Monday, 5 November 2007

“Bang!” Goes Another Fifth of November

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


nick miller said...

It's not just seagulls that were scared last night. Our cat shat himself. If only fireworks could be silent in real life.

felneymike said...

Commando was another comic that almost never features sound effects. But most comic fans (even in Britiain) wouldnt "reduce themselves" to reading something that doesnt have "issues" and "emotions", just adventure and action. Anyway there was recently a re-print from the early 90's which uncharacteristcally had a lot of sound effects, and they really seemed to ruin the feel of it. Then again a recent artist did put in the odd "Blam" or "Bang" for an especially dramatic shot, like when the hero and villain where struggling over a pistol that suddenly goes off at the end. Still the "comedy" issue "Automatic Pilot" could have probably done with some sound effects, but the artist they used is normally working on deadly-serious stories (his style is incredible, though he seems to prefer to draw "air" stories and usually does, he is great at cars and ships and people too)

Carl Horn said...

Dear Mr. Flanagan,

Someone pointed out your post to me, and as the editor of Kurosagi, I thought I'd check it out. Sound effects in manga are a very interesting issue, and I don't think there is only one correct or effective approach--for example, another manga I edit, Oh My Goddess!, has the full retouch of sound effects into English.

It's possible that the retouch of effects is more necessary in a comedy than a drama, assuming the FX are themselves part of the comedy. You talked about the issue of loud or soft sounds, but in addition to that, sound effects are sometimes used in an ironic sense, to deflate or subvert the impression of an action.

And there's another type of FX seen also in manga--the "gitaigo," which don't literally represent sounds at all, but which are there as a kind of commentary. You're a reader of Viz (I saw Spoilt Bastard at the top of the page), so I need only mention the classic example "Unable To Defecate" from "Lord Shite & Nanny No-Dumps." Manga has that sort of thing too all the time--sometimes literally that kind of thing.

Sincerely yours,
Carl Horn
Dark Horse Manga

Steve Flanagan said...

Hi, Nick. As Carl Horn could tell you, far worse things happen to cats on Bonfire Night in Viz, though I'm not sure that's any consolation.

Mike - I've got to admit that I've never read Commando much either, though it's the format, rather than the subject matter, that puts me off. A typical maximum of two panels a page doesn't leave room for the art to be as sequential as I'd like.

Mr Horn (since we're being formal!) - Thanks for commenting. I very much appreciate the back matter in Kurosagi explaining your translation choices. Incidentally, the use of labels that look like sound effects is common in all UK children's comics (and related comics for adults, like The Broons); as in so much else, Viz makes a joke of using the tropes of children's entertainment in a rude and scatalogical manner.