I recently got my hands on a complete set of Marvel Comics’ Dazzler, a comic from the early to mid-80s that featured Alison Blaire, a mutant with the power to transform sound into light. She was the result of an attempted collaboration between Marvel and Casablanca Records. The idea was that rather than publish a comic based on a pre-existing musical act (as they had in 1977 with KISS), Marvel would create a character and Casablanca would, in the words of one of the co-creators, “create someone to take on the persona,” with the potential for a movie tie-in. Casablanca dropped the project before the first issue of the comic, but Marvel re-tooled the character and went ahead with the Dazzler—a talented, yet struggling singer stuck playing at cheesy discos and small clubs while dreaming of wider success.
The last time I wrote about sound in comics, I mentioned how despite (or because of) sound’s transparency, it is an unobstrusive tool in providing the cues needed by readers to provide the closure through which comic literacy functions. The Dazzler series is not a great comic, it is often schmaltzy, repetitive and rife with errors, and just when it started to fulfill a bit of its promise, its creative team and the comic’s direction were changed and it was canceled soon after, but despite this, it is the perfect subject for looking at the representation of sound in comics. Dazzler’s power literally shines a light on how pervasive imagined sound is in this visual/textual form. It also makes room for even more sounds to be woven into the title’s narrative. Since Alison Blaire is an aspiring singer the most prevalent sound present in this title—less common in other popular super heroes titles—is music. Dan Fingeroth and Jacob Springer (who wrote the majority of Dazzler’s brief run) had many opportunities to depict a visual representation of singing.
As a singer, Dazzler is a maker of sounds in addition to a user of the sound already present throughout the medium. As a result, in addition to the visual representation of sound through Dazzler’s glowing light show, the writers were in a position of having to use text to describe the quality of sound more often than usual for their genre. As Tom DeFalco (a co-creator and sometimes writer on the series) said in a 1980 interview with Comics Feature, “I have to put in a lot of sounds in the captions and that I hope that kids who very rarely read captions will read these so they’ll know where the sound is coming from. But the good thing about sound is that you are always surrounded by sound.” DeFalco’s answer illustrates the contradiction at the heart of comic sound—it may be ever-present, but because of this is taken for granted to such a degree that he worries that its source will not be self-evident on the comics page. He adds that one way around this, because of Dazzler‘s focus on music, is through descriptions of the audience’s reactions to it—how it makes them feel is a way to clue the readers into the source and quality of sound present in the panels.
It is the affective relationship to sound that marks Dazzler as very different from other superhero comics. All the super-villain battles and fear of the revelation of her mutant powers are merely the narrative obstacles to her primary goal and obsession—singing. In order for that work, the emotions that emerge from her performance (both for Alison and those listening) needs to be evoked (something that the comics unevenly succeeds at). The colorful lights that are often part of a stage show are, in her case, a direct result of her relationship to not only hearing/absorbing sound, but making sound. She repeatedly explains that rhythmic nature of popular music makes her powers easier to use, because she can feel its pulse. For Alison Blaire, hearing, making and using sounds are conflated by means of the visual and textual, allowing the reader to see what he cannot hear or feel. In other words, Dazzler’s conceit is most successful when it evokes an empathic connection between the reader and the imagined sounds.
The feeling around sound can also be evoked through its absence. A common practice in mainstream superhero comics is the guest appearance by a popular hero in a new or poorly-selling comic in order to boost sales, and Dazzler seemed to have cameo by some better known character almost every issue. This practice allowed for writers and artists to depict what had for decades been undepictable. When Dazzler teams up with Black Bolt, King of the Inhumans (a Fantastic Four character from back in the Kirby days) he is finally allowed an opportunity to use his greatest and most feared power, his voice. Black Bolt is forever silent. His voice is so powerful a weapon that even his whisper can inadvertently kill all those around him. Thus, despite being an iconic Silver Age character, the voice of Black Bolt is one that can never be “heard” by comic readers. His silence is part of his identity and grants him a tragic and noble-bearing. As such, when he is teamed up with Dazzler, her power becomes the perfect vehicle for representing the unrepresentable sound—Dazzler absorbs the sound of his voice to emit the energy needed to defeat the super-villain. In having the characters work together, the writer was able to use one character’s power to finally represent the other’s. In this moment there is a sense of relief and emotional release, along with a sense of peril that bound to Black Bolt’s voice gives the unheard sound resonance.
As the title continued (and after its cancellation, when Dazzler became a member of the X-Men), Alison Blaire’s powers developed in different ways, the most fascinating was the development of her hearing. While early in the character’s career she was dependent on passive hearing, often carrying a portable radio with her in order to insure she had sufficient sound with which to use her light powers, later she developed acute active listening skills. As this aspect of her power developed, it became clear that it was not necessarily the force of sounds themselves that determined the extent of her power (though clearly loud sounds could be more easily transformed into more powerful forms of light, like ultra-focused lasers), but her attentive listening. The more attention she could pay to sounds and could discern even faint sounds, the more she could absorb and transform—later she is even able to use the sounds of digging insects and worms to save herself when she is accidentally buried alive.
