Seeing Sounds / Hearing Pictures – A Round Table on Sound & Comics (part four)

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final part of an exciting four-part series here on The Middle Spaces—co-organized and co-edited by Joshua Kopin—a round table of fifteen different scholars discussing the intersections of sound and comics (and sound in comics). If you haven’t yet read the rest, be sure to also go back and read parts one, two, and three. Full bios for all our contributors can be found on the Guest Writers page.

Our round table continues today with four more scholars asking questions, this time about the erotics and rhythms of comic sound, the transmedial adaptation of sound, and the contribution of page design to sound.

How does the lettering and repetition in Margot Ferrick’s Yours create an erotic sonic reading experience?

André Habet, Ph.D. student at Syracuse University’s Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program.

a full page from Yours. On the left in red loose lettering is the word 'God'. On the right side is a series of five concentric white rectangles filled in with black with 'Fuck me' on the top and bottom of the innermost rectangle.

A full page from Margot Ferrick’s Yours.

I put Yours by Margot Ferrick to the bottom of the stack when it arrived from experimental comic publisher 2D Cloud. Striking in its appearance due to its red fore edge printing, I was turned off by its lack of panels and reliance on repeated texts, dismissing it as pretentious work. And yet, Yours has been the comic from the Spring 2017 collection I have most often revisited. A comic centered on the narrator Sarah’s growing devotion to a person only referred to as ‘A’, Yours’s oblique epistolary narrative and stuttering circular text bound me to it in a manner that mirrors the narrator’s troubling devotion to their beloved. Yours exemplifies how comics can function sonically primarily through text’s arrangements and variations in their form.

An excerpt from 'Yours' illustrating the use of repetition in the comic. This spreed features two pages dominated by the text 'Not As' written repeatedly with the text 'NEVER AS BRIGHT' occupying the center of the spread, edging into the binding."

An excerpt from ‘Yours’ illustrating the use of repetition in the comic. [Click to Enlarge]

I’m interested here in speculating on the way Ferrick’s experiment with text creates a sonic experience I had not formerly encountered in comics. Yours clarifies a limitation of Scott McCloud’s understanding of the relationships available between text and image in comics, which imagines either element as separate and stable categories juxtaposed toward the creation of a particular effect. From this perspective, readers locate a comic’s sound in the semiotic meaning of text (narration, dialogue, onomatopoeia), or in the illustrative representation of a sonic event, such as a fist connecting with a person’s face, typically paired with an onomatopoeia according to some genre conventions, such as in the comic panel below. Hannah Miodrag’s “Fragmented Text: The Spatial Arrangement of Words in Comics” (from the Fall 2010 issue of the International Journal of Comic Art) critiques this limiting view, offering that meaning can be found in areas outside of the juxtaposition of text/image or in closure provided by a comic’s gutter if comics are instead viewed as fragmentary spatial arrangements where text and image co-create meaning (Miodrag 309). I take up Miodrag’s fragmented spatial arrangement to show how Yours generates sound by way of constant juxtaposition and variation between letters’ forms and their arrangement. In these juxtapositions, Ferrick’s work presents synesthetic visuals that replicate the sound work of non-speech vocalizing.

Batman stands in the center of the image punching two people on either side of him. The comic onomatopoetic sounds 'Pow!' and 'Sok!' accompany the hit to the person on the left and the person on the right respectively.

POW! SOK! Batman’s famous onomatopoeia.

Unlike the onomatopoetics like the ‘Pow!’ and ‘Sok!’ in a Batman comic, Yours’ words take on their sonic significance not by attempting to represent a sound, but through how Ferrick arranges text across pages. For instance, the spread above is comprised mostly of the words ‘Not As’ repeated across two pages with the words ‘Never as bright’ in the center bleeding right into the spine. On immediate encounter, the page evinces no changes to the repeated text beyond minor variations in their cursive lettering in letter form and the letter’s weight. The lightly penciled ‘Not as’ functions as a constellation of a low-grade insecure feeling by the narrator about their intelligence, one of the running doubts throughout the text limiting the narrator’s ability to directly articulate their longing for the beloved ‘A.’ The prominence of ‘Never as Bright’ due to its relatively large size and the weight of its lettering draws the viewer’s eye to it, and its centrality among the field of ‘Not As’ text generates a sonic effect that spikes in volume through this juxtaposition of lettering forms and sizes. The effect’s impact relies on the viewer taking up the page’s entire arrangement at once rather than moving sequentially through in an upper left to lower right direction as dictated by typical Western comics conventions. The ‘Not as’ in this reading has its semiotic meaning removed following a reader’s repeat encounter with the text, and takes on significance more so for its formal elements of repetition and looseness. Most pages of Yours invites readers to a similar global uptake of the markings Ferrick makes that suggest its emotional arc exists external to the narrative occurring within the letter’s text. The constantly shifting lettering styles, sizes and their intermittent disruption by abstract imagery and shapes throughout Yours push the reader towards recognizing the difficulty with which the narrator works to articulate their longing while managing their insecurities.

On the Tight Pencils podcast, Ferrick cites the influence of pop music on Yours’ rhythms, an influence most readily apparent when parts of the text are held up against the vocal work in songs, such as D’Angelo’s ‘Brown Sugar.’ Like the opening vocal riffs that are non-speech vocal sounds, Ferrick uses text to convey an affect beyond the meaning of the words by forcing a reader’s optic attention to how the hand behind the lettering is present in these various elements. The hands’ markings gain a sonic quality through this synesthetic encounter that renders similar subtleties in affect akin to the repetition and variation in D’Angelo’s vocalizations without the presence of a visualized sound origin on the page. In other words, the hands’ markings in letters are a visual counterpart to the adjustments in frequency and pitch made in non-speech vocalizations, taking on the work of conveying the comic’s affect in a subtler manner than the epistolary’s narrative.  Ferrick’s Yours raises the question about how Miodrag’s spatial arrangement framework opens opportunities to understand the sonic work of comics’ lettering.

How Do We Hear Sexual Fluids As Sonic Difference In Comix? 

Yetta Howard, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University

In her well-studied Hard Core (1989), Linda Williams initiated scholarly attention to the “money shot”: the climactic moment of male ejaculation in the pornographic visual economy. Building on but also critically departing from what Williams discusses as hard-core pornography’s phallocentric “erotic organization of visibility” (271), I approach this roundtable’s focus on the status of sound in comics by asking what it means to consider the visual presence of sexual fluids and associated sounds that are marginal to hetero-erotic representation: saliva, vaginal secretions, and the varieties and mixtures of other liquids outside the eroto-affective sonic norms that tend to accompany the representations of heteronormative sexual practices. The countercultural, feminist, and erotic contexts of underground comix reflect radical ways to think about how comix aesthetics accommodate queer sexualities. While demonstrating non-dominant ways of erotically being and representing, the sonic-sexual differences of the comix in question also suggest non-ableist forms of listening, ways to access sound beyond corporeal orthodoxies of auditory reception. By hearing sexual fluids, we listen for difference as something traceable in the sonic domains of the graphic—pictorial/explicit—text. These primarily onomatopoetic erotics destabilize assumptions about comics as a silent genre and offer valuable possibilities for hearing sexual minority difference.

