Monday, 5 July 2010

Nic's Sticky Notes 2: Wired For Sound...

...Or if a letterer falls in a forest, does it make a sound effect?

The last few weeks I've been mostly lettering Unbelievable by Simon Wyatt. I've been having a whale of a time. It's an unusual book, as rewarding as it is demanding to work on, and it's made me think about some stuff that Cy suggested I share with the internets.

Here's page 36, complete with sound effects, the reason for which will become apparent below...

Page 36 of Unbelievable.
Art and Story by Simon Wyatt
Letters by Nic Wilkinson

So here goes...

While this might be a strange thing to say, as a letterer, I've never really liked SFX in comics. Of course, there are exceptions. People like Will Eisner, Frank Miller and Todd Klein do some incredibly expressive and innovative things with them, but in general I usually found they got in the way.

I think it's something to do with comics being a purely visual medium, and the difficulties faced with expressing all the other senses through just one.

And SFX are weird little things. They're not "writing" exactly, but they're not "pictures" either. We're all good comics readers and we know that "A is A", as well we should. But how is "A" when used in expressing the roar of monster different to "A" in the sound of cracking ice, or wind in the trees, or someone's head being shoved down a toilet?

The soundtrack on a film can render the same scene entirely emotionally differently. Can it do the same in a comic?

Up to this point, I hadn't had to do many sound effects in the books and stories I've lettered. It just turned out that way, and I was happy with that state of affairs. I was getting on well with my 26 letters, some punctuation marks and a flexible set of balloons.

Here are some Cancertown Players with their respective fonts.

Cancertown Volume One.
Story by Cy Dethan
Pencils by Stephen Downey
Colours by Mel Cook
Letters by Nic Wilkinson

I wanted to letter Unbelievable since I first saw some samples of it on Simon Wyatt's ComicSpace page a few years ago. I won't go into the all the details of how it came about here, but in June I had all the finished art and the script sitting on my PC.

I'd done some preview pages for an ebook and for some promo stuff already, so I knew that it's full of sound effects. Something, having talked my way onto the book, I suddenly realised I didn't have any experience in creating. Not only that, it's in beautiful (but unforgiving) black and white - so no colour palette to add to the mix.


I thought I'd look for some info on how others do it, but apart from technical "how to" guides there's not much out there on the "art" of lettering.

I started to think it's a bit odd, isn't it, that something so unique and integral to comics as a medium doesn't seem to have had much consideration? Scott McCloud touches on it in his wonderful Understanding Comics, and all the mighty Will Eisner had to say on the topic is that "speech balloons are a desperation device."

Of course he's right. That isn't how sound works. It doesn't take up physical space. It can certainly provoke physical reactions, voluntary and involuntary, but that will doubtless have been specified in the script, and illustrated in the art through body language and expression. No matter if a noise is so loud it makes you wince, or cringe, or bursts your eardrums, there won't be a 10ft tall sculpture of its iconic representation descending from the heavens to smack you in the head.

Here is my first attempt at a sound so big it rattles everything from the surrounding mountains to the teeth in your head.

Detail from Page 23 of Unbelievable.
Art and Story by Simon Wyatt
Letters by Nic Wilkinson

That's before you even get into all the tricky, curly bits of how the laws of physics apply to dynamic artistic expression - sound effects in space, anyone?

But the thing about "sound" in comics is that it not only very definitely does elbow its way into the spatial dimensions of the book, but it noisily intrudes on the temporal ones as well! Of course, sound moves (and we experience it) through space and time, so it shouldn't have been surprising, really, but it was.

Sound in space is one thing, of course, but sound in time can really start to mess with your creative head.

I guess a lot depends on the level of realism you are going for. We've all seen the old-style pages where in the time it takes a laser beam to shoot from a ray gun we've had 2 characters engaging in a little hero/villain banter, but those books weren't attempting "realism" so it doesn't kick you out of the story. At the other extreme there are times when a moment can be strung out over panels, if not pages (often used to spectacular effect in Japanese comics like Lone Wolf and Cub), and we all know about the temporal magic artists can work with panel shapes, gutter widths, placement and borders, or lack of them, in order to include or exclude time.

This throws up all sorts of issues about the SFX and their relationship to the characters on the page with them, and how, unless you're creating some sort of metafictional extravaganza, they react, interact and engage with this "physical sound".

