Grace deVega

“Sourcing the Sounds” – An Origin Story

Written by Grace deVega
SDSU History Major, 2022

All comic heroes need a compelling origin story: Spider-Man with Uncle Ben, Batman with his parents in the alley, or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with the toxic waste in the sewers. These beginnings shape their characters and lay the foundation for the rest of the series. For exhibits, the beginning stages of curation serve a similar purpose, especially when it comes to sourcing the materials for the collection. These sources serve as both the basis upon which the exhibit will make its argument and the catalyst that compels patrons to interact.

You could say I am on my personal Ninja-Turtle-and-toxic-sewer-waste origin story journey, albeit without the superpowers and affinity for pizza, as I begin to curate materials for my exhibit on depictions of sound in comics. Now that I have completed the bulk of the background research, my main focus has been on sourcing examples from a variety of places. Throughout this process, I have learned how to broaden my approach to sourcing and to tackle topics from multiple, and often new, angles.

If the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ superhero origins stories revolve around an love for pizza, mine would certainly revolve around music. As someone who has both performed in ensembles for many years and conducted previous research on depictions of music in sequential art, I decided to start the curation process with locating materials for the music category because it was a topic with which I was most familiar. Because this exhibit is being developed in coordination with the Center for Comics Studies, I plan to have nearly all of the materials come from SDSU and, more specifically, the comics in the Special Collections that can be found via the SDSU Library’s ComicsHub. I learned early on that the sheer number and variety of comics that SDSU offers meant that I needed to quickly narrow my field in order to find comics about music. In order to achieve this, I created a list of keywords related to music and then began to search for comics that included those words in their titles and synopses. Such words included “band,” “concert,” “instrument,” “singer,” “piano,” “guitar,” and “drums.” From there, it became a process of reading through the selection for any references to music in their imagery, symbols, content, plotlines, and characters. At the same time, I relied on secondary scholarship, namely peer-reviewed articles, that discussed music for further examples. It was, in a sense, a sort of reverse engineering where I relied on the secondary material to find primary evidence that I could then look for and include in my own research. Both of these types of sourcing were invaluable in helping me curate a variety of comics that feature music in different forms.

I then moved on to explore comics that feature onomatopoeia, or words formed from the sound with which they are associated, such as bang, zap, and pow. Whereas music in comics is often plot or character specific, onomatopoeia and sound effects are found in nearly every comic in some capacity, so it is difficult to search by keywords. As such, I had to adapt my process for setting search parameters. One of the easiest ways to limit the comics was to search by national origin. I hope to analyze onomatopoeia in comics across languages and nationalities in the exhibit, so looking through the foreign-language comics that SDSU possesses was a simple but effective way to both find evidence and narrow down the searches. In terms of English-language comics, I provided the repository with specific time period and publisher parameters so that I could curate a cross-section of what I believed represented the different genres, eras, styles, and artists from the collection. The intention behind this search was to use these comics as starting points for finding trends or patterns of onomatopoeiae that I could then go back and look for in the ComicsHub. For example, based on the various noir-style comics that I pulled in my initial search, I found these types of comics often forgo flashy forms of onomatopoeia for the sake of style. Therefore, if I need further evidence of noir-style onomatopoeia or of subtle uses of sound effects in the future, I can search for them in the repository based on the criteria set by these original noir comics. I am still in process with looking for onomatopoeia, particularly in unusual or novel forms, but breaking down the ComicsHub into manageable pieces has been helpful in setting a baseline for my continued research.

In addition to these efforts in the ComicsHub and Special Collections, I have also ventured into sourcing via other means than traditional database mining. Recently, I crowdsourced my question via Twitter, reaching out to the comics scholars that collaborate on that platform. My tweet received substantial engagement from academics that shared their personal and classroom encounters with onomatopoeia in comics. I was surprised by the level of interaction, as well as the specificity of answers. Additionally, it was fascinating to watch the reach of the tweet expand over the course of several days as it became liked and reposted by scholars across the country and even the globe. 

Beyond diving into the digital sphere, I took a physical venture into new sourcing avenues by touring the Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park, San Diego. All of my other exhibit tours have been virtual, so the Comic-Con Museum offered a fresh perspective on showcasing comics in museum settings. The museum currently features an exhibition on the history and cultural impacts of Spider-Man and includes several different digital displays and activities. I was particularly intrigued by a sound booth that plays the original Spider-Man song through a set of ear pieces. I found many examples of comics that I hope to explore further, as well as learned new comics organization techniques and ways to integrate interactivity into exhibits.

Grace deVega standing in front of the entrance to the Comic-Con Museum.
My first visit to the Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park, San Diego.

Throughout this entire research journey, one of the most surprising aspects has been the fact that this type of curation does not follow a linear path. In contrast to what I believed going into the work, there is no fixed set of steps where one article would lead to an example of a specific comic and that comic would then be sourced and added to the collection. Instead, it is an iterative process: a series of backtracking, starting over, and jumping from idea to idea, which creates a long, complicated, and often cyclical flow of scholarly discovery. Exploring this is an exciting path of research just one of the many lessons I have learned and will continue to learn throughout my academic adventure into the aural.

Photo of Grave deVega.

Grace deVega (she/her) is a Fourth Year History and Political Science student at San Diego State University. She previously won the President’s Award at the SDSU Student Research Symposium and 1st Place in her Division at the CSU Research Competition for her research into the impacts of the 1986 Philippines People Power Movement on nonviolent revolutions. She has also played clarinet for the past twelve years, including in the SDSU marching and concert bands, which is where her passion for music and aural studies derives.

Elizabeth Pollard

Reincarnated Roman Racket-Buster

Written by
Dr. Elizabeth Pollard, Professor of History

For one of my current research projects, I’ve been accumulating comics from the last century that engage in some way with ancient Rome. Among the odder comics I have stumbled across in that enterprise has been “The Dart.” The Dart and his boy side-kick Ace appear in all but four of the twenty issues of Weird Comics, a Fox Feature Syndicate publication. From their inception, Dart and Ace enjoyed a long run on the cover of every Weird Comics and as the first title in each issue, until May 1941 (Weird Comics 14) when the patriotic “Eagle” took the cover for the first time since Dart and Ace premiered. The rising tide of World War II in Europe and North Africa offers the obvious explanation for the ultra-American, flag-draped Eagle’s eclipsing of a reincarnated Roman superhero, especially given Italy’s increasing role in the war. Germany, Italy, and Japan had officially become the Axis powers via the Tripartite Pact on September 27, 1940. What’s really surprising, in that 1940/41 context, is that Dart stayed on the cover of Weird Comics for as long as he did!

Figure 1: (top) Readers get the only glimpse at Caius Martius in his Roman context on the second page of “The Dart” in Weird Comics 5 (August 1940). (bottom) In only a few of the later issues, for instance here in Weird Comics 7 (October 1940), the Dart’s modern alter-ego, Roman History teacher Mr. Wheeler, recalls his life back in ancient Rome.

So, just who is this Dart? The full-page splash on the Dart’s first issue includes a text box that first introduces us to this “new” hero: “Out of the hidden shrouds of history comes a legendary man who dedicates his life to fight crime and racketeers — the invincible Roman, Caius Martius, who takes the name: The Dart” (Weird Comics 5, August 1940). Turning the page, readers were immersed for one page — in fact, the only page of the entire sixteen-issue series — that takes them back to Caius Martius’ origins as “the terror of Roman racketeers” in the early first century BCE. Readers learn that Caius was a supporter of Sulla, who is presented here as the good guy, not the death-warrant-issuing dictator whose bloody reign resulted in the murder of thousands of Romans in the 80s BCE. Sulla’s rival Marius (here the “evil” guy) orders his henchman Lucius to do away with Caius Martius. Sulla’s troops are too late to save Caius before he is dissolved into a stone table by a hooded ritual expert. The magical spell is supposed to last 2200 years; and at the bottom of the page the reader’s eye moves from a panel in which his would-be rescuers mourn “Rome’s saddest loss” to a panel in which 20th-century museum-goers scatter in fear as the body of Caius Martius rematerializes on the same stone table. Nevermind that the math is incorrect (an early 80s BCE spell that lasted 2200 years would expire ca. 2110, not 1940); Caius leaps right into action against tommy-gun wielding gangsters who have orphaned a boy named Ace Barlow, whom we see mourning his parents shot dead in the street (shades of Bat-Man’s origin in DC 33 from late September/November 1939). Ace becomes Dart’s wooden bat-wielding side-kick. When he’s not hurling his Roman gladius like a projectile, the Dart wields his signature weapon in his right hand, stabbing cars, punching through walls, skewering the skulls of criminals (quite vividly), and even collapsing a bridge. 

Figure 2: Title splash pages for (left) the first episode of “The Dart” in Weird Comics 5 (August 1940), with the one Jerry Abus byline, later changed to Jerry Arbo for every other issue except (right) Weird Comics 19 (November 1941), when Alex Boon gets the byline.

To whom should we offer our thanks for this gladius-brandishing Roman “racket buster”? The signatory author of “The Dart” ranges from Jerry Abus (Weird Comics 5) on the splash page of the first Dart comic; to Jerry Arbo (Weird Comics 6-18 and 20), with one attributed to Alex Boon (Weird Comics 19, November 1941). The consensus across various comics databases is that Jerry Abus/Arbo is a house name or pseudonym used by Luis Cazeneuve (1908-1977), an Argentinian comic artist known for his work on “Quique, el Niño Pirata” in Argentina and then later in the U.S., creating work for National/DC (e.g. Aquaman), Harvey Comics (e.g. Phantom Sphinx), and other Fox Feature Syndicates (e.g. Blue Beetle). [see Luis Cazeneuve” in Lambiek Comiclopedia (updated 1-18-2018);]. Alex Boon, the byline for Dart in Weird Comics 19, is likely Alex Blum, a Hungarian-American who worked for Eisner & Iger at the same time as Cazaneuve (late 1930s and early 1940s) — notably drawing “Samson” and “Eagle” and going on to work on Classics Illustrated, including Homer’s Iliad (#77) and Midsummer Night’s Dream (#49). [see Alex Blum,” in Lambiek Comiclopedia (updated 7-15-2021) and CCS Books,]

Figure 3: (left) Contrast the first page of “The Dart” from early in the series (Weird Comics 6, September 1940) with (right) the first page from the final issue (Weird Comics 20, January 1942).

Although attributed to the same name for nearly every issue, the style changes dramatically across the sixteen appearances of “The Dart,” from his debut in August 1940 to his last adventure in January 1942. This stylistic change is easily glimpsed with the juxtaposition of a first page from early in the run with one from ten months later (Figure 3). From Dart’s second appearance in Weird Comics 6 (September 1940) through through Weird Comics 16 (July 1941), the first page of each Dart comic includes a half-page scene-setter, with an introductory text box reminding readers of the Dart’s past as “ancient Roman racket buster Caius Martius” (although in Weird Comics 16, he’s mis-named as Cassius Martius!).  Beginning with Weird Comics 17, in August 1941, and through the end of the run in January 1942, the text box reminding the reader of Mr. Wheeler’s ancient Roman past life disappears and the first page becomes far splashier. 

Figure 4: Contrast the paneling from one of the early issues (left, from Weird Comics 7, October 1940) with that ten issues later (right, from Weird Comics 17, August 1941).

The change in “The Dart”’s style across its run is also manifest in its panel scheme (Figure 4). A simplistic two by four framing pattern characterizes the majority of pages throughout the sixteen issues of “The Dart.” Each panel neatly contains the figures and word balloons, as the action plods forward from scene to scene. Towards the end of the run (mid 1941), however, the paneling becomes more complex. Word balloons and body parts extend beyond the panel, drawing the reader’s eye to the next stage of the action and even pointing the way, when the paneling becomes more complex. For instance, on one page from “The Pushcart Drug Pusher” (August 1941) an ax provides the continuity from panels 3 to 4. Then Mr. Wheeler’s knee points the reader to the fifth panel. The hand of Mr. Wheeler’s punched fellow teacher then points the way from panels 5 to 6. Jeff Dean’s foot bleeds from panel 4 to 7, essentially escaping that panel into the last panel on the page, where he has evaded capture by the Dart. What might have precipitated this change? No doubt, the dynamic and imaginative framing, energy, and action that leaped off the pages of Jack Kirby’s revolutionary Captain America #1 in March 1941 had an immediate influence on Luis Cazeneuve, the artist behind the Jerry Arbo house-name ascribed to all but a few of the issues of “The Dart.”

Figure 5: First row - Miss Tillbury is punched by a villain (Weird Comics 10, January 1941, p. 9/2); Miss Tillbury’s hair is yanked by her criminal uncle (Weird Comics 11, February 1941, p. 5/5); Miss Tillbury is kidnapped (Weird Comics 13, p. 2/4). Second row - Miss Tillbury taunts Mr. Wheeler’s manliness time and again, as her parting words in each comic - left (Weird Comics 7, October 1940, p. 10/8); middle (Weird Comics 11, February 1941, p. 10/8); right (Weird Comics 12, March 1941, p. 10/8).

There is much more that I’ll say when I incorporate “The Dart” into my larger project of ancient Rome in comics, but a few final issues to note. Particularly shocking to a modern reader is the casual, repeated, and explicit violence to Miss Tillbury (Figure 5). Her life is threatened many times; she is punched; she is yanked around by her arm and hair; and she is abducted. This level of disturbing violence in comics is one of many issues the Comics Code Authority of 1954 sought to minimize. Paired with this violence against women is an ongoing discourse on masculinity… in particular, the much-abused “love interest” and fellow teacher Miss Tillbury’s frequent impugning of alter-ego Mr. Wheeler’s manliness, in favor of the Dart’s. Miss Tillbury needles Mr. Wheeler: “If I were a man, I’d get that state witness back” and at the end of the same issue, “There’s a real man… The Dart! Look what he did to the Black Spot Gang! Don’t you wish you were like him?” (Weird Comics 7, October 1940, p. 2/4 and p. 10/8). And as if that weren’t enough, in the next issue Mrs. Tillbury responds to Mr. Wheeler’s request to take her to dinner with “Thank you… But I prefer to go out with men… Good morning!” (Weird Comics 9, December 1940, p. 1/3). In that same issue, Tillbury tells Dart: “I wish Gaius Martius Wheeler were a man… like you!” (Weird Comics 9, p. 6/8). After Mr. Wheeler expresses his incredulity that someone so brave as the Dart exists, Miss Tillbury exclaims: “[S]omeday you might meet him and you’ll see what my idea of a real man is!” (Weird Comics 11, February 1941, p. 10/10). Miss Tillbury’s repeated maligning of Mr. Wheeler’s masculinity continues through to the end of the run, with parting shots like “… if I had depended on you, I’d be dead by now” (Weird Comics 12, March 1941, p. 10/8) and “Whenever a man’s help is needed, you’re not around!  I’m getting tired of this!” (Weird Comics 18, September 1941, p. 10/9) and even her last words in the last issue “I’ve seen jelly fish [sic] display more courage than you!” (Weird Comics 20, January 1942, 10/8). This discourse on manliness and even absent masculinity is particularly striking as the United States was considering full-on engagement in World War II. Perhaps readers lost their interest in such taunting after Japan’s attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. “The Dart,” and the long-emasculated Mr. Wheeler, sees only one more issue after that infamous day. Mr. Wheeler’s claim to his students, “There’s no excitement in the world at present… not like ancient Rome” in October 1940 — just after the Tripartite Pact formalized the Axis powers —  likely rang too false once thousands of American soldiers were killed and wounded on December 7, 1941.

Figure 6: Roman History teacher Mr. Wheeler, aka Caius Martius, “The Dart”, attempts to distract his students from the worries of the day; namely, October 1940, just after the Tripartite Pact formalizes the axis of Germany, Italy, and Japan in September 1940.

Elizabeth Pollard is Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence at San Diego State University, where she has taught Roman History, World History, and witchcraft studies since 2002. She co-directs SDSU’s Center for Comics Studies and recently debuted a Comics and History course exploring sequential art from the paleolithic to today. Pollard is currently working on two comics-related projects: an analysis of comics about ancient Rome over the last century and a graphic history exploring the influence of classical understandings of witchcraft on their representations in modern comics. Pollard has co-authored a world history survey (Worlds Together, Worlds Apart) and has published on various pedagogical and digital history topics, including DH approaches to visualizing Roman History.

Grace deVega

Bang! Pow! Zap!

