28 September 2008

Polite Swearing in the Modern Style

While I was in the midst of the last PUNCTUATION WEEK, Dave Elzey offered some punctual thoughts of his own at Fomagrams. He addressed how to render graphic words graphically--or, rather, how to have comics characters curse in a way that makes their anger more apparent than their word choice. (Get Fuzzy here shows Satchel Pooch taking that to an extreme.)

At one point, prose writers substituted dashes and asterisks for just enough letters to hide offensive from a naive six-year-old. But in comics, which render speech more graphically than ordinary prose, artists found a more expressive approach, which Dave calls "substitute profanity."

There are two elements necessary to create the appropriate substitute profanity, length and symbol. Length is merely how many letter characters are being replaced in the original word with symbols. . . .

Now, as for symbols, the only proper ones available are “caps lock numbers,” those symbols you get when using the caps lock on the number keys. The exception is the exclamation point, a common feature above the 1 on modern computer keyboards that replaced the cent symbol. . . .

There are two reasons to avoid punctuation [including parentheses]. First, you want to reserve them to actually punctuate the profanity in question. Second, adding punctuation in the middle of a word only confuses the reader.
Similarly, Dave recommends against letting letters and numbers slip into such swear words. I don't know how he feels about other mathematical symbols, such as +. Are they closer to punctuation or to the non-letter symbols?

The modern computer keyboard, especially the Macintosh, provides several more options than the typewriter, such as §, £, ®, ∑, and ø. I particularly like the dagger used for footnotes when asterisks just won't do: . Not only is it an unusual typographical symbol, but it conveys the anger often expressed by cursing.

Dave notes that not only did comics come up with this form of expression, but comics letterers have more options available to them.
As a final note, comic books have a wider set of characters to choose from because they employ symbols not found on the keyboard. The inward spiral, for example, or sometimes a simple smudge.
Comics creators also have the option of word balloons in the shapes of thunderclouds or icicles.

However, landmark comics creator Frank Miller chose to go outside that system recently. In his current magazine, All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, Miller has insisted that the profanity in his script be placed in the characters' word balloons, then blacked out.

But $%£#!, the blacking in the latest issue wasn't as powerful as the words, and they showed through. DC just had to recall its copies, and Newsarama reported:
As with “error” and “recall” issues of titles before..., the request to destroy copies had very minor--if any--effect on the book making it into the retail stream. While larger chains, and retailers who have close relationships with DC may have found it politically appropriate to destroy (or “disappear”) their copies..., nearly 200 copies have made their way to eBay, with low bids starting at $15.00, and currently, showing a high bid of $102.50.
For Robin fans, I should make clear that the Boy Wonder doesn't use any of that profanity. Not even Frank Miller's Robin.

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