A Thousand Words: Silent Superhero Comics, From Steranko to Aja

Anyone who has read a comic will probably tell you it takes words and pictures to make sequential art. Some people will say comics are a visual medium, and that the words are less important than the art. We don't pretend to have the answers, but silent comics have been floating around in the medium for decades. The use of pure art to convey a comic book story could be seen as comic booking in its purest form, visual storytelling unaided by narration or dialogue to tell a story.

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The advent of silent comics can be traced back to 1968's Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #1. After two years of steadily pushing the artistic envelope on Strange Tales, Jim Steranko finally claimed his own full-length book. While the first issue wasn't entirely silent, it opened with a completely soundless three pages, showing Nick Fury infiltrating a massive fortress. 

The sequence was groundbreaking. It introduced a more cinematic feel to the comic, a deliberate choice by Steranko, which he explained in Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Volume 2, 2009:

“The adventure opened with Fury penetrating a Hydra stronghold in silence, which I felt would be most effective by eliminating all words, thoughts, sound effects and captions -- even the standard title -- and attempt to generate the same impact as a film I’d seen when I was about fifteen: Jules Dassin’s thriller Rififi. The plot involved a robbery that had to be performed in silence because of alarms, so the middle third of the picture had no sound, not even a musical underscore. It left a deep impression on me. So, fifteen years later, when Fury scaled the monolithic fortress on the issue’s splash page, my memory of Rififi was with him.”

After Steranko's feat, silent comics would pop up every now and then as an oddity. Legendary artist Jean 'Moebius' Giraud would publish several silent stories in the '70s, including the iconic Arzach. However, silent comics wouldn't really reappear in mainstream comics until 1984, with Larry Hama's G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #24.

Directly inspired by Steranko's three page opener, it showed Snake Eyes pulling a similar infiltration of a Cobra fortress, juxtaposed with Scarlett's daring simultaneous escape from Storm Shadow. The issue would quickly grab the hearts and minds of fans and creators alike. While silent issues would remain uncommon, they started to pop up with increasing frequency and in more and more mainstream books.

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In 1989, John Byrne and Jim Aparo would deliver the first mainstream superhero silent issue in Batman #433. Aparo's masterful pencils brought Byrne's (mostly) silent script to life. The silence served the shocking story well, as various people in and around Gotham react to Batman's death. With only two words spoken, Aparo delivers a highly emotional story.

In 2000, Walt Simonson would create Orion #5. Unlike other silent issues, Orion was a cacophony of sound effects, showcasing a stunning final battle between Orion and Darkseid. Book-ended by the sole dialogue of Orion, proclaiming, “The time for talking… is over” and, “It is finished," Simonson really outdid himself in creating a battle between two titans punctuated by silent reactions from a crowd of New Gods.

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