One Fan's Opinion: Issue #38

Fri, May 19th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Sound effects!

What comic book superhero fan doesn't recognize the familiar "BAMF" or "SNIKT" or "THWIPP?"

(And "Thwipp" is the correct spelling by the way, despite the variations you might have seen over the years -- the second "p" is silent, as Stan (the man) Lee would occasionally point out).

Who doesn't anticipate the arrival of a favorite character when they see that familiar sound effect heralding that hero's upcoming entrance?

But for a number of readers, sound effects are unappealing, corny, stupid or unrealistic.

And a lot of creators don't use them these days. They've gone the way of the dinosaur along with captions and thought balloons and footnotes (all of which are greatly missed by this reader). But I think that they add a lot and are, at times, necessary.

It seems weird to me to have characters say that "the phone is ringing" without there being a sound effect in place. It just seems stupid to have characters answer a phone that isn't ringing and have to tell the reader information that he should know. If we saw a sound effect, that character wouldn't have to say, "the phone is

ringing" --we'd know that and he could just pick up the phone like the rest of us. The lengths writers go to in order to avoid using sound effects can be silly. Characters say that "somebody's at the door," but we hear no knock or door bell. Characters are shot, off panel, and characters wince and tell us what we should have heard when a large BLAM would have been ten times as effective.

And purely as a visual, I think it works to convey that, a room is filled with noise, by showing that it's filled with noise. There were a few issues in Frank Miller's "Daredevil" run where his hyper-hearing was out of control and sound effects and word balloons became gigantic. There really isn't another way that could have been executed which would have been as effective.

Creators like Frank Miller and Walter Simonson and Howard Chaykin use sound effects very effectively and integrate them into their art. They become part of the storytelling and compositions. Where would "Daredevil" or "Dark Knight" or "Sin City" be without sound effects? Where would Simonson's Thor be without the resounding "DOOM" sound effect, which foreshadowed the impending arrival of his major antagonist? Where would "American Flagg" be without its "PAPAPAPAPA OOOOOOO MOW MOW" and other frenzied sound effects?

And who doesn't get a kick out of a well-placed "Ba-THROOM" emanating from an exploding toilet?

Yes, there aren't bright red words that appear in the real world when things explode or ring or clang or pop, but there aren't white balloons with words in them

hovering over people's heads when they talk either. We don't have access to actual sound in comics and we need to be able to convey sound somehow.

Obviously, I'm a huge fan of sound effects. I use them at nearly every opportunity that I can. Simonson's "Thor" run left a lasting impression on me and when I started up "Savage Dragon" I was instructing Chris Eliopoulos to emulate John Workman's terrific sound effects in the pages of my pulse-pounding periodical. A well-placed BRAKKA-BA-DOOM! Really livens up the page, I tell you. And when Chris moved on, John Workman was the obvious choice to succeed him. These days, I'm lettering the book myself and going off in a different direction, but I still use sound effects all over the place. They just look cool to me.

I even like the quirky sound effects found in "Acme Novelty Library" like "set" and "touch" and "press" to indicate noises that are somewhat subtle (and in some cases, wouldn't actually be especially audible).

To me, pages without sound effects, often look and feel empty.

I'm sure a lot of this stems from creators wanting to bring the medium into the new millennium and dispose of the trappings of years gone by. Ever since the campy "Batman" TV show from the 1960s, lazy newspaper editors have used silly sound effects in their headlines in any story related to comic books ("Biff! Bam! Pow! Comics aren't Just For Kids Anymore!") and every time it makes many of those who love this medium cringe. The "Batman" TV show is the polar opposite of everything a "serious" creator is trying to accomplish with their work. Anything that begins to hint at or smell like it might have come from the set is often deemed "a thing to be avoided at all cost."

Creators and fans want comics and superheroes to be taken seriously, no matter how inherently ridiculous these characters are. A guy with underwear on the outside of his tights striking fear into the hearts of evildoers while wearing a mask that he couldn't possibly be able to see out of properly is to be taken seriously, after all. And the

movies all emphasize that and in the context of those comics it seems to work -- characters don't break into hysterics whenever Batman walks into a room or drops out of the shadows. But sound effects? Ugh. Now we're back to looking at Adam West and Burt Ward. God save us all. Can't he at least not shave for a day or two? He'd be grittier.

So, creators have opted to forgo the use of sound effects in an attempt to make them less cartoony and more realistic. But I can't help but feel that it's a misguided effort. It makes the action look and feel empty and less dynamic. When there's a gunfight and guns are blazing, it just seems like those moments in a movie where everything goes into slow motion and the sound has been turned off or replaced with melodramatic music. The comic feels empty and looks empty and the effect is weaker and less effective than it should have been.

Now I'm not suggesting that sound effects need to be in every comic book every time or that the time-tested sound effects Pow, Biff and Wham need to be utilized on every occasion (actually, writers might want to avoid those particular sound effects -- "too Adam West," if you get my drift). And no, I don't think that "Watchmen" or "Wanted" would have been enhanced with sound effects at every possible point of contact. Even smiling Stan Lee backed off from time to time. But I am saying that a writer should stop and look at a page and seriously consider if dead silence is really the best possible option each and every time. They should follow their own particular muse, not buckle to peer pressure.

And maybe sound effects are a little bit "comic booky," but these are comic books, after all.

As much as some of us might hate to admit it.

But that's just one fan's opinion. I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

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