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Beyond the Balloon: Sound Effects and Background Text in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse

By Suzanne Covey

Most structural study of comics tends to split content into a visual image/verbal text dichotomy. Text is ordinarily confined to a text balloon, which supposes a speaker, or a caption box, wherein a narrator is either made explicit or implied. Even when the balloons or boxes per se are absent, they are nonetheless understood to function as dialog and narration respectively.

Figure 1. Simplified Comic Book Markup Language (CBML) Structure

An example of this dichotomy is seen in the Comic Book Markup Language (CBML) being developed by John Walsh at Indiana University.1 CBML is an XML application usually used in conjunction with a digitized image of a comic page, for the purpose of turning the elements of the work into searchable data. Figure 1 depicts a simplified overview of the CBML structure, and a sample of CBML markup for a single comic panel [Figure 2]2 is shown in Figure 3 and Figure 4. Like most taxonomies of comics, CBML assumes that text will appear either in caption boxes or text balloons.

Figure 2. Sample Single Comic Panel from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman © DC Comics / Vertigo

 

Figure 3. Sample CBML for Single Comic Panel from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

 

Figure 4. Close up of Sample CBML in Figure 3

Scott McCloud has a more complicated taxonomy for text. He is interested more in the relationship between image and text, how they interact, and which predominates, than in defining their characteristics. His scheme breaks text into seven categories of image/text combinations: Word Specific, Picture Specific, Duo-Specific, Additive, Parallel, Montage, and Interdependent. All non-traditional text is lumped into a single category, Montage.3

Such schemes overlook or oversimplify text that falls into neither category, such as sound effects and text that appear as a part of the background. Lynn Johnston’s long-running newspaper strip, For Better or For Worse, is particularly rich in both types of textual elements. Johnston uses them mainly for comic effect, but they also can carry cultural information and social commentary, often of a satirical nature.

Figure 5. Sound Effects and Background Text © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

For example, take the typical Sunday strip for July 1, 2001.4 [Figure 5] Its narrative text is made up entirely of elements that have no place in either the CBML scheme or McCloud’s categories. Elly Patterson, the strip’s protagonist, is shown shopping in a supermarket as a thunderstorm begins. She cleverly decides to make herself rain gear out of the plastic trash bags she is purchasing. By the time she has finished and gone outside in this getup, the sun is shining. It’s an old comic gag, but it is Johnston’s sound effects and detailed depictions of the background that make it seem fresh and original.

There are no normal balloons and no captions in this strip, yet there is a lot of text. There are signs on store fronts (“SAVE a BUCK”, “Leather Loft”), products (“ULTRA TRASH”, “GREAT GARDENS “), the sound of thunder (“KA-BOOM!”), some descriptive words, (“SNIP SNIP CUT CUT..”) and picture balloons– speech balloons with no words, only pictures.

This paper examines the ways Johnston stretches the boundaries of traditional comics sound effects and her use of what might be called “hidden text” in panel backgrounds, both of which are often made to carry cultural information and comment.

Sound Effects

Sound effects have long been a staple of comics, particularly those featuring superheroes and other action figures. Indeed, they have become a kind of cliché; journalists find it irresistible to include “Pow! Blam!” and the like in headlines when writing about comics.

Johnson’s use of sound effects goes far beyond those found in action comics. Rather than limiting sounds to depictions of violence, she employs them to render the dense soundscape of contemporary suburban life: lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, computers, music, dogs charging through a house, children fighting and eating. In many cases, an entire strip is carried by little if any text other than sound effects, as was seen in Figure 5.

For the purposes of this study, sound effects are categorized as “Descriptive,” that is, words, usually verbs, that don’t attempt to reproduce the sounds they depict, and “Onomatopoeic,” words that do approximate the sounds to some degree. Visually rendered sound effects lacking text are not considered here.

Descriptive Sounds

Descriptive sound effects can add a humorous clarification to a situation, serve to emphasize an action already visually depicted, or add a metaphoric layer to a scene.

  • Example: “STAMPEDE!” is used as a humorous description of the kids charging toward food at a birthday party, inviting comparison to a herd of cattle.5
  • Example: “WIGGLE, WIGGLE, PUSH, POKE, WIGGLE, PULL” are the descriptive sounds as Elly’s daughter Elizabeth is worrying a loose tooth at the dinner table. In this case, Elizabeth is the agent of the action, but she is not speaking– nor do those words attempt to represent the actual sounds.6
  • Example: “CHOP CHIP WHACK, HACK, SPLINTER, CHOP, KRAK CHOP! MANGLE!” are “heard” as Elly’s husband John is cutting down a live Christmas tree. Elizabeth is holding her ears and looking away; Farley, the family dog, looks dubiously back over his shoulder. The violence of the sounds contrasts with the supposedly peaceful spirit of the season.7
  • Example: “DIG DIG DIG,” “ROLL, ROLL, ROLL” The words surround another family dog, Edgar, as he is shown unearthing the fishing bait John has buried in the yard. Clearly, these words are not necessary to make clear what’s happening, but they do serve to energize the action.8
  • Example: In Figure 6, The words “WRAP, WRAP, TIE, TAPE TAPE WRAP!” fill the background of panel 2, as Elly hurries to finish Christmas preparations. Panels 3 and 4 show non-traditional text usage, depicting thought processes and to-do list respectively, absent speech or thought balloons. (GLW, p. 138)

