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Carousel 021: Drawing vs. Cartooning

Read any collection of single-panel cartoons, in which the cartoons are organized from the early 20th century to the present, and you'll notice a curious trend. The earliest cartoons will look like serious illustrations, with extensive linear shading, detailed backgrounds, and realistic figures. But as the century wears on, the cartoons grow simpler, with very little hatching or shading, sparse backgrounds, and exaggerated figures.

What this trend reveals is a progression from less effective cartoons, drawn with traditional methods, to more effective cartoons, with superfluous details pared away, and key narrative elements emphasized. During the many decades since gag panels first became popular, cartoonists have grown increasingly skilled at adapting the task of drawing to the task of telling jokes. Today, you almost never see a gag panel drawn in the same detailed style as a realistic illustration.

However, artists of non-humorous comics still struggle to balance their narrative goals with their commitment to realism. While it's one thing to draw a big-nosed castaway on a one-tree island for laughs, a story about a real castaway on a real island would seem to call for greater realism. But how much realism is appropriate? Should non-humorous comics be identical to traditional, stand-alone drawings, or does the comics medium always require a modified approach?

Even when a comic aims for extreme realism, I would argue that it must differ in certain ways from stand-alone drawings in order to be effective. Comic art should differ from traditional art for the same reason that stairs should differ from chairs: Traditional drawings are designed to hold the reader's gaze; comics are designed to pass the reader's gaze fluidly onward. When cartoonists approach comics as they would stand-alone art, their comics become stilted and halting, preventing a fluid read. This is because they use techniques designed to arrest readers' attention, instead of advancing it.

Let's examine several of those "stand-alone" techniques, so that you can take care not to let them inhibit your cartooning.

1. Closed Compositions

Standard drawings attempt to corral the reader's attention by arranging areas of interest in a balanced way throughout the image. They create a constellation of interesting things to look at, such that the reader looks from Item A to Item B to Item C, and then back to Item A again, circling repeatedly through the image and absorbing its details along the way. So, if a figure appears at the left of a drawing, and there's nothing but empty space on the right, the artist may place a piece of furniture or some other object on the right, to prevent the readers' gaze from sliding off the right side of the drawing.

A cartoonist, however, doesn't need to corral readers' attention inside the image. The panel's composition may remain open-ended, allowing the reader's attention to drift rightward across the panel and over its border into the next panel. The urge to "close" the composition, by neatly arranging a balanced array of attention-grabbers, is a holdover from traditional art, which comics can do without.

2. Obscured Facial Expressions

In illustrations or gallery art, the overall scene is often the point, so the faces of figures who populate the scene may sometimes be obscured by shadow, or turned away from the reader. But in comics, the reader is usually following the characters' ongoing story, wondering en route how the characters will react and what they'll do next. The strongest indicator of a character's thoughts or intentions is his facial expression. So, while a traditional artist may obscure a character's eyes or face with shadow, or turn the face away from the reader, a cartoonist will "cheat" the face toward the reader, and avoid shading-out the eyes and face whenever possible.

Manga artists are especially good at this. Compare realistic manga with realistic comics from the West and you'll find the manga characters' emotions much easier to identify. 

3. Objects Piercing Non-adjacent Panels

When traditional artists assemble imagery into a collage, they find it useful to overlap the various elements; this creates unity, and invites the readers' attention to pass easily from each element to the next, like water cascading down a fountain.

However, this approach often fails when the artist brings that same sensibility to a comics page. The artist may decide that it would look nice to extend an object from Panel 3 up into Panel 1, or from Panel 2 down into Panel 4—which may indeed look nice, if the page were meant to hang on a wall, like a collage. But a comics page isn't meant to be read like a collage. If the reader's gaze were to drift from Panel 1 to Panel 3, or vice versa, this would violate the reading order and confuse the narrative. Unlike traditional artists, cartoonists must remember the reading order, and take care not to extend objects between panels that are not reading-order adjacent.

4. Spectacle Over Narrative

Artists who come to comics from a traditional art background will often prioritize objects that have the greatest visual appeal, rather than objects that have the greatest narrative importance.

For example, suppose a page of the script has a heroine named Lisa rushing through a zoo to find her lost daughter, and in the final panel she discovers her daughter's shoe on the ground. A traditional artist may want to devote the greatest space to the amazing animals Lisa is rushing past. Lions and tigers and bears! But a cartoonist will realize that those are trivial background elements; the page's emotional climax is Lisa's troubling discovery. Despite the stronger visual appeal of exotic creatures, the greatest emphasis should be on Lisa's face, or the shoe, or both.

5. Indifference Toward Speech Balloons

Non-cartoonists who try their hand at cartooning often fail to leave room for speech balloons, which don't appear in traditional art. To remedy this, they may begin leaving extra room in their panels, but that alone won't suffice.

Suppose I leave room for dialogue to the left of a character as she hammers a nail to her right—and she accidentally hammers her thumb. Her "OUCH!" should appear to the right of her thumb—AFTER she's hammered it—not on the left. If we read her "OUCH" before seeing her mishap, there will be a disconnect, like watching a dubbed film in which the voices and lips don't match.

Glitches like this occur all too often in comics where the speech balloons are granted no further consideration than extra space. Unlike traditional artists, cartoonists understand that drawings and speech balloons aren't just neighbors; they're partners.

6. Inconsistent Blocking

Traditional artists have long relied on photo reference to achieve realism in their work. Cartoonists, too, often use photo reference when drawing realistically. However, it's rare to find photos that precisely match characters' fluid, panel-to-panel activities. Even when cartoonists snap their own reference, there's often a disconnect between what appears in the camera and what would best serve the page. The angles and poses may work fine individually, but after arranging them in a row, you may find they need some tweaking in the art for a smooth narrative.

"Blocking" is a theater term for the positions the actors take on the stage throughout a scene. Traditional artists tend to think less about blocking than about following their photo reference, but a good cartoonist will put blocking first. Figures' poses should follow sensibly from what preceded them in prior panels, and should serve the narrative, even if that means changing or ignoring what you see in your reference photos. 

7. Rambunctious Camera Angles

Traditional artists avoid repeating the same composition, which in a portfolio or a gallery show would look monotonous and derivative. So, when they try their hand at comics, such artists work hard at finding a bold new composition for every panel. Unfortunately, this can make for a bumpy read. Varied "camera angles" may add interest to a comic, but in many places the narrative will be served better by a fixed angle. Changes in a character's expression or behavior from Panel A to Panel B will appear in sharper relief when the background remains constant.

These are only a handful of ways in which the aims of traditional drawing differ from those of cartooning. As you set about to tell your story through pictures, keep reminding yourself that traditional drawing methods won't always apply. You may have studied picture-making, but now you're storytelling. You're not just drawing; you're cartooning!

See you here next month!

Carousel by Jesse Hamm appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!