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Kapow! The language of comics

Chances are, if asked to think of the language of comics, terms like kapow!, blam!, and zap! wouldn’t be far from your mind. This is largely thanks to pop art and the Adam West Batman TV show, which emblazoned these terms across our screens, often accompanied by shrill trumpets blaring madly. I used to cringe at the association.

When I told people I read comics they often felt compelled to say ‘pow! blam!’ in response, and this usually resulted in me turning into Captain Boring and explaining that ‘comics aren’t only about sound effects, you know’. I’d even fooled myself into thinking that they’re less used nowadays, but actually, I’ve realised, it’s just that I hardly notice them anymore.

When I analysed my reading experience, I realised just how important onomatopoeia is with regard to the comic book writer’s lexicon. For instance, think of the image of a punch being thrown with POW! being written in large explosive letters. Now take POW! away, and what does the image look like? Just the punch, all by itself. If you’ll excuse the pun, it loses a lot of its punch!

Looking at all these words with analytical eyes, I discovered just how much the impact of an image lies in the internally heard sound effect that I read as I took in the image. The SKREEECH! of a car sliding around a corner helped me to hear as well as see the image, and a big juddering KABOOOM! made me hear and feel the effects of an explosion. I even began to notice little things, like the way otherwise empty panels sometimes contain coughs or sighs which breathed life into the image.

Even though onomatopoeia is nothing new, I was still surprised to learn that bam goes back as far back as 1922, having been used in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Pow goes back even further, first appearing in an 1881 issue of Scribner’s. Ka-boom goes back to E. Field’s Slug, published in 1876.

I think the next time someone says ‘pow!’ in response to me telling them I read comics, I’ll join in with a ‘kaboom!’ And a big smile.

Gosh dang it to heck!

One of the more endearing qualities of comic book language is its use of euphemism. Until very recently the language (and content) of comics was controlled by the very proscriptive Comics Code Authority, which had come into force in 1954 after crime and horror comics were deemed too coarse and graphic for young impressionable minds. The Code meant that writers had to be inventive when they wanted to depict instances of swearing.

Often writers would just use substitutes: heck would stand in for hell, darn for damn, and more recently fricking has been used for the f-word. Occasionally they go for omission, using ‘Piece of–’ and leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination.

Some sanitized curses actually suit their characters – Spider-man’s use of cripes and Beast’s ‘Oh my stars and garters’ capture a charmingly innocent aspect of their personalities. And what would be more appropriate for Superman, the biggest blue boy scout of them all, than the very inoffensive ‘Great Scott!’?

Judge Dredd gets around the issue by being set in a future which has different swear words from our contemporary ones, so the characters can use drokk and Grud with absolute freedom – and they certainly do.

There are some creative expletives out there that really tickle me. I love Robin’s catalogue of daft “Holy——, Batman’ oaths (which also serve an allusive purpose), like ‘Holy Understatements, Batman!’, ‘Holy Bargain Basements, Batman!’ and the notorious ‘Holy Priceless Collection of Etruscan Snoods!’. Captain Haddock’s  ‘Billions of blue blistering barnacles!’ is also a great one, which can get upgraded to ‘Billions of blue blistering barnacles in a thundering typhoon!’.

Of all, one of the coolest has to be Luke Cage’s ‘Sweet Christmas!’, just for sheer originality.

Avengers Assemble!

And where would a comic book be without a good catchphrase? They’re such great hooks for a comic to hang on to. Think of the power of ‘You’re fired!’ from The Apprentice and ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’ from Star Trek, both of which are instantly recognisable and very repeatable.

The title of the Avengers film is taken from the well-established team slogan, and the 1940s Superman cartoons memorably featured ‘This looks like a job for Superman!’. Catchphrases can be action words like Johnny Storm’s ‘Flame on!’, which accompanies his transformation into the Human Torch, and Captain Marvel’s ‘Shazam!’, which actually features in the Oxford English Dictionary:

1940 Whiz Comics No. 2 5 ‘Speak my name!’ ‘Shazam!’..As Billy speaks the magic word he becomes Captain Marvel.

Catchphrases can also be oaths, like Thor’s ‘By Odin’s beard’ or battle cries like The Thing’s ‘It’s clobbering time!’, and each time one is used we’re filled with a warm feeling of recognition. Whatever type of catchphrase it is, it becomes a slogan for the comic book, and in recognising it makes readers feel like they’re part of a club.

My favourite is Bruce Banner’s ‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’, which is now so well-established that it hardly even needs saying. The magic of the phrase is that any mention about Banner getting angry is like an in-joke – the reader knows what’s coming but the bad guy invariably doesn’t.

So, should you go see Avengers Assemble and there’s any mention of Bruce Banner getting angry – if someone titters behind you then the odds are pretty good that it would be me!

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