    Figure 6. Descriptive Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.
  • Example: “SHOVEL, SHOVEL, SCRAPE, SCRAPE” depict the action on a suburban street after a heavy snowfall, a time that ought to be silent. The scene also includes the onomatopoeic sound of a snow blower: “RRRRRR” (P40, p. 75)
  • Example: Elly’s oldest child, Michael, can’t sleep. His insomnia is depicted in descriptive sound effects: “TOSS, TURN, TOSS TURN, FIDGET, SCRATCH, GROG.”9
  • Example: Dogs have sleepless nights too. Edgar’s insomnia is expressed with “SCRATCH, SCRATCH, SCRATCH, SHAKE, SHAKE, SHAKE, SHAKE, NIP, NIP, NIP, NIP.” After having invited him up onto her bed in the first place, Elizabeth eventually ejects him with a “BOOT!” (B50, p. 26)

The placement of sound effect text can add or amplify meaning. Text located in the upper part of a panel suggests that the sound precedes the action shown, while text along the bottom of the panel can indicate a low-frequency sound.

  • Example: Elly and John, sleeping over night with relatives, are repeatedly disturbed by the intrusions of the child whose bedroom they occupy; the words “KNOCK KNOCK” are embedded in the upper border, actually breaking it up, further suggesting intrusion.10
  • Example: “BOOM THUD BOOM THUD” moving through the bottom of all the panels of a strip with Michael and Elizabeth riding in the car suggests a low frequency backbeat.11

Text filling the background of a panel suggests that the sound is pervading the atmosphere.

  • Example: Elly, dealing with her younger daughter April’s head lice infestation, finds herself hysterically itching and compulsively scratching; the descriptive words “ITCH” and “SCRATCH” fill the room behind her, suggesting that the scratching pervades the atmosphere as well as Ellie’s perception.12
  • Example: “MASH, KLAK MUSH, CLATTER, MASH, SMUSH.” The cooking sounds also express Ellie’s emotional state. (B50, p. 11)
  • Example: A special kind of pervasive sound is depicted in Figure 7. It might be called a “visual madrigalism,” an effect that could only work in comics. Elly listens to a man interviewing her for a job. His words are shown in a spiral shape– he is literally “talking in circles.”13
Figure 7. Descriptive Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

“Ka-Boom” is a special case sound effect. It’s a borderline descriptive word (that is, it sounds slightly onomatopoeic), and is of course a superhero staple. Johnston uses it in different ways depending on the setting.

  • Example: A late night thunderstorm sends Elly looking for April and the dogs, in order to comfort them. She finds them enjoying the spectacle in the glassed-in sunroom. As in Figure 1, “KA-BOOM” is used to depict the storm, amplified here by ” KERACKKK!” and “RRUMBLLE!”14
  • Example: KA-BOOM can also symbolically depict an explosion of rage rather than an actual sound, as when Elly reacts to Michael’s sarcastic inquiry as to how long her lecture is going to take. [Figure 8]15
Figure 8. Descriptive Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.
  • Example: In Figure 9, a similar metaphorical explosion occurs when Elly’s brother Phil, a long-time bachelor/playboy, fears his relationship with girlfriend Georgia is transforming him into “Domestic Man,” a superhero dressed in an apron and wielding a spoon.16
Figure 9. Descriptive Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

Onomatopoeic Sounds

In addition to her imaginative use of descriptive sound effects, Johnston makes deft and original use of more traditional onomatopoeic sounds. Her treatment of dogs, kids, music, and household sounds will be examined here, with a special look at what could be called her “signature sound”.

Dogs

Johnston has a lot of fun with dogs, and they are in fact some of her most vivid characters: bumbling, loveable Farley, eager, excitable Edgar and classy, ladylike Dixie. The dogs do not talk, or even think in words in the Snoopy manner, but their personalities are emphasized and enhanced by sound effects.

  • Example: “GALORUP, GALLOOP, SLUPP GLUPP” These words perfectly capture the sloppy sound of a dog drinking from a toilet. (B50, p. 60)
  • Example: Snoring sounds are frequently depicted, and it turns out humans and dogs snore alike. “SNORRRKKK SNORRRRR SNOZZZZ”. Edgar is snoring on the floor next to the bed on John’s side. Elly assumes it’s John doing the snoring. (S&S, p. 25)
  • Example: Sniffing can be quite expressive. “SNIFF? SNOOF? SNUFFA SNIFFA SNIFF SNUFF” “SNURRFFAH SNIFF SNUFF…” In this example, Edgar is eagerly sniffing April’s pet rabbit, until the rabbit has had enough and chomps on his nose. The reason for his interest is the fact that April had wiped her hands on the bunny after eating buttered popcorn. The text of the sound is in the background and creatively wraps around the dog’s body. (B50, p. 99)
  • Example: A single word, “SPLORK!” so vividly depicts the sound of a can of dog food hitting the dish, that we understand Michael’s change of heart about wanting to be a dog. The sounds Farley makes as he eats, “MMF GLPH URP,” help too. (P40, p. 34)
  • Example: Elizabeth has no qualms about being a dog, however. She is shown down on all fours, eating out of a dog food bowl right beside Farley. (She was afraid he might get lonely eating alone.) “CHOMP SLURPP GRUNCH GLURP” — we can’t tell whether it’s the kid or the dog making the sounds.17
  • Example: Edgar is shown dispatching the canned dog food in a much more efficient manner than did Farley. “SPLORP!” (Food leaves the can) “SCOOP!” (Eddie snatches it on the bounce) “SNAPP! URK GULP!” (and wolfs it down in one bite). (GLW, p. 19)

