Holy lexicon, Batman! Comic book language from Agitron to Zod
The most hotly-anticipated film of the summer, Suicide Squad, shows that even supevillains can make a contribution to society. But what contribution have superheroes, supervillains, and comic books in general made to the English language? Here’s an A-Z of words and terms from comic book culture. Some have yet to gain the traction to make it into Oxford Dictionaries, but all will help you should you find yourself in conversation with a cartoonist.
Wiggly lines around a shaking object or character.
Clouds of dust that hang in the spot of a swiftly departing character or object.
Captions are used in comic book panels, usually in rectangular boxes, for narration or transitional text such as “Meanwhile…”
Drokk is a swear word from Judge Dredd, which is set in a future world that has alternative profanities to ours – also including Grud. This enabled the publisher to comply with the 1954 Comic Book Code rules on language in a more authentic and believable way than many others, which range from the inoffensive “Great Scott!” (Superman) to the ludicrous “Oh my stars and garters!” (Beast).
Encapsulation is the capturing of key moments in a comic book story. Not every story incident is presented in comic books: the artist chooses what will be presented in which panels, and their number, size, and layout.
The comic in which a character is first seen. Batman’s was introduced in a story called “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate” in issue #27 of Detective Comics (May 1939).
Grawlixes are typographical symbols standing for profanities in word balloons. In 1964 American cartoonist Mort Walker wrote an article called “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes”, a satirical piece for the National Cartoonists Society. He used terms such as grawlixes for his own amusement, but they soon caught on. Many of his terms, contained in his 1980 book The Lexicon of Comicana, are now used by cartoonists and critics. See also Agitrons, Briffits, Indotherm, Lucaflect, Quimps and Vites.
You can fill the blank with almost anything to create Batman’s sidekick Robin’s catchphrase. This, like many superhero catchphrases, is used a way of avoiding profanities (see Drokk).
Wavy, rising lines used to represent steam or heat. When the same shape is used to denote smell, it is called a wafteron.
The Joker’s language in Suicide Squad was controversial before its release: not because of what he says, but because his dialogue is tattooed onto his body. His “HaHaHaHaHaHaHaHa” tattoo echoes text you might see on a comic book panel. Too meta for some, and the word ‘damaged’ tattooed onto his forehead too literal.
Onomatopoeic words in stylized lettering that represent noise within a scene – such as Kapow! – are Sound Effects or SFX. The 1960s Adam West Batman TV show, despite having actual sound effects, also interspersed fight sequences with typographic sound effects, in homage to the form: title screens of words that pack a punch such as Pow! Boff! Kapow! Z-Zwap!Whack! Thwack! Bonk! as this classic fight sequence between Batman and the Penguin illustrates.
A shiny spot on the surface of something, depicted as a four-paned window shape.
Manga are Japanese comic books. The word is formed from two Japanese symbols or kanji: man, meaning ‘whimsical or impromptu’ and ga meaning ‘pictures’.
Nightcrawler is one of the mutants from X-Men, who can teleport and is nearly invisible in shadows. This suits his name origin: a nightcrawler is an earthworm used for fishing bait that comes to the surface at night, and subsequently developed an informal meaning of a person who is socially active at night.
An origin story is a back-story revealing how a character gained their superpowers. They are often also first appearances of a character, such as Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider to become Spiderman.
One still image in a sequence of images that tells the story across a layout of panels.
Quimps are images of planets with rings, like Saturn, used in speech or thought bubbles in place of obscenities. They serve the same purpose as grawlixes, but are graphical rather than typographical.
A reboot is when an established series, story, or franchise is re-started with a new version, usually with the same characters. Man of Steel (2013) was a reboot of the Superman film series. The term has its origins in computing (to shut down and re-start a system) – but this newer meaning can be applied to serial fiction in any media. If only some details are changed, it’s a soft reboot or in-continuity reboot; throw out an entire series and start again, and it’s a full reboot.
Superman appeared in 1938, yet traces his name further back, to Nietzsche’s Übermensch in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1891), via George Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man & Superman. He has also inspired the prefixing of super onto various people and professions, such as supermom, and TV series Supernanny and Supervet.
A thought bubble or thought balloon is usually shaped like a cloud, with bubbles as a pointer. It contains words expressing a character’s unvoiced thoughts – something taken for granted in novel writing, but which would be impossible in comics or graphic novels without use of this device.
Universe or extended universe is the fictional shared universe of a group of characters. The Marvel Universe includes Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America – making superhero gang films like Avengers Assemble (2012) possible. The DC Universe includes Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman – allowing them to appear together in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015); and now a team of DC supervillains has been assembled for Suicide Squad (2016), the third instalment of films in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).
Vites are vertical straight lines drawn across flat, clear, reflective surfaces such as windows and mirrors to indicate reflectivity. Similar to Dites (diagonal) and Hites (horizontal). Hites are also used to indicate something moving at speed.
Word balloons, speech balloons, or speech bubbles contain dialogue with a tail or pointer that points to the speaker. Their shape can also convey meaning, emotion or tone of voice: spiked balloons can indicate shouting, and ‘dripping’ balloons sarcasm.
Worst. [Insert word here]. Ever
My favourite comic book contribution to language comes not from a comic book per se but from the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons. He is the source of the Worst. [Insert word here]. Ever. trope, frequently using it to denounce whatever he doesn’t like (initially an episode of Itchy & Scratchy – i.e. ‘Worst. Episode. Ever.’). And it is used to great effect as the tagline to Suicide Squad: Worst. Heroes. Ever.
X-Men introduced a new scientific term for the advanced humans that are mutants: Homo Superior.
Yukotujakzurjimozoata has possibly the longest name of any comic book character. One of the newer (2004) additions to Alpha Flight, a team of team of Canadian superheroes who use not only a Canadian English vernacular but a French Canadian French one too. He is known more succinctly as Yukon Jack.
As in ‘Kneel before Zod,’ an instruction given by Superman’s fellow Kryptonian enemy, General Zod, memorably played by Terrance Stamp in the film Superman II (1980). An Internet meme just waiting for the invention of the Internet.
What are your favourite words from comic books? Let us know in the comments below.