Cartoon Expressions

In addition to expressions rooted in reality and societal expressions, a cartoonist also has an entire collection of expressions unique to cartooning itself. Seldom — if ever — seen in real life, these expressions are part of the lexicon of cartooning. Handed down by generations of cartoonists, these images are powerful indicators of specific feelings. These cartoon facial expressions — along with the symbolic shorthand to be discussed in Chapter 11 — will give your character a complete range of emotion.

Common cartoon expressions

Cartoon expressions, like societal ones, can differ from culture to culture. In American comics, fright or anxiety can be underscored by sweat running down a character's face in teardrop-shaped beads. As the degree of emotion rises, the beads of sweat have a tendency to get projected from the head. A very anxious character can be drawn with beads of sweat leaping off his head.

When the mouth is drawn in a shape that resembles a figure eight, the character is understood to be muttering. It's kind of a cartoonist's way of saying he's “talking out of both sides of his mouth.” With the mouth opened wider and teeth showing, it becomes frustrated anger.

In Japanese comics (manga), artists employ a completely different set of visuals. For example, a bloody nose can indicate lustful thoughts. An anxious character doesn't sweat in beads — rather, one large bead forms at the side of his head. Sleep is represented with a bubble from the character's nose.

As you might have guessed, the eyes form the basis for many cartoon expressions. To portray a high degree of instability, the eyes can be drawn as concentric spirals. A character expressing surprise or fright might be drawn with his eyes projecting out of his head. If he is frightened to death, Xs might be drawn where his eyes had been. As you can tell, each of these expressions relies heavily on symbolism, not reality, to convey their message.

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