Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Joseph Merrick's Face

Here is a picture of Joseph Merrick, better known as “The Elephant Man.” One website describes him as being “history’s most horribly deformed man.” As is to be expected, he had a horribly tragic life. His disease started to develop around the age of four, and after awhile he was ostracized by his community and family alike. He ended up joining the circus as a sideshow freak. In his 20s, he met a doctor who claimed he could fix Merrick’s deformities. Merrick died in the hospital when he was 27.

Now here is another “picture” of Joseph Merrick. It’s not actually Merrick, but it is a depiction of what he most likely looked like if it wasn’t for his deformities. Modern forensic science and technology has allowed researchers to examine the structure of Merrick’s skull and create an approximation of his non-deformed face.

What does this have to do with Understanding Comics? Well, both the pictures of Merrick and McCloud explore how a viewer reacts to a human face. Merrick, because of his deformities, was labeled “The Elephant Man,” and therefore had his humanity diminished. He was even shunned by his own parents because he was so grotesque and inhuman to them.

Conversely, the speculative face of Merrick is an average Joe; nothing really exceptional save maybe a particularly low brow line. It’d be hard to imagine someone who would look upon this face as offensive or alien. Similarly, McCloud locates the translatability of comics in their cartoonish method; indeed, the more cartoon something is, the easier it is to relate to. Basically, cartoon here means common or inoffensive. Something is easy to relate to because it is so vague and expected.

This is why Merrick’s real face is so shocking while his “normal” face is rather boring. The deformed face is so specific, so completely unique, that humanity has a hard time seeing the humanity. Any person would be hard-pressed to say Merrick is not, in fact, a human. Nevertheless, it was his painfully tragic situation that no one could see that humanity in his face.

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