On Comics Sound Effects

I–along with writer/cartoonist Ryan North and visual linguist Neil Cohn–was recently interviewed by Greg Uyeno for Slate‘s Lexicon Valley  language blog. The subject of the article was how sounds and sound effects work in comics. You can read the whole article here:

KATCHOW! How to Write Sounds in Comics

Greg wound up highlighting parts of our discussion relating to choices about sound effects in my own comics, but  I got permission from Greg (and Slate) to post here the full email interview we conducted, which covers more general territory.

1) Let’s start with a warm-up: Do you have a favorite comics sound effect? (What is it?)

I don’t have a single favorite sound effect, but I certainly have some particular comics sequences and artists that I favor in the sound effects department. Walt Simonson and John Workman’s sound effects in their run on Thor in the mid-80s are really a high-point for graphic sound effects in comics. What makes this material so notable in my mind is how seamlessly and organically the effects lettering blends in with the other artwork. That’s something you don’t see much these days since sound effects lettering (and all lettering, in fact) tends to be dropped in digitally after the fact. There’re sensible pragmatic reasons for doing this, but to my eye it creates an odd effect where the sound effect words seem to be floating on a plane over top of the other art, rather than being part of an integrated whole on the page.


I’m also generally a fan of sound effects that aren’t actually sound effects at all–things like when a character enters a room accompanied by a “BARGE!”. That’s obviously not intended to evoke an actual sound, but I love how it appropriates some of the formal language of comics in a hilarious way. Here’s an example from Peter Bagge:

2) How do you use sound in your comics? Are you hoping to visualize sound in a way that the reader can “hear” the sound you intended, or is there a different aesthetic?

Designing your sound effects lettering so that the reader “hears” the sound when reading seems like a logical approach–and I’m sure that’s the intent behind a lot of the most commonly used sounds in comics–but I’m not positive that’s how they actually function. I know I for sure don’t really hear sounds in my head as I read comics. I think they work more just as a “this thing is making a noise” indicator–in the same way that a curvy word balloon indicates, “this is something a character is thinking.” I’m thinking, for example, about sound effects like “SHATTER!” That’s not so much an actual connotation of a particular sound, but rather an indication that something has broken and is making a sound in the process.

So, I usually try to throw in something visually that’s not simply imitating or evoking a sound. So, take this sequence:


 In panel one, I’m aligning the words with the direction those knives are moving as the character pulls them out. They’re evoking a sound, but also reinforcing the directional indicators. The second panel’s pretty straight-forward, but still, I’m hopefully reinforcing the directional movement of the bullet with both the placement of the word and the slight color gradient. With the final panel I’m hoping the downward lilt of the lettering and the shape and placement of the balloon tail will pull the reader’s eyes downward, mirroring the character as he falls to the ground. I went with the “dripping” balloon in an attempt to evoke liquid, blood, gurgling, etc.

3) What are some of the techniques you use to visually represent qualities of sound in your art? I know that two basics are text size = volume, and repetition of letters = duration.

Those are the biggies of course. There’re other techniques as well, like having the lettering suggest objects or materials, as I’m doing here with the bubbly, rounded lettering that mimics the splashing water:


I sometimes also use a particular sound effect to link two spatially disparate scenes together chronologically. Here, for example, we see a character falling off a peak and down into the water below:


Then, on a later page, we see a different character who’s below the peak as the first character lands in the water behind him:


I’ve used the same lettering and coloring for that sound effect to connect the two events. The reader doesn’t necessarily need this to follow what’s going on in the narrative, but I think it helps.

4) There are some standardized sound words, some of them specific to comics. <POW!> <whoosh> etc. When do you use these? What do you do when you need something different?

I do sometimes fall back on the “old standards.” Flipping through Oyster War, I’m seeing a lot of “BAM”s and “KABLAM”s, but I think cartoonists often avoid using those sorts of sound effect words in a large part because of the tired “Blam! Boom! Pow! Comics are whatever…” headlines that have been plaguing us since the mid 80s. I try for words that evoke sounds, but I also take into account that those words create a rhythm when read on a page. I try to establish a nice sequence of varying words, typefaces, colors, and sizes whenever I can. It’s particularly important, I think, in pages that are all sound effects, as here:


Even totally leaving out a sound effect in an otherwise obvious spot–as in panel nine here–is a conscious decision on my part. I’m trying to create a little “breather” at the end before the end of the sequence, where all of this character’s fighting prowess ultimately winds up not saving the day.

5) For non-standard sound words, how do you decide on a spelling?

That’s easy! I just make up something that looks and reads well. Or, I throw the question out on Twitter. There’s more than a few sound effect words in Oyster War that were suggested by folks on Twitter. Kind of appropriate for a social media service that’s itself a sound effect word, eh?


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  1. Episode 176 | CRACK Open A Cold One | I Read Comic Books Podcast says:

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