Mort Walker – The Lexicon of Comicana

There are any number of ways to express emotions, moods and states of characters in comic books. Sometimes these expression are exaggerated and others they are subtle. Often times these expressions are depicted in ways which are slightly abstract when we think about them yet they are understood and accepted readily by readers. Take for example the image of a light bulb drawn above a character’s head to indicate that they have had an idea.

This is where Mort Walker comes in. Mort Walker is an american cartoonist. His comic strip “Beetle Bailey” began on September 4th 1950 and is still running today making it among the longest running comics with the creator still involved. Mort Walker sold his first cartoons to a local newspaper in his home town of Kansas, Missouri when he was only twelve years old. By the age of eighteen he was chief directorial editor of Hallmark cards. It is fair to say therefore that Mort Walker has lived a life in cartooning and there is a lot to be learned from his work.

Walker offered to share some of his knowledge with the world in the form of ‘The Lexicon of Comicana”. First Published in 1980 ‘The Lexicon of Comicana’ is essential reading for any aspiring cartoonists or illustrators. The book is somewhat tongue in cheek in it’s style as Walker explains the various visual devices employed by cartoonists worldwide in the creation of comics. Walker provides a comprehensive guide to the symbols and techniques which have been used. Walker gives names to these devices many of which have since been adopted as official terminology and have been included in dictionaries.

‘The Lexicon of Comicana’ explores many aspects of cartooning including constructing characters, symbolic expression and the use of sound effects. Walker creates terms such a “Grawlixes”, “Plewds” and “Briffits” to name the devices which he demonstrates. Many of these devices would be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in comics but it is Mort Walker who acknowledged and gave names to them.

‘Plewds’ for example are the beads of sweat that are drawn around a character’s head to demonstrate that the character is exasperated. This symbol has been commonly used through modern comic history from they early funnies right up to modern manga (See Figure 1).

 

Figure 1 - An example of 'Plewds'
Figure 1 – An example of ‘Plewds’

The cloud of dust created when a character runs away at speed is termed as a ‘Briffit’ by Walker. (See Figure 2).

Figure 2 - An example of 'Briffits'.
Figure 2 – An example of a ‘Briffit’.

The use of symbols to express that a characters is saying or thinking an expletive  is called a “Grawlixe”(See Figure 3.)

Example 4 - An example of 'Grawlixes'.
Example 3 – An example of ‘Grawlixes’.

As mentioned many of the devices demonstrated by Walker will be highly recognisable to anyone with even a passing interest in cartooning. Often these devices do their jobs so well that the reader accepts them unthinkingly. Walker, however, draws our attention to them and gives them the recognition they deserve. Although some of the devices explored by Walker could be deemed to be dated within the world of modern comics there is still a lot to be taken from this book by anyone interested in comics and illustration. It is a fantastic point of learning and essential reading for would be comic artists and illustrators. There is also space for adaptation of these devices and many of them have changed over the course of comic history. There’s undoubtedly something to be gained by any illustrator who chooses to read the ‘The Lexicon of Comicana’ as many devices presented can be mixed and matched as much or as little as an artist needs in their visual storytelling.

Reference:

Walker, M. (1980) The lexicon of Comicana. United States: Comicana Books.

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