The Unique Language of Comics: “The Grawlix”


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“If enough artists begin using the symbol, it will enter the language for good—as many have through the years.” McCloud (139)

I couldn’t help but think about how uniquely complicated cartoons and comics really are. After our readings these last two weeks, I have certainly come to appreciate the nuances and intricacies employed by comic artists to convey complex thoughts, ideas, sounds, and experiences in a simplistic way. Perhaps it is because they appear “simple” that they are so easily taken for granted.

So how did “@$%!!” come to represent profanity? Pretty much the way McCloud suggested. One artist had a pretty good idea, and it was authenticated over time as other artists “borrowed” the same concept.

A clever illustrator named Rudolph Dirks, an immigrant from Germany who moved to the U.S. in the 1880s, established “The Katzenjammer Kids” for the New York Journal at the age of 20. “The ‘kids’ in the comic strip, Hans and Fritz, are forever frustrating a regular cast of characters, including their mother,” wrote Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. “Dirks was as pioneering as he was talented, initiating the use of both speech balloons, and, we think, symbolic swearing.”

cover art for the book "The Lexicon of Comicana" by Mort Walker

Mort Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey, coined the term “grawlix” to describe the use of symbols for profanity. (Zimmer himself uses the term “obscenicon”—a blend of “obscenity + icon”—which he prefers to the term grawlix.) It turns out, Walker was being silly when he offered such names for the devices used by comic artists. His 1964 article for the National Cartoonists Society was satire, yet the terms he invented began to catch on. So in 1980, he wrote The Lexicon of Comicana as a tongue-in-cheek response to the somewhat unexpected validation his terms had generated. In fact, he did an international search of comics and developed terminology for some of the commonalities he uncovered. He also invented the term “quimps,” which reference “planets resembling Saturn to omit obscenities” (Wikipedia).

Walker also developed names for the roles lines often play in cartoons. Dites are “diagonal, straight lines drawn across flat, clear and reflective surfaces, such as windows and mirrors;” hites show “horizontal straight lines trailing after something moving with great speed or drawn on something indicating reflectivity (puddle, glass, mirror);” and vites are “vertical straight lines indicating reflectivity” (Wikipedia). As McCloud discussed in our chapters this week, the fact that lines—and by extension other comic devices—can play such unique and specific roles to offer a reader the appropriate context for a story is quite fascinating.

“In truth, don’t all lines carry with them an expressive potential? By direction alone, a line may go from passive and timeless—to proud and strong—to dynamic and changing. By its shape, it can be unwelcoming and severe—or warm and gentle—or irrational and conservative. By its character it may seem savage and deadline—or weak and unstable—or honest and direct. The most expressionless lines on earth can’t help but characterize their subject in some way.” McCloud (124-125)

Works Cited:

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, NY: William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2014. Print.

“The Lexicon of Comicana.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Mar. 2016. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

Zimmer, Ben. “How Did @#$%&! Come to Represent Profanity?” The Slate Group LLC, 9 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.


One thought on “The Unique Language of Comics: “The Grawlix”

  1. You’ve taught me something totally new! What a great spin on McCloud’s ideas of iconography and relationships between images and words and sounds.


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