[FIGURE 1 from Aiken Forett, Moon Mullins in “Theme Songs” (1935), Courtesy of San Diego State University Special Collections and University Archives]

We can locate the history of sound’s association with sexual fluids in underground comix by examining examples of the Tijuana Bibles, also known as eight-pagers, which were created from the late 1920s through the mid-1950s. These were cheaply-produced, hastily drawn, 4×3-inch, rectangle hand pamphlets showing explicit sexual scenarios and, by the late 1930s, 16-page, double-sided versions circulated and opened vertically unlike the horizontal eight-pagers (Pilcher with Kannenberg, Jr., Erotic Comics, 2008). In accessing several eight- and 16-pagers in San Diego State University’s Special Collections and University Archives, I observed that the auditory accompaniment of sexual fluids, not surprisingly, almost always come through hetero-masculinist sexual expression even when not featuring heterosexual activity: in addition to depictions of ejaculation, men are often the only subjects shown sweating during the sexual activities. In addition to bringing together pornographic content with comics aesthetics, the Tijuana Bibles demonstrate how to consider bodily fluids as audible graphic events. A noteworthy example I discovered is Aiken Forett’s Moon Mullins in “Theme Songs” (1935), which subversively pairs bastardized jazz and pop standards of the era with taboo erotic scenarios. Its “Oh, How I Need You To-Night” page appears to “sing” the song’s fantasy-longing through the visual presence of excessive masturbation and sweat. Such vernacular sexual expressions of the Tijuana Bibles in their unabashed explicitness influenced underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s whose uninhibited representations of bodily fluids and wide-ranging experiments with sexuality has continued with contemporary erotic comix.

Colleen Coover’s lesbian pornographic comic Small Favors (1999–2004) is a very juicy comic, in that depictions of vaginal secretions via sex toy-use, copious sweat from BDSM scenarios, and saliva-heavy oral sex figure prominently and frequently. The visual and auditory presence of the comix’s sexual activity is less about fluid being ejected in some kind of organized climactic moment and more about a lingering quality of the vaginal secretions that actively dislocate a money shot sequence in ways that can be heard as much as seen. While keeping in mind that female ejaculate is thinner than other kinds of bodily fluids including seminal fluids, it is necessary here to emphasize the comix’s depictions of viscosity – the unstable state between solid and liquid – that are more liquid than solid, unevenly liminal. Contesting normative erotic flows, queer sexual difference becomes a more runny than sticky state of being. A disproportionate liquidity to solidity is also captured in the queer reading practices associated with the graphic form: the left panel in Figure 2 from Small Favors #2 (1999) does not really isolate itself; instead, its perceived stasis maintains a lingering relational quality with the panels that precede and follow it. This lingering is detectable in the visual-auditory rendering of its onomatopoetic “Porp!” “Shup! “Slooch!” identifying the penetration of orifices that play with and destabilize hetero-erotic phallic practices. Just as the slick “Slooch!” of the strap-on sex signifies the generosity of lube application that often comes with dildo-use, the proximal-sounding “Porp!” suggests a depth of penetration with the dildo yielding cervical mucus among other secretions. In turn, the tapered brevity of “Shup!” becomes a reliable sonic for anal-thumbing. The reader-listener confronts the comix’s mimicry of sexual sound as thinned out rather subdued lettering, and rather than as a letterform, it is heard and seen as plain script with a simple exclamation point. Here, the unexpected plainness of the exclamation points’ execution surfaces as a sexually audible libertinism reflecting the runny qualities of the bodily fluids in their associations with the sex acts in question.  

In this example from Small Favors #5 (2004), lip smacking—in absence of onomatopoetic framing—invokes sound through the indiscriminate distribution of salivary-genital droplets. Like the dildo example, what is significant is the string of fluid that refuses to be loyal to either contact point. Its liquid elasticity and viscous flexibility do not quite adhere to either corporeal surface but allow the liquid to be drawn out, to linger, and hang from mouth to genitals, sex toy to thighs, refusing a fixed point of origin or completion. But it is the slightly bolded “MMM” in the speech balloon that is sonically legible as the lingering: depicted as a single utterance, it is intimated as heard throughout the activity. The graphic form’s movement here, un-invested in a heteronormative simultaneity of pleasure, is what queerly enhances and facilities the protracted quality of the fluids and sounds: perhaps marking time, the wallpaper changes patterns between panels. The uneven physical properties of the more liquid viscosity, along with the inconsistent rendering of “MMM,” propose a way to hear the bodily fluids as a queer sexual politics of difference and ultimately represent how to foment strategies of listening to sex in the medium.

