Leith on language: Whaam! Bam! Thanks Batman!

"Here, I thought, is a whole subcategory of vocabulary"
April 12, 2017

It occurred to me the other day—being, as I am, a semi-retired comic book nerd of a certain age and a nostalgic bent—to wonder about cartoon strip sound effects. Here, I thought, is a whole subcategory of vocabulary that lives on the page in this isolated little world, but that has quietly insinuated itself into the wider culture. The locus classicus for it, I suppose, is Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam!. In that painting you can see the moment that the comic book sound effect—with its characteristic reduplicated vowel—leaps from the newsstand to the art gallery.

But there are others. Not just the “Biff! Bam! Pow!” of early Batman comics—lovingly literalised on screen for the camp 1960s television series. For anyone who ever read Marvel comics, the word “snikt”—even on a blacked-out panel—tells you exactly what’s going on. Wolverine has popped his adamantium claws and is about to go to work on a baddie with them. “Bamf” is the sound of imploding air as Nightcrawler performs his sulphurous short-range teleportation. And “thwip,” loveliest of all the comic book noises, is the sound that Spider Man’s webs make as they whip out to yank a pistol from a goon’s hand, or fasten to a convenient flagpole for a speedy swinging getaway.

The denigration of comics as kids’ stuff seems to ignore their almost Shakespearean contribution to the language in this respect. Think of the real person who says “ptui,” or the unimpressed psychopath (Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen) who says “hf.”

Where, since Joyce at least, has there been such loving attention to onomatopoeia? And in being made uniform—Wolvie’s claws always go “snikt”—these sounds enter the realm of the Homeric epithet.

Comics have lots of set phrases: shortly after “snikt,” for instance, at least during Chris Claremont’s run as writer on the X-Men, Wolvie tended to announce he was the best at what he does—but that what he does isn’t very nice. Note the antimetabole: the fightiest X-Man is not just a pretty face.

Has anyone paid much attention to all this? I wondered. And oh boy, have they. I should have known. There’s even a book entirely dedicated to the subject, Kevin J Taylor’s Kaboom: A Dictionary of Comic Book Words, Symbols and Onomatopoeia available through the print-on-demand site Lulu.

A single inquiry on social media, in my case, opened the window into a whole world of underappreciated scholarship. I learned, for instance, that “snikt” made its debut in 1975’s Giant-Sized X-Men #1, while “bamf” arrived with that year’s UncannyX-Men #95. (Another correspondent noted that when Captain America’s shield bounced off a hard surface it used to say “wank”—though nowadays we can rely on “spangg” or “skaang” and sometimes “ftoom.”)

Most pleasingly, it emerged that before Spidey’s webs went “thwip” (John Romita Sr; Amazing Spider Man #31, 1965), they had been through “whizzzzzt,” “twnnnng!,” “thwup!,” “whipp” and “zap.”

Good to know these things—and isn’t it true to say, however obscure, that “thwip” has a feeling of the insouciant snatch-and-grab about it? “Thwip” zooms out and attaches and yanks, like a chameleon’s tongue—“whizzzzzt” and “zap” seem to convey only the web’s outward journey.

That line about the Homeric epithet is only half-jokey. Since the ancient myth-cycles, there has been no collectively authored roman fleuve, dealing with effective immortals of shifting forms but stable underlying motifs, to come close to the Marvel and DC universes. Here, in the funny papers, are some of the biggest narratives in human history—and the ways their characters behave are more mythological than novelistic.

In the evolution of these signature sound-effects, you can see these characters hardening into their archetypal shapes... Just as, when you spot the first appearance of Charlie Brown’s zig-zag jumper in an early edition of Peanuts, you witness, in retrospect, a rather thrilling moment of creation.

Someone could—I hesitate to say “should,” but only just—write a PhD thesis on this stuff. In the meantime long live “snikt,” and “bamf” and “thwip.” Without them the language would lack whaam.