Other animals find voice (or at least sound) within her strips:

  • Example: A wonderful “dialog” is conducted entirely in sound effects: Farley is looking up into a tree filled with birds. They fill the background with their singing: “CHICKA DEEE DEEE DEEE CHICKA DEE DEE DEE TWIT-TWIT-TWITTER TWITTER CHEE-DEEP! CHEER-RUP CHEER-RUP TWIT-TWIT-TWIT-CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP CHIK CHIK CHIK CHEEE CHEE BEE CHEE BEE” all in panel one. After another panel of this nonsense, the dog can’t stand it anymore and scares them off with his barking: “BOWOWOW OW OW OWOW OWF!” All except for one, who gets in the perfect last word: “TWIT.”18

Even seemingly quiet pets make noises:

  • Example: “BAM! CRAKKITA POP POP POP BAM!” The pet hamster going down the stairs inside his plastic ball. (JOMH, p. 17)
  • Example: “PFFTT” (The pet rabbit taunts Edgar with a tongue-out raspberry, setting off a cacophony as they chase one another through the house.)19

Kids

Kids are major contributors to the suburban soundscape, and their sounds are another of Johnston’s specialties.

  • Example: “KLUMP CLOMP! KLUMP KLACK CLACK! CLUMP KLAK CLUMP” Toddler Elizabeth is playing dress up in Elly’s high heels. (JOMH, p. 67)
  • Example: “HONK! RATTLE BLATT FWOOT! WHEET! RATTLE” – Michael and his friends are celebrating New Years Eve.20
  • Example: Michael regales baby Elizabeth with funny faces and rude noises: “PFNGKKK!! BRAAPTTTT!! SKYEEEKKK! ” Liz later shows off what she’s learned by greeting a little old lady while out shopping with Elly: “BRAAPTTA!” (HLWIB, p. 19)
  • Example: Although we don’t see it’s baby April doing the crying until the last panel, the sound persists along the top of the entire strip. The variable sized text suggests changes in volume of her wailing, and the “hic” punctuation is an inspired touch of realism. [Figure 10] (WMP, p. 120)
    Figure 10. Kid Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.
  • Example: Another example of volume changes suggested by variable text size is seen as a neighbor child works his pacifier. Johnston has found perfect sound for it: “NRK NRK NRK ” (ADFH, p. 118)
  • Example: April’s baby chatter can’t be confined to a balloon– it fills the panel, suggesting a pervasive background sound.
  • Example: April’s superhero persona, “Sockhead, the Defender of Good and Fighter of Evil!” makes a strong sonic statement with her weapon of choice, the Deadly Sockolizer: “WHAP! WHACK! WHAM! WHAP! WHACK!!” [Figure 11] (GTFC, p. 19)21
Figure 11. Kid Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.
  • Example: When kids become adolescents, the noises they make change: whenever teenaged Michael is around, there’s a whole lot of slamming going on. (P40, p. 42)
  • Example: At times, the slamming can be raised to a high art, as when Michael slams his way through the house, then acts surprised that Elly knew it was him making the noise. (TGMB, p. 11)
  • Example: Michael uses slamming to express his anger in the famous story arc where his friend Lawrence reveals he is gay. (TGMB, p. 112)
  • Example: “GRAWKKKK GRAWWKKKKKK SLRK SLRK SLURKK SLUUURRRRKKK SLRK SLRK SLURK SLUURRRKKKK SLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORPPPP SLOOOOOOOOOOOORPPP” These wonderful sounds are made by teens in a soda shop– and the waitress figures out that they are actually mating calls. (TGMB, p. 32)

Music

Johnston usually depicts music as loud, often unpleasant noise.