I think that in many cases, the answer is that they don't interact at all - but the problem with that is that the lettering can then look like it just "sits on" the art. In a way, the lettering needs to be "in" the world, but not "of" it.

Animals, or any of the various kinds of non human we meet in comics are something different again. Their senses are different, so what is sound like to them, and how to get that idea across?

Here, I tried to show that when Rax is distracted by a sound, he can almost "see" it in the air, due to his acute senses.

Detail from Page 37 of Unbelievable.
Art and Story by Simon Wyatt
Letters by Nic Wilkinson

And while we're talking about perception and interpretation, I've found myself having to think about how to visually create the tension that comes from thinking a sound you hear is one thing and gradually becoming aware that it's something else. I can't show that though, because when and how it happens is a bit of a major plot point!

In non-SFX lettering, of course, you still have to make a lot of artistic choices in terms of fonts, sizes, shapes of balloons, placement etc (in fact I've come to think of balloons shapes and fonts somewhat like adverbs in the visual grammar) - but SFX just seemed that one step more artificial for some reason. It's not, of course. I haven't seen anyone with floating bubbles over their heads printing out their speech to text in real time.

But what about words so powerful they can alter reality?

Here is The Babyface from Cancertown. She is a very emotional creature and what she says materially affects the people and places around her.

Chapter 5 Page 17 detail

Chapter 5 Page 17 details

Cancertown Volume One.
Story by Cy Dethan
Pencils by Stephen Downey
Colours by Mel Cook
Letters by Nic Wilkinson

Speaking of visual grammar, persistence of sound is something else I've been thinking about. If you show something making a sound in one panel, does it make it again in the next panel, or is that just taken as read now?

This is my take on it for a scream that continues through nearly 4 panels of action:

Detail from Page 35 of Unbelievable.
Art and Story by Simon Wyatt
Letters by Nic Wilkinson

So, despite English letters being abstract marks, I decided to try and use the scary SFX expressively and bring them to life. To make them part of the artwork and visually express, amplify or contrast the shapes, position, intention and interaction of the sounds with the environment.

The artwork on Unbelievable, though, is just a gift for doing this kind of thing. It's incredible emotionally expressive and has a sense of sound and motion already deeply embedded in the world. There's a couple of pages in particular that I'd really like to show to illustrate this, but I've probably skirted too close to the spoiler line for comfort, anyway, and those would really be a step over!

Another interesting thing to me, in the course of working on the book, is to see where SFX have been specified but to include them would actually reduce the reality of the reading experience. To give two examples I've worked on recently, without spoilers I hope:

The first was a scene where 2 boys are running and shouting to each other before falling silent as they pass in front of a field with some horses. The horse are cantering about. You could put SFX in here to show the heavy sound of their hooves hitting the grass. However, the image on its own is so expressive that you can already "hear" the horses. To put the sound in and have the reader's "voice" mentally say the sound in their mind would lessen the effectiveness of the storytelling. Instead of being "with" the boys we would be "watching" the boys. Letting the reader have the same abrupt halt in the stream of words makes the experience much more direct. It also draws our attention to the sense of place much more strongly.

The second is a hospital scene. There are lots of machines around, which would be beeping and clicking and such. But as readers we already know all that in our mental model of "hospital" so just being able to see the machines means we can "show not tell" and instead, as a letterer, focus on the very emotional and intricate conversation. By not distracting the reader with beeps and clicks they can share some of the intensity of the conversation that blocks out all other considerations. Of course, if you wanted to show characters distracted, then you might well put the SFX in.

It's all about the signal-to-noise ratio, I guess.

All this is really a long way round to saying that I have discovered a new love and appreciation for "visual sound" in comics through working on the book.

It'll be out later this year, if you want to have a look.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. Interesting parallel between movie soundtracks and comics, too. Personally, I've always thought the two were more similar than people were prepared to admit.

    For me, though, FX aren't something I'm big on, and I rarely (if ever) include them in my scripts, but recently, I saw the lettering proofs for a strip I've written, and the letterer had taken the decision to add FX. I was stunned by how much it enhanced the story and brought a whole new feel to the story.

    I guess this is a long winded way of re-iterating the fact that good lettering can really bind a strip together and enhance the atmosphere of a story.

    And, as someone who's struggling to get to grips with Illustrator, my hat goes off to you for superior lettering skills!


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