Mort Walker wrote, in "Backstage at the Strips", Mason/Charter, New York, 1975, pp. 26-30:
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,
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.
|1922-12-28||You Know Me Al|
|1928||Little Orphan Annie|
|n.d.||Pete the Tramp|
|1944||Texas Slim and Dirty Dalton|
|1956-01-08||Little Orphan Annie|
|1956-01-08||Little Orphan Annie|
|1973-11-14||Eek and Meek|
|1986-11-28||Hi and Lois|
|1996-05-20||Mother Goose and Grimm|
|2006?||Watch Your Head|
|2006-05-06||Mother Goose and Grimm|
|2008-04-19||Watch Your Head|
|2008-05-04||Pearls Before Swine|
|2008-05-07||Pearls Before Swine|
|2008-05-11||Pearls Before Swine|
|2008-05-13||Watch Your Head|
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.
|1951||Jo, Zette, et Jocko|
|1957||Rififi, Détective Privé|
|1976?||Pif le Chien|
Last updated: 2010-07-19