Robot 6

Music, sound and comics

a4171370003_2Soundtracks have become an integral component of movies, television shows and video games. How important is a great soundtrack? There’s a video online that removes John Williams’ from E.T., leaving the triumphant moment at the end feeling lonely and empty. Swells and the rhythm of the full orchestra pull you in emotionally.

Can music be added to a comic? Years ago, that would have been a silly question, conjuring images of opening the book and hearing a tinny tune playing like something out of a greeting card. But now that comics are online, in a digital realm where greater integration between different kinds of media? It not as ridiculous a prospect as it sounds. Besides, it’s already being done.

Music and sounds are more prevalent in Flash-style webomics. Stuart Campbell’s Nawlz uses a futuristic electronic soundtrack to create a palpable sense of unease. It’s almost as if there’s something buzzing at all times to subconsciously frazzle your nerves. As you search the page to figure out what to click on next, you feel on guard. Will this next click bring the music to a halt? Is this comic setting me up to be frightened by a loud noise? It’s weird how much a soundtrack can ratchet up the anxiety. The effect is not unlike watching a horror movie, where more than half of the frights are due to sounds and music.

Speaking of horror … the most notorious use of sound is probably the Korean horror webcomic that was making the rounds some years back. Some of the horror stems from the visuals and the loss of tactile control. The thing I remember most about it, though, is the sound. Internet browsing is in general a silent experience, and the effect of a horrible clicking noise being foisted upon you violates a space that used to feel safe.

Less edgy, though, is the use of music in Homestuck. I’ve heard from some fans that you can’t fully appreciate Homestuck unless you’ve chilled out to the soundtracks some. I don’t know if they’re being facetious or not. Still, it’s pretty remarkable that a comic exists that is so strongly defined by its music. Plenty webcomics sell books, still more sell T-shirts. How many can you name that sell downloadable soundtracks?

The music and the comic are pretty inseparable, to the point that I can’t really imagine Homestuck existing without a soundtrack. Early on, we hear Mark Hadley’s “Harelquin” leitmotif. The recurring theme (which shows up as late as Act 5′s 5X SHOWDOWN COMBO) sounds like a broken music box, and it’s perfect at illustrating Andrew Hussie’s love of anachronistic references and the underlying creepiness of childhood entertainment.

Music gets a lot of play in Homestuck. Sometimes it’s paired with video game-style fight choreography. Other times, it leads to great comedy, like during some intentionally off-key covers of familiar movie anthems. The best-remembered ones, however, will probably be during the big music videos that cap the comic’s most explosive moments. Michael Guy Bowman “Sburban Jungle” ushers the reader into the fantastic new world that had been a long time coming. Toby Radiation Fox’s “Black” introduces some unintelligible vocals, while a fast-paced beat in a minor key accompanies the birth of a new god.

Joren “Tensei” de Bruin’s “Cascade” probably takes the cake as the best piece of music in Homestuck, though. The closing piece of Act 5 is a full symphonic melody. All the odd strangeness of the various parts of the Homestuck mythos — squeaky hammer weapons, a universe living inside a giant frog, a world formed by scratching a giant record — are tied together in a 13-minute piece that conversely feels grand and operatic. The score accompanies an unrelenting sequence of cosmic imagery. Universes cease, characters die, and everyone gapes in awe and wonder. “Cascade” goes from untamed electric guitars to haunting piano music to strings and drums. It’s at this moment that Homestuck is elevated to unthinkable levels of artistry, transforming an adventure game parody into an emotional tour de force.

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Nice topic! In 2011 I participated in a comic/music collaboration with musician Kim Boekbinder where the comic referred to a fictional song, which she composed based on the story:
http://www.thesecretknots.com/2011/12/15/music-for-stray-days/
It may serve as an example of thematic relation between music and comic.

I think a major practical reason why music works better in movies that in comics is that people have different reading speeds. Because everyone watches a movie at the same rate, it is possible to arrange the music to sync up with events nicely. But this isn’t the case with comics. People read at different rates, so the music won’t sync up precisely with anything. The best you can do is have music with a scene that conveys the general mood of the whole scene without being tied to any specific event.

Now, I suppose you could have a webcomic that refuses to turn the page until the music is done. But that would be really annoying. Part of the reason I like comics is that I can read the story at my own pace. I’m not tied down to a specific rate of progression events.

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