How do the visual-tactile elements of page design contribute to the way image-texts sound?

Torsa Ghosal, Assistant Professor of English – California State University, Sacramento

Richard Kraft’s Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera (with contributions from Danielle Dutton) (2015) and Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World (2005) are collaged books that subvert familiar cultural tropes by appropriating and re-purposing images and texts associated with them. In Here Comes Kitty, Kraft inserts images from a variety of sources, including photographs of a school choir, portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Mahatma Gandhi, and figures from Amar Chitra Katha comics, to disrupt the narrative arc of Andrzej Zbych and Mieczyslaw Wisniewski’s Kapitan Kloss (1971), a comic book about a Polish spy infiltrating the Nazis. Kraft’s book takes the rectangular panels of Kapitan Kloss featuring Nazi soldiers involved in shooting and bombing and fills sections of those panels with incongruous entities, ranging from flying monkeys, paragliding children to bodybuilders. The resulting book is chaotic, but the chaos has a sinister undertone to it.

Opening page of Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World (2005)

British collage-artist Graham Rawle also exploits the ability of random juxtapositions to give rise to new meaning in his novel, Woman’s World. Rawle cuts and pastes about 40,000 scraps from his private archive of women’s magazines published in the UK in the 1960s to create Woman’s World. The page layouts of Woman’s World resemble traditional print novels, but every word of the narrative is also a scrap, cut out of a magazine. Images and illustrations from the magazines accompany the text. The novel follows a male narrator, Roy, who cross-dresses as his deceased sister to keep her alive in a sense, but, in the process, finds himself irretrievably trapped in the consumerist culture where commodities define “womanhood.” Both Kraft and Rawle, while cutting and piecing scraps from their archives of source texts, draw attention to the way their assemblages sound.

Kraft and Rawle are concerned not only with depicting the sonic attributes of dialogue and visualizing sound effects associated with actions in the storyworld, but also with the way the tonality of the archives they cut-and-paste inflect what readers infer from the verbal-visual language of Here Comes Kitty and Woman’s World. Thus, sound in both texts is a combination of effects. Rawle states that the scraps from the women’s magazines give his novel’s narrator the “original voice of the 1960s-woman’s world” while Kraft recalls that when reading stories, he “… loved to imagine what the cacophony might sound like! And even as a youngster I seemed to grasp that meaning is tenuous and fluid, and that language is often deficient when truths become evident in other ways or when alternative means of communication can be discovered” (54). In Here Comes Kitty and Woman’s World, the alternative means of communication include visual and haptic qualities of the typefaces and the texture of the scraps constituting the collages. Readers’ engagement with these visual-tactile elements further inform what they “hear” when reading the collaged books.

The indexicality of the fonts and images—that is, contexts in which readers generally encounter them—contribute to the sound these evoke in Rawle’s and Kraft’s books. Woman’s World opens with the narrator named Norma (the cross-dressed avatar of Roy), asking, “What is your idea of a perfect home?”—a question that sounds as though it belongs in a commercial. This impression is a composite outcome of the words along with the modulation of fonts, sizes, and weights. Thus, the “original voice of the 1960s woman’s-world” to which Rawle refers is not simply language, though language is part of what constitutes “voice.” Rawle depends on the readers’ experiential background and familiarity with conventions of advertising from the mid-twentieth century to set the novel’s tone.

