Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Comic Book Sound Effects

The world depicted in comic books is very different from our own. Impossibly-muscled heroes with powers far beyond those of mortal men leap around in outlandish costumes foiling unnecessarily elaborate crimes, extraterrestrials and ancient gods periodically threaten the earth, and all women have perfect, round boobs. How could comic book reality be any more different than ours? Oh, that’s right, when you punch someone, giant floating letters appear in the air. 

What you and I call comic book sound effects—or SFX, punch words, or sound scribbles—are examples of onomatopoeia, a large, pretentious word that can score you major points with the brainiac squad (See Footnote 1). Onomatopoeia’s use is not limited to the realm of comic books. For instance, words like zap and zip mimic the sounds of their respective actions. Certain birds, like the chickadee, whip-poor-will, and cuckoo got their names based on the sounds of their calls, because the ornithologists who were in charge of naming them apparently had better things to do than sit around all day trying to think of names that didn’t sound like they had been invented by toddlers (See Figure 1: Onomatopoeiac Bird Names). 

So I’m on the campus of Carnegie Melon, right? The campus is right down the street from my apartment. And I’m playing street hockey in one of their fancy courtyards, by myself, because I’m so good at street hockey that nobody else can handle playing with me. So I score this killer goal, right through the front doors of the library, and the puck hits some genius in his big genius head and he starts crying. He gets in my face and says “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” and I say “Onomatopoeia, bitch!” which leaves him totally speechless, so I grab my puck out of his hand and skate away. Final score of the game? Carnegie Melon 0, The Mighty Fucks (my street team) 3,000.

FIGURE 1: Onomatopoeia-inspired Bird Names
Tweet tweet
Mr. Quackers
Humphrey Hoot Hoot 
MC Chirps-a-Lot
Dr. Cockadoodle

Comic book sound effects underline the medium’s glaring technological limitations. Simple stacks of glossy paper held together with staples, they have no video component, and must instead substitute small, primitive drawings in the place of high definition widescreen. They also, incredibly, lack an audio component—a feature even the lowly gramophone has (See Figure 2: Most Exciting Inventions of the Victorian Era)—and must instead communicate the sound of Captain America’s shield punching through an F-16’s cockpit glass using large, cartoonishly distorted letters. 

Many scientists believe that within twenty years this primitive art form will be completely replaced by television, movies, and video games (See The Future chart on page xx). Studies have shown that television and movies are better for your brain, because they eliminate the wear and tear that reading causes. And although comic books are good at desensitizing children to violence, they simply can’t compete with video games’ ability to realistically replicate the visceral experience of shooting someone in the face, or battering a hooker. It’s only a matter of time before comic books join heiroglyphics, Mayan doomsday carvings, and cave paintings in the pantheon of sequential art that nobody cares about.

Some critics have pointed out that I myself use words and drawings in this very book. When they point it out, they do it all dramatically, like Sherlock Holmes uncovering the identity of the murderer (“Who is in this very room!”) However, the crucial difference is that this book is merely a companion to the film version of Everything Explained Through Flowcharts, (if you haven’t seen it yet, Orlando Bloom plays me; he had to work out a lot and wear a prosthetic chin for the role) and is intended for people in remote areas such as the Mojave Desert, Antarctica, and West Virginia. Seriously, we merchandised the shit out of that movie. (See Figure 3: Everything Explained Through Flowcharts Movie Tie-in Merchandise.)

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