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Reading Comics: “Don’t Curse”

May 14th, 2012 by | Tags: , , , , , ,

There’s a Louis CK bit that I like a lot. It’s about how he hates “the n-word.” He goes on to say, “Not ‘nigger,’ by the way. I mean ‘the n-word,’ literally.” It’s a great bit because it’s funny, first of all, but it’s funny because it’s all about taking responsibility for the stupid things you want to say. A wise man once said “They wanna live in the house but don’t want no grass to grow.” People want to get the impact of having a curse word in their text, but they don’t want to take responsibility for the coarseness. They want all of the benefits and none of the downsides. And that’s weak.

Basically, know your outlet and your audience. I can’t curse on ComicsAlliance. Any expletives I might care to use would be turned into —- or f*** or ****** or whatever. I care a lot about how my writing flows and looks, and that looks stupid in text. ASCII’d out or asterisked to death curses in comics drive me crazy. Especially when they spell out the cusses in ascii characters like @$$ because… dude, who are you kidding? It’s having your cake and eating it, too. You’re a writer… figure out some way around it.

There are a couple of exceptions, of course. I’ve always liked the Milestone squiggle, because they used it for… I don’t know, high cuss words? The really bad ones? It can be seen here in Dwayne McDuffie, Ivan Velez Jr., and Trevor von Eeden’s Blood Syndicate #1:

and Adam Warren’s black bars in Empowered, this one taken from Empowered Volume 6 (Empowered Volume 7 is due out soon, get some):

The squiggles and boxes feel more like bleeps than trying to have it both ways. Maybe it’s because the squiggle is art, rather than text standing in for other text, and I read that differently.

I started reading 2000 AD recently. There’s a strip in there called Grey Area that did something cool. Here’s a page from the chapter in prog 1767, pictures and words by Karl Richardson and Dan Abnett, that shows what I mean:

And I mean, I hate fake cuss words. Legion of Superheroes comics look stupid. Or silly. Maybe both. But this right here made me laugh. I like “grawlix” as a swear, because it’s both clever and explained in the story.

Grawlix is a bit of obscure comics terminology. It was coined by Mort Walker (the Beetle Bailey guy) in the ’60s, and he used it to refer to the faked up cusses you’d see in comics. Abnett here is using grawlix as a safe curse for men and women in uniform. When they step out of line and use real curses, they’re told to “Grawlix that.” It becomes about decorum in the text, which is much, much more interesting than being polite outside of the text.

Here’s another page, this time from prog 1770. Art by Lee Carter this time:

Anyway, cuss, don’t, or be clever about it. That’s all.

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16 comments to “Reading Comics: “Don’t Curse””

  1. Gotta disagree about fake curse words being silly. I love fake curse words, and often find them to be elegant solution to not using actual curse words. Frak. Frell. Drokk. Stomm. Shock. Sprokk. Nass. Funt. Sneck. Smeg. Deculture. Love em all. Not to mention when used appropriately they can add to the greater pathos of a work. But I will agree, if you’re going to blank out swears rather then replace them, do it in a unique way that adds to the visuals like a squiggle or a black bar.


  2. Funny, as I just animated a music video for my band that has a curse word at the end. When we recorded the song I thought about removing it, but it really neutered the impact of the song for me (and others agreed), so we went with it.

    Strangely enough, in the video I animated the word as F@#K, but the audio is unedited. It’s a bit of a cute, quirky video, so I think it works, but I’m definitely glad I didn’t remove it from the audio (the video can be found at the link in my name…I didn’t want to feel like I was spamming your thread).

    That said, I really can’t get into fake curse words. It takes me out of the story completely (unless they’ve been established well in the context of the story I suppose).


  3. Yeah, bleeped-out swearing almost always annoys me, especially when it sits alongside other R-rated content, like in most current superhero comics. You can show heads exploding, limbs getting ripped off, intestines hanging out, blood everywhere, but if a “fuck” or “shit” makes it into a word balloon, it’ll probably show up on the nightly news as a reason for the downfall of society. Same thing with sexual content; you can portray people (women, that is) as sexily as possible, even completely naked as long as a strand of hair or wisp of smoke is covering up the really naughty bits, but god forbid an actual nipple is shown, or that will scar the children for life. It’s stupid.

    So yeah, there’s your rant from 20 year old me. Why is society so lame, maaaan?


  4. I was just thinking about this recently, about how DC and Marvel’s censoring of swearwords betrays the fact that they are essentially children’s books. Or at least, there’s something really weird about a book where you can show all kinds of violence and seualised imagery yet is afraid to show bad language and censors it in childish way (and I don’t mean to insult actual children’s books that do this, only so-called ‘adult’ books).

