Wild Things with Baby Faces, part 2: The Blank Face of Wonder.

9 Oct

1. The blank face of wonder

Scott McCloud, in his book, Understanding Comics, offers up a way of looking at sequential art—art that tells stories—that reveals a number of reasons why Sendak’s book has remained so popular.[1]

McCloud argues that the simpler the face of a drawing, the more universal it’s appeal. Readers, he says, project their own face onto the illustration. Placing a simple face against a complicated backdrop, the reader can see the world as a real place, but identify with the main character (McCloud, 43). All cartoons utilize this technique, just some more than others.

Let’s look at Max’s face. It’s an oval shape, with vague features, little more than a mouth and eyes with two little slits for eyebrows. The face resembles a child’s drawing, albeit with a sophisticated design. There’s a little touch of hair, and a nose composed of an unbroken single line. It could be any of ten million faces, ambiguously ethnic but touched by the Nordic. He’s a thinner Charlie Brown. With curly black hair.

It could just about be any mischievous boy.

His body, in the wolf suit, is an outline of a figure, with no muscles, skin, or body parts showing. A line of four buttons bifurcate the suit, and on either side of the face there are four single whiskers. Atop Max’s face rest two pointy ears. It’s as close to a blank canvas a human figure can be, save perhaps for a stick figure, and in this way almost works as a “fiction suit.”[2] The fiction suit is a way for writers to immerse themselves into their own stories, and for illustrators to sneak readers into their alternate world.[3]

The author’s psyche dropped into his own creation in his ingenious fiction suit.

Max’s face is simple and plain. His body is half-white, almost blank. In contrast, the locales are lush, complicated tapestries comprised of complex cross-hatching. Placing an almost blank face into a lush background is a classic tactic, common in Japanese art. The idea is that readers will identify with Max, project themselves into his persona, while also placing themselves in a very real world. The best example of this is the angry Max in his room. Although spare, the room is a detailed place, with subtle gradations between the browns and grays of the rug, the walls and ceiling. The design is uncluttered but very complex. Max rests off-center, a disgruntled face, a cipher for the reader to enter a stimulating and all-too-real alternate world (McCloud, 43).

McCloud refers to a visual term called closure. Closure, in the visual world, is the mental process of completing a picture that is only half-formed. An example is a Coke can, half-turned, where only part of the letters are visible. The brain completes the letters automatically (McLoud, 67). In terms of sequential art, closure works in terms of story, too. The reader closes the story gap between the pages. The reader, in a sense, becomes the author of the unseen parts of the story.

The illustrations here don’t change the tone of the story at all, but fulfill it. The wild rumpus—giant wordless illustrations that span both the recto and verso pages—scrupulously detail Max and the creatures dancing, play-fighting and howling at the moon.  It’s the centerpiece of the story, a child’s version of a bacchanal, a pre-adolescent revelry that shrieks off the page.

The infamous wild rumpus, or is it a silent affair?

These three “silent” pages offer an example of this concept of closure. The reader’s imagination fills in the silence of the rumpus, extending the festivities. The reader can hear the howling creatures, Max’s growls, and the hooting, grunting, huffing and carousing of the scaly creatures. In each spread, Max sits close to the center, surrounded by the large, variegated creatures and the verdant forests and plush, sensual glades.

It’s clear that we’re supposed to identify with Max. We’re supposed to project our desires onto his simple features. He’s living out our pleasures for us.

[1] His explanations concerning comics apply to all picture books, and Where the Wild Things Are, it could be argued, is a comic (or almost a comic) in its form and content. See pages 9-13 to see how close the book comes to being a straight comic.

[2] Grant Morrison–one of my heroes—argues that authors do this all the time, and that the power of fiction often rests on this strange blurring between fantasy and reality. In a sense, he’s making McCloud’s argument in different terms.

[3] There’s another way of looking at it: the wolf suit is shaded on one side, sterling white on the other; perhaps Sendak is showing the dual nature of his little boy, the good and bad in all of us.


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