  • Example: Michael is unhappy to miss the “social event of the season” when in fact, the music at the dance is so loud, it’s squeezing out attempts at conversation. (TGMB, p. 48)
  • Example: Michael decides he’s going to like trumpet lessons, once he sees how much it annoys his father. Phil, his teacher, is less than amused when Michael tries blowing the trumpet underwater in the fish tank. (JOMH, p. 127)
  • Example: Car radios rock John’s world– although he admits to himself he wishes he’d had such loud speakers when he was younger. (TGMB, p. 8)
  • Example: April’s band rehearses for the first time at her house, deafening John and Elly. (LI, 238)

Music gives Johnston opportunities for visual madrigalisms too:

  • Example: “BOOM CHA-KA BOOM CHA-KA BOOM, BOOM, BOOM CHA-KA” In the first three panels, we have Elly and April’s point of view, hearing the music right through Elizabeth’s headphones in the car. In the last panel, the POV changes and we see what Elizabeth “hears”. (LJSEU, p. 48)
  • Example: “TWANGGG FOOMP WHAKA WHAKKKA THUD THUD BLAM BOOM BAM BAM“ This wonderful Sunday column is the ultimate depiction of music as noise. The poor pets suffer; Elly rescues the rabbit and they all flee the house. [Figure 12]22
Figure 12. Musical Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

It isn’t until April starts making music, first on harmonica, then on guitar, that we start to see music regularly depicted with musical notation.

  • Example: At one of April’s early guitar lessons, the sweetness of the music she plays makes her too happy to move her fingers. (Strip for January 31, 2001)
  • Example: The kids give Elly and John a musical Christmas gift. (SS, p. 264)
  • Example: During a recital, the duet April plays with her teacher is depicted with a complex, beautifully rendered score, an obvious nod to Charles Schultz and his treatment of Schroeder’s toy piano music. [Figure 13] (SS, p. 275)
    Figure 13. Musical Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

     

  • Example: April’s band, 4-Evah, evolves from making noise (SS, p.237) to making music.23

Household

Household sounds in their infinite variety are well represented, and are among Johnston’s most original sound creations:

  • Example: John is shown brushing his teeth. Since he is a dentist, he naturally takes this activity very seriously. “SKRRBBLE SKOOSHLE SK..RBLL SKK..” “RINSKKKKKKKLL GRRABLE SLP SLP SLPP GRE.. SKOOSH RINSE” The sounds of his efforts pervade the background of two panels. (GLW, p.39)
  • Example: Toilets acting up and being treated with a plumber’s friend give Johnston a chance to showcase one of her most evocative sounds: “KERFLOOMA GUSH!”24
  • Example: Variation on a theme: “FLOOMA GUSH! FLOOMA GUSH! SKAPLOOSH SKRIT SKRIT SKRIT” (TALU, p. 24)
Figure 14. Household Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.
  • Example: But it takes a Sunday strip to give us the full emotional range of the plumber’s friend, as April takes it for a spin around the house. [Figure 14] (S&S, p. 50)
  • Example: House renovation produces construction noise that is quite similar in depiction to music–the banging moves persistently across the top of the strip, ignoring panel breaks. (TGMB, p. 122)
  • Example: Using toys such as a ray gun as a way to keep kids quiet usually backfires: “ZAPPITA ZAPPA VAZOOORP!! ZAP-ZIP ZAPPA” (JOMH, p. 40).
  • Example: Likewise video games: “BLIP! BLEEP TWEE-DOINK TWEE-DOINK KABLAM! BLIP-BLAP BIP BIP” (NTBL, p.117)
  • Example: A classic toy-sound moment occurs when young Elizabeth sets loose a toy chicken in church. The toy meanders up the aisle, laying eggs, it’s sound following it at the edge of the pews: “AWK! BUCK-BUCK-BUCK! AWK! BUCK-BUCK-BUCK” [Figure 15] (KHFB, p. 61)
Figure 15. Toy Sounds © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

Machines

Various kinds of machines add their distinctive voices to the household soundscape.

  • Example: Baby April is able to sleep through the loud sounds of the vacuum cleaner, the clothes washer, and the dishwasher, but wakes up at the relatively quiet sound of the ringing phone. (TALU, p. 8)
  • Example: The vacuum cleaner is probably the most ubiquitous household machine. As April runs it through the house, its voice ranges from white noise (“SHHHHHH”) to the sound of the rabbit litter being sucked up (“SLRRK!”), to the vacuum head hitting a string of beads on the floor and sucking them up too (“FLLOOOOPPP! RATTLE CLATTER RATTLE CLINK!”) (S&S, p. 7)
  • Elizabeth’s using the vacuum attracts Edgar’s attention with its “SSSSSSS”. He barks at it, then attacks; when Liz’s back is turned, he manages to get his nose stuck in the business end: “BOWOWOWOWOW OWOWO OWFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF FUMP! SNEEEZE…” The vacuum wins the confrontation. (S&S, p. 124)
  • Example: The lawnmower says “BRAAAAAAPPPTTTT” as Michael pushes it (HLWIB, p. 30), and “BWAAAAHHHH” until it hits a rock (“KRANG!”) John’s efforts to dislodge the rock fail, and eventually a backhoe (“RUMMMMMM”) is brought in, followed by a truck to lay new sod. (A bumper sticker on truck: “IN SOD WE TRUST”25)
  • Example: The snow blower says “KACHINKA CHINKA PUTTTT CLANK PUTT” and “CHINKA CLUNK PUTTTTT KA-CHINK KA-PUTT” (WMP, p. 71)

Signature Sound

There is one sound effect that Johnston uses so often it could be called her “signature sound”: “Whappita”.

