Toon Musings: Life Is Caricature
Editorial cartooning is held in contempt by a surprising number of cartoonists. I don’t know the actual percentage, and I doubt that it’s anywhere near a plurality, much less a majority. Still, it’s a number greater than zero, and this distresses me. Editorial cartoonists help explain a complex and convoluted subject—politics—to people who may or may not be versed in the specific issues, or indeed in politics in general. One of my favorite editorial cartoonists is Pat Oliphant. He can even be considered the current Dean of Political Cartoons. He’s been making fun of public figures since the Nixon administration. Well, his patch on GoComics has featured the same cartoon, with no explanation, since January of 2015. Judging by the comments on the site, many of his fans were afraid he had died.
One comment was recently posted, from a fan that met him recently at an art exhibit. He talked to Pat about his last published cartoon and Pat told him that “…he’s had enough. Said he’s 80 years old and nothing ever changes. Same lunatics behaving horribly and all he does is draw new faces onto the same terrible people. Pat said he feels as though he never accomplished anything…”
It’s sad to see an art form fallen on such hard times. It would be nice if the syndicate, the entity with so much to gain from this man’s art and its popularity, pretended to give a shit about his work and his fans. But we can give that shit! Let’s muse about the art of Caricature.
Caricature consists of studying a person’s face, determining the most salient, characteristic features and then preparing a depiction of the subject, paring away the extraneous features and exaggerating the characteristic features to just the right degree to still evoke the subject. Simpler is better. Different artists make different caricatures of a given subject because they might choose different salient features, and choose different ways to exaggerate them. On easily caricatured subjects there are a handful of salient features that most people can agree on. Take Mister Bean (as portrayed by the British comedian Rowan Atkinson), for example. Compare and contrast:
One can easily compile a laundry list of features each of these caricaturists chose to emphasize in order to recognizably depict Mr. Bean: the prominent ears, the wide-eyed gaze, the puckish smile, the mischievously arched eyebrows. When the mouth is open, as in Dino’s caricature, the teeth are never shown because Bean is essentially an infant. But it’s the combination of features that makes the caricature, that provides the spark of recognition, at least insofar as Mr. Bean is concerned.
Ric Machin’s caricature has the eyebrows and the ears, but that’s not Mr. Bean. That’s Rowan Atkinson.
Take another, even more iconic icon. There are maaany caricatures of Marilyn Monroe; I swear, they must assign it in art school. Take, for example, this famous photo by Milton Greene:
The caricatures based on this photo alone are legion. Here are but a few:
That’s a lot of variation, even given the common elements, yet somehow they all still look like Marilyn. The blond hair, the lips, the heavy lashes are all distinctive features, but what separates Marilyn from her many imitators is this one salient feature: the mole. Now, by itself, it’s just a dot. But properly positioned, it screams “Marilyn!” To demonstrate:
Put another way, this is a re-creation of a brilliant little doodle a correspondent sent me once:
Definitely Marilyn. But just a couple tweaks and you have:
Madonna. At least until she had that mole removed.
Lately, more and more caricaturists have been plying their trade using Photoshop. The results vary according to the skill of the practitioner. One of the better ones is DonkeyHotey.
On the minus side, photo manipulation can produce some deeply creepy results. Here are our two subjects, caricatured via photo manipulation:
Eew. It has to do with the problem computer animators have wrestled with when trying to create convincing human characters: stumbling into Uncanny Valley. In short, increasing the realism of a depiction of a person increases empathy in that depiction, but only up to a point. Then, it abruptly turns unsettling:
On the plus side, it’s easier than ever to do a caricature— you don’t even have to be able to draw! Let’s try it. I’m thinking of a public figure recently in the news. His most salient personality traits are bellicosity, and ridiculous hair. For bellicosity, let’s start with this Mussolini ashtray.
For ridiculous hair, you can’t do much better than this show guinea pig.
Put ‘em together, and you have:
Guess who? I know you can…
As in caricature, much of cartooning, and indeed much of art in general, consists of distilling an aspect of everyday existence to what the artist perceives as its essence, then exaggerating that essence to a greater or lesser degree— all done in the service of trying to make order from chaos, to derive meaning and understanding from an inchoate and ineffable reality. If it’s true that, as poet Samuel Butler said, “…[l]ife is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises,” then that doodle of Obama with the giant ears is a pure expression of the Purpose of Humanity. It is Life itself!
Almost makes you burst with pride or something, does it not?
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.