by Kevin Czap
Maybe you’ve heard of that band called !!!. Like the title to Pootie’s new hit single, it’s a name that is sure to give radio disc jockeys the world over pause. Most of us (especially us, being comics afficianados and enthusiasts) are familiar with the concept that their name implies, but !!! is really not something that can transition into spoken language very smoothly. The accepted pronunciation is “chk chk chk” although I guess the official word is it’s open to interpretation.
Anyhow, I’m bringing all this up because I’ve been thinking about sounds in comics. Specifically, I’ve been enamored with the sound effects Jordan Crane has been using in his serialized “Keeping Two” which you can check out on the perfect comics site, What Things Do. It’s a subtle effect used sparingly, but it’s one of those comics things that breaks my heart in two and causes me to slump to the floor (in a good way). What I love so much is how these little graphics are purely visual, they don’t carry the secondary meaning of having a direct vocalization. And yet, because of the context, we have a clear idea in our minds of what it’s supposed to sound like. And in a (highly subjective) way, they kind of look like how they’re supposed to sound, don’t they?
One of the most common limitations in comics is a lack of audio, making the depiction of sound an interesting challenge. Most often we see an artist using onomatopoetic visuals, spelling out the sound on the page. This makes sense, after all it’s the same tool used to show language. Oftentimes, the artist will put an extra spin on the sound effect, making the visual characteristic of the noise somehow. Really, there are endless possibilities for this method, and, like most design limitations, is only as limiting as your imagination.
That being said, there’s something especially exciting about what Crane is doing here. The graphic forms he’s using are typographic, but by and large they’re just beyond identifying as anything in our alphabet. Familiar letters appear mixed in here and there, but rather than trying to force the sound through the filter of a noise someone can make with their mouth (for example, something like “krsssh!”), Crane is relying more on the independent sounds associated with the letter. Therefore, when I see a loose K or an N, I’m not thinking to myself that there’s an FX guy behind the stage imitating glass breaking. Instead it makes me think about what those letter sound like in the wild, so to speak.
The hard angles and unfamiliar typographic quality to these sound pictures remind me of the katakana sound effects in untranslated manga. Even if a manga volume is translated, I get excited if I find they’ve left the sound effects intact. This is only an aesthetic preference of mine, aided in large part by not being impressed usually with the typography of translated manga (who picks out that font? geez). And of course, I realize that my reading of this is simply borne out of my inability to read Japanese, and that in actuality, the effect is no different from the onomatopoetic method used in English-language comics. A could make a very weak argument that the Japanese is closer to audible sounds than the English language is prepared to handle, but why bother. This is a personal preference, and I don’t expect anyone else to share in it.
Anyhow, I think there’s something to be said for the graphic aesthetic that Crane’s sound-forms lend to “Keeping Two”. Coming from one of the finest graphic designers in comics, this is not surprising. It makes me excited, though, about the further possibilities of merging contemporary typography practices with comics. This isn’t limited to sound effects, of course. We all remember Walt Kelly’s expert use of varying typefaces to depict different character voices. There’s also a lot of room to play around in captions and anywhere else words (or word-like forms) appear. Another artist who peaks my interest in this area is Brandon Graham. Based on some images posted to his blog, he has a lot of interesting takes on this practice for us to look forward to.
There’s a lot of ground that can be covered when thinking about typography in comics. Continuing on in that direction, though fascinating, would require a lot more space and time. Until then, my friends.
Image credits in order of appearance: Dave Sim, Jordan Crane, Frank Quitely, Crane, Akira Toriyama, Yuichi Yokoyama, Crane, Brandon Graham, Graham, Walt Kelly.