A Show of Hands

Talk with the hand.The eyes may be windows to the soul (or at least the
back door to a neurosis or two) but in the pages of your favourite
comic book, it’s often the hands that futz with the lock and drag
you inside.

Not the hands of cartoonists, mind you, but the hands of cartoons
— the splayed fingers or twisted fists, rigid indexes, throbbing
thumbs, pulsating pinkies… you get the drift. Sure, our hands are
useful for all sorts of manual chores, but as emotive symbols,
they’re neglected, a pitiful third cousin to the palpitating face
and pothering voice. The human hand — that prince of appendages —
has 29 bones, 29 major joints, about 50 nerves and more than 120
ligaments. That’s enough ganglia to mime an opera of emotions: a
yammer of remorse, perhaps, or a blunt “sit on it.”

Problem is, hands are hard to draw. They look different from
every angle, each finger bending and foreshortening in its own way.
Drawing them with their subtleties intact can be a bit like trying
to name that mystery flavour in your masala dinner. Cartoonist
Milton Caniff, whose 1940s serials Terry and the Pirates and
Steve Canyon are landmark action-adventure comics, suffers a
slight wrinkle in his legacy for the graceless mitts he sometimes
forced upon his sleek heroes. Robert Crumb, a crack letterer and
master of form and shadow, arms his zaftig fauns with gorilla paws,
knackwurst fingers sweating in slabs of palm, which he bemoans as a
chink in his draftsmanship.
Bill Watterson's manual dexterity.

Crumb, and many hand-delayed cartoonists like him, instead seek
refuge in the blobby, four-fingered stylings of early American
animation, like the characters that sprung from the fountain pens of
Ub Iwerks and Max Fleischer in the 1920s. Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop
and a whole cast of simpering miscreants had three fingers and a
thumb, not just for reductionist kicks but because drawing your
bouncy runts with one less finger meant a quicker turnaround on the
cartoon shorts that lit up the big screens in those roaring decades.

Comics have always shared conjugal quarters with animation. Our
opposable thumbs may be credit at the food-chain supermarket, but in
the cartoon wilderness Charlie Brown’s hands can look like Snoopy’s
(three fingers or four, depending on the task), and neither is any
less dexterous.

In the ’90s, Bill Watterson milked this licence to a lather in
Calvin & Hobbes. Though his lanky tiger and knee-high
brat had only 16 fingers between them, their hands were marvels of
expression. When Hobbes flipped his paw at one of Calvin’s tirades,
his pinky curled and palm sank in an unmistakable moue. When Calvin
made a fist, his index jutted like a smothered erection inching to
burst. The touches were slight, but enough to mimic a real hand’s
nuances. Watterson wrote sizzling dialogue, but it was his
characters’ supple hands — cartoony but convincing — that
punctuated it.

The four-finger style is mainly an American convention. In Japan,
missing fingers are seen as evidence of a menial job, so people are
commonly drawn with the standard handful. Both guys and gals are
often given slender, balletic hands that sit on the end of their
wrists like shy flowers. You’ll find the same affectation in Adrian
Tomine’s skeletal extremities, drawn with a frigid restraint that
mirrors the urban malaise in his Optic Nerve stories. Maurice
Vellekoop and Chester Brown often turn their fingers into tapered
noodles that curl into vague fist shapes or sway wistfully, lending
characters an unspoken vulnerability.

Capturing a mood or personality with something as unassuming as a
hand takes serious chops, especially in comics’ cramped confines,
where the smallest flubbed angle or neglected detail can turn a
delicate main into a mangled loaf. Of course, attention and
skill give voice to every art form. It’s just that, in comics, the
hands have more to say.

Categories: Comics

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