Sound Spectrum // From Hieroglyphs to Graphic Novels: Origins of the Written Sound

Article by Lucia Love in Berlin // Tuesday, Jul. 07, 2015

The world we exist in is a dense map of thought. Our knowledge and memories of all experience are constantly accessed and revised as we traverse a landscape of phenomena. It is our creation of language to describe this navigation that allows us to share what would otherwise remain incommunicable sensation. As languages evolve, they shift to reflect resonant cultural concepts that may then be recorded for the growth of future generations. The earliest documented examples of writing show that each symbol used to convey meaning has a root in visual and corporeal existence from the earliest examples of hieroglyphs, to the first simplified alphabet of Semitic speaking people. Traces of their graffiti dated back to 1900 BC remaining for centuries to be uncovered once more in 1999 by historian John Darnell in the desolate Egyptian Valley of Horrors.[1]

These marks resemble the abstracted alphabet we use throughout much of western civilization today, as well as silhouettes of common things like fish, birds, trees, spears, bowls, etc. Through sophistication of information exchange, these alphabets have streamlined to the point where each symbol expresses a distinct phonological concept that may be combined with infinite variation to trigger meaning.

What happens when we process any combinations of marks that stand for communication has been studied in recent attempts to help dyslexics and other learning disabled people to grasp the transformation of auditory to visual compression. To connect sight and speech while reading, four areas of the brain have to be stimulated in succinct order, otherwise the lines we may see scrawled across a page will not produce discernible mental sound. Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz are credited for imaging neurological pathways activated in the brain of an avid reader, and comparing them to those who were incapable of reading. In a functioning brain, the path begins at the primary visual cortex, which takes in raw data, then the visual association area (angular gyrus) which houses our onboard dictionary, and registers abstract letters as language, before finally a region behind our eyes called the superior temporal gyrus (Wernike’s area) turns this language into words.[2]

Parts of the visual cortex are also responsible for processing music as well. This has been a byproduct of supposed necessity where our survival may hinge on our ability to imagine where a sound is produced. We also anticipate the origin of a sound as an aspect of picking up social cues from facial recognition. Scottish neuroscientist Harry McGurk first discovered through his work conducted in the 1970s that what we see would take precedence over what we hear. A more recent study was conducted in the early 2000s to map where exactly these overrides occur. “By measuring the electrical signals in the brain while each video was being watched, scientists Elliot Smith and Bradley Greger could pinpoint whether auditory or visual brain signals were being used to identify the syllable in each video (of simple sounds being formed). When the syllable being mouthed matched the sound or didn’t match at all, brain activity increased in correlation to the sound being watched. However, when the McGurk effect video was viewed (of syllable formation out of sync with their contents), the activity pattern changed to resemble what the person saw, not what they heard. Statistical analyses confirmed the effect in all test subjects.” [3]

Of all constructed visual languages that trigger these neurological responses, it is comic strips and graphic novels that most seamlessly blend disparate forms of sound documentation to achieve the richest blend of writing. It is a medium on the edge of still imagery, animation, novel writing, screenplays, story boarding, and sequential film. The worlds that are created have gone through a process of sophistication to reflect this understanding that meaning is conveyed through speech, which is processed as a “writer’s voice”, an injection of sound without utterance, and action which is sometimes as subtle as a furrowed brow. In a graphic novel like The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James there are no distinct characters, yet he is able to illustrate the atmospheric sounds of wind whistling through barbed wire on a desolate plane, or inanimate objects slithering through palatial yet crumbling abandoned interiors.

His work is a far cry from more classic compositions like the Russ Heath panel first aired in a 1962 issue of DC Comics’ All-American Men of War, and was later lifted by Roy Lichtenstein for his seminal piece ‘Whaam!’ In this image each way of communication is distinct, clearly rendered and orderly. Initially recognizable is a pilot shooting another plane, which explodes into dramatic patterning. This is only understood with some prior knowledge of what flight, planes, pilots, explosions, missiles, and insignias are – without that acculturation, the iconic ‘WHAAM!’ wouldn’t conjure a rhythm of impact for the reader, though they may understand its energetic rendering.

Samplerman is another artist working within the spectrum of comic art that uses patterning to create rhythm, and eradicate the linear narrative that was celebrated in comics of the Russ Heath era. His work often employs vintage comics and onomatopoeic interjections to create a completely surreal soup of meaning which touches on the over-saturation of classic romantic narrative in our current media pool. If the sound of his world had to be categorized, it would mostly be comprised of backward recordings, sploshes of dripping syrup, spider legs made of glass, the rustling of plastic leaves, etc.

The first comic artist credited with popularizing onomatopoeia for their comic strips was Roy Crane who created Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune and Buzz Sawyer in the 1920s and 1930s. His addition of abstract language served to illustrate auditory happenings that could not be allocated to the realm of speech bubbles. Over time his strips would become populated with sounds from colliding objects, speeding vehicles, fist swinging pugilists, and other fast paced plot twists. It was the cultural historian Tim DeForest who pointed out this shift in the realm of entertaining publications, noticing that previous creators would settle to portray an action visually, without attempting to capture what that action sounded like when translated through the alphabet.[4]

This video for ‘Stout-Hearted Gentlemen’ contains a valiant attempt at quantifying his set of sounds: Three minutes of these phonic combinations will dissolve centuries of writing into a giddy wave of electric sparkles.

The abstraction of these letters coming together to mimic sounds that objects without speech might make is a complex process of imagination that surpasses documentation of tone and pitch that is relayed through musical notation. These descriptions of what occur to a listener’s ear when a plane is flying overhead, or a car is screeching to a halt, illuminates the approximations inherent in minting words. Though this next example is not in written form, scat singing is a perfect example of abstract language that comes together to mimic sound producing objects.

Shooby Taylor, the self proclaimed “human horn” is one of the only singers to produce his entire body of work without any discernible meaning behind the arrangements, aside from supposedly mimicking a horn. His onomatopoetic language does surpass any need for precise meaning however, because encountering his combination of lyrical nonsense will in most cases result in pure absurdist joy.


[1] The Origin of the Alphabet
[2] Gina Kolata “Scientists Track the Process of Reading Through the Brain”, The New York Times
[3] “Look at what I’m saying: Engineers show brain depends on vision to hear”
[4] Tim DeForest: Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics, and Radio: How Technology Changed Popular Fiction in America

Writer Info

Lucia Love is a freelance writer and painter currently residing in Brooklyn. When not toiling away on a revival of the Dilbert comics, you can find her walking the hallowed halls of the Koons studio avoiding having to paint the classics. If you like what you’ve read here, friend her on Facebook or go to

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