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Category: Cartoons

Make a Face
When I teach cartooning, my first lesson tries to help my students find a character they like. Ideally, the persona they create should be one they can live with, one who can help them tell their story. As a way of looking for that character, we explore different facial expressions, especially as indicated by the mouth, the eyes, and the eyebrows.

Those three simple elements can communicate a wide array of human emotions. We usually go with anger first. For that emotion, the eyes are wide, the mouth turns down at the corners, and the eyebrows slant down in the middle. It is the least ambivalent of all expressions, one that everyone recognizes immediately.

After anger, I ask my students to change one of the elements. We swap out the frown for a smile. The eyes and eyebrows remain the same, but that one change makes a big difference in the emotional impact on the face. While anger is an intimidating expression, what we have now qualifies as frightening. It is a face of evil — with an edge of madness.

This face always gets a big reaction from the 13-year-olds who normally make up my classes — especially the boys. They receive the message of that face loud and clear, and it goes through them like a thrill of electricity. Danger, menace, and fear will do that, even if the character is a little bunny. Inevitably, some of the young cartoonists will seize on this expression and make it the defining feature of their character’s personality.

Unfortunately, pure evil is not the most promising character trait for good storytelling. Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil and Felonious Gru of “Despicable Me” are evil main characters, but their evil side is played against their own cluelessness, and always for laughs. Most of my students, however, aren’t interested in that kind of complexity. They just want the danger and the menace. I do what I can to gently dissuade them, but it’s not my job to tell them their creations are doomed to fail. The stories they produce tend to be about bad characters doing bad things, and even they find that result a bit boring. That’s when I allow myself to step in with suggestions.

I don’t have that option when it comes to cartoon characters I see popping up the wider culture. When I see characters displaying wide-eyed evil out there, there is nothing I can do to warn their creators away from this course of action.

I would probably be ignored anyway; evil is wildly popular these days. You see it a lot in the universe of team mascots, for instance. I am not sure why maniacal wickedness is chosen as a desirable quality when it comes to athletics, but these demented creatures are everywhere in the world of sports. Perhaps it is thought to be intimidating. Personally, if I were designing a representative for my team, I would choose something with cold-eyed determination. That trait, at least, might contain the possibility of strategic thinking or at least guile. Such attributes have proven value when it comes to winning, and that’s the whole point, after all. Even simple ferocity would be a better choice for that purpose than batshit crazy mean.

It’s the same appeal felt by those teenage boys, I guess. People think evil is cool or hip or funny or something, and I find that disturbing. And it’s not just in sports. I see skulls (which don’t take much tweaking to look evil) appearing as tattoos everywhere these days. Surfing and skateboarding brands like Spitfire feature evil-looking characters as the face of their businesses. Isn’t this glorification and monetization of evil, like, a bad thing? Not to mention kind of boring?

If anyone were listening, I might suggest that these image creators go instead with sardonic, which is a similar expression. That’s the look Matthew McConaughey gets when he’s driving around in his Lincoln. The eyebrows are down in the middle, as they are with anger and evil, but the smile is only a half smile and the eyes aren’t wide with emotion but calm instead. A wiseguy grin under a dark brow. Sardonic. It’s still not the friendliest of expressions, but at least I’d be open to any story that character might have to tell.
Gone, But Not Forgetting
I'm a long way from my drawing board right now, but politics is somehow moving on without my cartoons. The issues are ripe and bursting with juicy irony, and I am experiencing withdrawals from being unable to satirize them.

Among the scenery moving around in my head:

1. Drump unhinged. He looked positively incandescent in that oval office meeting with the Rooskis. Like a navel orange on fire. His teeth seemed to glow neon blue, and his face bespoke a strange, overamped goofiness. Was he coked up again? His lips, we know, were especially loose.

2. The Republicans. They continue to exhibit the perfect antitheses of all the noble qualities that they claim exclusively for themselves: patriotic, strong on defense, tough on Russia, fiscally responsible, honorable in the extreme. No, no, no, no, and no. They've managed to give craveness a bad name. I am so tired of using the nice old elephant as a symbol for these turkeys. If only I could replace it with something more appropriate. A weasel, say, or a leech. Cane toad? Moray eel? Maggot?

3. The Dems. United for once, mostly, but too worshipful of the elites. Joe blow is still out there looking for someone who really cares. Could I make them a gelded Arabian stallion instead of a donkey? Or maybe a unicorn?

4. The rest of the world. They're pretty busy with their own control freaks, but I'll bet they're still gobsmacked that we could follow up our salad nicoise a la Obama with a crap crepe.

5. The planet. Tick, tick, tick. Just like Drump, only slower.

6. Truth. Not that hard to find, really. Your daily newspaper does a pretty good job. Oh, wait a minute, it disappeared. My #1 rule: don't believe anything that comes out of Drump's mouth. Unless it's a precious national secret, that is.

Okay, I'm feeling better about my cartooning now. The republic, though, not so much.
Caricature Assassination
A couple of weeks ago, I did a caricature of Donald Trump as Jabba the Hutt. I confess that I didn’t have any sharp political point to make with the cartoon; it was simply an excuse to draw him in the least flattering way possible. It was a cheap shot, in other words. I felt a little guilty about it for that reason, although I still had plenty of fun likening him to that loathsome monster.

Last week I had another Trump cartoon on my board. He wasn’t so ugly in this one, but I had done my best to convey a soul constricted by mendacity and greed. In the end, I spiked that cartoon and drew another one. The new one addressed the looming threat of the Zika virus and made no reference at all to the presumptive Republican nominee.

I’m not sure why I junked that Trump ‘toon. Maybe it didn’t measure up to my own standards of good satire. Maybe I wasn’t satisfied with the drawing or the contents of the word balloon. Maybe it was a guilt hangover from the Hutt cartoon. I don’t know, but when I tossed it and moved on to something meaningful, something not related to the latest Trump outrage, I felt a distinct endorphin rush. There was sense of release, too…as if I had passed some kind of psychic kidney stone.

I now believe that this might have been a turning point.

The whole ugly circus has finally gotten to me. It’s all just so stupid. I’m tired of the press not reporting plain truth. I’m tired of the breast-beating outrage on the left. I’m tired of the carefully qualified condemnations on the right. I’m tired of people who can’t smell the bullshit when there’s an enormous pile right under their noses. And I’m way, way tired of Donald Trump. So tired, in fact, that I’m not going to draw caricatures of him anymore.

This will not be an easy vow to keep. Barring a surge of righteousness in the Republican Party, he will be their nominee. He will be a central character in the biggest news story of the year. He will no doubt continue to engage in satire-worthy behavior. I will have to deal with him somehow. But no caricatures.

I should also point out that not only do I enjoy doing caricatures, but also that a Trump likeness is ridiculously easy to draw. The hair, the lips, the bloating, the orangeness, the inherent two-dimensionality — anyone can do it. Perhaps it is the easiness of doing it that has led me to this point. Just as reporters have simply reported his outrages and called that news, I have been cranking out unflattering caricatures and calling it satire.

It’s just not good enough. I am failing at my job. Not only that, by reproducing the toxic, hateful characteristics I find so repulsive in Trump, I might be running the risk of imprinting those same traits on my own character. I worry that the more Jabbas I draw, the more Huttish I will become.

So…no more bad hairdos, no more pouty lips, no more tiny hands, and no more using the blunt object of caricature assassination. I will be needing a sharper tool to carve up this fat Jabba.
Gut Reaction
I wrote a piece about cartoon abuse a while back that focused broadly on the advertising crimes of Big Pharma and particularly on the sad case of Jublia’s big, fungus-afflicted foot character.

Among other things, that poor creature suffers a fate that none of us, real or animated, should have to endure: poor conceptualization. It’s so sad…especially when we can see that it’s not really necessary. It’s possible to create a credible character to help hawk your fungicidal product. Lamisil has done it with Digger the Dermatophyte (its actual given name). Digger has a clear, discernable personality, and, unlike Jublia’s nameless monstrosity, his motivations are clear: he is a disease, and he wants to hurt you really, really bad.

To be sure, Digger has other issues. He is pretty close to pure evil, and he is capable of cruelties toward toenails that are truly disturbing. But at least he proves that it can be done. The disease is not the problem with these ads, it’s the so-called creative team. Digger the Dermatophyte may be scary — so scary, I would argue, that he might discourage potential customers — but at least his rationale as a character is coherent. To a professional cartoon/actor that’s all that matters. Furthermore, I want to make it clear that I do not object to the idea of cartoon characters selling drugs. The more cartoons there are in this world, the better. Besides, some can be quite entertaining.

My favorite is the Gut Guy. If you haven’t seen him, you’re not watching enough teevee. Gut is a tangle of pink intestines created to sell Xifinan, and he is a slightly disgusting delight. The Gut Guy (his given, trademarked, copyrighted name) has a clear identity: he’s a colon. The arms and legs have been added to give him both mobility and a pinch of simpatico. He’s not just any colon; he’s our colon. He may look like an unruly coil of Pepto Bismol-colored clay ropes, but he’s kind of sweet. Add to this that he suffers from is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), one of the funniest maladies out there. If you can’t get a laugh out of that, well, then you probably have it.

I confess that I have never experienced IBS (though I have, at times, experienced some digestive grumpiness), so my apologies if I find the condition quite droll. It’s amusing in a potty humorous way, and Valeant Pharmaceuticals happily plays to those cheap seats in its online animation. Yes, that’s our little buddy, clutching at his rump area and making a mad dash for the powder room. That, my friends, is entertainment.

I think the Gut Guy definitely has a future in show business. Whereas the Jublia foot-thing is destined for cartoon character limbo, G.G. is just too lovably goofy to die. He might even score his own series. Who knows? Perhaps a career in the movies, then a line of sportswear? And, if all goes well and the world is ready, his own fragrance.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee