Universal Translator


The Lexicon of Comicana by Mort Walker

I’m feeling a bit under the weather, so I’d like to get a quick review done, rather than something long and involved. So here’s this book. It’s not a new book at all, or even within spitting range of being new. It was published way back in 1980 by Mort Walker, creator of the “Beetle Bailey” comic strip, as his own personal glossary of cartoon symbology.

It’s not a particularly serious book at all. It’s filled with cartoons and jokes, some of them really overwhelmingly silly. It’s definitely not as scholarly and exhaustive as Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.

Again, this is a very light-hearted glossary of comics symbology. We all accept that comics and cartooning have their own special language that doesn’t really have anything to do with the real world, right? When people are nervous, giant beads of sweat don’t really go flying off their heads. Pain doesn’t really cause stars or birds to appear. Bombs nearly never resemble a black ball with a fuse on top. Criminals don’t wear domino masks; reporters don’t wear fedoras with their press passes in the brim; professors don’t wear their mortarboards to teach classes. But these are all part of the common language of cartoons.

This isn’t controversial — everyone accepts it as obvious. What Walker does here is compile them in one place, give them some invented names, and discuss them a bit, usually making a few jokes about ’em. And it’s really, really fun to read about.

For example, here’s Walker talking about what he calls emanata:


And here’s a bit about the lucaflect:


Honestly, that last one really kinda blew my mind. Yeah, when we draw round, shiny things, we put a reflection of a window on them. Even if the items are located outside or away from windows or before the invention of windows. Why? Because that’s how our language says round, shiny things look. It doesn’t make logical sense for the same reason the word “bow” can mean a ribbon on a package, an archer’s weapon, the front of a ship, or bending forward at the waist. Because language grows organically, in crazy ways that make perfect sense when you’re using these symbols, but don’t make a lot of sense when you think about ’em very hard.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This was a vastly fun book. It’s basically the goofball uncle of McCloud’s more serious “Understanding Comics.” It’s sometimes silly to the point of being complete nonsense — and to be honest, if you don’t care for Walker’s terminology (I don’t — words like “plewds,” “grawlixes,” and “briffits” just seem like gibberish to me), you can just ignore them. There’s still a lot of interesting stuff to learn here.

It’s a really fast read, and it’s perfect for kids — or for grown-up kids, or for regular grown-ups who love comics and cartooning. And it’s still in print, so it won’t cost you a whole lot to get it. Go pick it up.

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