By the end of her original series, Dazzler‘s new writing team had her mostly abandon her musical ambitions and take the more common (and dare I say, more boring) comic book route of getting a costume and joining a team of liked-minded super-beings. Because of this, the character’s special relationship to sound is lost in the shuffle of convoluted continuities and cosmic crises present in the various X-titles. There is less time and attention paid to song and sound as power and its emotional weight. The abandonment of her career goals also abandons the opportunity to explore a unique representation of sound and identity in a medium where identity is writ large. However, if there is a take-away from the strange, mostly failed, collaborative experiment between comics company and records company, it is that like Alison Blaire, if the comics reader “listens” carefully to the sounds present in the text and pictures there is a potential for a lot more depth and appreciation of how sound’s depiction is crucial to comics’ formal success.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and ABD in English at Binghamton University.
In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, jazz musician Charles Mingus recounts his hatred of being ignored during his bass solos. When it was finally his turn to enter the foreground, suddenly musicians and audience members alike found drinks, food, conversations, and everything else more important. However, this small, and somewhat ironic, anecdote of Mingus’s relationship with the jazz community has now become a foreshadowing of his current status in sound studies–but no longer! This series re/hears, re/sounds and re/mixes the contributions of Mingus for his ingenious approach to jazz performance and composition as well as his far-reaching theorizations of sound in relation to liberation and social equality, all in honor of the 60th anniversary of Mingus’s sublimely idiosyncratic album Mingus Ah Um this month. In the third piece of this series, Jessica Teague grapples with Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” Her analysis reveals one of Mingus’s most critical questions: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself? You can catch up with the full series by clicking here. –Guest Editor Earl Brooks
When jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus first set out to write his memoirs in the mid-1950s he told his wife Judy that he “wanted a chance to write about the true jazz scene that has made our masters millions and taken the most famed to their penniless graves as the only escape from the invisible chains on black jazz as an art” (Santoro 175). By the time Beneath the Underdog saw publication nearly two decades later in 1971, it was considerably slimmed down from the 800+ page manuscript Mingus had produced. Financially strained and evicted from his downtown loft, Mingus hoped that the book would be a best seller and offer economic freedom from the music industry.
But as many have noted, Beneath the Underdog is not your typical jazz autobiography (see Krin Gabbard, Nichole Rustin-Paschal, Gene Santoro, and Daniel Stein). Here, Mingus rejects standard notions of the self declaring in the first sentence of his book: “In other words, I am three.” By writing in a mode that wavers between the lurid world of popular pulp-heroes and psychological high-modernism, Mingus’s autobiography (like his music) treads a slender line between clowning and critique.
In one of the most infamous scenes from Beneath the Underdog, Mingus hyperbolically describes having intercourse with twenty-three prostitutes over the course of one night in Tijuana, Mexico. The incident follows the breakup of his marriage with his first wife Barbara and his affair with Nesa Morgan, the wife of a club owner. Recounting his superhuman exploits in the language of the comic book, Mingus turns what might have been a display of his sexual prowess into a clowning circus act, complete with zany sound effects and an off-kilter sense of rhythm. It’s a scene that simultaneously reinforces the stereotype of the African American male’s hypersexuality and deflates it with comedy:
“No! Me, sir!”
“You like fooke?”
“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty!”
“Two dollars, sir!”
(Beneath the Underdog 176-177)
There is a certain ambiguity to the poolside scene. Mingus the narrator is notably absent and the action proceeds without any visual clues—he gives the reader only fragments of dialogue that alternate between the prostitutes selling their wares and the side conversation between Mingus and his friend Hickey, who comments upon his sexual performance. What is more, the onomatopoetic sound effects employed are demonstrably silly and absurd. There are no moans or sighs of ecstasy here—each act is punctuated by a “BLAM! BLAM!” (178). Sex is transactional and performative for Mingus, but not pleasurable.
The pulpy, comic book quality of the Tijuana scene makes Mingus a superhuman like a character from The Fantastic Four, but it also makes him into a two-dimensional cartoon. This undercutting of the self and the performative body characterizes Mingus’s concept of the fractured self of the black jazz musician—a theme he takes up in his music as well as his writing (e.g. “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” from Mingus Ah Um). Interestingly, Mingus’s affinity for comics would surface again and in 1966 he collaborated with African American illustrator Gene Bilbrew to create a comic strip-style advertisement for the Charles Mingus Record Club that appeared in the Village Voice.
Biographers have argued that Mingus included these likely fictionalized sex scenes as a way to sell more books and evade the exploitative economics of the music industry. However, the comic book sound effects that render Mingus’s sexuality humorously exaggerated comes at the expense of Latinx women. Despite having grown up in a multi-ethnic community in Los Angeles, his representation of the voices of the Mexican prostitutes flattens their identities and plays upon ethnic stereotypes. With each “Sí señor,” the women are presented as both sexually promiscuous and submissive. Mingus’s relationships with women were fraught, and his anxieties about his own sexuality were inevitably tied up with race. His tendency to treat women as sex-objects is similarly on display in the comic strip above, in which a suggestively-attired white female hipster acts as a narc, exposing a bootleg record dealer. “Uh, you got anything by Charlie Mingus? Uh-h, y’know, like uh… under the counter?” she asks, dripping innuendo.
