How To Use Profanity Effectively In Comics

2016 Artwork The effective use of profanity in comics

Although I briefly mentioned this subject a couple of days ago, I thought that I’d take a more in-depth look at the right and wrong ways to use four-letter words in comics. Before I go any further, I should probably point out that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using profanity in comics (or any other media) – provided that it’s done well.

This article will also only really cover the effective use of the most dramatic four-letter words, and I won’t really be covering the less dramatic ones here. And, just for the sake of irony, I’ll try to write this entire article without using said words. But, first, I’ll explain why I’m writing about this topic today.

When I was planning one of the comics in the webcomic mini series that started yesterday evening, I had a rather interesting experience. Although the first three panels of the comic each contained a smaller joke, the truly funny part was the final panel – where one of the characters expressed shocked disdain in a dramatic way. If this wasn’t done dramatically enough, then the comic would be significantly less amusing. It was the thing that brought the jokes in the first three panels together in a truly hilarious way.

So, without even really thinking much, I spontaneously added a realistic expression to the end of the comic. It was a perfect fit with both the moment and the character. Then I started to worry if it would fall foul of the content rules of the sites I post my comics to.

I considered substituting it for a less dramatic phrase, but any lesser phrase would drain the humour from the funniest moment in the comic. In the end, I compromised and kept something similar to the original phrasing – albeit with the addition of two asterisks.

A good general rule for when to (and when not to) use profanity in your comic is to see whether it emerges naturally from your characters or not.

If anything, you should actually be slightly reluctant to use it in your comic – this usually means that it’ll only emerge when nothing else will do. If you take this approach, then every time that your characters use one of these words will be a dramatic/ funny/ surprising etc.. moment.

It’s kind of like a more sensible version of the silly film censorship rule that films with a “12A” or “PG-13” certificate can only use a certain four-letter word a limited number of times (1-2 times in the US, 4-5 times in the UK), despite the fact that, when I was a young teenager, this word always seemed more “cool” or “rebellious” than “shocking” or “offensive”. Then again, this might explain the rule…

Although these silly censorship rules sometimes result in the word being used for immature shock value, or thrown into a film unnecessarily in order to get a higher certificate – they do at least provide a slightly exaggerated example of how to use profanity effectively in comics.

Since the makers of these films can only use the word a limited number of times, they have to use it when absolutely nothing else will do. Although you might end up using it more than 1-5 times in your comic, setting yourself some kind of informal limit can be a good way to make sure that you use this word in it’s most effective way.

Even though a few comic writers can make frequent use of these words funny and/or dramatic through extremely clever writing (Warren Ellis is a master of this skill in his “Transmetropolitan” comics), most of the time, these words lose a lot of their dramatic or comedic impact if they’re used too often.

Not only that, if they’re used regularly in contexts where they probably wouldn’t appear in real life, your comic will come across as immature, rather than “edgy”, “gritty” or “witty”.

So, the rule about being reluctant to use them is more about pacing, timing and drama than anything to do with prim puritanism. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule – such as when realistically depicting informal conversations. But, even then, it’s usually better to be slightly careful about how often you use these words, lest you bore the audience with constant repetition.

So, aim not to use them – but be open to the times when they appear naturally and spontaneously. Or set yourself some kind of vague informal limit, in order to avoid lessening their dramatic value through excessive repetition.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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