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Drawing a Crowd
I’ve never met another cartoonist who didn’t cite Mad Magazine as an early influence. The drawing was great, and the goofy, irreverent humor hit the teenage sweet spot.

My favorite was Wally Wood. The drawings were executed in a fluid, voluptuous style, but at the same time were filled with flawless detail. The deliciously curved lines were the result of expert brushwork, and their perfection, I know now, was the product of drawing, drawing, drawing.

I’ll confess that his drawings of women were, for a long time, my main source of information about female anatomy, bending it slightly toward the fantastical. More fulfilling for me, though, were the endless, lovingly rendered backgrounds he drew — especially the crowds. Often, dozens of characters were depicted, always with amusing expressions, and never without the full complement of facial features. Each was given a unique wardrobe and posture, and all seemed to be possessed of distinct, individual personalities.

As a boy, I was transfixed by these drawings. I am still awestruck as an adult. This guy must have drawn all day, churning out beautifully drawn panels from dawn till dusk. As a cartoonist, the thought of that humbles me. I draw, but I don’t draw that much.

The rest of the Mad crew — Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker and the rest — all featured similar detail in their crowds. Drucker did it using multiple caricatures on each of his sea of faces, and they all seemed right on and fully alive. I suspect that even if I drew in my every waking hour, I could never attain that level of mastery. Since I’ve got other things to do, we’ll never know. Or is it just laziness?

When my students ask me how to draw a crowd, I usually reply with a description of the sketchiest illustration possible: portray a few faces and bodies in the front row, just to establish the theme, then draw those behind them with simpler and simpler shapes as their distance from the front increases. In the deepest part of the crowd, faces are reduced to mere ovals, without even a mark to indicate eyes or other features. Bodies become mere suggestions of shape — enough to continue, in the mind of the beholder, the theme established by the front row.

If a student has an inclination to draw every face and form, I encourage him to do it, but most are simply looking for the effect of a crowd, not the intricate reality. For one thing, all that drawing takes time, and for a daily cartoonist on a deadline, time is a luxury. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

For an editorial cartoonist, it might also be argued that the inclusion of all those fully inked characters might be a distraction from the point of the cartoon. The inclusion of one of Wally Wood’s curvaceous babes would certainly have that effect — beautifully drawn and entertaining in its own right, but doing nothing to advance the idea behind the drawing. It could, I think, undermine the effectiveness of the satire and lessen its impact.

Still, it can be fun investing those bit players with stories of their own. When I do it, I like being forced to address each one individually. Are they angry, excited, nervous, frightened, or filled with joy? Who are they? What are their lives like? Do they have a future? Those ovals I usually put in the back row of my crowds don’t have one, that’s for sure. No one cares about them, not even me.

Wally Wood’s crowd characters, which he so clearly enjoyed creating, will live on. They will populate the cartoon afterlife by the thousands, forever captured in the signature pose they held only that one time. One instant of life rewarded with comic immortality. Mine, on the other hand, are consigned to cartoon limbo, floating in a dimensionless void between character and mere shapes.

Well, I’m not Wally Wood, and he’s not me. I’ll leave some characters in the cartoon afterlife, but not nearly as many as he did. Right now, though, I’m feeling a bit wistful about those poor, lost ovals that will never be anything but a line on paper. I feel as though I’ve let them down, abandoned my creations on the very cusp of coming into being.

Perhaps there is a way to make it up to them. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing anyway —taking a moment here and sitting quietly by myself.

Drawing, drawing, drawing.
An Impractical Joke
I bloodied my friend’s nose a while back, and I still feel badly about it. We weren’t fighting; no blows were exchanged. In fact, I wasn’t even there when it happened. But it wasn’t an accident, either.

The weapon was a Groom Mate manually operated nose hair trimmer. I still see them advertised at $19.95, and they’re not available in stores. I can see why; they wreak bloody havoc on the inside of your nostrils. Just ask my friend; I gave it to him as a gift. The gift, I must confide, was meant as a joke. My question here is: was it a funny joke?

Let me state right now that I am not a fan of “practical” jokes, especially those that cause pain or injury. I suppose that a surprise party is one form of practical joke, and such events are pretty hard not to like, but there is very little real humor even with those. Some one is tricked and made to feel a little foolish, but ultimately the source of enjoyment is the surprise of the “victim” and the show of affection given to him. Surprise is a critical element in most humor, too, but I’m sorry — I don’t see any joke in simply tricking people. It can be fun, maybe, but not a joke.

Practical jokes are like a thrill ride at the boardwalk — heightened expectations followed by shock and disorientation, then exhilaration, and in the end, laughing. Unless you barf, in which case there is no laughing (at least not by you).

It’s the same with a practical joke. If it results in barfing, unconsciousness, organ failure, brain death, or bleeding, there might be some laughing, but it would only be of the mean-spirited variety. Think Nelson Muntz of “The Simpsons” (“HA-ha!”). I don’t count that as humor, either. Every movie must have its shot-to-the-balls scene, and every audience will laugh at that scene, but just because they do does not make it funny.

So what about my friend’s bloody nose? Was that my Nelson Muntz moment? Was it a cruel jest and therefore no jest at all? Allow me to mount my defense. For starters, this particular version of the Groom Mate nose hair trimmer came to me through my uncle’s estate. It was, then, a dead man’s nose hair trimmer. I cannot explain to you why that is funny, but it is.

But is that funny enough by itself to cancel out the pain and bleeding, enough to turn agony into laughter? Perhaps not, but consider this: my friend has large, oddly shaped nostrils; nostrils so cavernous that even the shyest bat would be tempted to hole up there. I cannot tell you if there are ancient paintings on the interior walls of his nose, but if there are, you can be sure they are amusing ones. Amusing because nostrils are the funniest apertures in the human body. Consequently, nose hair trimmers, by virtue of their close association with nostrils, are also funny. What’s more, they are funny independently of the unfunny carnage they might cause.

I wasn’t sure when I gave my friend the trimmer that he would actually use it. It had been fully sterilized, of course (what do you take me for?) but it was, after all, a dead man’s nasal mower. I will not use my uncertainty as an excuse, however; I certainly should have known he’d try it. Why wouldn’t I? I’d tried it myself, with the same painful and bloody results. Perhaps that is the lynchpin of my defense: I had used this patently ridiculous product, and I had felt my friend’s pain even before he had.

Even with all this, I’m still not certain the joke was funny. When he phoned me a couple of days later to tell me what had happened to his honker, I did feel some guilt. There wasn’t that much damage, really — a little nip and a little blood — but it was enough to make me tell him I was sorry.

Which raises another question: is it still an apology if you deliver it while laughing?
Smile or Die
Researchers at the University of Kansas have made an alarming discovery. Smiling, they have found, can relieve stress. Even more unsettling, the act of laughing actually improves heart health.

You might conclude that such a connection is good and natural and that such behavior ought to be rewarded with such side effects. It is not in any way alarming, you say, and in fact it makes you smile just to think it could be good for you to do so. What is so unsettling about that? And what planet am I from, anyway?

Well, let me tell you. The study found that these benefits attached to smilers and laughers regardless of whether they were actually amused. The results were associated simply with the exercise of certain facial muscles — those used in grinning — and not necessarily with any genuine feelings of mirth. Fake smiles and phony laughs, in other words, yielded the same benefits as the real thing.

This would be considered wrong on my planet. I concede that put-on facial expressions are a part of the manners that lubricate our social interactions, but let’s face it — a manufactured smile is essentially a lie. It says “I am pleased,” or “I am amused” when that is not necessarily true. It might even be suggested that lying about your emotions is more reprehensible than a simple misstatement of external fact. Should such dishonesty be rewarded and encouraged? Not in my neck of the universe; it may be good for the smiler, but all this insincerity is patently unhealthy for society in general.

And it is not just fake smiles that are reaping these benefits for their owners. Consider, if you will, the snicker. Those teenage girls on the bus the other day, the ones who were snickering at your fashion choices? Be assured that they will lead long, robust lives. Is the smug smirk worn by your jackass co-worker (directed as it seems to be at your abject inferiority) grinding down your self-esteem? Of course it is, but at the same time, it is putting a rose in that s.o.b.’s cheeks.

