06 April 2010

Gasp! A Short History of Comic-Book Exhalations

Last month master comics letterer Todd Klein looked at the evolution of a form of punctuation unique to comics: breath marks.

Those are little radiating lines—Klein notes they became standardized to three on each side—around certain words in comic-book dialogue. Experienced readers understand that the character doesn’t speak that such a word, nor does it approximate any sound from the character’s mouth.

Rather, the word within breath marks is a label for the sound the character makes and its emotional meaning. Breath marks and the word balloon’s tail are the equivalent of “he sobbed” or “she sighed” or “the whole crowd gasped” in prose.

Using panels from early DC Comics, Klein traces early comic-book letterers’ struggles to show characters’ non-verbal sounds within word balloons. At first they used parentheses—which were also part of how some comics signaled thoughts. But after a few years letterers codified the use of this new punctuation mark.

Letterer Nate Peikos has said that breath marks are also called “cat’s whiskers,” “fireflies,” and “crow’s feet.” On Klein’s blog writer Kurt Busiek offers another alternate term: “roachlegs.” He comments:

I remember working with one editor [Cat Yronwode, this discussion suggests] who insisted that anything that would ordinarily be enclosed in roachlegs be spelled out as a sound, so “gasp” became “H-hh!” or something. [T]he reasoning was that no one in a book or movie would actually say “gasp,” and so such things were comic-booky.

My argument that in books they do it through narration, but comics evolved other methods, and if we were going to shy away from comic-booky things, it was worth noting that in books and movies when people talked, big white ovals with their words in them didn’t appear over their heads, and loud noises didn’t manifest as floating letters, either, fell on deaf ears.
Opinion appears to be divided on how best to signal breath marks in a script:
>cough!< *wheeze* =puff puff=
I recently typed my first *sigh*, but I was trying to match this classic style. I actually prefer the sound-effect approach—more showing than telling.

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