Artist Mitch Gerads is perhaps best known for his award-winning collaborations with writer Tom King which deconstructed the mental health struggles of less popular DC superheroes such as Adam Strange and Mister Miracle (though they also did some great work together on Batman). The other day on Twitter, Gerads responded to a fan who criticized his lettering work on the penultimate issue of Strange Adventures, which came out this week:
First of all: Gerads explanation for his artistic decision to censor swears is really thoughtful, and, frankly (IMHO), the correct impulse. Curse words can stick out awkwardly, bringing unnecessary attention to the swear itself rather than the other words (which the swear is presumably intended to emphasize). This is particularly true in a story with heightened, gritty motions … but tends to express that through means other than harsh language. Gerads artwork in Strange Adventure already succeeds at conveying all the post-traumatic stress that's ravaging the jetpack-bound space hero; a big ol' FUCK! FUCKITY FUCK FUCK! is going to distract from that.
Secondly: this tweet was the first time I have ever seen a "$&%#@!" word referred to as "Grawlix." It's one of those weird linguistic things that I've always just accepted, and taken for granted, without considering that someone would have named, identified, and categorized it. According to a 2013 article from Slate, the term "grawlix" was coined by Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker. In 1964, Walker wrote an article for the National Cartoonist Society about an early 20th century comic strip called The Katzenjammer Kids, which deployed the grawlix tactic as early as 1903:
So why "grawlix?" What does the word mean? As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes, "There's nothing to indicate where Walker came up with grawlix, but it is notable that the word resembles growl, which suggests the kind of muttering sound one makes when angry." Furthermore, "grawlix" was only one of many nonsense-sounding terms for cartooning tropes that Walker would coin, according to his book The Lexicon of Comicana.
Walker offered a little more insight in his 2000 book, Mort Walker's Private Scrapbook:
It started out as a joke for the National Cartoonists Society magazine. I spoofed the tricks cartoonists use, like dust clouds when characters are running or lightbulbs over their heads when they get an idea. My son Brian thought I should expand the idea and make a book of it. I spent many hours at the museum going over old cartoons and recording their 'language.' I created pseudoscientific names for each cartoon cliché, like the sweat marks cartoon characters radiate. I called them 'plewds,' after the god of rain, 'Joe Pluvius.' I considered it a humor book. When it came out, I looked for it in the humor section of a bookstore and finally found it in Art Instruction. I inquired and they said, 'What's funny about it?' I said, 'The names.' They said, 'We didn't know what those things were called.' I said, 'They weren't called anything till I called them that.' It was another case of satire falling flat. I gave up and am selling it now as an instruction book.
More on the early days of obscenicons [Ben Zimmer / UPenn Language Log]
How Did @#$%&! Come to Represent Profanity? [Ben Zimmer / Slate]
What the @#$%&! Is a Grawlix? [Richard Norquist / ThoughtCo]