Visual Rhetoric: “It’s called ‘total situational awareness,’ Lana.”
So I’ve only just scratched the surface of the McCloud’s Understanding Comics by reading the provided chapter, but I’m already kinda hooked. My critical appreciation of the comic and animation art forms has always been a background interest that I’ve meant to expand on, but it’s never been a high priority. Just this little snippet on faces as icons has made something very clear for me: we don’t passively consume anything.
When we watch live action representations of abstract-to-us settings on television an in movies, we still have a host of kneejerk checklists we go through. We expect to see crash carts, medical beds, curtains, x-ray lightboxes, and high-countered nursing stations for a hospital setting to pass muster before we’re even willing to consider its characters and stories. This happens to varying degrees of complexity, depending on the setting depicted, but we simply do not accept only cursory attention to detail.
Yet we have illustration and animation that continually challenges the boundary between realism and stylistic choice. I think first of Archer, the FX adult-themed cartoon about a womanizing, emotionally-stunted, manchild of a secret agent and his often inept intelligence agency, ISIS. From its beginning, Archer has pushed a visual aesthetic that relies heavily on detail, and especially in the characters’ faces, as much of its humor is derived from face-to-face acerbic, sardonic, and sarcastic wit. We need detailed and realistic representations of Archer faces because we want to see more refined difference in emotional state. We don’t want just happy; we want nervous relief, wryness, cockiness, and schadenfreude. We don’t want just sad; we want humiliation, disappointment, demonstrably feigned indifference, and vulnerability. We don’t want just anger; we want outrage, offense, seething hatred, and sublimated rage. Archer’s character interactions cover these nuances and all the shades of grey in between in every episode. Perhaps because the production team places so much emphasis on facial detail, that defines the series aesthetic of detailed surroundings, too.
Turn now to The Simpsons. It would be unfair to say that our eponymous characters and their fellow Springfielders don’t also require this nuance in facial expression; Homer Simpson certainly has expressed all of the emotional states I just attributed to Archer (I’d certainly hope so in 25 seasons!), and his illustration has the necessary nuance to do so. The difference between Archer and The Simpsons is that the latter is is fundamentally not as emotive. The Simspons is a more physically-derived comedy (especially in the last half of its run), so while the characters are capable of being drawn for a similar range of emotional expression, it’s not as essential to their function in a scene. We need only to know the general state of their emotions. Thus, their faces are more simplistic and exaggerated representations as McCloud suggests, stripped down to the essentials to enable animators to amplify meaning in a way that realistic art can’t (30).
My final example is something of a counter to McCloud’s suggestion that basic faces are necessary, but also an affirmation to his belief that the reader will fill in whatever details are necessary if the illustration is an appropriate canvas to do so. XKCD, a founder of the webcomic genre, completely circumvents faces as a mode of expression. To my knowledge, the artist has never drawn a character with a face, relying instead on simple stick figures with one or two secondary identifying features, such as a hair style, a hat, an article of clothing, or a prop. Yet the blocking of the characters bodily, taken with the occasional inclusion of a setting or important item, has enabled the series to grapple with the gamut of emotion and happenings from madcap to sober. This is something of an apples-to-oranges comparison with two animated shows versus a static image comic, but I believe XKCD stands out as even more impressive as a result of this handicap.
McCloud’s suggestion that we are aware only of the fundamentals features of our own face as others might perceive them is interesting, and generally correct, but I think we are willing to see ourselves in even more generalizable patterns. The human brain is a fantastic pattern recognition system, and since we are so keenly aware of ourselves/others and our environments, we seek to sort everything into a pattern in order to make more sense of our inputs. I think the real take away is only that the messenger simply must not stand in the way of the message, as McCloud suggests, but defining where that line is crossed is the challenge.
Note: Back when we were trying to get back on track from the snow closures, I also wrote a post as an offshoot from the Barthes/Panzini ad assignment. You can see it here.