And yet, these cringe-inducing scenes are often complicated by Mingus’s use of pimping and prostitution as metaphors for exploitation throughout his Beneath the Underdog. At various points he portrays himself as both prostitute and pimp, both masculine and feminine. When his friend Hickey seems to question Mingus’s extreme behavior, he responds: “In this white man’s society what else have I got” (178). Even in moments that indulge in humor, such as the Tijuana scene, Beneath the Underdog darkly implies a pimp or be pimped world.
Mingus would become known for writing music with a political edge—one might think of “Fables of Faubus” from Mingus Ah Um (1959)—but perhaps the closest musical relative to the satirical Tijuana scene is Mingus’s 1957 Atlantic recording of “The Clown.” In the liner notes for the album, penned by Nat Hentoff, Mingus describes that as he wrote the tune, he realized that it had two parts, and started to imagine it as the story of the clown. He then told the story to radio celebrity Jean Shepherd and allowed Shepherd to improvise the telling of the story during the recording. As Mingus described it to Hentoff, the story was
…about a clown, who tried to please people like most jazz musicians do, but whom nobody liked until he was dead. My version of the story ended with his blowing his brains out with the people laughing and finally being pleased because they thought it was part of the act. I liked the way Jean changed the ending; leaves more up to the listener.
Like the Tijuana story, “The Clown” also incorporates sound effects, and it opens with the hollow laughter of men and women in a nightclub. As auditory phenomena, sound effects are especially interesting because of their artificiality—they are performances of sound. In a cinematic or radio context, sound effects typically amplify an action. Even when sounded, rather than written, they seem to act onomatopoetically. Thus, the addition of the laugh track on “The Clown” is both performance and commentary.
But part of the genius of Mingus’s composition is the way he incorporates the logic of the sound effect into the music itself. The vocal quality of his bass, the wah-wahs of the horns, and the rim shots on the drums are but one piece of this totalizing sonic landscape. “The Clown” borrows stylistic elements from other recognizable genres (like, circus music) to evoke the playfully comedic and absurd, but a second, more serious and ironic story of exploitation runs concurrently and undercuts the first narrative’s simplicity. On the one hand, we hear the more jaunty, carnivalesque melody of the trombone (Jimmy Knepper) and the tenor saxophone (Shafi Hadi) that lilts in 6/8, but that melody is punctuated by moments of dissonance and free playing under the narration—stretching the space between comedy and tragedy. The question he seems to ask in both the Tijuana story from Beneath the Underdog and in “The Clown” is essentially the same: Is the only way to escape exploitation to exploit another, or worse yet, yourself?
Black musicians who pushed back were often called “angry,” even as music didn’t always sound that way. One might think of the contrast between seemingly jaunty, upbeat rhythm of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and its devastating lyrics. It is the sound of political and existential crisis. Both “The Clown,” and the Tijuana scene indicate Mingus’s heightened awareness that, as much as he was known for his music, he was also known for his explosive behavior at performances—the “angry man of jazz.” As Eric Porter has pointed out, Mingus’s “irrational behavior appealed to audiences at a moment when many members of American society (of whom Beat writers were emblematic) were looking to the oppositional aspects of black culture for solutions to their dissatisfaction with consumerism, conservative politics, repressed sexuality, constrictive gender roles, and other social ills” (130-131). 1957, the year Mingus recorded The Clown, was the same year that Norman Mailer published his infamous essay “The White Negro” and Jack Kerouac published On the Road. It was also the year that Governor Faubus of Arkansas attempted to halt the integration of Central High School in Little Rock.
Subtle they may be, but the use of comic sound effects in works like Beneath the Underdog and “The Clown” highlight the absurdity of the roles black jazz musicians had come to play within American culture. In worrying the line between the comic and the tragic, the explosive and the reflective, Charles Mingus refused to concede to the identity that had been shaped by the music industry, by the press, and by institutionalized racism.
Featured Image: Charles Mingus 1976, Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons, Colorized by SO!
Jessica Teague is an Assistant Professor of English at the University Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and specializes in 20th and 21st-century American Literature and Sound Studies. The intersections between literature, sound, and technology are the focus of her research, and her book, Sound Recording Technology and American Literature: from the Phonograph to the Remix, is under contract with Cambridge University Press. Her work has been published in journals such as American Quarterly and Sound Studies, and she has also been the recipient of research fellowships from the ACLS and the Harrison Institute at the University of Virginia. (PhD, MA, Columbia University; BA, UCLA)
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andré carrington, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Drexel University. His research on the cultural politics of race, gender, and genre in popular texts appears in journals and books including African and Black Diaspora, Politics and Culture, A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, and The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Blackness In Comics and Sequential Art. He has also written for Callaloo, the Journal of the African Literature Association, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. His first book, Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, is being published by University of Minnesota Press.