thought balloons, save to note that novels also frequently recount their characters’ thoughts, and that many a dramatist or screenwriter who has had to resort to soliloquy or voiceover must have envied comics having so neat a device to let readers into their protagonists’ heads.
For the moment. let’s stick with sound effects. Lloyd’s collaborator on V for Vendetta, Alan Moore, carried the aesthetic of omitting thought balloons and sound effects forward into Watchmen, one of the two comics most influential on subsequent anglophone adventure stories. The abolition of thought balloons proved to be a very successful meme, partly because Moore, and Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, simultaneously provided an alternative: the first-person narrative caption box. But sound effects have proved harder to eradicate, even though, as Lloyd notes, they are at the heart of the easy mockery sub-editors pour into every mainstream headline about comics. Why?
In part, it is because Lloyd is surely wrong about sound effects being unnecessary. What if that gun went off in the next room or was hidden inside a bag? What if the point the cartoonist wanted to convey was how loud (or how soft) it sounded to the characters? What if what is being shown in the pictures is not a familiar action? Nothing is as simple and effective as writing down the sound, and it is, on the face of it, no more artificial than writing down in a word balloon the sounds the humans are making.
And yet, sound effects often do seem silly. We tend to blame memories of the 1960s Batman TV series for the derision heaped on “the ‘Bam! Pow! Zap!’ stuff”. Yet there was a reason why the TV producers singled out sound effects for the on-screen treatment. After all, they didn’t put up intertitles to display Adam West’s dialogue in word balloons. The reason, I think, is that onomatopoeia is naturally funny. Consider how much less amusing it would be if Thurber’s references to Walter Mitty’s “ta-poketta-poketta” were all replacing by descriptions of a jerky, rhythmic sound instead.
So we seem to be at an impasse. Sound effects are often needed, but may be inherently risible. I wonder, though, if some clues to a way out could be presented by manga?
Manga, as presented in the USA, are often published in a half-translated form. The aspect of this most remarked upon is that they generally retain an orientation that requires reading the page from right to left. But it is also common practice to leave sound effects in situ but untranslated.
The effect, at least to a non-reader of Japanese, is that the panel alerts the reader to the fact that a sound is being made, but leaves us to decide for ourselves what that sound is. This can be remarkably effective (your idea of how the sound of a zipper or an approaching train should best be rendered probably differs from mine – here we can each interpolate our ideal), and though it lacks specificity, it avoids the onomatopoeia trap. I’m not suggesting that anglophone cartoonists should letter their sound effects in Japanese, but perhaps some literally non-literal approaches might be suggested by the manga effect.
Anyway, the whizzes, pops and bangs have now died down outside my window, so I’ll take advantage of lack of sound effects to get some sleep.
* For a reminder of what Robert Catesby and his stooge, the real Guy Fawkes, were trying to do to the Palace of Westminster, click here.
V for Vendetta Chapter 1 “The Villain” by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, Warrior Issue 1, Quality Communications, March 1982 (Cover: Laser Eraser and Pressbutton drawn by Steve Dillon)
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Volume 3 by Eiji Otsuka (story) and Housui Yamazaki (art), English-language edition published by Dark Horse Comics, 2007