Friday, November 20, 2009

Technique Talk--2

Mouthing Off
When posting a story from the Golden Age Speed Comics, I was fascinated by the anonymous artist's shorthand "surprised mouth," which he used several times in the story. It looked like this:
The mouth is a black oval with a similar, smaller shape cut out of the bottom. Depending on how you look at it, the smaller shape represents either the tongue (I believe this was the original intent) or the lower teeth (in which case the guy is missing a few). This led me to ruminate about the stylization of mouths in "realistic" (i.e. non-cartoony) comic art.

Like cartoony art, realistic comic art is mostly shorthand and caricature. The main difference is that realistic art seeks efficient ways to suggest how things really look (more or less).

Realistic comic artists have developed more abstractions for the mouth than for any other facial feature. It's no wonder. The mouth is a very complicated structure. The expression muscles push and pull it all over the place. Talking changes its shape radically. What's more, the construction of the lips and the corners of the mouth are far more complex than they seem. Comic artists, pushed by personal style, deadlines, and skill limitations, develop their favorite way to say "mouth" with a minimum of hassle.

For some reason, on a male character a "full mouth"--that is, a mouth with both upper and lower lips completely drawn--appears effeminate:Drawing the lips too round or too full can detract from the "man's man" look realistic artists usually strive for. Impressionists Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff circumvented this potential pitfall by drawing a thin upper lip in shadow, reduced almost to a line, while indicating the lower lip only by the shadow it casts on the chin:
This soon developed into a formula that served realistic cartoonists for decades: two parallel lines, a long thin one on top and a short thick one below.Frank Robbins took this to an extreme. Toward the end of his newspaper career, his characters wore two lines of equal length and thickness, often spreading across the entire face.Profile mouths followed a similar evolution. Again a fully-drawn mouth is complicated and liable not to look sufficiently masculine:
Once more cartoonists eliminated the outline of the lower lip and reduced the upper lip to a line with a hint of thickness.
Once this approach was streamlined, this became another formula used by countless strip and comic book artists.
Note how the overhang of the upper lip was beginning to disappear. Frank Robbins took the abstraction one step further by getting rid of the lip profile altogether. The mouth became two short dashes floating in space:
An alternate approach was to draw the profile of the jaw as an unbroken contour with the mouth lines superimposed:
Yet another variation (frequenty used by George Wunder and the later Caniff) was to combine the lip overhang and the lower lip into a single unit. Unlike in the previous example the lower lip was differentiated from the chin:As time went by and the "manly school" moved from newspapers to superhero comics, the more realistic approach taken by contemporary magazine illustrators influenced some cartoonists. However few challenged the thin-upper-lip-no-lower-lip formula. Carmine Infantino's illustration-inspired mouth dared to show the outline of the upper lip. However the lower lip remained an indication:
Infantino was pretty much alone in this respect until the revolution headed by Neal Adams brought photographic realism to comic books. Wallace Wood was the only other notable upper-lip man. He developed an odd "half-upper-lip" which featured the septum but not the rest of the lip. This indication became a cliche with Wood, and was dutifully duplicated by his many imitators.
Wood also increased the size of the lower lip shadow, often modeling its edges to further sculpt the lip. It was an "illustrator-y" version of the Caniff mouth. It's also worth noting the unique mouth Jack Kirby developed in the 1960s: he drew the top shape of the upper lip, resulting in this:
Having mentioned Kirby, I must nominate him as the perfector of the open superhero mouth. Two thousand artists have drawn variations of this mouth ten thousand times. It fairly bursts with drama and action, yet bears no relationship whatever to a real mouth. The perfect shorthand!There don't seem to be as many open mouth stylizations as there are for closed mouths. I suppose it's because in superhero comics most open mouths are shouting, and the Kirby mouth fills the bill. John Romita did develop an unusual schtick, however, which I don't think anyone else used. This was his gritted-teeth mouth:I conclude this ramble with the oddest open-mouth abstraction I know. It brings us back to the Golden Age, when superheroes still smiled a lot. I first saw the mouth on Jerry Robinson's Robin, but it enjoyed a certain popularity in the forties before going extinct.Note that the black semicircle representing the open mouth doesn't connect with the the upper lip. The upper teeth are created entirely out of negative space. It's a fascinating trick, but it had a flaw: colorists often didn't get the idea, and colored the teeth pink like the rest of the face. The result was a face with two mouths, one open and one closed.


Paul Chadwick said...

This takes me back to your "mannerisms" articles in Apa-5. Great analysis. Who else thinks this hard about these things?

Would make a great Powerpoint talk. You'd get a lot of laughs of recognition. But you'd need to find actual examples from the artists you talk about for maximum impact.

You're right, that Jerry Robinson mouth takes the cake. Cool dude, though. Politically righteous.

George Wunder's anatomical delusions deserves a full discussion. Where did he get all those strange ideas about the human head?

John Adcock said...

I enjoyed this post. Reading the comment sent me to my small collection of Wunder strips. You know Wunder draws sexy women but are they ever masculine in appearance. Regardless of his strange anatomy he had a powerful style, and I wish that some of these reprint publishers would collect fifty or so Sundays into a hardcover book.

Andrew Wales said...

Very interesting overview. Nice work!

Sara Light Waller said...

Thanks for the great post! I really enjoyed it and it inspired me to write a post of my own on mouths in manga in my own blog. :-)

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