Who Talks Like That?

Have you ever been reading through one of your favorite strips and come across a piece of dialogue which gave you momentary pause? It could be a character’s turn of phrase, perhaps even a single word, which didn’t seem, syntactically, to add up. Something about it might sound not quite natural. "That can’t be right," you may have thought to yourself, "Who talks like that?"

The answer, of course, would seem to be no one. What we hear while reading, in our mind’s ear, tends to favor the familiar. Language not in common use or improper syntax register in our heads as aberrations. Sometimes, however, these inaccuracies are intentional. Sometimes, in the context of a given strip, dialogue that is not so naturalistic is a more natural fit. That word or phrase that doesn’t seem right could be an example of a powerful tool in the webcomic writer’s arsenal of language, an example of the use of dialect.

By definition, dialect is the language, or variation of a language, specific to a regional setting, social class or ethnic group. Vocabulary, sentence structure, speech patterns, and accent all contribute to form a certain dialect. For the purpose of fiction and non-fiction narrative, dialect can be considered as the author’s consistent use of these elements within the context of a character’s dialogue. Indeed, any narrative work which utilizes dialogue can be said to involve some form of a dialect. It can be an important tool for a writer in any application. Examples of it’s use, and the various effects of it’s use, can be found throughout webcomics.


In George Bernard Shaw’s 1914 play, Pygmalion, the character Henry Higgins touts his ability to place a man within two miles of his origin simply by his manner of speaking. Higgins is a phonetician, an observer and tracer of dialect. He claims the language and syntax a person uses while speaking ties them to a specific geographical location. Extending a metaphorically physical dimension to webcomics, one could make the same claim of the characters represented there. Every strip on the web displays it’s own (sometimes subtly) varied dialect. At it’s base, a strips dialect could simply be considered an extension or amplification of the author’s own mode of speech (or affectation of speech, as the case may be). Over time an overriding verbal idiom is developed, a sort of syntactic stamp that runs through every bit of dialogue in a strip regardless of character or situation. In this way dialect acts as a verbal unifier of form, lending a unique voice that holds together the entire strip. Wednesday White, In a recent posting to Websnark, points the way to an example of this effect taken from John Allison’s Scary-Go-Round.


Scary-Go-Round follows the fantastic adventures of Shelly Winters and a rotating cast of friends and neighbors based in the fictional town of Tackleford. SGR is a humorous strip and most of it’s humor is derived mainly from the characters’ verbal interaction. Through this banter Allison has developed a kind of shared verbal idiom. All of the characters in the strip speak in essentially the same voice. This is not to say the dialogue is boring or repetitive. Far from it. In fact Allison has a finely tuned sense of wordplay and pacing. Just as a family or a close group of friends will do naturally, a long running strip develops a unique vernacular for its characters. John Allison has done just this in his Scary-Go-Round (and the related Scare-o-deleria) comics.

Allison isn’t afraid to misuse or even invent new language when it suits his needs. In an early SCG strip the journalism professor Len Pickering tells a student "You haven’t journalized enough. You need to journalize more" This is an abuse of language not likely to originate from a professor of journalism. And yet in the context of the strip, and to the regular reader, it makes perfect sense. Language such as this is commonplace in the world of Scary-Go-Round. Allison’s work is peppered throughout with similar syntactic and vocabularic abuses. The effect over time has been a pronounced verbal idiom encompasing all the characters of Scary-Go-Round. Allison has created a blanket verbage, a kind of Tacklefordian dialect which stamps the strip with it’s own unique syntactic identity. This identity bridges all circumstance in the comic, from the mundane patter of schoolyard friends to the most fantastic of situations. While fleeing an attacking horde of vampiric monsters, the results of a Bulgarian curse, Shelly still finds time for the witticism, "I’ve been afflicted with a virus! The symptoms are cowardice and running away!" Hardly the type of remark you’d expect from someone in the act of running from the legions of the undead, but an appropriate fear-response in the world of Scary-Go-Round.

Unlike many other webcomics, much of Scary-Go-Round’s humor is syntactical rather than situational. This unifying effect is more pronounced because the jokes rely so much on dialogue and Allison’s use of language. In terms of building a personal dialect, however, it is not alone on the web. Many other long running strips have also developed their own signature vernacular. In the arena of webcomics the claim of Shaw’s linguist may not be so far fetched. The savvy and observant webcomics reader could quite possibly identify and separate the work of many creators solely based on the dialogue from their individual strips.


In the preface to another of his plays, Saint Joan, Shaw remarks on an author’s inability to accurately portray anything outside of their own contemporary historical context. Knowledge of intervening history and the changing fashions of thought, he argues, get in the way of any kind of objective representation. What Shaw does not mention, however, is how the use of dialect can allow the author to fake it. Nailing an historically accurate dialect, an admittedly difficult proposition, can lend an air of authenticity to the narrative, giving it a sense of placement in the reader’s mind. Historical fiction in webcomics is a void still waiting to be filled. Quasi-historical fantasy comics, however, proliferate. Many of these comics, taking their lead from role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, are meant to take place in medieval times (or in fantastic alternate Middle Ages). The affectation of pseudo-historical dialect has spilled over from the games into the fantasy comics they’ve inspired. The problem with such spill-overs is that even faked historical dialects are extremely difficult to pull off. Rich Burlew neatly sidesteps this issue in his RPG-based Order Of The Stick, reflecting not so much a realistic fantasy world as a group of gamers playing at that world. Historical accuracy is not so much of an issue here as the comically failed attempt at that accuracy.


Role-playing games are, at their base, a group of friends getting together to play make-believe. Despite the common bond of enjoying the game, each person in the group will approach game-play in a different manner. Some take their gaming very seriously, adopting a character’s mannerisms down to the smallest detail. Others, just out to have a little fun with their friends, may not make much of an attempt at playacting. Burlew reflects this diverse spirit in the scripting of his characters. Like any group of gamers would, each character has their own unique mode of speech. Burlew contrasts the awkwardly formal idiom of Vaarsuvius with the more naturalistic and contemporary phrasing of Roy Greenhilt’s dialogue. Vaarsuvius’ speech is an especially excellent reflection of the gaming cuture. Characterized by its lack of contractions and sometimes pretentious vocabulary, is a common affectation among the more self-consciously serious gamers. In the strip, as in a real group of gamers, such verbosity is not always taken seriously. In episode ten, Vaarsuvius’ long-winded formal preface to a spell has the unintentional effect of incapacitating the groups enemies with boredom - before he casts his spell. It’s a perfect reflection of the sometimes comical excesses of gaming culture. Burlew does well to play off of this aspect of group gaming, but the importance of dialect in his comic does not end there. All of Burlew’s characters are drawn as slight variations on a stick figure (Order of the STICK, get it?). Speech patterns serve to set very similar looking characters apart from one another. Dialect in this case serves as an aid to delineation rather than the king of unification seen in Scary-Go-Round. Wednesday White, in the same snark mentioned above, points to another comic where this type of idiosyncratic delineation is fine tuned to a sophisticated, razor-sharp form of characterization.


The humor in Chris Onstad’s Achewood is situational by nature, but circumstance in the strip is tied to characterization. Onstad’s character delineation is intimately involved with his dialogue and each character in Achewood has his or her own unique voice. Using accepted and recognizable idioms of speech only as a jumping off point for his finely tuned dialogue, Onstad’s has created some of the most carefully verbally delineated characters in fiction. From Ray Smuckle’s course slang, both observed from life and invented by Onstad ("That chochica had some hangin’ naturals!"), to the flowery and sometimes inappropriately formal language of Cornelius Bear ("Ahh, the postprandial hand-rolled and finger of grappa. Just the thing to toast the old cage"), each character has their own distinctive verbal stamp. Their manners of speech and even their varied vocabularies form the basis of Onstad’s careful characterizations. The consistent application of these dialects over time has resulted in a kind of verbal iconization of character.

Take this example:

"Secondly none of the nails on my right side have grown for over two weeks and I am sure I can trace this to a pretty bad vitamin deficiency or a tumor blocking the vitamins from going down my bloodstream on the right side. I am concerned about this. I might have haemoplasia or also series-10 duralitis. I guess I got to go down to the Lemoni center and get some bloodwork done this week."

