“Grawlixes”: More than just a euphemistic way to $*%@&! in comics

The strange life and theory of emanata in comics art

Neel Dozome

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From: Asterix and the Goths (1963) by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo.

I distinctly remember being about eight years old and reading a set of panels in Asterix and the Goths which absolutely blew my mind.

In one panel, the druid Getafix, who has been kidnapped and bound like a package is required to be unpacked for inspection by a customs official at the village of his captors. When he is uncovered, he makes his displeasure at his treatment by cursing profusely. The curses takes the form of symbols that include an aggressive swiggle, a skull and cross bones, a glyph that looks like an angry red eye, a splatter, a loose tooth, a radiating spiral and a “plink” logoform (that looks somewhat like a drop of water exploding or an asterisk). An explanatory textbox says: “Gaulish swearwords which we decline to translate”.

The term “grawlix” is used to refer to these sorts of typographical symbols (such as @#$%&!) in cartoons and comic strips to represent swearing. The term is the pure invention of the American comic artist Mort Walker (creator of Beetle Bailey). It initially started as a joke. Walker first used the made-up word in his article “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes” (1964) and then revisited and expanded on the idea in his book The Lexicon of Comicana (1980). According to Walker himself:

“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…

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