The concept that I label physiognomy encompasses the larger framework of being knowledgeable about the human appearance and anatomy. While race and gender may differentiate, there are certain visual features that apply to any and all humans. This just means that generally speaking we for example have a pair of arms, regardless of the length of the forearm, color or veininess of the skin (or rather veininess viewed under the skin), etc. Flexibility, gestures, what we do with our hands and how we do it is another matter altogether, because various natural attributes and cultural dogmas quickly come into play.
When drawing gymnasts for example, you can even go overboard with their flexibility, the same way as muscles and veininess of superheroes have become the obvious staple of their physical appearance (this relates to the notion of stereotypes that will be discussed in a future post). On the other have, the position of the limbs (body itself) can subtly reveal a lot about a character: whether they are in a defensive position (with arms crossed) or overtly stiff, which can be used for a specific purpose like showing the character as shocked or emotionless … or can indicate the artist’s slight lack of visual prowess in not being able to capture the appropriate appearance. (Generally speaking, when the comics creator is both the writer and the artist, such “abnormalities” are far less likes to be either allowed, let alone observed.) Gestures, on the other hand, can also be misused culturally or drawn in a dubious way, so ideally any sort of potentially confusing elements should be scrubbed out right away … unless of course confusion is intentional, as the best works can hold steadfast to. This means that if you’re reading a story about Nazis and you’re not sure if a raised hand is intended as a greeting, merely stretching or a controversial salute, in the best situation this misperception could be used by the artist to create further intrigue and plot twists, it can foreshadow or deliberately build the story in a way so you have to read it again. (Me thinks, the Nazi salute example is the effect of finally getting my hands on the first volume of B.P.R.D.: Plague of Frogs. Clearly, everything is connected, but I digress.)
The human body therefore has specific features that need to be met without the work of the artist regressing to a farcical state of perception. Of course those delicious exceptions to the rule that I already mentioned, are not the only ones. Theoretically speaking, every rule of physiognomy can potentially be broken, if stressed sufficiently and maintaining its established subject matter. The same way as Disney has for example established its unique look based on loose rules of anatomy and spread them worldwide (for example influencing the manga work of Tezuka, who in turn influenced back the mainstream Anglo-American comics). As part of the comics canon, Smith’s Bone, is for my taste just about the perfect masterpiece of how to create an epic story with a unique look and deliberately cartoonish features … and most importantly making it all work.
While artists have specific styles and the best of them can change them according to either the demands of the story or the publisher (cf. David Mazzucchelli and Scott McCloud), they decisively stress the importance of understanding basic human features. This knowledge, namely, extends beyond the mere appearance, since to understand a human is to understand a human in reaction to both internal and external stimuli, the personal and the social. Consequently, issues like depth perception, perspective, shading and motion become paramount to effectively conveying a story. (Unless the pictorial elements are for example extremely experimental or are confined to stick figures without background. In this case the linguistic elements have to carry the bulk of the narration for the comic to still be held in high regard.)
I’ve become more alert to the technical side of things from the time I’ve read Eisner’s and McCloud’s work, but if you’re into the practical side of comics and art in general and would like to know how it all works, there are so many (mostly good, if not even superb) works out there, it’s almost impossible to go wrong. Whether it’s a book on writing, a manual on character building or video lectures on how to create the larger world from essentially the most of basic geometrical figures, it all comes down to interest, intent and perseverance (and even then there’s a difference in comprehension and rendering). While every tradition has the potential to enthrone its own visionary way (abstract or not), it seems that Picasso was definitely on to something when he observed the flexibility of knowing the joints … I mean rules before breaking them … or merely stretching them intensely.
NEXT: FACIAL EXPRESSION
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …