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Category: Cartoons

Face Off II
Can we agree that Obama and Romney are both good-looking? Then let me re-assert my corollary: that makes them difficult to caricature.

Studies have shown that there is a kind of golden mean for facial beauty. If you ask people to rate faces according to their attractiveness, you discover that those selected share a surprisingly consistent set of spatial interrelationships among their facial features.
If your features reside within those blessed parameters, then you are easy on the eyes — but hard on the cartoonist.

For starters, it’s difficult to pick any one thing to exaggerate. I’ve tried to stack up the skinny guy wrinkles around Obama’s mouth and eyes, for example, and I’ve had some success with that approach. Unfortunately, that wide grin doesn’t leave a lot of room at the edges. Worse, he ends up looking the same to me every time I draw him, and that is a sign of a failed caricature. I’ve noticed that other caricatures have emphasized those funny-looking lumps between his chin and lips, but I still can’t get the hang of it.

Romney has his own share of lumps and wrinkles, but they never seem to add up to anything recognizable, either. Oh sure, people are able to deduce that it’s supposed to be him, but I want more than that. I want to excite a genuine, gut-level recognition in the minds of my viewers. I’m not complaining, mind you, but is it really necessary to have pretty boy presidents?

Take Bill Clinton, for instance. I wouldn’t call him good looking, even though, during his first run at the White House in 1992, he was known in the Mexican press as El Guapo, the Handsome One. Perhaps they were seeing his straight, good-boy posture and that full lantern jaw. Both are attractive traits by themselves, but Bubba’s good looks break down when seen as a whole.

His puffy eyes sag at the edges, and he’s got some fully packed bags hanging underneath them. The nose looks as if a small tangerine has been grafted onto its tip. He’s got that Elvis mouth, which is good, but it’s been shoved up a bit too close to the nose to fall within the golden mean. The hair, no matter where it sprouts, doesn’t seem to have a coherent organizing principle. The resulting picture is not ugly, to be sure, but Bill is no matinee idol.

My best evidence of his non-beauty, however, is that drawing his caricature has always been easy for me. I can capture his essence almost without trying. Not only are there plenty of features (and spatial relationships among them) to be emphasized, but he also has a garrulous, outgoing persona that provides an array of facial expressions for easy capture.

His predilection for biting his lower lip (even though it’s a transparently phony gesture) somehow lends credibility to his folksiness. Even though it’s a bogus move, I don’t doubt for a moment that he really does feel my pain. It’s like the lip bite is meant to make doubly sure that I know he cares. He’s a fake, but at least he’s real. Like him or not, he has a personality a caricaturist can sink his teeth into.

The present candidates have nothing like that to offer. Obama is cool; Romney is shuttered. Barack never has an unguarded moment, and I can’t get a read of any kind on Mitt’s personality. There may be a there there, but where? In both cases, their even-featured good looks just get in the way.

I admit it, then. I can’t do a decent caricature of Mitt Romney. I take full responsibility for that. On the other hand, I don’t really need my own inadequacy shoved in my face for four years. So please, gentle voter, if you care about me at all (and I’m biting my lip here) don’t vote for this man come November 6. Not because of his character or policies, but because of his blankness. Vote for Virgil Goode or Rocky Anderson or Roseanne Barr or anybody with strange quirks and at least a hint of ugliness — like the rest of us.

And if Obama wins, I promise to master those strange lumps below his lower lip. God damn pretty boy.

Face Off
Some say that this election presents a stark choice between two very different visions of our future. That is certainly true for political cartoonists — particularly when it comes to caricature.

I should note here that, while many political cartoonists use caricature in their work, most of them are not true caricaturists. A good caricature will capture something of the essence of its subject, some special aspect that evokes an involuntary flash of recognition in the mind of the beholder. Most political cartoonists do not meet or even try to meet that test.