    I think profanity should not be censored, unless it’s a comedy, then it makes it funnier. Great examples of this are Asterix’s grawlixes and Dr McNinjas black bars with with text [Not-family friendly!]. I would enjoy a comic equavilent of Metalocalpse’s guitar feedback bleep, which I would imagine would be close to the Milestone representation.


  5. Couldn’t agree more with this. To be honest, I’m jealous that you beat me to this article idea. I can think of several examples of this that bug me. The second volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is one. In a book where naked bodies swing freely, and Mr. Hyde literally rapes and eats the Invisible Man, Mina Murray can’t say “fuck” without getting bleeped? In and of itself, it’s kind of absurd. And really, if Alan Moore knew that, why did he leave the dialogue as it was? Was the f-bomb dropped that important? And to stop picking on Alan Moore (not my intent, but that book bugged me), why do people in general go into stories where they know they can’t curse and curse anyway? I’ll agree that it can add something for comedic value, as the guitar riffs in Metalocalypse prove, but on the whole, I find it a bit sloppy on the part of writers.

    Also, I hate fake curses that are just identical to curse words we already have. Frak, I’m looking at you. I prefer fake swearing that is unique and hard to translate as something we already have.


  6. I also prefer the fake obscenities that don’t sound like real ones. Noi Jitat and Jungo Lungo (or however they’re spelled) from the Pirates of Dark Water are my favorites.

    But I also rather enjoyed the skull and crossbones censoring from Nextwave.


  7. I agree that bleeped-out curse words are bullshit. Especially the ones that are explicit. But Warren’s text bars really, really annoy me. In a book that is so blatantly “adult themes/content,” where there is SO MUCH cursing, it goes way past amusing or ironic or … remotely acceptable … that he does that all the time. I’d rather no swearing, and if his characters all need to talk that way, so much, just let the words be there on the page.

    And while your thoughts on this bleeping business are applicable anywhere, comics as serialized entertainment could especially benefit. Because the definition of “standard attrition” is the way all the little reasons to drop a book accumulate until one month, you just shrug and leave the new issue on the rack. Wearying me obnoxious dialogue ticks is a small way to start pushing me out the door, but it’s a start …


  8. @BrianMc: Huh. They feel humorous to me, because Warren clearly has the choice and chooses to go this route. It’s sort of the opposite of the problem with swearing in cape comics. He’s using bars to keep the mood light, rather than to show how realistic things are. Different strokes, of course.

    @Matthew J. Brady: everything you said is true


  9. To quote the great Bill Cosby, “What the foul filth, filth and foul?”


  10. Regarding Louis CK: How is one guy so honest and correct about everything? His words are pure truth, I find myself thinking of his various standup routines all the time.

    I say swear boldly, fully out loud or just don’t swear at all, depending on what you intend to express and which is correct, relative to the context you’re using them in. Bleeping out swear words or editing them in any way is such a cop out to me… it’s essentially allowing yourself to be censored or censoring yourself, not because it’s the best thing to do but because you are OK with compromise. I have nothing against just not swearing if that’s how you roll but swearing but then hiding it is like having it both ways, swearing without actually owning it. Just what the fuck are you trying to say in that situation?

    Do you remember the issue of All-Star Batman and Robin where DC black-boxed the swear word but you could still read it anyway? Because you can’t say something nasty in a Batman comic but since we’re all OK with it anyway…. that was so damn weak. Just do it or don’t do it, that fake slip-up is so beyond lame.


  11. @geekademia: Yeah, I never thought about scenes like the one in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen…Seems silly to worry about the cursing given the subject matter.


  12. Lets not forget the absolutely wonderful four skulls employed for every curse word in NEXTWAVE to the point of nonsense. Probably some of the funniest textual play I can remember.


  13. @geekademia: It’s actually a nod to Victorian era novels where they would bleep out curse words in much the same way as comics do. You’ll see that in the later issues where the team moves into the modern era the curse words are explicit.


  14. The dumbest example I can think of was the Blackhawk strip in the 1980s Action Comics Weekly. The characters would use the word “phug,” as in “phug this,” “phug you,” and “what the phug?” It was stupid and awkward and I can’t believe DC let it go through at any rate.


  15. Mostly agree– hate the ASCII and asterisks, dislike the “holy spit” school of fake swearing, and always liked the Milestone squiggle. But fake swearing that doesn’t depend on real English words and where the fake words are supposed to be real swears– sprok or nass or BSG’s frak– don’t bother me at all.


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