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Friday, November 17, 2006

Scott McCloud's Making Comics

I'm getting tired of looking at that stupid video...Maybe I'll take it down...

I bought Making Comics back in September, and I absolutely loved it. I think Scott McCloud is a genius, certainly one of the most intelligent authors out there, contributing modern ideas to our culture about comics and cartooning. I think his ideas about the “Four Tribes” are extremely insightful and he has had me thinking for days (months) about how artists choose to express themselves. This was particularly of interest to me because I wrote a play a few years ago (Daphne, staged in NY in 2001) about an artist who was emotionally wounded by his students and his friends choosing means of expression, which he believes to be contrary to artistic or “valuable” goals for society. It struck me that after reading Scott’s book, that all of the characters in the play were members of the different “Tribes”, and the actual theme of the play centered around the struggle to find some sort of integration within the self, to accommodate the need to express emotions and ideas in different ways…

I’ve been meaning to write to him about this, as I think, although I am not one who typically favors “categorizing” people, it is a very interesting idea, nonetheless. Now that I am working on adapting this story into comic form, and after reading his book, I am rethinking the entire schematic of how these people relate to each other.

One aspect of the book, which I was amazed by, but also took odds with a little bit, was the section about Facial Expressions. I have for several years in New York City spent a great deal of time training to be an actor at various schools, with various teachers. A large part of this training centers around one’s ability to analyze a script and come up with an objective or action that drives the character forward through the play or story. One strong lesson that I have come away with, that I feel is certainly imperative to good acting, is to not predict an emotional state for the character before entering into a scene. “Here the character is sad”, “here the character is angry”. The reality of the situation carries many complexities which make it necessary to remain open only to the objective of the character. The danger being that if one puts too much thought into the emotional state of the character beforehand, one falls into the risk of simply “indicating” emotions, instead of expressing something more truthful that follows the character’s need to pursue a strong objective and the course of actions that follow.

William H. Macy has an interesting quote on the back of David Mamet’s book about acting, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, (a book which is controversial even among actors of various methods, but also very much worth reading). Macy writes, “So much of the acting we see these days is, in my opinion, emotional glop. The actors are not really acting the story, they are acting what the story means. When all is said and done, it’s just indicating.” I think it is very valuable how Scott McCloud has deconstructed the subtle varieties and combinations of emotions that exist within perceived facial expressions, but I don’t believe one should try and pre-determine this emotional aspect at the outset, while drawing. Perhaps that is my own prejudice…

Chris Ware had an interesting comment at his “Master Class” at the New Yorker Festival last year. He said “The first mistake of all real cartooning books, actually, is showing you these pages of faces of smiling… “how to draw a sad person”, “how to draw a happy person”, and I think -- I just recently had a daughter--and I think the only human beings on the planet who communicate this way are babies. They only really use their faces to express themselves, and by about age two, they start to kind of control or lie to you. So, I really think only a child is completely honest in their facial expressions, and beyond that, one of the secrets or tricks to drawing, a successful comic strip about adults, if you are drawing from the outside-in, is to remember that most adults lie with their faces.”

I remember thinking something similar when coming upon these very common pages of “faces” that one encounters when reading books about cartooning. Now, what Scott McCloud has done is something a bit different in that her really peels back the layers of what sort of emotions are really a part of a facial expression into an impressively huge and complex diagram. I don’t know though, if I would give this sort of analysis much consideration in drawing the faces of my characters (at least beforehand). I think it is an interesting aspect to explore when the drawing is done, but in this case, I don’t believe “clarity”, wins out over “truth”, unless your goal as a cartoonist is to exaggerate (certainly a tradition in cartooning-as with the symbolic expressions McCloud provides). Scott even addresses this in the book, pointing to Spiegelman and Ware as cartoonists who use a “limited palette” of expression to convey stories of great emotional complexity. I think he is quite correct in that, understanding these expressions, will help one to “draw with greater control and precision.” But if I were to approach cartooning with an actor’s point of view (and maybe that’s not very appropriate, maybe it is…), I would spend more time thinking about the character’s goal’s or objective, and allow what emotional resonance that offers itself, to guide my drawing, rather than mentally “picturing” an emotion (complex or otherwise) beforehand. When all is said and done, this sort of thing is very subjective, and I certainly don’t claim to be the expert at cartooning that Scott McCloud is. Maybe I’m just an Iconoclast at heart! Perhaps I’ll send this post to him, and see what comments he has. One thing for sure. You guys should buy his book. It is a work of art.