Written By Grace deVega
SDSU History Major, 2022

For the past several weeks, these expressive onomatopoeic words have flown around in my head with the same velocity and ferocity as they would on any comic book page as I begin to dive into their meanings, impacts, and distinct roles within the voice of a comic. 

This semester, I have been given the tremendous opportunity to intern with Professor Pollard and Librarian Pamela Jackson and contribute to their ongoing efforts in the Center for Comics Studies by studying depictions of sound in comics. In particular, since a significant focus of the Center is social justice, exploring the engagement that individuals with auditory (visual, and other) disabilities may have with sounds in comics was both of interest to me and in alignment with the values and mission of the Center’s Comics and Social Justice “Big Idea.” Likewise, because comics are known as a visual medium, their auditory aspects are often overlooked, so I was intrigued by the interplay between these two senses on the page. This “expressive potential” of pictorial representations of sound to evoke aural and emotional responses and associations from audiences is what American cartoonist Scott McCloud labels as “synaesthetics” (Understanding Comics, p. 123-124). Additionally, as a lifelong musician, the depiction of music in sequential art is particularly fascinating to me. I have also conducted similar studies of depictions of music in the past, so this research felt like a natural progression. 

In terms of showcasing this research, I’ll be creating a digital exhibit that explores the various types of aural depictions in comics, including music, onomatopoeia, and nonverbal sounds. In particular, I hope to incorporate into the exhibit the wide array of the comics, graphic novels, and other forms of sequential media from SDSU’s collection,  as a way of highlighting our collection’s connections to this area of research.

Figure One shows an early draft of this brainstorming and includes many of the preliminary questions into which I have been looking.
My brainstorming board!

My first step in this process has been to create a brainstorming storyboard that contains a running list of the topics and areas that I would need to cover to make this project worthwhile. Figure One shows an early draft of this brainstorming and includes many of the preliminary questions into which I have been looking. As a result of this thinking, I soon realized that there would be three main areas to which I should dedicate my focus: exhibit design, digital exhibit software, and content research. I have relatively less experience with the former two, so I have spent most of my time working on them. 

For exhibit design, one of the most fascinating parts that I have been learning about is exhibit theory. Articles such as “Methodology for Design of Online Exhibitions” by Angeliki Antoniou, George Lepouras, and Costas Vassilakis review the considerations that digital exhibit designers must take as they create their displays, including audience composition, learning models, and level of interactivity. Such research has been foundational to my subsequent studies. In addition, I have learned about exhibit design by looking into several published digital exhibits from various museums and institutions. Places like the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio and the Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco, California have been particularly helpful in demonstrating both the necessities and possibilities for a successful exhibit.

Familiarizing myself with digital exhibit software has been the biggest learning curve for me, but also the most rewarding. I have limited experience with website design and coding, so I have been spending a lot of time learning the basics of digital language in order to make a decision about which software I will use. I have also watched tutorials and began experimenting with different platforms, including Adobe XD and Omeka. This type of research has been empowering because, unlike any other project I have undertaken in college so far, the end product will be tangible and shareable in ways that papers or presentations could not equate. 

Cart of comics alongside a table and notepad inside of the Special Collections & University Archives Reading Room.
My research cart of comics is on hold in Special Collections!

Lastly, for my research in depictions of sound in comics, I have learned a tremendous amount and have found many different avenues that I am excited to explore. For instance, I am interested in the role that memory plays in recalling sounds, and how artists rely on those memories to visually represent a sound. This is found in sounds with cultural significance, such as in religious rituals, as well as in music. Aiding my research in this area has been the Special Collections department in the SDSU Love Library, which has provided me with a variety of comics from our archives that I can use for the digital collection. Figure Two features me in special collections with all of the books from the collection that I hope to incorporate!

All of this to say, I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to not only explore a topic for which I have an immense passion and interest, but also strengthen my research, design, communication, and technical skills. I am so excited to continue this work!

Photo of Grave deVega.

Grace deVega (she/her) is a Fourth Year History and Political Science student at San Diego State University. She previously won the President’s Award at the SDSU Student Research Symposium and 1st Place in her Division at the CSU Research Competition for her research into the impacts of the 1986 Philippines People Power Movement on nonviolent revolutions. She has also played clarinet for the past twelve years, including in the SDSU marching and concert bands, which is where her passion for music and aural studies derives.