Sunday, April 19, 2009

The neat freak's dirty mouth

Tommy Kovac and Sonny Liew's Wonderland, which I mentioned here and reviewed here yesterday, features some comic book swearing in it, and employs a different strategy for depicting foul language in a comic than a few of the others we've talked about here before, so I thought it might be worth discussing.

If you haven't read Wonderland, either in its original six-issue miniseries format from SLG, or its current hardcover collection from Disney Press, it stars Mary Ann, the White Rabbit's housemaid (who he originally mistook Alice for in the book and movie). Like most of those in Wonderland, she's rather mad, and her particular form of madness revolves around cleanliness. Terms like "obsessive-compulsive disorder" and "neat freak" don't seem to adequately describe the depth of her emotions when it comes to dirt and disorder of any kind.

In the first issue, for example, the sight of a small red jam stain on her clean white apron moves her to snatch the Queen of Hearts' scepter from her and bring it crashing down on the tyrant's head. So it's no surprise that a mess can bring her to swear.

The first time she curses, it's when she's in the process of falling down a well. She bumps her head on the side of it, eliciting a loud "THUD" and a plain old run-of-the-mill cartoon curse:

The well she falls into isn't a water well, however, it's a treacle well. Once covered in treacle, and being pawed at by a trio of treacle-encrusted old ladies, she again snaps:
What's she saying exactly? I don't know, but it must be bad! It's the verbal equivalent of skulls of various shapes and sizes, a few lightning bolts and a black streak. I like this sort of comic-book swearing, as it is so far divorced from "real" swearing that it could really be anything, and the panel isn't really inviting the reader to suss out the real-world equivalent from the clues or context, the way, say, Brian Michael Bendis Avengers swearing does.

All the reader knows is that Mary Ann is completely freaking out, and using language so inappropriate that it can't be rendered into English. It gets worse in the next panel, when she drops English modifiers like "befouled," "bloody" and "blasted":

That seems like a good solution to the problem of how to have comic book characters swear without actually having them swear: Long chains of unique images with negative connotations, but no specific translation.

1 comment:

Matthew J. Brady said...

I like that; it's kind of like the skull symbols that Warren Ellis used in Nextwave. He usually used four of them, to match the four-letter swear words, but it seemed to work, from what I remember. What does bug me about the Wonderland example though is that it's the same image every time, just stretched or shrunk to different sizes. I don't know why, but that kind of bothers me. I would prefer a couple different images, at least. Still, it's a good one.