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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.

Please Note: Tim Eagan will read your comments but he is currently not publishing them.

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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee