More on the early days of obscenicons

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Last week I posted about the early history of cartoon cursing characters, aka grawlixes, aka obscenicons. I had managed to unearth examples of obscenicons on comics pages going back to 1909, from Rudolph Dirks' "The Katzenjammer Kids." I've had a chance to do some more digging, and I've found that Dirks was getting creative with obscenicons as early as 1902 — and he wasn't the only cartoonist indulging in them.

Barnacle Press is a fantastic repository of early comic art, one that we've drawn on in the past for such wonderfully eccentric strips as "The Outbursts of Everett True" and "The Troubles of Dictionary Jaques." Among the "Katzenjammer Kids" strips collected on the Barnacle Press site is one from Dec. 14, 1902 featuring this final panel:

Here we have the character Uncle Heinie doing the swearing (after the usual hijinks from the Kids, Hans and Fritz, who have disrupted the hanging of a holly wreath). Like the Captain in the 1909 strip, the nautically minded Uncle Heinie incorporates an anchor symbol in his cursing repertoire, so this must have been something of a running joke for Dirks. What better graphic representation could there be for "swearing like a sailor"?

One of Dirks' cartooning contemporaries, Gene Carr, was exploring obscenicons around the same time. Among Carr's early work was "Lady Bountiful," recognized as the first comic strip with a female protagonist. Here is the "Lady Bountiful" strip that appeared in the Atlanta Constitution on Feb. 8, 1903 (again courtesy of Barnacle Press):

Thanks to the Chronicling America newspaper digitization projection by the Library of Congress, I found two more of Carr's daily strips from later in the same month also using obscenicons. The strips below appeared in the New York World on Feb. 10, 1903 and Feb. 20, 1903, respectively:

I note that Carr's strips were published in the Pulitzer-owned New York World, while "The Katzenjammer Kids" appeared in the Hearst-owned New York Journal. Perhaps the escalating use of obscenicons was one manifestation of the famous battle between the two newspaper publishers. After all, we owe the expression "yellow journalism" to the fact that Pulitzer and Hearst fought over the rights to publish the original comic strip, Richard F. Outcault's "The Yellow Kid."


  1. sollersuk said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 2:33 am

    Not directly relevant, but I was tempted towards generating obscenicons myself just now when I ran the cursor over one of the strips and got the message "Click to embiggen"

  2. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 3:20 am

    Why? That's a perfectly cromulent word.

  3. Oskar said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    These old strips are very charming, but I have to say, some of them are almost completely non-sensical.

    Take the second Lady Bountiful strip, the one from February 10, 1903. The two first panels are comprehensible enough, the little ape-man that is the servant of the Lady (oh, how times have changed) wants to make a phone-call. He call's his girlfriend and breaks up with her ("I want yer ter quit goin' wid me, Lizzie"), and then for some reason starts swearing (the good lady is apparently scandalized by this in the background).

    And then everything turns surreal. The servant starts falling from his chair, his phone-cord snaps, he says something incomprehensible ("Don't yer call me er' stiff!") and swears some more. Meanwhile, some strange man appears in the background, comes to the foreground and clocks the poor guy.

    Can anyone please explain what's going on here. Is the angry man the father of the servants girlfriend? Is he someone waiting in line for the phone, annoyed at how long the servant is taking ("You said enough!")? Or do they have some prior beef with each other that isn't revealed in this short snippet?

  4. Tom said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 8:14 am

    @Oskar, I think you've misunderstood a crucial word in this strip and inserted a comma to make sense of the sentence: it's not "I want yer ter quit goin' wid me, Lizzie". Rather, he's employing "me" in the non-standard sense of "my" (still quite common in informal BrE speech although I can't speak for elsewhere). That is, he's speaking to a rival for Lizzie's affections and warning him to stay away from "me Lizzie".

    Presumably (and not surprisingly) he gets a fair amount of abuse back, which explains the foul-mouthed outburst and apoplectic trashing of the telephone. "Don't you call me her stiff" (eye dialect removed) is in response to the other speaker saying that he's Lizzie's "stiff", meaning mark/target/one who has been duped etc (not common in BrE but aware of this meaning from media).

    The man who dashes in is, I suppose, either a passer-by or the owner of the telephone, understandably outraged by this delinquent behaviour. I wouldn't be surprised if that kind of intervention was a lot more common 100 years ago! I'm pretty sure that's it. I think "non-sensical" is going a bit far.

  5. Sili said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    Why aren't you at ComicCon?

  6. Rubrick said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    Fascinating. I'm now curious as to when humor first began appearing in comic strips….

  7. John Cowan said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 12:12 am

    I think the mustached man is also a servant of the lady's, but a superior one.

    [(bgz) I believe the little guy is supposed to be one of the street urchins that Lady Bountiful is always trying to help — see the description of the strip here.]

  8. Adam said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    Why aren't you at ComicCon?

    Apparently it can get rough! I've never heard of violence over seating at LREC…

  9. Kate Gladstone said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

    "Don't yer call me er' stiff!" is plainly
    "Don't you call me a stiff"
    as transcribed into eye-dialect by
    a non-rhotic speaker for whom "er" represents "a" [indefinite article]
    as "yer" represents "you" [unstressed "you"]
    and as "ter" in another extract from the same comic represents "to".

  10. dirk alan said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    is there a name for this ? @$$ it seems to be an obscenicon on steroids. ob-sen-i-con or ob-seen-i-con ? how do you pronounce it. is the box above supposed to be url ? i want answers people.

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