Facial expressions can definitely be viewed within the first principle of physiognomy, but since this second category is so essential to visual storytelling, it needs to be stressed in its own right. The emphasis on what our face instinctively expresses and how these (mostly) natural reactions are perceived can actually be far greater at times, since human communication is the most intimate and revealing when observed or experienced face-to-face.
We can view this in more or less every good comic that involves a comprehensive dialogue or two, where facial features and character reactions are of such importance that background is often left out, so the emphasis remains on the face … and there is less hassle for the artist to worry about pesky background details when those are of secondary, if not tertiary importance. (Two birds, one stone.) Pragmatically, this is established in large extent through many close-up and medium close-up shots. This is a feature of storyboarding that the comics medium shares with film. Storyboarding is the concept of sequential visual images telling the story and showing the shots the director will invariably choose, unless a myriad of changes occurs, of course. (Comics are essentially a storyboarding concept brought to life, albeit much more finalized and complete than in film, where storyboarding is the map that leads to filming the action/acting.)
The stress on the character’s face and their facial features reflects our desire and ease of expressing both basic and complex emotions. The reader for example embraces subtle frowns or smirks very fast and consequently adds this emotional state to the overall depiction together with the text expressed in the balloons or captions. Easier said than done, of course, since mastery of comprehension of such features essentially pales in comparison to the artist actually being able to capture just the right emotion not to create unwanted confusion or guessing from the reader (again, unless intended). This means that the artist needs to laboriously study the whole human body, from the bones and muscles to the tiny, delicate changes on the face. Just one line too many in the neck and too dark an outline can make all the difference between unwontedly seeing that dark line as for example a vain that can make the character seem too angry/nervous/excited in that specific context.
McCloud has a couple of very methodical/formalistic schemes that beautifully capture the richness of facial expressions and the prudence of the artist to capture them appropriately.
Conversations over the phone are on the other hand much different than in person. While nowadays it has become to an extent easier to converse digitally (especially, if one seeks a less emotionally hectic experience), looking a person in the eyes offers direct connection, noticing even the smallest frowns and squirms … if your converser is observant enough or rather emotionally invested enough to care to notice. But that’s the case with essentially everything we do, especially nowadays when stimuli (over)consumption is almost inescapable. The parallel of what we experience in reality to the depictions in pictures is obvious. The visual rendering, however, becomes a far more hectic matter to everyone who has ever tried to draw a face conveying the appropriate expression.
Lastly, perhaps the reason for such stress on facial features stems also from the fact that the body part with the most muscles is in fact the head. A relatively small body part can thus astonishingly create a whole plethora of emotional responses that guide and govern the observer’s own reaction. While the body as a whole is a visually more prominent factor that can convey general expressions (even from a distance), the head is responsible for more detailed expressions and emotional nuances that can be viewed only at close distance, in a fittingly more delicate setting. As they say, if you cut off the head (of the snake), the body will follow accordingly.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …