By Guest Blogger Ben Owen
During a holiday in France when I was maybe seven, my parents bought me an Asterix pool float. It was one of those inner-tube-like rings kids have when they go swimming. Around the edges it had pictures of the characters from Asterix playing in the water. Obelix was diving. As he hit the water he sent up a great splash, and a "Ploosh!" sound effect. Temperamentally conservative and deeply distrustful of the French language, I found this word to be upsetting. I suppose it was my first encounter with the idea that sound effects, which I had previously taken to be onomatopoeic and therefore universal, were in fact products of language, and so subject to regional variation. Moreover there was the fact that I could clearly understand what "Ploosh!" was meant to represent--the sound of Obelix's enormous bottom hitting the water--and that it seemed so close to the familiar word it was so obviously meant to be, "Splash!" The connection between the two words gave me an uncanny feeling. I fretted over the float. How could something as reassuring and familiar as Asterix harbor such unsettling messages? Maybe if I stared at the offending word long enough it would resolve into something familiar. And yet at the same time I had the creeping sensation that "Ploosh!" was, in fact, kind of a great word. It sounded funny (at least five people at Urban Dictionary agree with my seven-year-old self), and its "oo" sound expressed something of the feeling of diving into water that the "a" of "Splash!" did not. I would like to say that this led slowly to my long love affair with both the French language and semiotic theory. Sadly this was not the case. Despite the best efforts of Mrs. Arthy at Isis Middle School, Oxford, I still don't speak French, and my knowledge of semiotics doesn't go much beyond the lyrics to "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure." But I'm pretty sure that you can trace a line between that Asterix float and my ardent adoration for the sound effects in Steven Weissman's comics.
There are lots of things to love about Weissman: his art (from the kids-who-look-like-middle-aged-people of his early work, to the light, beautiful strokes that characterize his later stuff), his nuanced understanding of what it's actually like to be a kid, his intransigent weirdness. But the thing I've really been digging about him lately is the strangeness of his sound effects. He really loves to include as many odd and alternate spellings in his colloquial dialogue and sound effects as possible. You can see this on almost any page of any of his books. Take a look at the sequence below, taken from "Don't Call Me Stupid" (apologies for the black and white scan--the original also includes a gorgeous pink):
That "KLONCH" is fantastic. And notice how Pullapart Boy says "root" instead of "right." Reading this stuff, there's a constant sense of being surprised by the language. I don't mean to say that this is anything new--there's a long history of comics bending written language to its own purposes. Krazy Kat is maybe the most celebrated example (Jeet Heer writes about it here). Weissman deliberately draws on that tradition, and does it very well. It's amazing that an incidental sound effect can be so funny, drawing in all kinds of absurd associations. Like so (from the following page):
I didn't even notice it the first time I read it. "KORESH!" is a perfectly evocative sound effect for a shattering lamp. But it's also the name of the leader of the Branch Davidian sect who died at Waco. If Weissman played up the effect like a parody of the Batman TV series, or used it for some kind of pointed commentary, it might seem stilted. But he doesn't, and instead it just lurks there at the bottom of the panel, unremarked and apparently irrelevant to the action of the story. By its ordinariness the effect becomes funny and strange.