Norma is characterized as a voracious reader of women’s magazines. And given that Norma is actually Roy, who dresses up to embody the fashionable woman he believes his sister would be if she hadn’t died, the magazines offer Roy templates to follow. In a similar vein, Rawle approaches his archive—the women’s magazines—as a reservoir of presence from which he collates the voice of the 1960s woman’s-world to “dress up” Roy. Media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst observes, “when we direct our senses to human voices or images of the past replayed from media recordings, we are not communicating with the dead; rather we are dealing with the past as a form of delayed presence” (69). Rawle’s collage poetics tap into the delayed presence of the past in his archive. He also invites readers to experience the past through multisensory interactions with the ‘60s magazine scraps constituting the novel.

Sample page from Richard Kraft’s Here Comes Kitty

While Rawle is interested in telling a story, Kraft repurposes his main source text—the Kapitan Kloss comic—to impress upon readers the continued presence of Nazis, challenging narratives that conflate the rise and fall of the Third Reich with the presence and erasure of Nazism. With Here Comes Kitty, Kraft has constructed a cacophony that dislocates fascist ideology from a particular time and place to show its ubiquity across cultures as well as historical periods.

Kraft’s eclectic archive offers opportunities for odd amalgamations. For instance, a dancer dressed as an apsara (a celestial nymph) from Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) says, “Let’s give the Engine a Whirl, Clive.” Readers of ACK—the comics series created to teach children primarily Hindu epics and mythologies—will realize the sheer dissonance in the placing of the celestial nymph’s figure alongside a speech bubble using idiomatic language that does not belong in ACK. As in Woman’s World, the tonal variations and incongruities in Here Comes Kitty become evident based on a readers’ degree of acquaintance with Kraft’s archive. However, whereas the scraps in Rawle’s novel give its male narrator the so-called woman’s voice, the mélange of texts and images in Here Comes Kitty renders the pictured characters—the Nazis—voiceless. Kraft often replaces parts of the Nazis’ bodies, sometimes the arm, sometimes the face, with other objects: the head of a soldier in swastika stamped uniform is a bunch of fruits. Speech attributed to such warped figures in bizarre settings amount to noise. Onomatopoeic sounds like “EEOEOO…” and gibberish, such as “FIHJPORAAZIQUEDVTSS…,” label panels interrupting whatever narrative trajectory the previous panels may have constructed. Images of choir boys serve as visual refrains, functioning as chorus amidst the cacophony.

It is no coincidence that Danielle Dutton refers to the collaboration between the composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham as a model for her work with Kraft on Here Comes Kitty. Cage’s compositions questioned the understanding of music as a deliberate arrangement of sound. Similarly, Kraft’s comic book with its visualization of cacophony objects to the tendency of imposing order on the past through linear master-narratives of victory and defeat.

In sum, when we compare Rawle’s and Kraft’s collages, we see that, whereas Rawle constructs a narrative voice from the archive for readers to follow, Kraft prompts readers to attend to noise, analogous to the chaos of history, through the structure of his comics. Both authors draw on the visual-tactile associations readers make with particular fonts, images, and textures to achieve the desired sound effects. As such, Here Comes Kitty and Woman’s World call attention to the range of perception processes that come into play while “reading” and facilitate the understanding of sound as an effect dependent on the readers’ experiential background and embodied engagement with a text.

What happens when comics modes are translated into media with sound?

Kay K. Clopton, Mary P. Key Resident: Cultural Diversity Inquiry at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

An example of the abundance of giongo in Jojo's Bizarre Adventure.

An example of the abundance of giongo in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Notice the ゴゴゴゴ (go go go go) translated as “dooom” on the page. It represents a rumbling sound as well as a menacing/foreboding presence.