  • Example: Usually it’s used to depict dogs charging through the house… (GLW, p. 116)
  • Example: …especially on freshly waxed floors… [Figure 16] (LJSEU, p. 84)
    Figure 16. “Whappitta” Signature Sound © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

     

  • Example: …but it’s also used for things like mail coming through the slot in the door… (SFS, p. 120)
  • Example: …or the dog shaking water off his coat… (GLW, p. 41)
  • Example: …or April spinning the toilet paper off the roll… (GLW, p. 26)
  • Example: …or even Michael beating his own chest in triumph. (“Bebop a Lula” lyrics pervade the background of the second panel.) (GTFC, p. 62)

Background Text

Johnston revels in background details that reflect the sea of text in which we all swim: books, magazines, records, advertising, signage, and items on supermarket shelves. She says that the hiring of assistants to help her with inking and coloring has freed her up to add greater detail to her backgrounds.26 Ironically, this comes at a time when the continuing shrinkage of space allowed individual comic strips in newspapers makes it difficult to decipher many of Johnston’s clever background texts. Their wit and irony, however, can be appreciated in the published anthologies.

Magazines

While characters in For Better or For Worse are seldom seen reading books other than when the kids are studying, they all read magazines, including comic books. Often the context in which the reading takes place is satirical:

  • Example: Elly reads “GLAMOUR” magazine, while looking anything but glamorous (KHFB, p. 88)
  • Example: John reads an article about unhealthy foods (“IS YOUR DIET SHORTENING YOUR LIFE?”) while eating the very foods depicted in the illustration. (ADFH, p. 106)
  • Example: Elizabeth and her friend Dawn read teen magazines, although they are able to deconstruct the false images they see. Looking at an article titled “THE LOOK”, they comment on the hours spent in hair styling and makeup, the model’s liposuction, capped teeth and the electronic enhancement of the picture. “But aside from that, she’s perfect,” says Liz. (TGMB, p. 103)
  • Example: After reading “MAG RAVE GLAMOUR TEEN” magazine and trying out eye makeup, sub-teen April rejects the glamour idea completely, deciding she is “too young to be beautiful.” (Website, February 8, 2004)

Johnston loves to show racks of products on store shelves, including magazines.

  • Example: John is shown browsing amid the soft porn in the supermarket (a sign in back says “FROZEN FOODS”), claiming to notice only the models’ dental problems. Magazine titles include HOOT, WOW, LURID, GIRLY, STEAMY, BOD! and we see an ad reading “CALL LOLA.” (LJSEU, p. 87)
  • Example: Here we see John leafing through the slightly softer porn of women’s magazines, with titles like SENSUELLE, VIVACIOUS, LAVISH, FEMININE, SELF, VOGUE, WOMEN’S WORLD, EBONY, and NEOPOLITAN. Teasers include text like “LURING MR. RIGHT,” “LOVE GODS OF TIME,” “WHAT MEN REALLY WANT,” “SEX SECRETS OF THE STARS.” (GTFC, p. 76)

Consumer Products

Toys

Whereas toys were previously considered as noisemakers, their associated background text makes them emblems of over-abundance and violence as well.

  • Example: Michael, surrounded by a huge wreckage of opened Christmas presents (including “BIONIC BRUCE” and “TINKA TOT”) announces, “I’m bored.”27
  • Example: Michael and his grandfather are Christmas shopping, looking at toys named “BLAMMO – $49.95” and “CUTESY POO – $27.50.” (These were 1981 prices.) Grandpa says Santa wasn’t exactly the same in the old days– he wasn’t as generous. (OTDD, p. 122)
  • Example: Michael wants a toy named “WILLIE WARMONGER,” which comes with related accessories “DEATH SQUAD,” “WAR,” “MACHINE GUN,” and “MEDIC.” (JOMH, p. 85)

Dog Food

Marketing treatment extends to dog food, too, although it’s clearly aimed at the humans.

  • Example: Elly wants to put Farley on a diet, so she brings home a bag of “LOWKAL DAWG CHOW FOR CORPULENT CANINES” (HLWIB, p. 100)
  • Example: Michael’s hard sell of the latest dog food, “GRUBMASTERS NEW BOWZER BITS,” fails to impress Farley. (HLWIB, p. 101)

Snacks

Snacks and junk food are well represented with background text.

  • Example: When the kids are allowed to pick out their own dinner, they arrange a bonanza of snack foods that Elizabeth dubs “Snordasborg”. The spread includes “SUGAR ZAPS and “CHOKO PUFFS.” (HLWIB, p. 78)
  • Example: John’s vicarious pregnancy cravings result in a similar spread of junk food, including “CHEEZE BLAMS” (WMP, p. 42)

Cereals

Johnston reserves some of her sharpest barbs for breakfast cereals.

