I’m continuing to look at elements of lettering as described in Part 1 of this article, beginning this time with sound effects. Sounds made by inanimate objects were slow to emerge in comic strips. Many early strips showed things like explosions, car crashes and fist fights with no sound at all, as if they might have been scenes from a silent film, even when characters spoke in word balloons in the same strip. Eventually sounds needed to tell the story began to appear using the same kind of thin block lettering as in speech balloons. The alarm clock in this strip is a good example, The clock has both circular and radiating motion lines, but the small sound effect lettering tells the story better.
Sometimes early sound effects were even smaller than the balloon lettering. I suppose this door bell might have been a quiet one, though the radiating motion lines help draw the eye to it. Note also the long dash at the end of this word balloon, suggesting unfinished or interrupted speech.
Here we have a bowling ball in a hat which has fallen from a hatrack onto what looks like a hard floor. Surely that would make a louder sound than the way it’s drawn! Again, though, some radiating lines help indicate the impact.
This strip shows two workmen banging on a large metal drum while someone is sleeping inside. The banging sound effects should have been a lot louder than the snoring! These radiating lines are wavy.
In the case of quiet sound effects like air escaping from holes in a hot air balloon, they had to be surrounded by air cloud shapes to be seen at all. Dashed lines from the holes to the shapes help show the connection.
Finally in Krazy Kat, a running gag of Ignatz Mouse throwing a brick at Krazy gave George Herriman a reason to make sounds a little bigger and more important, but not much bigger.
Eventually sound effects grew larger for really loud sounds, like explosions. The second panel above I think shows the hot air balloon exploding, and the sound effect is almost big enough to reflect that, though impact is lost by having it made of thin lines.
Sounds continued to grow bigger and more visible. Here ZING! is tiny but PLOP is quite large for the amount of noise it probably made, which adds to the humor. The punctuation in the balloon is odd, and hard to interpret out of context. Note again the long dashes suggesting interrupted speech.
Eventually sound effects were sometimes drawn as open letters with heavy outlines and filled with a bright color, a trend that continued into early comic books and one that’s still common today.
Human and animal sounds could also be emphasized with large or open display lettering (perhaps so called because they displayed the talent of the letterer). Always ahead of his time, this strip by the prolific Winsor McCay had each episode revolve around the uncontrolled sneeze of a small boy, highlighted in massive red-filled letters, all the more vivid compared to McCay’s usual small lettering. I’ve cut off the subtitles of the strip to make it larger, but I love them: “He Just Simply Couldn’t Stop It” and “He Never Knew When It Was Coming.”
Norman Jennett’s Marseleen was an early user of large open letters for sounds like a crying baby, all the more unusual in the way they rotate around the baby’s cradle until almost upside down.
Herriman’s Officer Pupp makes his point with large open letters in Herriman’s idiosyncratic style.
By 1935, an entire panel of Alley Oop filled with nighttime animal sounds keeping Oop awake told the story perfectly. As you can see, large open block lettering describing sounds, often filled with color, had become a unique feature of comics lettering.
This Sunday Krazy Kat used a wide variety of sound effects to represent night noises, even though they weren’t very large or different from each other. (Incidentally, Herriman’s lettering is clearly his own, in the same style as the rest of his art, something that would change in years to come in some strips.) Through sound effects, comic strip artists had found a new tool that could help tell stories with lettering in a way not seen in any other medium of the time.
In addition to word balloons and sound effects, comic strip artists created new vocabulary elements and symbols that readers soon came to understand as visual shorthand for specific sounds, actions, or non-verbal speech. This Barney Google strip has quite a few, let’s look at them.
Stars, in this case six-pointed ones, could add loudness and impact to sharp blows. They were also used after a hard blow to the head to suggest the mental impact on the character. In the balloon is another example of a double dash to suggest an interruption in speech.
In the second balloon here we have swearing symbols. Comic strip artist Mort Walker called them grawlixes. Others have named them obscenicons or profanitype. They can include non-letter typographic symbols such as @#$%&* as well as stars, spirals, thunderbolts, exclamation points and growly squiggles. In the first balloon we have two different sets of short dashes. The first is three dashes, which I think is meant to represent a pause, the same thing for which an ellipsis or three dots is generally used. The second is again two dashes, representing an interruption in speech. A subtle difference in comics punctuation.
Music notes in a balloon or out of it suggest a character humming, whistling, or playing a musical instrument. Such music is usually made-up nonsense, but occasionally it’s real music, as when Schroeder plays his toy piano in Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, and it’s often considered part of the lettering.
A word balloon filled with one or more giant question marks or exclamation points express something no words or picture can quite equal, a wordless and soundless expression that the reader immediately understands.
This is more a matter of art than lettering, but motion lines add greatly to the impact of sound effects, and might be considered part of them at times.
Here a smaller question mark in a balloon carries a subtly different message, while GULP in descending bubbles for a character drinking expresses sound in a unique way.
Flying water droplets are important elements of cartoon art, and also contribute to the understanding of the sound effects.
I had to include the final panel payoff, what a tour-de-force of humor, sound effects and unique comics symbols from Billy DeBeck! At the end of the balloon are three dashes, again suggesting a pause.
Early on, breathy sounds like GULP or SIGH had no special treatment, but over time some artists put punctuation around them to show there was something different going on. In this panel, Al Capp has added little bursts at each side of the GULP, and parentheses around those. Capp also used parentheses to indicate thoughts, whispers, or quiet asides, but some artists used just parentheses to indicate vocal sound without voice. In comics these gradually became dashed parentheses and then small burst lines at each side of the word. I call them “breath marks.” That idea might have come from Capp’s small bursts.
Speaking of swearing symbols, I’ve traced their use back to at least 1901 in this obscure comic strip. Some of these are hard to interpret, but Lady Bountiful at least knows what’s meant.
ADDED: Thanks to Alex Jay for a lead to this image from the 1877 book Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes (W. J. Johnston, New York) about telegraph workers, with illustrations by James J. Calahan including this one that uses swearing symbols. I would call this comics, though most of the book is text. This is now the earliest known use of swearing symbols.
Perhaps the most creative and delightful use of swearing symbols is this one from Thimble Theatre in its early years before Popeye became the star. It’s hard to imagine actual words that could live up to that!
Before we leave this topic, here’s the first of two creative and innovative uses of lettering in the work of Winsor McCay. In this strip, giant word balloons denote the screams of pain from a character with an attack of gout. McCay didn’t play with large lettering often, but here it’s startling and claustrophobic. The giant balloons have roundness and depth created by the shape of the letters, as they crowd the characters out of the images.
Even more remarkable is this strip where the character Flip is knocking down letters from the title, using a piece of the bottom panel border, both things usually assumed by readers to be unseen by those in the comic. Nemo and his friends have been closed out of a banquet hall, and Flip decides to try eating title letters instead. “Oh! Flip! You’re spoiling the drawing!” Nemo exclaims. Flip replies, “Why don’t the artist feed us then? Oh! This is great! Try it!” McCay’s idea is funny and brilliant, suggesting that elements of lettering and borders can become tools, props and even food for the characters in a meta way that breaks through the assumptions of the reader, presenting a completely new understanding of how comics can work. In this, as in many things, Winsor McCay was ahead of his time.