07 June 2009

Batman, Robin, and the “Much-Maligned Sound Effect”?

The first issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Batman and Robin magazine went on sale this week. One of its features, according to Morrison, is a novel treatment of sound effects. In an interview posted on the IGN comics site on 11 March, Morrison said:

I've asked him [Quitely] to re-introduce the much-maligned sound effects to superhero comics but in a way that integrates them more closely with the art.
And eight days later an interview on the CBR site quoted Morrison on the same point:
And he’s producing things like sound effects, because nobody does sound effects anymore. Everybody has given up on them, so what we’ve done is incorporate them into the artwork. When someone hits water, the water rises up and makes the “splash” effect. It just looks fantastic.
And this is how it looks.
Here's the sound of explosions during a high-speed chase.
And in Quitely's Gotham City, the sound of the new flying Batmobile firing a missile inside a highway tunnel is "BWKSSSSssssss."
But is the sound effect truly "much-maligned" in superhero comics these days? Has everyone indeed "given up on them"? A peek into DC Comics's other superhero magazines shows that's not so. It's true that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen did without sound effects, and that's the platinum standard for superhero stories--but it's also more than twenty years old. 

Perhaps what Morrison meant (besides hyping his upcoming work, as such interviews are supposed to do) is that comic-book sound effects have been the domain of letterers, now created with computer fonts rather than by hand. He and Quitely are clearly doing sound effects differently, incorporating them into the art from the beginning.

As for the other aspects of this magazine, I was a little disappointed. Parts were great fun, such as an opening chase scene that alludes to Mr. Toad's wild ride, and a new skyscraper headquarters for the new Batman/old Robin. We sense the friction between him and the new Robin that will define the arc of this series. But the story seems disjoint enough that I wonder if it was chopped up and stitched back together in different order.

Six pages from the end we see Commissioner Gordon up on the police station roof, shining the bat-signal into the sky. His men are skeptical this will work since Batman hasn't been heard from in a long time. But then, plunging through the skylight's beam come Batman and Robin! What a dramatic moment!

Except that we've already seen Batman and Robin in action on ten earlier pages. They've already delivered a criminal to the cops. And the previous page has shown us that they're up in the sky, about to test their new parachute-capes. 

The only surprise, therefore, is for Commissioner Gordon--and we never see his reaction. (Maybe in issue #2.) We readers are left wondering if Batman and Robin just happened to be out skydiving when the bat-signal was turned on. 

Furthermore, Quitely's and colorist Alex Sinclair's full-page image of the Dynamic Duo's descent (Robin in the lead, as shown in thumbnail here) lacks the deep, black shadows that have dramatized Batman stories for seventy years. What was no doubt intended to be a great moment left me, as I said before, a little disappointed.

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