Grawlixes Past and Present

Gwillim Law

Mort Walker wrote, in "Backstage at the Strips", Mason/Charter, New York, 1975, pp. 26-30:

In a rather pedantic presentation I made to the members of the National Cartoonists Society called "Let's Get Down to Grawlixes," I wrote:
As the world begins to recognize that cartooning is an art form, I have become increasingly aware of the world's lack of knowledge about our profession. They are exhibiting our work now in the Louvre, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan, and they are discussing cartoons in broad flowing terms such as "social significance," "illuminated narrative," and "primitive commentary," but not one of them knows the difference between such basic comicana as the "waftarom" and the "indotherm."

Walker goes on to discuss various forms of iconography: first, lines that contribute to the reading of the image; next, talk balloons. Then he continues,

Charlie Rice, of This Week magazine, is one of the few serious students of comicana around. One of his first contributions was to catalog briffits. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception, he then tackled squeans, which he categorized as "a loose-jointed asterisk." ...
He also touched on the plewd, which is among the most useful cartoon symbols. Plewds are the little drops of sweat that shoot off people to indicate exertion, embarrassment, fear, or what-have-you.
A variety of acceptable curse words are at the cartoonist's disposal. He may throw in a new one from time to time, but the real meat of the epithet must always contain plenty of jarns, quimps, nittles, and grawlixes, as shown.

The margin contains illustrations showing scribbles, spirals (round and angled), a saturn, a crescent, an asterisk, a star, and a squean, all without labels. The way I read it, Charlie Rice should be credited with briffits, squeans, and plewds, but Mort Walker is responsible for all of the other words mentioned.

Walker followed up in "The Lexicon of Comicana", Comicana, Inc., Port Chester, N.Y., 1980, p. 52. There, he shows jarns (spirals round or angular), quimps (astronomical symbols), nittles (stars of various sorts), and grawlixes (scribbles), all under the heading "Maladicta". I hope that term never catches on, because its spelling is in conflict with such actual dictionary words as maledict and malediction, as well as the scholarly journal devoted to taboo language, "Maledicta".

The back cover blurb of this book says, "In the early 30's, a humorist named Charles Rice attached labels to certain cartoon devices. ... This inspired Mort Walker to do some further research and, in 1964, he produced an article for the National Cartoonists Society magazine titled 'Let's Get Down To Grawlixes'." It would be nice to go into the This Week archives and find the Charlie Rice columns in question.

I have an extensive collection of comic strips from the Yellow Kid to Get Fuzzy, and I thought it would be interesting to try to find out where grawlixes started and how they developed. By "grawlixes", I mean icons representing unprintable words, occurring within speech balloons belonging to characters who are agitated. The images below are almost all handmade copies from the originals. They are quite faithful to the originals. American comics are shown in chronological order, followed by French comics also in order. A few comics were undated (n.d.) in the sources I consulted, and I've tried to put them in about the right spot.

It appears that the earliest grawlixes were dashes and asterisks. That suggests that they may have been derived from 19th-century typographic conventions for unprintable language. Five-pointed stars were already being used in comics of the 1890s as a symbol of pain. They also appear in early grawlixes.

After cartoon grawlixes had become familiar to the public, some authors found it convenient to simulate them in print by using some of the shifted number keys on their typewriters: predominantly @, #, $, %, &, and *. This, in turn, has led to some cartoonists using only those symbols in their grawlixes, to the neglect of the jarns, quimps, and nittles that are proper to comicana.

When researching this page, I had to hunt far and wide to find grawlixes. There are about 330 comics in a week's run of my local newspaper, but only a few of them will have examples, and in some weeks, none at all. A clear majority of comic strips never use them. The more serious adventure strips, like "Terry and the Pirates" or "The Phantom", are too high-toned. Strips noted for their creativity, like "Krazy Kat", "Pogo", and "Calvin and Hobbes", usually find other ways to express anger. Gentle strips like "Peanuts", "Skippy", and "Rose is Rose" don't have enough anger to require them. Even some of the more raffish strips usually avoid them. Those strips that do employ grawlixes tend to use them sparingly, lest they grow stale.

The first two examples below were discovered by Ben Zimmer, who searched the archives of the Washington Post looking for a antedating.

