Jun 9, 2011

Comic Book Glossary: The Masking Effect

Welcome to a new installment of Comic Book Glossary! One of the aims of the Comics Cube! has always been to help out the newer readers who may be interested in, but aren't all that knowledgeable in comics, and one thing everyone needs to know if they're interested are the terms.Click here for the index!.

One thing that I mention quite a bit here is "the masking effect," which I learned from Scott McCloud in his book, UNDERSTANDING COMICS. The basic idea is that there are multiple levels of realism to one image. The characters would be drawn in a cartoony, blank style, while the background and surrounding objects would be drawn in a more realistic style.

For example, in the John Celardo–drawn TARZAN comic strips, which you can find on Comics.com, the little boy Ito, the point of identification for the young reader, is drawn with very few details on his face and a lot of expressiveness, while things like the elephant, the background, and even Tarzan himself are drawn with more realism.

Note also that Tarzan is more realistically rendered than Ito, but less so than the elephant.

The technique's intention is counterintuitive. The idea is that detail makes you a spectator, while the lack of such makes you a participant. I mean, when you see this, you project yourself. Anyone would:

This and the next image are from xkcd.

But when you add even a tiny bit of detail to it, it becomes less universal. "Everyone" becomes "everyone with this kind of hat."

So there. The idea is very sound. Because you can relate to people, characters that are meant to be relatable get the cartoony treatment. You can't relate to an elephant (unless it's Dumbo), so the elephant gets more detail.

I see the masking technique used a lot. But it also applies to anthropomorphized animals, mainly because we can still project ourselves into them, as proven by Disney and Looney Tunes. Here's a Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge page. Cartoonyness with the characters draws us into the story as participants; detail in the background makes us appreciate the beauty.

And of course, the whole "the background has to be realistic" isn't a strict rule. The "masking" just comes from making the lead characters identifiable. This is why I've always preferred GOOD-BYE CHUNKY RICE to BLANKETS. One makes you a spectator, the other makes you a participant. (See a more detailed explanation here.)

BLANKETS. Very specific features. You're a spectator.
But notice that Craig's features are less specific than Raina's.
This makes it easier to relate to him.
GOOD-BYE CHUNKY RICE. A turtle and a mouse.
You can see yourself in them. You're a participant.

Perhaps the most potent example of the masking effect is in comics' only Pulitzer Prize winner: Art Spiegelman's MAUS.

For those not in the know, the whole concept of MAUS is that it's Spiegelman interviewing his father Vladek about his experiences in the Holocaust. The Jews are portrayed as mice, while the Nazis are portrayed as cats. In an essay entitled "Little Orphan Annie's Eyeballs," found on THE COMPLETE MAUS CD, Spiegelman states:

In MAUS, the mouse heads are masks, virtually blank... a white screen that the reader can project upon...I found myself drawing every panel, every figure ... so as to pare it down to an essence, as if each panel was an attempt to invent a new word.

In fact, the cartoon is an abstraction, similar to the word.  Words generalize and stereotype meanings, and Spiegelman’s cartooning techniques only generalize and stereotype the events.  The same sets of lines are used to express certain emotions.  A basic v-shaped arch in place of the eyebrows conveys anger, while a straight line in place of the eye, as opposed to a big black dot, conveys squinting, which signifies that the character is joking, or telling a cheerful tale.  The arrangement of repetitive sets of lines and dots can be used to classify the graphics in MAUS as well as language.  In effect, Spiegelman succeeds in creating a new language, specifically for the novel.  Each illustration was of the bare essence of what it tried to convey, and it made all the rest of the details up to the readers’ imaginations.

By depersonalizing the characters with simplistic depictions, it makes the message of the story matter more.  One reviewer on the back of the book states that “the very artificiality of its surface makes it possible to imagine the reality beneath.” This is Spiegelman’s way of trying to show a story that is too disturbing and “profane to show directly,”  and allows the reader to experience it from a safe distance.   The open-ended nature of the visuals leaves the characters open for interpretation.  Because of the lack of detail put into faces and figures, the readers are left to infer characters’ backgrounds, details, and personality, based only on the previous information given.  By forcing readers into an interactive role, Spiegelman manages to keep them engaged in the tale should the biographic content grow to be tiresome.

And that's how the masking effect works. Remember this one, guys, because I tend to reference it a lot.

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