We don’t want to alarm you, but there are a lot of comics out there. Making a series stand out from the pack is damn near impossible. Aside from striking covers and overhyped events, creators have a quiet but violent arrow in their quiver: the silent issue.
The most famous such comic is 1984’s G.I. Joe #21, “Silent Interlude,” by Larry Hama, which was inspired by Jim Steranko’s brilliant Nick Fury stories. The height of (nearly) silent comics may be Shaolin Cowboy. Geof Darrow’s hyper-detailed, mega-violent, often-wordless action series returns with a new volume this week: Shaolin Cowboy: Who’ll Stop the Reign? Though the first issue of the new miniseries includes a smattering of dialogue, the vast majority of the title relies on the artist’s cinematic, intricate line work to convey story.
The first truth about silent comics is that many are noisy as hell. Just as John Cage’s famous experimental music piece 4’33” (in which the performer does not play and the audience listens to the sounds in the room) is often called the silent piece, it’s really a noise piece. Similarly, many so-called silent issues are really just word-free. But that lack of words is often filled with a cacophony of violence.
Orion #5 Interior Art by Walt Simonson
One of the noisiest wordless comics is Orion #5, in which Walter Simonson presents a Darkseid-Orion brawl that somehow out-Kirbys Jack Kirby. This issue-long donnybrook features John Workman’s extravagant sound effects, as father and son have an Oedipal Wrestlemania for the ages. The only dialogue is Orion bookending the fight with “The time for talking…is over” and “It is finished.” These are amongst the most dynamic pages Simonson has ever crafted: every kick, punch and facial expression is distinct and powerful. The wordlessness helps readers feel Orion’s tragic, terrible, orgasmic victory that, no surprise, doesn’t work out well for him. Silence helps sell the equivalent of Luke Skywalker murdering Darth Vader and then becoming him.
Shaolin Cowboy Interior Art by Geof Darrow
Darrow’s work is a similar sort of loud silent. The visuals in any issue of Shaolin Cowboy are meticulously detailed and choreographed, but the highlight has to be issues #2 and #3 of the 2013 volume. Our stoic hero, wielding a kendo stick with a chainsaw on each end, mows through an endless mob of zombies for 44 pages. These pages consist of splash pages split in two horizontally, matching the Cowboy’s lengthy, badass weapon. Across the top of each page is a long stream of sound effects such as “BBBUUUZZZZZZZANGGGGANNNGGBZZZ.” This relentless, disgusting, transcendent sequence makes The Walking Dead look like Power Pack.
A similarly violent yet beautiful silent comic is Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles, the ultimate dinosaur comic, featuring giant prehistoric lizards prowling, fighting and being awesome, unaccompanied by pesky words. (The Shaolin Cowboy would fit right in: how can we make that crossover happen?) Speaking of giant beasts, Gustavo Duarte’s Monsters is a humorous and grotesque collection of silent stories. Whether the Grim Reaper stalks anthropomorphic ducks in an office or a pig-man is tormented by chickens emerging from the toilet, the expressive faces and crisp action make for stories that words could only ruin. Duarte’s comic timing recalls the heyday of silent comedy in film: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton would be proud.
Age of Reptiles and Monsters are completely silent. Uncoincidentally, they’re independent comics, where artistic freedom is the norm. In the constrained world of mainstream superhero properties, the silent issue is more of a special event, but the best ones maximize the potential of this subgenre as the ultimate example of “Show, don’t tell.”
The Age of Reptiles Interior Art by Ricardo Delgado
At least two Batman issues have made use of the silent issue to deal with an appropriate topic: death. Back in Batman #433 (May 1989), writer John Byrne and artist Jim Aparo spun a tale that should be unthinkable: the death of Batman. The creators show police discovering the body, doctors trying to save him and a sleazy reporter buying his way into the morgue for exclusive photos. The lack of dialogue gives the situation and reactions more punch, as villains such as the Penguin and Two-Face celebrate while Alfred, Dick Grayson and Commissioner Gordon mourn. Turns out it’s actually a Batman impersonator who died, but this remains an effective issue.
In 2013, fresh off the death of Damian Wayne, Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason did a silent issue for Batman and Robin #18. This is one of the most underrated Batman classics of recent years, with gorgeous art and a sad, simple story: Bruce is going through Damian’s stuff, while Damian’s dog, Titus, mopes. Then Batman turns to his signature coping mechanism: beating the holy Bat-hell out of criminal scum. This does nothing to make Bruce feel better, and he throws another rage-fit when he gets back to the Batcave. One of the saddest moments of the issue portrays Titus, hiding in the shadows, scared by Bruce’s rage and confused by Damian’s absence. Gleason’s crisp imagery conveys all of Batman’s grief, rage, guilt and sadness—feelings that words can never fully express anyway.
Another pooch was the focus of a classic silent issue: Hawkeye #11. The much-loved (and much-missed) run by Matt Fraction and David Aja includes an issue that uses branching images to visualize the smell-based world of a dog. Some silent issues can be “read” in 20 seconds—not this one, which is as dense as our stinky world. As Pizza Dog roams around Hawkeye’s building, he falls in love, snags some pie, bites a bad guy and makes every dog owner nod in recognition.
Hawkeye #11 Interior Art by David Aja
The canine mind is a mystery to non-canines, which made it fertile ground for silent exploration—much like the noggin of a telepath. In December 2001, Marvel did an entire month of silent comics. The highlight was New X-Men #121, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. They took the mandate of silence as an opportunity to tell a different story, as Jean Grey and Emma Frost enter the mind of Charles Xavier, diving into a surreal world of walls, fetuses, mathematical formulas and other obscure mysteries. This issue includes part of Morrison’s script, which proves that silent issues aren’t a vacation for writers. For the best comics writers, such as Morrison (and Warren Ellis, who scripts brilliant silent pages into nearly every comic) the visual skills demanded by a silent issue are well-honed muscles.
The best silent issues are far from gimmicks: they’re comics in the purest form, allowing creators to, among other things, showcase badass action choreography or map unknowable mental states, whether in a Labrador or a telepath. Words are great, but a great comic doesn’t need ‘em.
Mark Peters is the author of Bullshit: A Lexicon. Follow him on Twitter.