What happens when the concepts of sounds and effects common to comics are translated from the page to the screen? Comics have long been a popular source for adaptation, going back to Batman and Superman film shorts and Little Orphan Annie radio dramas. Sounds have also had a prominent presence in comics, and typically the translation of said sounds in those transmedial adaptations goes from a visual presentation to something aural. However, this is not always the case. The Batman television series in the 1960s incorporated the comic book sfx of fisticuffs in every episode; the visual comic book burst balloon was coupled with a horn blast to create a three-dimensional experience of a two-dimensional effect that is vastly different from the actual sound of fist hitting flesh. This marriage of comic book sfx with physical sounds in Batman precedes the arrival of Japanese manga and anime in the West, and adds a richness that their sound effects would bring to the entertainment landscape.  The arrival of Japanese anime and manga in North America ushered in a renewal of books and television programs in which sound and textual sfx converge. The manga series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure by Araki Hirohiko is a vibrant example of what happens when the giongo (onomatopoeic) and gitaigo (mimetic) are transposed and translated when made into an anime. [Giongo are effects that replicate actual sounds, e.g. カチャ (kacha) for the sound of a door being opened, whereas gitaigo are not necessarily sounds but emotion or action in which the word mimics the emotional or action-oriented effect, e.g. カー (ka-) for a blush and イライラ (ira ira) for being irritated.] What is the significance of presenting sound effects as words in a moving visual medium like anime?

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a multi-generational narrative in which numerous men from the same family (all nicknamed JoJo) are tangled up in adventures involving vampires, monsters, and characters that share their names with Western rock bands. Like many manga, giongo and gitaigo appear in abundance throughout the series and add a richness to the Japanese comics narrative. These same effects are often replicated in the anime by being written out on the screen. While this is not the first series to replicate manga moves for the small screen, this one is as well-known for its sounds as it is for the constant battles and Western rock/pop music. A popular effect that appears regularly in JoJo is ごごご (Go Go Go). This is a rumbling sound that often, in the manga, signals to the reader a foreboding presence. It is meant to invoke tension. It often appears in the anime as well: Dio Brando (a recurring villain) often appears with ごごご floating behind him. (Examples of these and other effects are featured in the Youtube clip below.) But why is there also an actual, physical sound accompanying the image? Is it akin to the “BAM” and “POW one would see in the Batman television series? That is, are the Japanese printed sound effects further emphasized by actual sounds like the horn blasts did for the sound effects in Batman? If so, then ごごご as gitaigo is meant to recall the reading experience. However, because ごごご is a giongo as it is an actual rumbling sound, what we are getting instead is a layering of sound effects (both in a physical layering of sfx as well as a layering of meaning).

I posit that the giongo and gitaigo are read in manga like a language, but instead of reading the words for dialogue, they are read for mood, tone, and direction. It is akin to the Foley work one hears in films. The transition of a work of manga to anime in this manner is not so much interpretation or adaptation as it is a transliteration – literal moving pictures. Considering that a number of years passed before it became an anime, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’s framing of sound is a nod to the manga. The iconic sounds from the page are transplanted to represent their significance to the narrative itself. These effects are significant in manga because they are not only sounds but carry the burden of indicating emotion and action, and the way to carry the heart of the series into the anime is to have the giongo and gitaigo remain as originally depicted (in their original Japanese), even when sounds are presented aurally as well. We can see the framing of sound in an anime moment as a tableau vivant of sorts; the sound frames the narrative, grounding the image by making the sound and emotional cues a vital aspect that utilizes manga narrative tropes to communicate with the reader/viewer. By translating these comics modes into moving pictures, the series is communicating to the readers that the same narrative tropes still apply. Even for those who may not have read the manga, the sfx referent signals to a seasoned anime-watching fan base that there is a print connection to the work presented on their television screens.

We would like to thank all of the contributors to the Seeing Sounds / Hearing Pictures round table for their insightful inquiry into the role of sound in comics, and to invite other scholars and thinkers to consider joining the conversation, not just in the comments or on social media, but to consider pitching a guest post of your own on the subject of sound in comics or all its various intersections. These round tables require a great deal of work and coordination, but they are a crucial contribution to public scholarship in the field, and The Middle Spaces will continue to organize them yearly around different themes, so there will be future opportunities to participate. Keep your eyes (and ears) open and consider subscribing to The Middle Spaces (Infrequent) Newsletter to keep abreast of news.

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