1909-08-08Katzenjammer Kids
1909-08-08Katzenjammer Kids
1911-09-03Katzenjammer Kids
1922-07-17Barney Google
1922-12-28You Know Me Al
1923-04-02Barney Google
1924 Salesman Sam
1924 Wash Tubbs
1924 Wash Tubbs
1924 Wash Tubbs
1925-06-14Behave Yourself
1925-06-28Behave Yourself
1925 Texas Slim
1925 Wash Tubbs
1925 Wash Tubbs
1925-09-01Wash Tubbs
1925-09-07Wash Tubbs
1926 Moon Mullins
1926 Texas Slim
1926-02-08Wash Tubbs
1926-03-31Wash Tubbs
1926-07-02Barney Google
1926-07-29Wash Tubbs
1926-10-12Wash Tubbs
1926-10-13Wash Tubbs
1926-10-15Wash Tubbs
1928 Little Orphan Annie
1928 Moon Mullins
1928 Moon Mullins
1928 Moon Mullins
1928 Moon Mullins
1928-02-09Thimble Theatre
1928-02-09Thimble Theatre
1928-02-09Thimble Theatre
1928-10-02Thimble Theatre
1928-10-23Thimble Theatre
1929 Moon Mullins
1929 Moon Mullins
1929 Moon Mullins
1929-07-27Thimble Theatre
1929-09-18Thimble Theatre
1929-12-03Thimble Theatre
1929-12-20Barney Google
1930-11-16Barney Google
1931-08-09Dave's Delicatessen
1931-11-10Dick Tracy
1934-03-10Mickey Mouse
1934-03-15Mickey Mouse
1934-03-30Mickey Mouse
1934-04-10Mickey Mouse
1934? Dan Dunn
1934-11-16Barney Google
n.d. Aladdin
n.d. Pete the Tramp
1935 Moon Mullins
1935-05-12Dick Tracy
1935-05-14Dick Tracy
1935-09-05Mickey Mouse
1935-09-10Mickey Mouse
1936-04-23Thimble Theatre
1939-01-06Dick Tracy
1939-02-07Smilin' Jack
1940-06-11Dick Tracy
1940-06-28Dick Tracy
1941-03-29Barney Google
1941-09-17Barney Google
1942-04-01The Spirit
1942-04-23The Spirit
1942-10-04The Spirit
1943-06-07Dick Tracy
1944 Texas Slim and Dirty Dalton
1944-01-17Dick Tracy
1944-08-28Dick Tracy
1947-08-15Alley Oop
1947-08-30Alley Oop
1947-10-29Alley Oop
1948-03-03Alley Oop
1948-08-06Alley Oop
1949? Li'l Abner
1949? Li'l Abner
1956-01-08Little Orphan Annie
1956-01-08Little Orphan Annie
1959 B.C.
1959 B.C.
1959 B.C.
1967-01-01Dick Tracy
1967-03-05Beetle Bailey
n.d. Beetle Bailey
1970-08-24Beetle Bailey
1971-01-04Beetle Bailey
1971-07-03Beetle Bailey
1973-02-06Beetle Bailey
1973-05-01Beetle Bailey
1973-06-16Beetle Bailey
1973-11-14Eek and Meek
1974-03-11Beetle Bailey
1981? Shoe
1983? Broom-Hilda
1985?? Shoe
1986-11-28Hi and Lois
1990? Baby Blues
1996-05-20Mother Goose and Grimm
1999-08-02The Boondocks
1999-08-02The Boondocks
2001 Get Fuzzy
2006? Watch Your Head
2006-05-06Mother Goose and Grimm
2006-06-17Beetle Bailey
2008-03-28Beetle Bailey
2008-04-19Watch Your Head
2008-05-04Pearls Before Swine
2008-05-07Pearls Before Swine
2008-05-11Pearls Before Swine
2008-05-12Speed Bump
2008-05-13Watch Your Head
2008-05-20Mallard Fillmore
2010-07-12Jump Start

French comics

Note that French grawlixes are more elaborate, on the average, than the American ones. Icons of violence such as fists, skulls, and weapons are more frequent. The closest French equivalent for "seeing stars" is "voir trente-six chandelles" (literally, to see 36 candles). This may account for the prevalence of candles in the iconography of French grawlixes. Pseudo-Chinese characters are also common.

1929 Tintin
1947 Tintin
1950 Tintin
1951 Spirou
1951 Spirou
1951 Jo, Zette, et Jocko
1957 Rififi, Détective Privé
1958 Lucky Luke
1958 Lucky Luke
1958 Lucky Luke
1958 Tintin
1958 Tintin
1961 Oumpah-Pah
1961 Oumpah-Pah
1961 Oumpah-Pah
n.d. Gaston Lagaffe
n.d. Gaston Lagaffe
1970 Spirou
1971-10 Lucky Luke
1974 Iznogoud
1976? Pif le Chien
1977 Benoît Brisefer
1977 Benoît Brisefer
1977 Benoît Brisefer

Last updated: 2010-07-19