There are exceptions, of course. Mike Luckovich, Milt Priggee, and Tom Toles come to mind. Most of us, however, resort to using an exaggerated feature or two that have already been seeded in the minds of viewers as representing the subject. People saw the big ears in a drawing of W and quickly concluded that it must be him because everyone drew him that way. Or they saw a ski nose and five o’clock shadow on a cartoon character and deduced that it had to be Nixon. Their perception of identity came from learned associations rather than from gut-level recognition.

Obama is another good example. You see a skinny black guy with big ears and thick eyebrows, and that’s enough to make the connection. No labels necessary.

If he loses, all those identity cues will be lost, and a new set will have to be developed for Romney. The task will be made more difficult by the fact that he is a good-looking guy, and good-looking people are the hardest to caricature. Their even features, combined with the attractive spacing and arrangement of those features, make them all look alike.

That wasn’t a problem with Nixon and W. No offense, fellers, but you’re both a tad on the ugly side. That makes you easy to draw because you are already clearly distinguishable from everyone else (except, perhaps, from crooked undertakers and smirking chimpanzees).

Not so with handsome dudes like Romney or Obama. Really good caricatures of either — ones that capture their essences — are hard to come by. The Romneys I’ve seen (and drawn myself) tend to feature a big, slick pompadour, eyes tucked under heavy brows, and an oversized jaw.

Romney is more than that, of course. He’s analytical and cool, as is the Spock-like Obama, but he also projects a stiff, robotic persona, like Data without the lovability. These qualities are hard to capture for cartoonist and caricaturist alike. How do you convey the concept of a vacuum with a simple line drawing?

I don’t have a prediction for this election, but either way, I foresee four more years of frustration for political cartoonists. We are expected to somehow extract misshapen ugliness from the clean, attractive features of these male models. No matter which vision of the future wins, we are doomed to get eyestrain trying to depict our president’s essence as anything more than a cartoon character.

Even that dismal prospect, however, will not make me long for the good old days of Tricky Dick.
The Sun
You know how to draw the sun. First, make a circle. You can draw it freehand, use a compass, or simply trace around something round, like a quarter. Just don’t stare at your subject; you’ll go blind.

If you want to emphasize brightness, add a few short, straight lines emanating from the surface of your sun. To show warmth, make those lines wiggly, or maybe try a corona of flames licking outward. You could even put a face on your sun; cartoonists do that all the time. There may be a temptation at this point to add a pair of sunglasses to the face. This, too, is a common gambit. I strongly advise against it, however. To do so is to wade into the murky waters of cartoon metaphysics.

To begin with, why would the sun need to wear sunglasses? As a shield against its own brilliance? Even if that made sense (would you wear earplugs because your own voice was too loud?), putting the glasses on the outside of the Sun would do nothing to protect it. Or, perhaps the sun is in need of protection from something even brighter than itself? A supernova, say? Let me assert that such a plot twist, though possible, is rare enough that we can ignore it here. I could also mention that a pair of 800,000-mile-wide sunglasses would vaporize instantly on the surface of the sun, but we are talking about cartoons, after all.

What makes the sun-in-sunglasses conundrum so troubling, however, is that it actually works on a visceral level. It communicates the feeling of brightness just as those short, straight lines do. Ordinarily in cartooning, if something works you don’t question it on logical grounds. Still, I can’t get past the wrongness of it. Maybe it’s the cuteness of the image, the lame, saccharine little irony of it. That’s like fingernails on a blackboard to me. Furthermore, those sunglasses add an element of attitude to the sun, a sense of detached hipness, that is just not appropriate for a huge ball of thermonuclear energy.

If you really must include a prop to enhance your drawing of the sun, why not try putting one of those metallic UV reflectors from the 50s under its chin? Not only are they inherently funny, but the image would actually make sense. In any case, I respectfully request that you not draw your sun in Foster Grants, no matter how good it feels. It is not for my sake that I ask this; I take full responsibility for my own demons. It is for the young cartoonists, the next generation of drawers of funny little pictures. Posterity will thank you, even if they don’t.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee