One of the things about comic books that is unique to comics is the humble sound effect. Obviously, films and TV shows are filled with sound effects and novels have described sounds for centuries, but comic books are unique because they’re the only form of media where sound effects are written out as a distinct aspect of the story. Sounds are not merely described, they’re very much experienced.
There are many sound effects that get used very frequently in comic books, but this is not a list of the most common ones. Instead, these are the most iconic sound effects, the sound effects that become famous in their own right due to their connection to certain characters or certain moments in comic book history. These are the sound effects where all you need to do is hear them, read them or speak aloud and you know exactly what character and/or moment they’re connected to. Here, then, are the most iconic comic book sound effects of all-time.
One of the most famous words in all of comics is “Shazam,” the magic word used by Billy Batson to transform into the World’s Mightiest Mortal, Captain Marvel. Shazam, though, is not a sound effect, as it is an actual word. However, the importance of Batson’s transformation into Captain Marvel being accompanied by a signature sound was not lost on Roy Thomas when it came time for him to revamp Marvel’s own Captain Marvel, in 1969.
After a few lackluster years of Captain Marvel fighting the good fight on Earth as an exiled Kree military officer, Thomas and artist Gil Kane revamped Captain Marvel by giving him a stunning new costume and also pairing him with Rick Jones (who had already been a sidekick to Hulk and Captain America by this point in his short comic life) by doing a variation on Billy Batson transforming into Captain Marvel. This time, it was through special nega-bands that Rick would clang together to trigger a switch with Captain Marvel. The sound effect, “Ktang!” was their equivalent to “Shazam!”
Mark Gruenwald was an expert in Marvel Comics continuity. He was the leading force behind the creation of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. While working on the handbook, though, Gruenwald felt that he was coming across way too many minor and/or pointless supervillains that no one was doing anything with. He believed that it was a waste to have that many supervillains running around the Marvel Universe without anything to really do, because no one was interested in writing them.
His solution was to create the Scourge of the Underworld, a mysterious master of disguise who would go around the Marvel Universe killing off the lesser-known supervillains in the pages of many of Marvel’s comic books of 1985 and 1986. This would lead to him being discovered by Captain America and defeated, but not before he would kill off dozens of “useless” supervillains. It was a striking example of the shared universe quality of Marvel. Whenever the Scourge killed someone, his special gun would give off the sound “Pum” when it fired and then the sound of the bullet made a “spak” noise. Those two sound effects became very familiar in the Marvel Universe in the mid-80s.
When Grant Morrison took over “JLA” and returned the series to its rightful place as the centerpiece of the DC Universe with the “Big Seven” superheroes starring in the book, he soon gained a bit of a reputation when it came to Batman. Morrison’s take on Batman has often been referred to as “Bat-God,” as Batman acquits himself very well in Morrison’s “JLA” issues. The key turning point in the first arc is that Batman is the only one who figured out the weakness of the villainous Hyperclan. They can’t figure out how he is defeating them and keep shouting that he is only a man, but their prisoner Superman just smirks, since he knows better.
During the epic “Rock of Ages” storyline, there’s a scene in the future where Earth has been conquered by Darkseid and Batman has been tortured by Desaad for years. As it turned out, though, Batman eventually won out in their game of torture and took Desaad’s place until he could make a move against Darkseid. This is accompanied by Batman’s verbal tic, “Hh,” which symbolizes the almost nonchalant attitude that Morrison’s Batman has to the crazy awesome stuff that he routinely pulls off.
Morrison was likely inspired in his choice of verbal tic for Batman by a similar verbal tic that Alan Moore used for Rorschach in his classic comic book series, “Watchmen,” with artist Dave Gibbons. The series was set in 1985, but the events of the book go all the way back to the 1940s. Chronologically, we first meet Rorschach in the 1960s, when he was part of a new generation of superheroes (just like how the 1960s saw a new generation of superheroes in the real world).
We first see him, though, in 1985 (the “present day” at the time that the book came out), and the verbal tics are key in depicting how Rorschach has devolved from his earlier years, when he spoke normally. By the time he investigates the murder of his former superhero colleague, the Comedian, in “Watchmen” #1, he barely communicates with people, and his verbal tics, like “Hurm,” are pronounced.
When Walter Simonson took over writing and drawing duties on “Thor,” he made sure to make his first issue (“Thor” #337) very memorable. Not only was the cover one of the greatest Marvel Comics covers of all-time (depicting an alien wielding Thor’s hammer and breaking the logo of the series) and the cliffhanger of the issue a historic one (said alien taking Thor’s hammer from him and proving to be worthy of the power of Thor), but the comic opened up with a mysterious creature pounding on a sword and every pound made the sound “Doom.”
This kept up for a number of issues until it was finally revealed to be the first beast known as Surtur, and that he was on his way to wreak havoc on Asgard! Letterer John Workman went way above and beyond in how well he designed the various “Doom” noises used in the series. Years later, when Simonson’s wife, Louise, was one of the writers of the “Superman” titles, those books borrowed the “Doom” effect by having that noise heard beneath the ground for a month or so before it finally broke through as the frightening creature known as Doomsday, who ultimately killed Superman!
When Jack Kirby left Marvel Comics for DC Comics in 1970, he debuted a brand-new line of inter-connected comics called “The Fourth World,” telling the seemingly eternal battle between the New Gods of New Genesis versus the evil beings of Apokolips, led by the evil Darkseid. Their war had been put off for years by a pact where the two leaders (Highfather and Darkseid) would swap sons with each other. However, when Highfather’s son, Scott Free, escaped from Apokolips (as Darkseid knew he would), the war was back on, although Darkseid’s son, Orion, chose to fight alongside the New Gods against his birth father.
The “Fourth World” titles introduced a number of fascinating ideas, including the Mother Box, the sort of super-computer that was paired with all of the beings of New Genesis. It was essentially a living being who performed all kinds of functions for its owners, including repairing injuries. When it went into action, it had a familiar “Ping Ping Ping” noise to it.
One of the most successful artists in the field of pop art was Roy Lichtenstein, who became a millionaire with his popular and critically-acclaimed pieces of art that were based on the worlds of comic books and popular advertising. The concept behind Lichtenstein’s work is that he would take so-called “low art,” like comic book art, and then generally replicate a panel from an actual comic book into a large painting; in doing so, he would parody the whole idea of “low” and “high” art. However, do note that Lichtenstein did not literally just copy comic book panels, he would often make a number of changes when he turned the panels into paintings.
Of course, enough of the original panel compositions remained that the anonymous comic book artists whose work he used (primarily Irv Novick, Jack Kirby, Russ Heath and Jerry Grandenetti) naturally resented the high level of fame and fortune that Lichtenstein achieved based on the backs of their work. Likely his most famous work is “Whaam,” a gigantic diptych based on an Irv Novick panel from “All-American Men of War.” It’s likely the only comic book sound effect hung at the world-famous Tate Modern Art Museum.
8. HA HA HA HA HA HA
Right from the start, Batman’s arch-rival, the Joker, was laughing his way through a series of murders. As the character progressed from serial killer to general crook (as comic books began to be more and more sanitized for their young reading audience), the laughter remained a significant part of his characterization. This continued even as the Joker returned to his earlier murderous ways in the 1970s.
In the classic graphic novel, “The Killing Joke,” by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, we see a possible origin for the Joker, which was based on the notion that a particularly bad day (like being doused with chemicals and turned into a horrific clown-like being) could break anyone (so the Joker tries his theory out on Commissioner Gordon, kidnapping and torturing him). The Bolland depiction of the Joker emerging from the chemical process for the first time and busting into laughter is one of the most famous moments in DC Comics history.
One of the most controversial comic book sound effects (probably the most controversial comic book sound effect) occurred in “Amazing Spider-Man” #121 (by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, John Romita and Tony Mortellaro), when Norman Osborn, who had recently regained his memories of being the Green Goblin (and thus, his memories of Spider-Man’s Peter Parker identity), kidnapped Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, and then threw her off a bridge. She died and Spider-Man ended up almost killing Osborn, but then Osborn ended up seemingly dying at his own hand when he sent his Goblin Glider after Spider-Man; when Spidey ducked, it impaled Obsorn.
The trick, though, is that little tiny sound effect where it says “snap.” That certainly seems to suggest that when he tried to save her with his webbing, Spider-Man accidentally broke her neck while she was falling. Thus, while Osborn was ultimately responsible for her death by the whole “throwing her off of a bridge” deal, Spider-Man might have literally caused her death with his webs. That’s some dark stuff right there.
6. BWAH HA HA HA
When Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis re-launched “Justice League” following the crossover “Legends” (which re-situated the superheroes of Earth following “Crisis on Infinite Earths”), their initial idea for the team was to do something similar to what Grant Morrison later did with “JLA.” They wanted to have a “big guns” League to follow up the so-called “Justice League Detroit” era. However, one by one, they were turned down when it came to using most of the more famous superheroes, like Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Aquaman.
Therefore, Giffen and DeMatteis pivoted and turned the book into more of a sitcom about a superhero team. Since many of their characters did not have their own title, they were given more freedom to do whatever they wanted with them, characterization-wise. Thus, Blue Beetle and Booster Gold began to be used more as a comic relief than anything else. In “Justice League International” #8 (art by Kevin Maguire and Al Gordon), as the League traveled the world setting up new embassies after cutting a deal with the United Nations, we heard the first laugh that would define this era of the League, “Bwah Ha Ha Ha.”
As noted earlier, when Jack Kirby debuted the “Fourth World,” he introduced many new ideas. One of them was the Mother Box, but perhaps his best known new invention was the teleportation device used by the New Gods called the “Boom Tube.” The Boom Tube was aptly titled, as every time the teleportation tunnel was activated, it came along with an ear-shattering “boom”!
When we mentioned the earlier pact between New Genesis and Apokolips, there was another pact made between Darkseid and the brilliant New God known as Metron, where Darkseid would supply Metron with the materials needed to make his special Mobius Chair in exchange for giving Darkseid the Boom Tube technology. Years later, Walter Simonson would also use a number of “boom” sound effects during his run on “Thor,” as John Workman was as good at coming up with cool “boom” fonts as he was with coming up with cool “doom” fonts.
When Nightcrawler was introduced in “Giant-Size X-Men” #1, one of the biggest hooks regarding the character was that everything about him screamed demon except, of course, for the man himself. Nightcrawler was a sweet, sensitive and fun-loving guy, who was also a man of great faith. He just happened to also look just like a demon, complete with blue skin, fangs and a tail with a sharpened point at the end of it. When he teleported, he would make a “bamf” noise, and the teleportation would be accompanied by the smell of sulfur. Basically everything outside of Nightcrawler’s personality was highly unpleasant.
Over the years, Bamf also became the name of these adorable little creatures that looked like Nightcrawler that would often follow him around (this was following Kitty Pryde telling a fairy tale where Nightcrawler’s name was Bamf in the story, and he looked just like what the later Bamf creatures would look like). The “bamf” sound effect continues to this day.
Unlike a lot of these other famous sound effects, Spider-Man’s webs did not always give off a “thwip” sound. In fact, before Steve Ditko left “Amazing Spider-Man” following “Amazing Spider-Man” #38, the webs really did not actually have a consistent sound that went with them. In fact, in the earliest days of Spider-Man, his webshooters did not make noise at all. However, in the months leading up to his departure, Steve Ditko began to use some new sound effects and one of them was “twhip” for the sound of Spider-Man’s webshooters. It didn’t seem to be a dedicated thing, but it was there.
When John Romita took over as the book’s artist with “#39,” he quickly brought “twhip” with him and the name stuck ever since. “Thwip” was actually trademarked by Marvel Comics, so no one else can use “Thwip” as the name of a product. When the “Spider-Man” movies came out, they did their best to replicate the sound.
2. BIFF! BAM! POW!
As noted in the beginning of the list, superheroes had been accompanied by sound effects for decades before Batman got his own TV series in 1966. However, it is interesting to note that punching sound effects really weren’t used in the “Batman” comics books from the mid-1960s, as direct inspirations for the “Batman” TV series. However, that did not deter the producers from adopting the practice of accompanying a punch with a cut to a giant “Biff” or “Bam” or “Pow” drawn sound effect. This was their attempt to adapt comic book sound effects to the TV screen, and it proved to be very popular.
However, it was also very humorous, and for years and years and years (heck, it’s still happening now), comic books became derisively associated with sound effects like “Biff! Bam! Pow!” including the introduction of the hackiest headline known to man, a headline that comic readers of many generations would grow to hate, a headline seemingly used every time a reporter wanted to do a story on a new development in the comics, “Biff! Bam! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” Annoying, but truly iconic.
Unlike “thwip,” Wolverine was using “Snikt” for the sound his claws make when they come out of his body almost as soon as Wolverine debuted, with the sound effect showing up in his second full appearance, which happened to be in “Giant-Size X-Men” #1 when he joined the All-New, All-Different X-Men. Unlike Spider-Man’s “thwip,” Wolverine’s “Snikt” did not stay consistent, as when he lost his adamantium-covered skeleton in the early 1990s and learned that he had actual bone claws, the claws would now make a “Schlikk” sound when they came out of his body. Eventually he got the adamantium back and “Snikt” was here to stay.
Interestingly, while “Snikt” is not the only comic book sound effect to be trademarked by a comic book company (as “thwip” is, as well), “Snikt” has the distinct privilege of actually having a comic book named after it, as “Wolverine: Snikt” was a miniseries released by Marvel in 2003.
What is your all-time favorite comic book sound effect? Let us know in the comments section!