Drawing Sound: James Stokoe and Godzilla’s Roar

I was first made aware of James Stokoe’s Godzilla mini-series for IDW by David Brothers at the 4thletter! (“Reading Comics: James Stokoe and Lettering”, 30 April 2012). Brothers focuses his gaze at the preview for the first issue (released 8 August 2012) at how Stokoe letters Godzilla’s distinctive … roar? growl? scream? shriek? The different ways you can think of to label the sound gives an idea of the artist’s challenge here and like Brothers, I think that Stokoe’s solution is highly effective and beautifully rendered.

As reported by Brothers and discussed by Stokoe with Laura Hudson at Comics Alliance (“James Stokoe’s ‘Godzilla: Half-Century War’ Announced by IDW for August”, 31 March 2012), the way that he designed the lettering for the monster’s distinctive sound was to look, “up what it looked like run through an oscilloscope and just traced over that with some vague lettering”.

Stokoe’s decision to use the oscilloscope produced a shape or visual reference to work from. Brothers notes that this gives the artist’s approach a literal aspect; the outline of the “letters” is based on what the sound actually looks like when captured electronically. At the same time, Brothers notes that the approach also has an abstract dimension. He suggests that you can make out a kind of “EEYAEEEARRGH” from the outline, but the letters are not clearly outlined and some remain elusive.

For me, the way that Stokoe is signifying the roar resembles wildstyle graffiti lettering, a practice that also has the writer starting from a literal form before creatively distorting letter shapes into a design unlikely to be readable by anyone outside of their particular subculture. In the same way that tagging can be unnerving to those out of the know, so too does Godzilla’s noise disrupt any sense of peace or normalcy for those who hear (read) it. It’s a strange sound: vaguely mechanical, alien, and terrifying, but also sad and angry. Stokoe’s design captures this complexity and the otherness of the noise in a manner that is evocative, but also inscrutable. What is the monster saying? We never really know. Stokoe’s lettering without letters seems perfect.

The need for an adequate approach to the Godzilla sound is indicative of the particular challenges to making comics from licensed properties. In an interview with Josh Bell at Comic Book Resources, Stokoe sees his task in this way, “A licensed property like this, I feel like you need to really think about it and try to take more care,”, adding further, “There’s been precedent established, so you can’t just wing it like it was your own. You need a respect for the material, and a desire to try and dissect what it is you like about it” (see, “James Stokoe Tackles Giant Monsters in ‘Godzilla: The Half-Century War'”, 22 June 2012).

In the case of Godzilla, the character is one that originates in film and, over time, has been used in virtually all forms of popular media, including television, prose, and video games, as well as comics. Despite that variety of references, Godzilla remains distinguished both by look and sound, while the former fits comfortably into the medium of comics, the latter is more of a puzzle. Stokoe clearly understands that Godzilla is, above all, a movie monster, and skillfully translating that original, or canonical, form, to comics requires thought as to the particular appeal or signatures of the character and how those might be rendered effectively on the page.

Stokoe seems, at first, to be an unlikely candidate for plying his art through a licensed character. He’s best known for creator-owned works, including Wonton Soup and Wonton Soup 2 (Oni Press, 2007 and 2009) and the ongoing series Orc Stain (Image, 2010-). These books are strikingly inventive, bringing into being new words, heretofore unknown races and ethnicities, and bizarrely shaped, almost living, landscapes. He has a distinctive “voice” and style, and when working on his own creations, he seems to run wild. As Stokoe indicates above, running wild is something that a creator cannot, or should not, do when working with characters that have an established history and a clear set of references.

In the interviews cited here, Stokoe discusses his love of Godzilla and his history with the character as a fan. In the Comics Alliance piece, Hudson points to an uncommissioned fan-comic that Stokoe did that got the attention of IDW editor Bobby Curnow as one key element contributing to making the current mini-series a reality (see also, Cyriaque Lamar, “This is Probably the Best-looking Godzilla Comic You’ve Ever Read“, io9, 3 August 2012).

Being a fan of a particular character, or having an ability to “get” what draws people to that character, is an essential attribute for an artist or writer to turn what could otherwise be a pedestrian, or worse, endeavor into a work that adds something meaningful to the collection of texts that constitute a figure like Godzilla in popular imaginations.

While “the orc” is not an individual character or licensed property with a specific provenance, orcs, like vampires or zombies, are a character type that come with expectations for readers. That Stokoe chose to work within an established mythos like that for Orc Stain is one indication that there are advantages to working within limits, even for the most free ranging of creators. Finding ways to turn or surprise readers who think they already know all there is to know about a character or archetype can be as challenging an exercise as making something new.

Stokoe’s approach to visualizing how Godzilla sounds is one of those things that you didn’t know you wanted to see until you see it. I suspect that even those who haven’t heard the growl in the movies would still get an idea of what, or at least how, the monster is uttering in Stokoe’s comic. The image immediately brings to mind something loud, static-y and unlike anything else you are meant to “hear” in the comic. Even the most well-worn places have room for creativity if the artist knows where to find it and how to use it.

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