Cursing in comics has a pretty long history. Many comics even today still avoid offending words. The various means I’ve seen used:
- Traditionally, various symbols (for example: “That #%*@ cat!”) are used to substitute for offensive language. Mort Walker of “Beetle Bailey” fame called it “grawlix.”
- Sometimes, there’s a scribbled-out-like scrawl where the expletive would be found.
- Some modern comics favor typing in asterisks or dashes in place of the cursing, similar to newspaper articles (for example: “That D*** Cat”)
- Some creative cartoonists substitute pictograms/emoticons over where the cursing would go.
Cursing restrictions in comics started to loosen up in the 70s, when characters started to use milder swear words. These days, with the death of the Comics Code and most Marvel/DC comics not aimed at kids, one would think they’d be free to engage in “South Park”-level swearing at will. I’ve seen some fans online wonder why the teens in Marvel or DC books don’t talk more “realistically” (i.e., more casual swearing or crude language usage).
The Big Two’s Ratings Systems
However, it seems Big Two comics still tend to favor milder expletives at best. They’re usually ones found in a primetime sitcom or drama.
DC’s ratings system seems to favor such use. Books rated “Teen” (ages 12 and up) contain “mild violence, language, and/or suggestive themes,” while books rated “Teen Plus” (ages 15 and up) contain “moderate violence, mild profanity, graphic imagery and/or suggestive themes.” You have to jump to “Mature” rating (ages 17 and up) for “extensive profanity.” If wondering, the DC superhero line is basically all Teen/Teen Plus rated; the Mature books are usually labeled such, and feature language you’d find on HBO shows.
Marvel’s ratings system is along similar lines. Most of the Marvel superhero books are “T” (apparently similar to PG) or “T+ Teens and Up” (similar to PG-13, appropriate for teens 13 and up), with “Parental Advisory” and “Max: Explicit Content” for more explicit material.
(Both companies offer an all-ages level, if curious (“E” for DC, “All Ages” for Marvel), where their few children’s books lie.)
Outside of the Big Two, other comics publishers vary in how swearing’s treated. Archie traditionally stuck with G-rated language, though even they’ve loosened up to DC/Marvel levels with their recent reboot/horror lines of books. Webcomics, of course, never had to worry about censorship at all; thus, they come in at every point, from newspaper strip-style swearing symbols to HBO-level language.
Despite the above, most DC/Marvel characters (not just teen heroes, but also adult heroes like Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man) still don’t use harder curse words. Below, I list my guesses why this is such.
Tradition and habit
Comic readers take a lot for granted: the idea of a billionaire dressed vaguely as a bat and fighting Dick Tracy-esque villains; an Amazon woman who fights evil mainly with (until recently) a magic rope; and a man who can lift the Sears Tower, but has a weakness to green space rocks.
Along those lines, the mild superhero swearing might just be another thing readers take for granted, and infrequently question. Nobody seems to demand the Teen Titans or Spider-Man start dropping f-bombs; they’re still popular as-is.
Similarly, writers might also be used to tempering language out of personal writing style, on purpose, or habit. Using curse symbols or the like can also be played up for humor.
Violence is a bigger selling point in superhero stories
Some readers might want to see their favorite heroes swearing like sailors (which some “mature readers” books offer). However, the bigger draw in superhero books is the heroes using their powers and/or abilities to fight villains, not cursing.
Additionally, violence is still more tolerated in American entertainment than language or sexuality.
Staying nominally PG-13 rated
Despite the aforementioned lenient attitudes toward violence, DC/Marvel try to keep their books at least nominally PG-13 rated. Including such violence and harsher swearing might see the book end up with a “mature readers” label. While that’s not a sales-killer (see: Vertigo), the Big Two still would rather have most of their superhero line nominally “teen friendly.”
Similarly, it might be better to leave some cursing (via “symbol swearing”) up to the reader’s imagination. I’d imagine someone like Wolverine likely has a very colorful vocabulary versus what we usually see, even if blanked out in speech balloons.
Here’s some examples of how Marvel’s handled cursing. (Despite my dislike of most of the Ultimate line, that Ultimate Spider-Man one sounds hilarious.)
The prominence of catchphrases (and made-up swearing)
Finally, there’s the existence and prominence of catchphrases in Big Two superhero comics. While not as common as they once were, catchphrases are pretty tied to many characters. Despite looser standards nowadays, they’ve become popular enough that they still often take preference over more mundane curse words.
Catchphrases also provide a profanity-free, G-rated exclamation in place of more unpleasant words. For example, Superman would often exclaim “Great Krypton!” in Silver and Bronze Age stories.
On a related note, made-up curse words can sometimes become quite popular, even moreso than actual swearing. For example, Lobo’s way more associated with using the word “frag” than, um, the word that it replaces, even though the “Main Man”‘s also used actual cursing. But not hearing him talk about “fragging” would seem very odd at this point.
Along similar lines is the use of “futuristic” fake curse words, which can also be fun. One example’s the 90s Legion of Super-Heroes comics using “grife.”
Similarly, old-time slang can become heavily associated with a character, even if they do curse in comics—see Wolverine calling others “bub.” (Google says the term dates from the mid-19th century, or about the time Logan was born… so it actually fits!)
Overall, DC and Marvel comics cursing is the way it is out of a mix of various writing choices, industry standards, tradition/habit, and more emphasis on superhero action. All this could change in the future; however, for now publishers, writers, and (most) fans seem OK with a primetime TV-amount of cursing by their heroes.