Monday, June 21, 2010

Words you can't say in comic books

I’ve gotten more reader feedback about my characters’ vocabularies than any other subject, except for their love lives (or lack thereof). The consensus, at least among fans that bother to write in, seems to be that I have created a crew of pottymouths. I find this highly amusing.

I have long since figured out that the people who care most ardently about something are not necessarily representative of all the people who care about that something. I’ve also figured out that there are some elements of the comic-book world that don’t really line up with the book world, and vice versa, and elements of both that don’t really line up with reality. (My favorite example—comic-book people who hear about Masks can’t believe I’m writing a superhero story with a girl in a leading role, because making the lead character female is usually considered a good way to kill off a comic series. Meanwhile, book people who hear about Masks can’t believe I’m writing a YA novel with a boy in a leading role that’s not strictly a romantic lead, because the YA readership skews female and they want to read about strong female protagonists, not strong male ones. I hope I’ve hit a happy medium by ticking everyone off a little.) And language seems to be one of those things.

To dispel the popular myth: I don’t use swearwords for lack of other words to use. I have a very large vocabulary, and choose my words carefully. As a childhood spelling-bee champ, someone who was reading at a college level around fifth grade, and someone whose day job requires her to accurately use terminology from fields as diverse as oncology and Russian literature, I am extraordinarily comfortable with words. I regularly answer the phone with, “Good afternoon; telemarketers will be defenestrated.” So while I’m about to use a bunch of naughty words in this blog entry, it is not, repeat not, because I lack the vocabulary to use other words. I could use other words if I wanted to. I chose these words.

The pottymouth problem first reared its head when I was in high school and published a short story that included, at different points, the words “bastard” and “damn.” And oh, the floodgates opened. Letters, emails, people coming up to me in the halls. Interestingly, nobody had a problem with Rae calling a Nazi war criminal who tried to murder his mask cousin a bastard. No, the problem was with her saying she was “so damn close” to achieving something before she failed.

The problem popped up from time to time after that, but I found that, interestingly, I could avoid the wrath of my readers if I kept Rae’s language clean. Nobody else got such a strong reaction when they cussed. Apparently it was okay for Trevor to use the occasional four-letter word, and any bad guy was allowed to curse like a sailor. I am still scratching my head over this. But things got really interesting when I sat down to write a scene for the novel where, no matter how I rewrote it, Rae always ended up saying the F-word. There was simply no other word I could imagine her using. I’ll explain in a bit, but first, a little background on swearing in comics.

Because comic books have traditionally been regarded as a children’s medium, there’s a certain amount of eyebrow-raising every time observers outside fandom notice characters in mainstream comics doing, er, grownup things. So publishers seem to stick to the idea that grownup stuff in comics should be clearly labeled, usually by combining it with lots of other grownup stuff. Nobody wants to see a ten-year-old finding the F-bomb in an issue of Adventures of Superman and asking his dad what the word means (although any ten-year-old in the United States who hasn’t heard that word by now is awfully sheltered). So comics usually are either crammed with profanity, graphic sex, and ultra-gory violence, or they’re dialed strictly back to PG-13. I stick to the PG-13 side of things myself, mostly. I don’t often run across a story I want to tell that can’t be told within those boundaries, and I find the restrictions challenge me just enough that I end up with a more artful presentation. That’s what happens when I don’t have the option of simply ripping a character’s head off when I get bored.

And yet, no matter how I slice it, Rae always says the F-word to the Masked Rider.

The situation is this: Rae has gotten separated from Trevor and is being chased by a half-dozen or so angry supervillains. She finds herself in an alley with only one way out—and the Masked Rider is blocking that with his horse. The Rider offers her a lift, and she grudgingly accepts. What follows is a surreal journey down the rabbit hole into the Rider’s world. Rae expected to find herself riding with the Grim Reaper, and instead she finds herself hanging onto the saddle as the Rider gallops around downtown L.A. stopping random crimes, just like any other mask. The Rider, meanwhile, is asking her pointed questions about Trevor and why she trusts him, and Rae finally gets sufficiently fed up with it to ask the cowboy who the hell he thinks he is. The Rider tells her to watch her language.

And Rae says, “I’ll say whatever the [fudgesicles] I want to say.”

And that’s it. She doesn’t use the word again. It doesn’t appear in the book after that. Rae’s not an F-bomb kind of character, really. But it just seemed so right that Rae, being a naturally contrary person, would respond to someone telling her to watch her mouth by using an even more objectionable word. She’s also the kind of person who can’t resist pushing big red buttons marked “Do not push under any circumstances.” It’s just who she is. And once she’s made her point, she goes back to talking the way she normally talks.

I sweated quite a bit over this word, since it violated my PG-13 rule. On the one hand, I have always considered myself to be writing for adults, some of whom just happen to be too young to vote. (Remember, I was reading at a college level when I was in fifth grade, so I know that books get read quite a ways outside their intended audiences.) As far as I’m concerned, if you’re qualified to handle the moral dimensions of being a superhero, you’re qualified to handle one use of the F-word. And true to form, my reading circle usually splits down the middle on whether I should keep the word in. Half of them want me to take it out and replace it with something milder (which seems to me to be undermining Rae’s contrariness) and half write something like “Haha!” or “Best line ever” next to it (which worries me a little—that was my best line? Really?). I assume that on balance, it means I’m doing okay.

One of my very favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” I’d like to think that more often than not, I achieve lightning … it’s just that sometimes, in the words of Terry Pratchett, it involves standing on a hill in a thunderstorm wearing copper armor and shouting “All gods are bastards.”

Still, it’s quite a show, isn’t it?


  1. as i was reading that story from free comic book day, it never occurred to me that Rae was being anything other than what i'd expect a teenager ballsy enough to be a superpowerless superhero to be: namely harder than your confronter assumes you'd be. (my spell check is informing me that i created two new words in that last sentence. good for me.)

    also, when i let my daughter read it, i didn't think about that particular word, at all. granted, she just finished the 8th grade in a public school. i'm fairly sure it wasn't the first time she's seen it in print, let alone hearing it.

    not being true to a character, in order to censor their language, weakens the character and the story. i, for one, would much rather talk to my daughters about what they might read in a great story, than have them read a weaker story that seems to be "safe".

  2. Yay for neologisms!

    I think I'll invite you to book signings to deal with outraged parents. Then again, I do have a longstanding dream of being burned in effigy somewhere in the Midwest ...

    Just out of curiosity, is the language in the book likely to cause a problem if you use it in class? I'm not planning to change the language or anything, but I'd like to know if it's an issue.

  3. 1) i'd be happy to be your parental buffer at any and all signings, provided i get a cool t-shirt (like the "semper ubi" one)

    2) that depends on the grade i end up teaching. i'm still applying and interviewing. also, i'm certain it would have to be run by the powers-that-be.

  4. We have a "semper ubi" shirt? I must get one ...

    Oh, you mean the one Rae's wearing on the "Motion Capture" cover! Yeah, thank Derrick for that. The shirt's all him. Hmmm, I guess we could make them available through Cafepress someday.

  5. i think you definitely need some t-shirts. otherwise i'll have to wear shirts with buttons which totally throws this whole "peter pan" thing i have going.

  6. That settles it, then. I'll have to make some free T-shirt designs available before Comic-Con. (I can't set about selling the shirts right now because the book isn't sold and it makes lawyers itchy ... but as I've said before, the fact that I technically can't sell anything will not stop me from giving stuff away.)

  7. dibs!!

    as a YA author, you know the power in that word.