  • Example: The kids are into “WHEAT-O-SOGS” (P40, p. 6) and “FRUIT WHACKOS” (P40, p. 59). Both products are labeled “ALMOST NUTRITIOUS!”
  • Example: It seems generational battle lines are drawn over cereal. Elly’s “fogey food” includes “BITS ‘O’ BRAN,” “CREAM OF WHEAT”, and “FIBRE MUNCH.” Michael recommends she try “SUGAR BLAST” (HLWIB, p. 45)
  • Example: More battle lines over cereal. Elly wants to try a vegetarian diet; she is checking out “OAT PUFFS,” “WAZOO,” “WHEAT-O-BRAN YUMMY,” “KORN CLAMS,” “FLAKES ‘O’ FIBER” and “TOFU SNAK.” Liz and John are sneaking themselves a package of “PORK PUFFS.” (SFS, p. 101)
  • Example: The supermarket presents a panoramic extravaganza of cereal. On the shelf to the left we see “SUGAR SOGGS,” “HONEY ZONKS,” “MALLOW MUNCHIES,” “CAPTAIN CALORIE,” “KARMEL KOATED SUGAR POOFS,” “FRUITSY WOOTSIES,” “CHOKO-CHUNKA-ROO,” “BLAM!” FRUIT TOOTS.” Label claims: “GOOD FOR YOU WHEN MILK IS ADDED” and “100% NUTRITION FREE“ On the shelf to the right: “OATS ‘N’ GOATS,” “WHOLE GRAIN CEREAL,” “SHREDDED WHEAT,” “CORN FLAKES.” In Elly’s basket: “GRANNY’S GRANOLA” and “NOOTRA BRAN.” [Figure 17] (LI, p.167)
Figure 17. The Supermarket Panoramic Text © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

Clothes

Clothes are, of course, status symbols for the kids, and Johnston has fun with designer names.

  • Example: Michael must have “GREEDOC” athletic shoes (TALU, p. 40)
  • Example: The designer name “BOSTON ORIGINAL” gives Johnston a chance to wink at her older readers by having Candace say “LUCCIA AND DAWN HAVE B.O., BLAIR AND DARRYL HAVE B.O. …” (TALU, p. 41)
  • Example: Elly browses the foundation garment section looking at underwear products with names like “THIGH OH-MY,” “BUTT ‘O’ MAGIC,”GUT-BE-GONE,” “BULGE BUSTER,” and “WUNDER BUNS” (GTFC, p. 120)

Grooming

Grooming products are a source of amusement too.

  • Example: Michael reaches for bottle of aftershave named “RUT” (GLW, p. 119)
  • Example: Liz and her friends browse the hair color products shelves, where the offerings include colors such as “BLONDE BOMB,” “ALMOST ALMOND,” “WILDLY TAUPE,” “GOLDEN BRONZE,” “MAHOGANY MADNESS” and “IRISH RED.” (GLW, p. 125)
  • Example: Elly looks through the nail care products. She finds “BITE STOP,” “TUFF NAIL,” “STOP CHIPPING AND PEELING,” “KRAZY KLAWS,” “NAIL GRO,” “NIFTY NAILS,” “SOLLY HINSON,” “SUPER NAIL,” “NAIL REPAIR,” “WONDER CLAWS,” “FINGER FAB (GROW PERFECT NAILS)”, “BREAK NO MORE,” “NYLO-NAIL,” “NAILS GALORE,” “INSTA-NAIL,” “YOUNGER NAILS,” and “SUPER STRONG.” (GTFC, p. 63)
  • Example: April and her friends look for a video to rent for the Christmas season. A sign in the window announces, “WE GOT THE BEST OF CHEESE, SLEEZE AN’ PIGS!” Titles include “COLLEGE CHRISTMAS,” “TWELVE DAYS OF HORROR,” “SCROOGE FLIPS OUT,” “XTREME XMAS,” “KILLER KLAWS,” “YOU SLEIGH ME,” “DIRTBALL HOLIDAY,” “GIFT FROM THE GRAVE,” and “DECK THE HULLS,” (Non-holiday fare includes “Savage Duck,” “EATEN BY GRUBS,” and “HALF MAN, HALF BEAST.”) The kids finally select “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Figure 18. Video Store Textuality © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

Signage

Signs are everywhere in Johnston’s backgrounds. Sometimes they carry the main plot or message of the panel or strip, and sometimes they merely make jokes or comments about the foreground action.