Think of the Joker, perhaps the most unrelentingly evil character in all of fiction, laughing maniacally while his victims writhe in agony. You can bet that his cardiovascular system is positively throbbing with vitality. And since Batman refuses to kill his hyper-sociopathic ass, he might just live forever. Still think the connection between smiling and health is good and natural? Don’t make me laugh!

There is nothing to be done about this, of course. We are simply caught in the grip of a cruel irony perpetrated by our own bodies. These false emotions seem to enhance the social order and tear it down at the same time. Now, I certainly wouldn’t argue for the trait of grumpiness to be rewarded in this way, since grumpiness has its own way of rending the social fabric. But at least it is an honest emotion honestly expressed.

This world is unfair; surely we can agree on that. Here, bogus facial expressions are granted a special premium for pretending to be real. Were this my planet, however, and if I got to decide such things, I would decree that the effect of expression on the individual would be health neutral — with perhaps a slight bump for honest-to-goodness sincerity.

For the record, I am not smiling.
Why Do People Have to Be So Mean?
It’s a child’s question, and like many such questions it is grounded both in innocence and in wisdom. Why do people have to be so mean? Why do we hurt one another? What possible justification can there be for such behavior?

To be fair, I suppose it could be evolution’s way of controlling the population. War is just meanness on a large scale, after all, and war has a reputation for getting a lot of people killed. Is it possible that such an attitude might be useful in thinning the human herd in a time of scarce resources?

Apparently not. We are killing each other in record numbers (at least in absolute terms), but the population has ballooned to over seven billion — way too many, in my view. The next time someone asks you, “War! What is it good for?”, you can truthfully reply, “I’m not sure, but definitely not for population control.”

All right then, anything else? Could it be a way of naturally selecting the strong and assertive over the weak, thereby strengthening our breeding stock? I don’t think this theory pencils out in the long run. If we really lived in a survival-of-the-meanest world, then wolverines would be running the show.

Unless I’m missing something, then, meanness is a bad thing. Unlike niceness, it is not a boon to human society. It’s not a deterrent to crime, it doesn’t stimulate the economy, and it practically guarantees waste, fraud, and abuse. Plus, it makes everybody feel bad — unless you happen to be a meanie.

This is not exactly news. There have been laws against doing mean things ever since there have been laws. Those laws prescribe punishments, and that threat of punishment has worked to a certain extent. These kinds of laws, however, do not address the root cause of crime: meanness itself.

Religion goes all-out against meanness (unless you count the terrorism, the child molestation, the war, and the virgin sacrifices). Not only does it threaten retribution for bad acts, but it also rewards niceness. Furthermore, religion has come up with the concept of sin, which comes closer to the mark in identifying the problem with meanness. Meanness is seen as a flaw in motivation by most religions, something that might be corrected with the application of a little effort. Still, the religious approach hasn’t exactly worked either. Commandments are being ignored all over the place.

So is there hope? Can anything be done to stop the meanness? Let’s go back to the main question: Why do people have to be so mean? Instead of treating the symptoms, perhaps we should get to the heart of the matter… with technology!

Here’s my hypothesis: people act mean because of bad chemicals in their brains. Those chemicals should be detectable. It’s simply a matter of developing the proper tests. Given the advances we’ve made in science and technology, that should be easy. Once we find those answers, all we’d need to do is summon the will to test everyone for the presence of these bad chemicals. We will have isolated the meanness before it has had a chance to cause mean acts. And then what, you ask? What do we do with this knowledge?

Do we punish people just because of a chemical imbalance? We can’t do that; they haven’t done anything wrong (yet). Do we force them to undergo drug treatments to correct the imbalance? To do so would be a gross violation of their individual rights. Rehabilitation? That only works if there is a real, substantial incentive to back it up.

No, there is only one way to handle this. We test people as described above, and if their blood contains the chemical markers for meanness that I am fully confident exist, then tax the bastards! The higher the readings, the higher the tax! The benefits for society would be immense. Revenues would go through the roof. A whole new industry would grow up around the rush to undergo voluntary drug treatments. Without mean people around, the need for police would disappear — as would the need for armies and navies. The entire defense budget could be eliminated. The world would be at peace, and we’d all be rich and happy!

Wouldn’t that be nice?
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee