Strip Panel Naked: Music Notation as Storytelling
It's Music Week here at ComicsAlliance, and I wanted to take some time to dive into a very particular relationship between music and comics. Comics obviously are silent, so musical numbers are particularly tough to pull off. Getting the actual sound across, the lyricism, the melody - it's a challenge.
I want to take a look at three examples of music in comics that all use a particular approach with notation. By using the staves of sheet music, and placing notes on the page, these three comics manage to provide an extra depth to their storytelling.
The first example is a classic; Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta. There's a sequence there, "This Vicious Cabaret," which acts as a sort of prelude for a chapter in the story. The page layout switches from portrait to landscape, and the panels are underscored by these lyrics (by Moore) and music notation (by David J. Haskins).
As with all of these example, you could simply place some music notes in a speech balloon for V, and allow him to say those words with a musicality. But as with all of V for Vendetta, there's a designed "realness" to the whole thing. There are no thought balloons or sound effects or anything like that, so the assumption must be that the music notation is there as a way around that.
The vaudevillian style is a major part of the aesthetic, obviously, and adding some cabaret music is a nice identifier and link back to that approach, as an additional layer to ground the elements of V's character for the audience. For you, as an audience, you can read this dialogue without understanding music notation, and it doesn't lose any effect. For someone who understands a modicum of music notation, you can start to get a sense of the rhythm of the words, alongside the actual written dialogue.
However, and I think this is important; this was a written song. You can tell from the dialogue alone, before you even make your way down to the stave, because of the rhythm imbued in it. If we take the first balloon, "They say that there's a broken light for every heart on Broadway," and we look at the way it's constructed, you can see the musicality of it naturally. Every other beat has emphasis. You don't read it as, "They say that there's a broken heart", you read it as, "They say that there's a bro-ken heart". It has a natural lyricism to it, because it's designed that way, as an actual song.
So with the V for Vendetta example, it all comes back to that realism. You can take this set of pages, and play and sing that song, and it works. Or you can read it, not understanding it, and get a sense for how that song needs to sound. Or you can read the notation and understand the bounce and the flow of the thing.
But it all comes back to the same point --- you don't need to read music to understand this page, but what you take away from it is the theatrical realism that Moore, Lloyd and Haskins intended.
This time, there are no actual musical notes, but there are words on a stave. There is a way to understand this as music; each word placed on the staves here could be in reference to an actual musical note, and you could almost hum it if you wanted.
I think there's a bit more to it, in that you can get a sense of how the words might flow, if it bumps up or down, lengthened or not. There's a deliberateness to the way it's constructed, and interestingly it's not necessarily the easiest thing to read in a straightforward way.
Again, that feels intentional in its design, as it appears to be drawing attention to the way it's being portrayed to us as readers. It's asking us to understand the musicality of it, and I'd argue that the actual music itself is not important, so much as the fact that there is music being played, and we're to understand that.
I always find moments like these interesting, because they seem to be drawing attention to limitations of the form. When you see a film, and music plays in the background, it tends not to be dramatically distracting --- it's part of the tapestry of the medium. Of course, in musicals you can say there is a tendency to make it obvious that it's a musical; it's hard not to. But with this example in Bang Tango, it's directly causing a disruption of the way you flow through the story.
That might actually be a crucial detail in terms of dealing with music in comics, and specifically with the three examples being shown in this piece; you actually have to say to the audience, "This is music, right now, right here." I love this example by Mauer, Kelly and Sibar specifically because it kind of makes a big deal of saying that to you. It's not hiding behind any form of suspension of disbelief, but appears to be standing in the spotlight acknowledging its own shortcomings as a comic dealing with musicality.
There's a fine balance between the general idea of music in comics, and a very specific presentation of music in comics. With Bang Tango, the specifics are in the removal of presence, in how by pulling you out, as mentioned above, the text causes a divide from the visuals.
That's particularly important for this montage-esque page, which adds a romanticism to the whole thing by casing that disruption. If you look at it critically, honestly, the pages work in selling you music without depending on the design of the caption text. You can see these two dancing, and we can naturally associate that to some kind of music. Putting words in a standard caption box wouldn't break that --- but it wouldn't particularly further it, either.
So we've seen realism with V for Vendetta's notation, and we've felt the romantic distance created with Bang Tango; let's see something with a little comedy.
Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life has maybe one of the most quoted pages in reference to music in comics ever.
The band is playing a song, and Bryan Lee O'Malley helpfully gives you the chord progression, and even the chords themselves. It harks back to the V for Vendetta example by giving you everything to actually play the song. This adds some of the realism, but there's a bit more to this than just saying they're playing music; it's also adding to the comedy. It's a riff (sorry) on both the band themselves and exactly the sort of music they're playing, and it's simplicity. The idea that you can see this page, grab your guitar, and just as quickly start playing this song is all part of the design of the storytelling.
This story beat could have worked with a character just saying, "Is that it, three chords?", or lamenting the simplicity of it after the song ends, or even just a caption box from the narrator voice saying, "Yeah the song only uses three chords, it's very basic." All those things work in their own way, but by presenting you the tools to actually do the thing yourself, it's a much better gag. Especially when you see the reaction to the song afterwards.
The music, visually, is presented in those lines coming from the guitars and drums, and pushing in on key elements along the bottom makes the page feel dynamic and intense. Even that big middle splash panel would make this band look awesome --- if not for the chord chart and progression placed around them. It offsets the visuals and makes the entire outfit seem amateurish. It's a beautiful use of dramatic irony, visuals combined with the music.
That combination is key to all of these stories --- music in combination with realism, in combination with free-flowing visuals, in combination with contrasting imagery. Comics can use music well, and it's all in the execution.
Often we see music presented visually and it works fine. But these examples hopefully showcase something a little different; creators working within the boundaries of the medium and pushing it a certain way to create very specific effects. Each of them has a similar through-line, in that they draw attention to themselves, they aren't subtle methods by any means, and that often flies in the face of what's expected from storytellers --- but what they showcase is people in control of their idea, and the way they want to execute it.
Comics leave a lot of room for creators to do their thing, and these are three distinct and remarkable examples.