Amy Lago opines about quirkiness of foul language in comics

In response to Stephan Pastis using the term “Bite Me” in his December 2nd Pearls Before Swine, Amy Lago, comics editor at Washington Post Writers Group, has posted her comments on the quirkiness of using off-color language on the comics page.

How DO newspapers compete with other forms of entertainment that are attracting the very audience they want — younger readers — while using least-common-denominator, older-than-the-hills, uninspired language? Well, most of the time, they don’t compete. They are stuck in a time warp, and the only way out seems to be to slip speech under the radar of the “old” folks — when Aaron McGruder used a slang spelling of “bitch,” apparently nobody batted an eyelash. Those who would be offended had no idea what he was saying. Both Aaron and Candorville cartoonist Darrin Bell have used the n-word, to both complaints AND praise. Go figure that one.

Here’s the thing, though: The cleverest cartoonists (sorry, Stephan) are adept at what I call a “language feint.” A number of years ago, Scott Adams replaced the word “crap” with “carp.” “Oh, carp” never caught on, but it was brilliant. Everybody understood what Adams meant, but those who would choose to be offended — “If my child reads that word in the newspaper, he’s going to think it’s OK to say, and it’s not!” — couldn’t be, because Adams hadn’t used it.

17 thoughts on “Amy Lago opines about quirkiness of foul language in comics

  1. I wish that article was a bit longer. Well, I wish it had a list of words which editors think are no-nos. I’ve avoided using the word “crap” in my own humble effort of a comic strip because I thought it would be a word that a syndicate editor were veto even when the word fit the punchline. (I hate to admit it, but I went with the old standby “@#$%!”)Only recently I used the word “hell” (as in “What the hell?”) since I thought the strip wouldn’t be as funny if I tried to fake it out. (and since I’m not (hopefully not yet) syndicated I figured I could get away with it. I don’t like using bad words as a crutch, but there are some words I don’t think are bad if used in moderation and in fitting circumstances. I’d love to know what other aspiring cartoonists think.

  2. I don’t think comic strips need to use blatant vulgarities, but editors should definitely lighten up on the minor off-color slang that is accepted in every other medium (damn, hell, sucks, crap).

    It’s a bit silly to think that children will be corrupted by these words in print, when they hear them spoken by their classmates, family members and on television and radio dozens of times every day.

    Do children of such an impressionably young age even read comics in print anymore?

  3. I think foul language (even mild) is inappropriate for the newspaper. The comics page is supposed to be the refuge from all the bad news and gloom and doom of the rest of the paper. It’s where people of all ages can go and expect to get a chuckle and not get hit with course language. I’m not a zealot. I think it can be used tastefully (and has been done so before in Doonesbury and Zits), but I’d hate to see the syndicates open the flood gates and let the cartoonists run wild.

  4. In the big picture, it really seems silly that this is even an issue. Believe me, I’m not for bad words being rampant on the comics page. But we aren’t stupid either. The word “crap” or “sucks” or “bite me” will not corrupt anybody. And if it does, I’ll bet they don’t own a TV or a radio.

    (by the way, Alan… I love this site. It’s one of my favorites.)

  5. The biggest problem I see related to this issue is that editors, once the guardians of the language, now advocating the use of coarser language in newspapers and their entertainment features. It’s bad enough that coarse language has entered almost every other mainstream media. It’s all evidence that the coarsening and dumbing down of America has reached the journalism industry.

  6. Isn’t “urban slang” the domain of the alternative press? Mainstream newspapers should set a higher bar for themselves and their readers. I’m hardly shocked or upset by these words but it reminds me of that scene from the movie “Broadcast News” where Albert Brook’s character talks about standards being reduced “just a little bit, and then a little bit more…”
    On the other hand this is supposed to be about comedy…and sometimes clever use of “offensive” material can be really funny. So maybe it all depends on the context the language is used in.

  7. I think you’re right Jonathan…its all about context. When Charlie Brown used to say “Good Grief” it wasn’t humorous or sad (depending on what was happening to him at the time) that made us laugh, chuckle or smile because he said it, it was the context of why he said it. Using profanity or words that you wouldn’t really call polite a lot in a strip isn’t cool IMHO, unless the context calls for it. If you look at Frank Cho’s Liberty Meadows site, he has a section of strips that his syndicate changed for publication or refused to print. I understand Cho’s frustration, but to be honest I wouldn’t want them in the comics page either and I thought they were funny. (some of them anyway)But then again, there were some that I thought the syndicate was too heavy handed on.

  8. Remember the fuss over the use of the word “scumbag” in “Blondie” not so long ago? That seems a little silly to complain about, as does “bite me.” I don’t think I want the stronger stuff on my funny page.

    I do a webcomic. Webcomics have no restrictions on language and content, which is both good and bad. Some (like “Penny Arcade”) use coarse language, but use it sparingly, and when it seems to fit. Others are like Eddie Murphy back in the 90’s; every other word is foul just for the heck of it, with no real purpose or need.

    I admit, I get tempted to use “crap” or “hell” or “pissed,” but I’ve only used “damn” so far, and that was only once. Myself, I like to use the “@#*!!” because it’s an accepted cartoon shorthand for cursing. I also use old-fashioned stuff like “chowderhead”, or things from the 1920’s (“horseradish!” or confound/dagnab/gol-darn it!). Otherwise, I just make up a curse word. Like “S.O.B.” becomes “sunnava seahorse!” or “sunnava ding-dong dairy maid!” I just think that’s more creative, if not funnier.

  9. The current daily Gasoline Alley story line with Walt visiting ( joining ? ) all the classic cartoon characters at the Old Comics Retirement Home is giving great joy as fans try to identify them . The bald character in the 12.5 strip is causing comment , check him out and see what you think looks a lot like Joe Palooka’s manager Knobby Walsh .

  10. Jeff, Amy’s the editor for my strip. I can assure you that she doesn’t “advocate” the use of coarse language. Nor does she tolerate its gratuitous use.

  11. It’s distracting to me whenever I come across a “Friggin” or a “Freakin” or a @#$%! in a comic strip. It breaks my concentration from the gag and forces me to think, well, the cartoonist wanted to use an expletive here but settled for this instead. As long as there seems to be a moratorium on course language in comic strips, I think cartoonists should keep rewriting gags in such a way that there’s no need for them.

  12. I don’t think a lot of cartoonists in syndication use foul language a lot except maybe the occassional @#! stuff. Considering that theres only so much space to work with for dialogue I don’t think any cartoonist in his or her right mind would through in gratuitous bad words or facsimiles just for the sake of it. (I know I wouldn’t. i’m constantly trimming my dialogue and I still think I take up too much space with it).

    Freakin’ and friggin’ don’t bother me. Believe it or not, some people actually say that in real life. (I friggin’ know I freakin’ do sometimes. :))

  13. I’ve been following this website for months, and I love it. This is my first comment, though.

    I’m a syndicated cartoonist, located in Cape Town, South Africa. I draw a daily comic strip called ‘Urban Trash’ which is published around the country as well as in the UK (for expats). My comic is heavily satirical and uses strong colloquial language (which often includes foul language). Since my comic focuses on urban life in South Africa, I try maintain a degree of relevance. I would fail if I didn’t swear and whatnot.

    I don’t have a problem with swearwords in comics. When people use “&%$#@!” instead of a word, they might as well swear. Secondly, who sets the benchmark of what ‘foul language’ is? I don’t find ‘crap’ a swearword or offensive.

    That said, some publications prefer my comics with no swearing, and choose to star out the words in question. When some naughties sneak through, I get called by my editor. Not often, though.

    If comics are supposed to be a break-away from the depression and seriousness of the newspapers’ content – and to be entertainment, then I could argue that Hollywood is exactly that, too. Excepting that movies also swear etc.

    I don’t mind a conservative stance. But not for my comic, however.

  14. I don’t buy in to the Hollywood arguement. The two medias are completely different. The newspaper has had a strong tradition of keeping the comics innocent and kid friendly whereas Hollywood has never billed itself as such – nor is there any expectation for them to do so. Since all features of a funny page are run as a collective, they all conform to a collective standard (in this case the common denominator being non-offensive language) – where as when I pay for a movie, I’m paying for one feature and the movie is clearly rated so everyone knows going into it what they’re going to get out of it.

    Then let’s not forget about the compeititive nature of the funny pages. Should a comic become a hassle for the editor (calls of compaints) then it’s going to be replaced. So there isn’t a great deal of incentive for artists to use gratuitous foul language.

    The newspaper set the standard based on the community they serve. It is as simple as that. If the comic isn’t “mainstream” with its use of language – there are other outlets (alternative newspapers, web comics, etc.) that the artist can pursue.

  15. Excuse me but I never knew “bite me” was an off color remark! Now, “B__w me’, that one I know and object to, but “Bite Me”? Is it something only S&M know about?

  16. Quite frankly, a newspaper’s front page generally sets the standard (or age restriction) for itself. A newspaper is targeted at adults; it’s content is filled with graphic news and photos – often inappropriate and offensive to many. Yet they continue pushing these limits.

    And all of a sudden, a few pages containing some comics and crosswords must now be appropriate for 8 year olds? There’s an incosistency there. The argument that the newspapers ‘have always been that way’ doesn’t work. Can anyone spell ‘progression’ or ‘advancing’?

    Let’s not even begin with ‘dang’ and ‘bite me’, or even ‘&%$#@!’ – that’s absurd. Art is exactly that: it’s art. In galleries, you don’t see people limiting what paintings are allowed. In the same way, comics are art. If they work with or without swearing; that’s fine.

    And while I’m at it, drawing editorials allows you to take the piss out of people, even presenting VERY extreme and offensive views, but little words like ‘shit’ get censored? Ha ha ha.

    It’s this old battle between the right and the left. The middle ground is that some newspapers star out the expletives, even though everyone knows what it actually says.

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