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 comics theorist Scott McCloud‘s seminal work Understanding Comics (1993), there comes a point following his convoluted description of Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images” where he asks the reader, “Do you hear what I’m saying?” In the next panel he adds, “If you do, have your ears check because no one said a word.” The joke is, of course, that while his comic doppelganger is depicted as talking through the use of word balloons, no words are being spoken. We are reading, not hearing. And yet, sound (or rather, its representation) remains a crucial part of reading and enjoying comic books.
Magritte was trying to get us to think about the treachery of visual representation, while McCloud points us of the treachery of aural representation. A stylized “SPLAT!” is certainly not a sound, but our instinctual understanding of sound helps us to interpret what is otherwise a silent medium in ways beyond the mere the descriptive effect of a sound’s depiction. The way comics use sound can teach us about the function of sound in understanding the visual and textual. As McCloud asserts, comics depend on the reader to create closure between parts of an imagined whole in order for disparate panels to make sense. While it second-nature for the comic reader to interpret the depiction of sound in comics, the closure enacted to make stylized textual elements into “a sound” is a central way that this is enacted.
The most famous use of comic sound effect words is probably from the old 1960s Batman TV series—where the “SOCK!” and “BONG!” of superhero and sidekick reinforced the campy aesthetic of the program. It is telling that the Batman-theme (and the fight scenes in general) uses horn flares to emphasize those “POW!” and “BIFF!” moments. The suggestion is that the ostentatious representations of sound that these textual flare sound effect words provide are an empty signifier. There is no sound behind that sound. The weak-sounding slaps and smacks of knuckles on flesh would never suffice for the larger than life world of comic superheroes, and the more out-there comics get the more difficult it is to trace a relationship between the textual/visual representation and any sound in the real world. There is no point of comparison by which to understand the “SHREEEEEE!” of a launching “zirrer” in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, but only the vague evocation of some loud shrill noise.
And yet, comic readers not only understand these representations as sound, but there are also a variety of visual clues given that help the reader interpret some quality of those sounds. The most ubiquitous example of sound in comics is, of course, the word balloon—so ubiquitous in fact that it is easy to take for granted the fact that comics have their own conventions for handling and describing sound without recourse to adjectives. The irony is that the shape and texture of word balloons (just like the shape and texture of sound effect words like “BOOM!”) that help to convey the quality of sound become nearly invisible to the reader. Just as any literate person sees a word they know and interprets it for what it is meant to represent and not a collection of individual letters, the dripping icicle-like shape of a word balloon is read as a cold tone or the sharp points of the balloon are read as loud and abrupt.
In her essay “The Comic Book’s Soundtrack” from The Language of Comics (2001), Catherine Khordoc provides a very good overview of the use of sound in comics using the example of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix to provide examples of the various ways word balloons and the implanting of onomatopoeic words directly into the panel image itself are used to represent sounds in comic books. Yet, the function of the representation of sound in comic runs even deeper than simply translating the quality of sound itself; it also serves to help establish timeframes for panels (or sets of panels) and functions in establishing the closure the reader performs in making sense of both individual panels and their context within a sequence of panels. Discrete sounds—whether it’s the “FWOOSH!” of the Human Torch flaming on or long-winded pseudo-scientific explanation of the Negative Zone by Mr. Fantastic—require the passage of time to be intelligible. In order for sounds to be differentiated, they must have some form of beginning, middle and end (or in the parlance of synthesized sound, “attack, decay, sustain, release”). This means that in comics, a medium where space and time merge, representations of sound are crucial to making sense of action, in particular, to the passage of time within a singular panel—for while time can be shown to pass between two or more panels through the process of closure (implicitly understanding the movement or occurrence not depicted between panels that makes them sequential), a singular panel is not necessarily a discrete moment, as an entire conversation can occur within it, requiring readers to perform closure even within the scope of a single panel.
For example, in the second panel below, despite the static image, the passage of time suggested by the conversation about Spider-man’s wounds and payment leads the reader to make sense of the sequence between it and the panel that follows. It is the reader’s understanding that it takes time to talk and listen out loud that helps make the time of the panel apparent.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of the centrality of sound, at least to the superhero comic genre, was Marvel’s decision to include a synopsis and explanation of the action at the end of each issue of the “‘Nuff Said,” “silent” month of comics back in 2001—wherein there was no dialogue or captions.
There is still a lot to consider when it comes to sound in comics—not just the rhetoric of sound or sound as a signifier of time, but sound as identity. Representations of sound in comics can serve as a form of character signature, and I do not mean only famous lines like Superman’s “Up, up and away!” (which really emerged from Superman radio plays), but iconic sounds such as Spider-man’s web-shooters going “THWIPP!” or Wolverine’s claws, “SNIKT!” that over time have come to be more than just descriptive sound-words, but signifiers that are unique for the characters themselves. (See TV Trope’s page on signature sound effects)
In the end, this brief overview will hopefully serve as a starting point in generating more thoughts on not only how our familiarity with sound informs our reading and interpreting of comics, but how this (admittedly) very general idea can be applied to other ostensibly silent and primarily visual media. The use of sound in comics is a perfect example of how the transparency of sound can make it presence and function easy to overlook. Furthermore, the way in which it is used to orient the reader and help provide closure between and within panels, and identify characters clues us in to the importance of its role and the importance of considering where and how else it might function. I, for one, am going to keep thinking on it and looking for examples of in comics and hope that others join their thoughts to the discussion. Until then, as Stan Lee would “say,” Excelsior!