Cartooning The Real World

By | Friday, April 13, 2007 Leave a Comment
The Wife and I have a niece named Samantha who's a little over two years old. We see her about once every three or four weeks and generally spend several hours at a time with her. So, even at a young age, she's very cognizent of who we are and she's comfortable with our presence. (Although, curiously, she knows me as "Man" instead of "Uncle Sean." I suppose that's because I've been the predominant older male in her life besides "Daddy.")

Anyway, The Wife has been somewhat frustrated that Sam seems to be more emotionally attached to me over her, despite the fact that she's generally the one who spends more time with the kid. The Wife's initial reasoning was that she spent more time doing the less fun stuff (changing diapers, getting dressed, etc.) while I was almost exclusively a source of entertainment. But that didn't really seem to be it, since I have a tendency to attract young children despite a general lack of involvement with them. My other niece, at six years old, nearly tackled me with a running bear hug in the airport the last time I saw her, and we only see her once every 12-18 months or so.

We saw Samantha again recently and when her father asked her to point out where "Man" was, she immediately pointed to me. However, when Sam was asked where The Wife was, there was a slight moment of hesitation, evidently because she had to think about who The Wife was and what she looked like. And that moment, after being replayed in The Wife's head several times this past week, solidified what it was that makes me appealling to young children: I cartoon well.

I don't mean that I'm an especially good cartoonist; rather, my facial features are such that they're quickly and easily identifiable. I'm easy to draw a cartoon of. Take a look at this...
It's a self-portrait I whipped up in about 60 seconds. It's not very good and not terribly accurate, but if you compared this against a series of photographs, you'd probably be able to single me out fairly easily based on this alone. The combination of hair color, glasses, and goatee distinguish me from most other people pretty readily and it's that visual shorthand that Samantha is using to identify her favorite uncle. (She does have other uncles, but none of them have even met her, so I think I can say that pretty safely.) I expect the strong chin, bulbous nose and high forehead help, too.

The Wife, attractive though she is, doesn't have many unique features. A drawing or cartoon of her probably wouldn't look much different than one of Gillian Anderson. (In fact, they both had similar hair styles for a while, prompting The Wife's own brother to make a similar comparison.) So, to Samantha, the iconography isn't there to help make a distinction.

Let me tie this even more directly to comics. Here's a portion of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics...
Amplifcation through simplifcation. The usefulness in cartooning should be obvious, but it also applies to the real world as well, as seen by my niece's ease of recognizing me over The Wife. My face can be simplfied to almost the barest essentials that still convey a face, and still be fairly recognizable as me; whereas The Wife can't get nearly as abstract without become anonymous. Consequently, Samantha, even at two years old, can recognize me more readily than almost anyone besides her parents.

Where am I going with this? Merely pointing out that comic artists -- and, more significantly, aspiring comic artists -- would do well to study graphic design. Specifically on things like iconography. How do you take a person or object and amplify its presence by simplifying its design?
Newer Post Older Post Home