I think it’s safe to say that most of us have voices in our heads. I know I do. I’ve got voices that are constantly talking, singing, questioning my actions, babbling on, muttering about the state of the world and so forth. I even have a voice that tells me to get “extra mayo” when I order a sandwich at my favorite deli. There’s a competing voice that responds and tells the mayo voice to pipe down and order something healthy. These are the same voices that I hear whenever I read comics. They are the cast of voices that give life to the words on the page. And most of the time, I like these chatty guys and gals; it’s a good stable of invisible folks who put on a pretty good show somewhere amidst my grey matter. But sometimes I’m tired. And sometimes those voices don’t do a very good job. They blow the lines or garble great comic book dialogue because, let’s face it, they’re overworked. I ask them to perform a lot and I don’t pay them. Wednesdays are a problem. Sometimes I just wish there were a way to have my comics read to me. After all, who doesn’t like a little “story time” now and again?
My son is lucky. I read him comics before bed a lot. We’ve worked our way through six or seven volumes of Bone and I’ve done all the voices as best I can along the way. It takes a little getting used to, I admit, but ultimately your mind casts the characters with your own stable of voices, and then you pepper in some scene description as a bonus. The end result feels pretty comprehensive and my son has never complained. I’ve even attempted to read aloud some issues of Claremont’s New Mutants, but I find that my southern accent is dreadful, so my Cannonball basically stinks. Still, I think my son appreciates having these books read aloud to him. It’s certainly rewarding as a father. But who reads to the reader? Where’s the old man’s story time? Fortunately, I think I’ve come up with some solutions or at least some ways in which you can give the ol’ voices in your noggin an occasional day off.
While reading the recently released first issue of Straczynski’s Sidekick I was pleasantly surprised to discover a QR link on the final page that provides what is essentially an audio version of the book, complete with dialogue and soundtrack. This seems to be a trend of Straczynski’s books (at least debut issues), as the same service is offered in the first issue of Ten Grand. You simply press play on the page (or download the file) and start “reading” your books. The experience is pretty cool (at least on a conceptual level), though you’re likely to have moments where you question the voice actor’s choices (and maybe even the musical choices). Still, it’s a cool option to have and it allows for a second way to read one’s books, so there’s added value there.
There are always going to be people who argue that listening to a book is literary heresy and doesn’t compare to “actual” reading. And I do understand there’s a distinction, but I wouldn’t say that one isn’t necessarily better than the other. Just different. I’m not saying that all comics or books should be “audible-ized,” but once in a while it’s a nice shift in the way we experience the medium. I suppose you could argue that a soundtrack provided by the writer and publisher does take away from opportunity for the reader to bring his or her own interpretation of the material, but it’s also an additional outlet for a creator to tell his or her story and to assure that it’s “heard” as it was intended.
As far as other options, there are always motion comics (if you can find them). I would argue that motion comics really don’t work all that well because the manipulation of the art takes away from experience as a whole. Simply put, I find it hard to really listen to the story with all the art wiggling around and whatnot. I’d much rather have the static panel images shown to me while voice actors read. There are some versions of this sort of thing online (mostly fan-created) that work pretty well. I found a version of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke on YouTube that did just that. The comic pages are doled out in sync with a fairly decent cast of voice actors for an experience that feels pretty darn natural when all is said and done. There are some clunkers in there, but if you can see (or listen) past that, then it’s basically a relatively high quality way of having The Killing Joke read to you like a script with visual aids. I found that it sort of freed me up to look at the book’s awesome visuals because the verbal part of my brain was given a break.
Kevin Smith recently did a couple of “read-a-long” episodes on his Fatman on Batman podcast. Basically, he reads through a classic comic, giving detailed descriptions of what’s going on in panel while also reading most of the dialogue in character. It’s a bit more freeform (and he of course offers a lot of commentary), but it’s a cool way to experience or re-experience a classic comic with an informed albeit slightly stoned commentary track. The most recent “read-a-long” was dedicated to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing #53. Generally speaking, Smith’s voice work is spot-on and he manages to do a nice job of bringing the Swamp Thing to life.
If all else fails, you can read your books aloud to yourself. I sometimes do that just to truly hear the intention and cadence of a writer’s dialogue. The people in Starbucks find this practice strange, of course. Maybe this is all a solution looking for a problem. Some may argue that you should just read your books silently to yourself and escape into your head the way comics were originally intended. Maybe comics should be seen and not heard. But there’s something primal about actually hearing a good story told out loud. It’s important to remember that those precious written words in those printed word balloons are representations of actual voices, even if they only truly ever existed in the mind of the comic creator.
Gabe Roth is hearing things. He loves comics and he’s @gaberoth on Twitter. Follow him.