  • Example: Around the house, notes from Elly decorate the kitchen when she has laryngitis: “DO HOMEWORK BEFORE WATCHING T.V.!” “NO COOKIES BEFORE DINNER.” “MICHAEL CLEAN YOUR ROOM!” “CLEAN KITCHEN AFTER COOKING” “FEED THE DOG!!” “NO PHONE CALLS AFTER 9:00” “IF YOU USE UP THE ICE CUBES– MAKE MORE!!” Michael dubs this her “nag-by-note system.” (HLWIB, p. 81)
  • Example: In school, Michael and his friends are making fun of the librarian, which draws a stereotypical “SHHHHHH” from her. The sign in the background identifying the room as “LIBRARY” isn’t really necessary, but the bulletin board in the background displays items for “LECTURE,” “CHOIR” and “PLAY,” connoting that this is a place of high culture. The sign on the desk helpfully identifies the librarian as “MISS BYLGE.” (LS, p. 114)
  • Example: Elly’s father Jim and his date, Iris, emerge from a movie theater. On the marquee behind them we see “CASTAWAY,” “PORK WARS,” and “LOVE & GUTS.” Their conversation makes clear it was Castaway they saw. (WTR, p. 49)
  • Example: John explains the origin of the Canadian post-Christmas holiday, Boxing Day, to April (and to the American readers) as a time to box up Christmas excess and give it to the poor. That it has now become an occasion for still more greed is illustrated by a blizzard of signs: “BOXING DAY BLOWOUT! 50% OFF!” “BOXING DAY SALE!” “BOXING DAY BARGOONS” (LJSEU, p. 106)
  • Example: Car wash sign: “DOOGIE DEWITT’S DEWITT YOURSELF CAR WASH” (GLW, p. 59)
  • Example: Civilization, complete with outdoor advertising, has overrun what John and his brother-in-law, Phil, had thought would be a wilderness trip. Signs advertise “DANCERS NIGHTLY,” NOW RENTING” “BIG MOOSE Lodge,” “MOOSE Cafe,” “BAR,” “EAT,” “RUSTIC TERRACE CONDO BUY, RENT, LEASE,” and “SOUVENIRS FISH TACKLE LICENSES, BAR, BOAT RENTAL” (ADFH, p.6) The guys’ urge to get away from all this ends up marooning them on a deserted island– a sequence that represents a major turning point in the strip’s overall tone. Subsequently, Johnston became more willing to tackle darker and more serious issues. (SS, p. 89)
  • Example: Liz arrives at her college campus as a freshman, and enters a kind of signage hell. “BOOKS! NEW! USED” “CD-ROMS, PHOTO ID, STUDENT CARDS” “INFO: BUS PASSES REZ KEYS SPORTS CALENDAR COMPUTER STUFF WHAT TO DO IN TOWN” “SUBLET” And all this in panel one! Panel two features “HEY FROSHIES, GET TO KNOW REZ MATES. REZ-A-MA-TAZ AND JAZZ TONIGHT”. Panel 3: “REZ-RATS & OFF CAMPUS FROSHBALL & FOAMDANCE. MERRY MARATHON” Panel 4: “FROSHWASH STUDENT CHARITY CAR WASH ALL PROCEEDS…” Panel 5: “TUG OF WAR: CHOOSE YOUR TEAMMATES BLINDFOLDED” Panel 6: “MEGA PUB SERIOUS SUDZ MUST SHOW ID” and on the back of kid’s t-shirt: “NIPISSING 1999 FROSH WEEK!” By the time we reach Panel 7, Liz is in a near stupor with the descriptive text “PARTY PARTY PARTY…” pervading the background. (And lest we think Liz has turned into a teen-age lush, tiny words near the rim of her foaming mug tell us she’s actually drinking root beer.) (GTFC, p.54)

Johnson seems especially fascinated by the offerings in upscale coffee shops.

  • Example: Elly and her friend Connie visit one offering “PERUVIAN PECAN, MOCCARACCCINO, FRAPELATTE LITE, CUBALIBRE LATTE, CUPACCINO DECAF” (It’s almost a poem.) The same shop also offers “LITE LUNCH: NO CARBS, NO FAT, NO FLAVOR” (Website, August 9, 2004)
  • Example: Another coffee shop with a health food slant offers: “VEGGIE BURGER, VEGGIE BURRITO, VEGGIE PITA, VEGGIE WEDGIES” (We know it’s a bohemian hangout because a guy is reading “Art News”.) (GTFC, p. 116)
  • Example: The coffee choices have become even more elaborate here: A shop named “Not The Same Old Grind” lists “CAPPUCCINO GRANDE, CAPPUCCINO MEDIO, FRAPPACCINO NUEVO, ESPRESSO FUERTE, ESPRESSO MUERTE, SEXPRESSO MOCHA, LATTE FATTE, LATTE DIETE, LATTE PETITE, ALOTTA LATTE, COLOMBIANA, BOLIVIAN GRIND, MEAN BEAN, MOCHA CHOKA, JAVA LAVA, CUBAN DULCE” and others we can’t quite make out. (SC, p. 36)
  • Example: The trend has become international. An outdoor bar in Mexico offers: “MEGAMARGARITA, COCOA LOCO, MAMBO JUMBO, CRAZY CABEZA, RHUMBA TUMBA, DIE NOW PAY LATER, JUAN VALDEZ, CERVEZA LOTTA” (Website, April 10, 2004)

Last but by no means least, we have the modern airport.

  • Example: Panel one brilliantly depicts the chaos and paranoia. In the lower left, a little kid’s T-shirt reads “GUNS & ROSES” and he’s holding in his hand a paper saying, “RISK.” The sign in the middle reads “PASSENGERS MUST OBEY…” Sounds from the scanners: “BUZZ BEEP BING.” A sign at the right declares “NO THREATS. NO KNIVES. NO SCISSORS. NO FORKS. NO HOT SAUCE. NO FRUITCAKES.” And almost hidden in the background, the sign that sums it all up: “ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER [HERE]” [Figure 19] (Website, March 23, 2004)
    Figure 19. Signage © Lynn Johnston Productions, Inc.

