Give ‘Em Elle: Visualizing Music for Comics
Welcome to Give ‘Em Elle, a weekly column that hopes to bridge the gap between old school comics fandom and the progressive edge of comics culture.
I didn’t know what I was going to cover this week, but then I got this tweet:
Readers may not know this, but I love music, and I often find myself thinking about how it relates to comics; which characters would listen to which artists, and so forth. But that’s something you can ask me about on Twitter. Today I want to get at Katie’s question about music in comics, because it’s been relevant to some of my favorite recent titles.
The classic way to visualize music in comics is just to put the lyrics in a word balloon with some musical notes scattered around to convey singing. I’m going to be honest; I hate this approach, and in this day and age, I’m sure I’m not the only one. Even if the lyrics are better than the example above, I find it impossible to read them as a song instead of a tuneless poem. I’ve never been sure if the writers who use this method even know what the tune is supposed to be, but even if they did, there’s no way to convey it on the page.
Then there’s the option of not really portraying it at all. When Dazzler first appears in Uncanny X-Men #130, Chris Claremont simply describes her performance in captions, and lets Cyclops tell us how talented she is (even though he knows nothing about disco). There are no lyrics to her songs included, and the only visualization of the music itself is the lightshow that Dazzler’s powers make of it.
You could make an argument that Dazzler is the ultimate comic book musician, because her mutant ability is literally taking sound and translating it into something you can see. But she’s rarely used that way, and she’s also always had the problem of being a little bit out of touch with what’s actually cool at any given moment. Even here, in her very first appearance, she’s a disco diva who has arrived just in time for the 1980s. Now to be sure, there were still plenty of discos in 1980, but the whole thing was already on the way out.
And that’s a whole other problem comics has with music — you don’t have to focus on whatever is the current trend when you include music in a comic book story, but when that’s what you’re trying to do and you’re failing, it’s really, really obvious. Mainstream comics have historically not been very hip. But more recently, there are a few books working to change that.
You can’t do a Jem and the Holograms comic without somehow depicting music, and Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell have found a pretty unique new way to do it. The music itself is visualized as a kind of brightly colored energy that pours out of the instruments and makes shapes in the air. The lyrics to the songs are included within, but it’s less about reading them than about giving the reader an impression of what it would be like to be a in a space filled with this music.
What’s cool about this technique is that it allows for the visual depiction of different styles and sounds. Thompson has pointedly avoided describing what the Holograms and the Misfits are meant to sound like, but you can tell by the way Campbell draws the shape of their music that they sound different. The rolling curves of the Holograms songs and the pointed angles of the Misfits match the appearance of their lead singers, and combined with them have always given me the impression that the Holograms have a dreamy pop sound while the Misfits are harsher and more punk-influenced.
And then there’s Silica. The sentient computer virus who takes over Synergy and begins infecting people’s minds with her weird, jarring music. Although its sound is also never described, the jagged black shapes of her music make it clear how unsettling it must be.
Brenden Fletcher and Annie Wu’s Black Canary has a much grittier style than Jem, and that “holographic” colorful music wouldn’t work there. So they take a somewhat Claremont-esque approach of not directly depicting the music, and instead Fletcher describes it in the voice of a fictional music writer, which I think works quite well. Of course, there was also an EP released of Black Canary’s music, so unlike Jem and the Holograms, we know exactly what they sound like.
Archie Comics’s depiction of music has evolved recently too. This spread from Mark Waid and Fiona Staples’ Archie #1 uses a combination of color and musical notes to give the impression that yeah, the boy can play. There’s no singing in this particular performance, so the question of how to deal with lyrics is entirely avoided.
There’s something else that I think is at least as important to doing comics about music as the visual depiction of notes on the page, and that’s the visual trappings that come with the music. In Jem and the Holograms, we never doubt that the Misfits are rock stars because they look like rock stars. I mean, look at them.
You can say the same thing about the band in Black Canary. You know this is a group with an edge because they look, for lack of a better word, edgy. Not to mention both that book and Jem and the Holograms deal with tour buses and record labels, and all the things that, even if we’ve never worked in music, we’re familiar with from movies about being a musician.
Even Archie #1 has a bit of this realism, but from a different direction. Here we see a teenage boy who’s learned to play guitar from his father, and learns to his surprise that his peers actually think it’s pretty cool how good he is at it.
Basically what I’m getting at is this: If you tell a story that’s about music, that engages with your readers in ways that make them think in terms of music, then the reader is primed to engage with whatever method you use to depict the music itself. But even then, doing something a little more interesting than rhyming lyrics over floating musical notes is worth the trouble.