It is a syntactical mess. Note the initial run-on sentence, the abuse of punctuation, the monotonous rhythm of the entire fragment. Despite the admonition "I am concerned about this," the language betrays no urgency of emotion, a clinical rather than personal reaction to the subject matter. Regular reader’s of Achewood will recognize the tale-tellingly depressive voice of Roast Beef in the text. And this without the benefit of any visuals. The example, in fact, was taken not from the comic but from a recent entry in the online journal, or weblog, that Onstad keeps under the character’s name. Onstad keeps blogs for several of his characters and each displays the characteristic idioms of speech Onstad has carefully built up in the comic. It is a testament to Onstad’s abilities as a writer that his character’s are so recognizable even in this text only format.


The verbal iconization found in Achewood, like the verbal unification in Scary-Go-Round, is a textual effect, intellectually perceived through the content of the dialogue. The visual nature of comics, however, allows for more immediate representations of dialect. Dialogue and aurally transmitted information in comics are represented as visual text, usually enclosed in speech balloons. Altering lettering style and the shape of the balloon itself can represent emotion and sound quality, intangibles not expressed through textual content. When lettering style is altered from character to character and consistently applied throughout the narrative a kind of visual-verbal dialect is created. Voice is represented through the look of the dialogue. Mason Williams (Tailsteak) creates just this effect in his fourth-wall bending strip One-Over-Zero.

It is said that many authors have a tendency to speak through their characters. It follows then that all the characters essentially speak with the author’s voice. This is at least partially true of Tailsteak’s 1/0. The characters at many times are obvious (and acknowledged, due to the lack of a narrative fourth wall) mouthpieces for the author. Tailsteak uses his characters to come at a subject in multiple and sometimes contradictory angles. Despite this differentiation of tact, the voice of each character is unmistakably Tailsteak’s own. There is a point in the run of the strip where Tailsteak realizes the need for greater delineation. He comes up with a solution of dialect that uses the uniquely visual nature of comics.

It starts as an attempt at visual representation of sound quality. In strip 140, the deceased character, Manny, is reincarnated as a ghostly specter. Ghanny, as he is now called, has no corporeal body. His dialogue is presented in ethereal grey type, reflecting the not-quite-there quality of his speech. This technique of visual representation of sound spreads quickly to the other characters. The strong-willed, self-assured earthworm (and token female character) Tera is represented by a strong, bold typeface. The introspective somewhat pessimistic tact of Petitus is represented by a more reserved type, set smaller than any other character’s dialogue. Eventually, each of the characters receives their own iconic representation of speech. Characters can be recognized even when their dialogue comes from off panel. In strip 198 the technique is even acknowledged by the characters, as Ghanny - off panel - makes reference to the fact that his dialogue appears in grey type. Also opened up by this approach is the amusing possibility of mimicking a character’s voice, highlighted in a series of strips in which the cast of 1/0 imitates characters of other webcomic strips in a competition of impersonation. Tailsteak borrows typefaces from the imitated strip to represent spot-on impersonations of their characters. Through consistent repetition, the application of visual-verbal dialect can exploit an interesting technique peculiar to comics.

(Also worth mentioning for the sake of this discussion is Tailsteak’s currently running, though sporadically updating strip, Shaw - apparently no relation to the aforementioned playwright and critic, George Bernard. Tailsteak’s Shaw could be said to be virtually about dialect: in this case the all-purpose, gap-filled dialect of a universal translator.)


The application of dialect has complex and varied roles in webcomic narrative. Many cartoonists have seized the opportunity to capitalize on this powerful tool. We’ve seen how dialect can provide an authorial voice, tying characters together under a shared verbal idiom. It can hold a narrative together, providing a unifying thread of both form and context. Conversely, we see it can also be used to delineate and separate characters from one another, giving each character a unique voice, allowing on occasion a kind of verbal iconic rendering. We have even been shown comics’ unique role in the creation and depiction of a visually iconic dialect, joining sight and sound in a way no other medium can. Yet this is still only a partial view of the possibilities that dialect brings to comics. It can display unique characterization or conforming stereotypes. It can be an aid to audience relation or an aid to audience alienation. It can help represent time or place or both at once. The possibilities and examples go on and on, as varied as the many cartoonists on the web and as powerful a tool as any the writer has. Given all of this it’s easy to see why so many creators use dialect to such effective narrative means.

It’s either that or because making your characters talk weird is just damn funny.

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