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The Grawlix: How to Swear in Cartoons

We all know that newspaper comic strips aren’t supposed to have any swearing in them.  Also we all know they do, and have for a long time.  Instead of any recognizable vulgarities, though, we typically see a string of symbols that can’t be pronounced, something like “%$#&%!!”  The reader is free to fill in the blank with any obscenity they want, if they want.  The word for an instance of this swearing is a grawlix.

The grawlix is not a new comic strip convention.  In fact, it’s not much younger than the comic strip itself, which is generally considered to have originated with Chester Outcault’s Yellow Kid, which debuted in the New York World in 1895.  The Yellow Kid is famous for this and forlending his name to the concept of yellow journalism.  The Kid’s name was Mikey Dugan, but he never swore.  He never uttered a word—anything he had to say was splashed across his oversized yellow shirt.  The characters who inhabited his world, however, spoke in speech balloons, a cartoon convention that predates the daily comic strip.

The cheerful Yellow Kid, perhaps carrying a yellow journalism message to gin up support for the Spanish-American War?

The earliest known grawlix dates to November 1, 1901, in a short-lived comic strip (1901-1905) called Lady Bountiful by Gene Carr.  Carr drew attention to the concept by having his title character state that what she was hearing was reprehensible language, just in case the reader couldn’t figure that out.

The next record of swearing in a daily comic strip by use of grawlixes dates to December 14, 1902.  It appeared in the final panel of Rudolph Dirks’ Katzenjammer Kids comic strip.  After seven panels of attempting to hang up a holly wreath with Mama and der Captain, Uncle Heinie crashes to the floor without any success at decorating.  He remarks on the situation with a string of symbols that can’t be pronounced: the first grawlixes.  What’s interesting is that one of the symbols is not typographical but an anchor, suggesting that Uncle Heinie, a sailor, swears like one!

Katzenjammer Kids, December 14, 1902: the second grawlix (panel 8).

The grawlix caught on, and soon became a standard in comic strips.  Years later, the beeping sound would serve a similar purpose in film.  The advantage that the grawlix has over the beep is that it can add real character to the swearing.  Like the anchor in the Katzenjammer Kids strip, cartoonists have never felt completely bound to typographical symbols.  Observe this swearing in the 1963 French comic adventure Astérix et les Goths by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo:

Gothic swear words, helpfully translated into Gaulish by the authors.

In Astérix et les Goths, Gothic barbarians are planning an invasion of neighboring Gaul in the year 50 B.C.E.  The main characters of the comic are Gauls.  Their words appear in speech bubbles with ordinary lettering, written in French.  The Gauls didn’t speak French, of course, but dozens of different Celtic languages, but the cartoon glosses over that and treats them as one collective “Gaulish” language.  The Goths’ words are printed in French, but in a script that suggests the German Fraktur font, which was commonly used until the middle of the 20th century.  The Gaulish characters can’t understand the Goths, because they speak a different language, but the reader can follow along with everything.  The box at the bottom of the panel reads, “Gothic curses, which are thus translated into Gaulish.”  The symbols in “Gaulish” don’t look much different from the symbols in “Gothic”, but the joke still works.  Note the skull and crossbones, where the Gothic version sports an old German army helmet from before World War I.  Also worth noting is the dismantled (but still clear) swastika which is used as a “Gothic” curse.  This joke (as well as the storyline about invading Goths) ruffled some feathers when it was first published.  It was several years before Astérix started to be translated into German, and the swastika grawlix got “translated” as well.

Asterix und die Goten (Asterix and the Goths, uses no swastika in German.

The term grawlix dates from an article by Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker, in a 1964 article he wrote as the president of the National Cartoonists’ Society.  Walker included the word in a book he wrote in 1980 titled The Lexicon of Comicana, in which he set out to define all the other cartoon conventions, as well.  Besides grawlix, Walker wrote about plewds, which are the droplets of sweat that fly off of a nervous cartoon character’s body, and hites, which are the horizontal lines that appear behind a cartoon character moving very fast. The book identified dozens of other cartoon conventions that had previously been unnamed.  Walker intended the book more as a joke than anything else, but today it is used as a serious reference in academic settings, and a number of these words that he invented appear in dictionaries today.

Greg Walker has fun with his late father’s legacy, Beetle Bailey, January 4, 2015

Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine from March 5, 2017 sports a grawlix that is pretty thinly disguised.  I wonder what the syndicate had to say about that!


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