Conclusion

Lynn Johnston’s genius can be seen in every aspect of her work. Her long-running, open-ended plot lines, her willingness to tackle controversial and difficult thematic material, and her compassionate look at families made up of distinct individuals are all quite properly celebrated. The fact that these are combined with her crisp yet fluid drawing style, her deft ability to age her characters in real time while keeping them recognizable even after long absences, and the sheer exuberance of fine detail in her panel settings, makes For Better or For Worse a body of work unique among contemporary comic strips

As this consideration of Johnston’s work has shown, sound effects and background text can convey information, humor, and social commentary in ways so subtle they seldom draw notice, let alone comment. It is important, therefore, that this textual material be better represented in XML schemas and other structural frameworks that seek to define a formal structural framework for comics.

Figure 20. CBML soundEffect and backgroundElement

As a start in this direction, I would propose consideration of some expanded tagging within CBML. The element “soundEffect” exists now; attributes of type (values of “descriptive” or “onomatopoeic”), location, source and agent could be added. In addition, an element named “backgroundFeature” could be defined with similar attributes. See Figure 20 for examples of these new tags. Formalizing a place for them in the encoding structure would draw attention to their importance and facilitate study of them in the future.

Notes

[1] Comic Book Markup Language, http://www.cbml.org/technical.html
[2] Neil Gaiman, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Dream Country (New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, c1990), p. 16, panel 7.
[3] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, (New York: Perennial, 2000), p. 154.
[4] Lynn Johnston, With This Ring (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 2003), p. 74. All references are given parenthetically as WTR.
[5] Lynn Johnston, Just One More Hug (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1984), p. 122. All references are given parenthetically as JOMH.
[6] Lynn Johnston, Pushing 40 (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1988), p.87. All references are given parenthetically as P40.
[7] Lynn Johnston, It Must Be Nice to Be Little (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1983), p. 106. All references are given parenthetically as NTBL.
[8] Lynn Johnston, Growing Like a Weed (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1997), p.76. All references are given parenthetically as GLW.
[9] Lynn Johnston, The Big 5-0 (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 2000), p.95. All references are given parenthetically as B50.
[10] Lynn Johnston, A Look Inside… For Better or For Worse (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1989), p.195. All references are given parenthetically as LI.
[11] Lynn Johnston, “There Goes My Baby” (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 1993), p. 8. All references are given parenthetically as TGMB. The lyrics to this “sentimental” song which moves Michael to tears, are hilarious:
“AH GOT A STABBIN’ IN MAH GUT! (UGH!)
AN’ I DUNNO WHUT (UGH!)
AHMA GONNA DO, BECUZ MAH BABY GONE AN’ SHUT ME OUTTTTT
SHE SEZ SHE’S GONNA TRY (UGH!)
WITH ANOTHER GUY (UGH!)
I NEVAH THOUGHT SHE’D DUMP ME AN AH DUNNO WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUTTTT
…AH GOTTA SHOUTTT
YEAGHHHH”
[12] Lynn Johnston, Sunshine and Shadow (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1999), p. 14. All references are given parenthetically as S&S.
[13] Lynn Johnston, It’s All Downhill From Here (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1987), p. 44. All references are given parenthetically as ADFH.
[14] Lynn Johnston, Graduation: A Time For Change (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2001), p.87. All references are given parenthetically as GTFC.
[15] Lynn Johnston, If This is a Lecture, How Long Will It Be? (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1990), p. 110. All references are given parenthetically as HLWIB.
[16] Lynn Johnston, The Last Straw (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1985), p.50. All references are given parenthetically as LS.
[17] Lynn Johnston, Keep the Home Fries Burning (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1986), p. 93. All references are given parenthetically as KHFB.
[18] Lynn Johnston, What, Me Pregnant? (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1991), p. 110. All references are given parenthetically as WMP.
[19] Lynn Johnston, Middle Age Spread (Kansas City: Andrews, 1998), p. 95. All references are given parenthetically as MAS.
[20] Lynn Johnston, Love Just Screws Everything Up (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1996), p. 108. All references are given parenthetically as LJSEU.
[21] Lynn Johnston, Things Are Looking Up… (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1992), p. 79. All references are given parenthetically as TALU.
[22] Lynn Johnston, Striking a Chord (Kansas City: Andrew McMeel, 2005), p. 107. All references are given parenthetically as SC.
[23] Strip for January 27, 2004. Recent strips are archived at the For Better or For Worse website, http://www.fbofw.com/ All references are given parenthetically as Website.
[24] Lynn Johnston, Is This “One of Those Days,” Daddy? (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1982), p. 121. All references are given parenthetically as OTDD.
[25] Lynn Johnston, Starting from Scratch (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1995), p. 26. All references are given parenthetically as SFS.
[26] Lynn Johnston, Suddenly Silver (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2004, p. 190. All references are given parenthetically as SS.
[27] Lynn Johnston, I’ve Got Those One More Washload Blues (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 1981), p. 36. All references are given parenthetically as OMWB.

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