A Study in Black and A Study in Blue: Cartooning Cumberbatch
Benedict Cumberbatch is a handsome man. This is empirical. Benedict Cumberbatch is a weird-looking man; this is too. Of course, one could argue that handsomeness, as a marker of especial masculine niceness, is weird in its own right. But that is not the sort of strange that Cumberbatch’s evidential handsomeness is. He’s an odd-looking fucker. Much like Marmite, people love him or they hate him, but either way it’s because of the snakeish aspects of his human visage, not exactly despite them. Whether one finds him attractive or repellent depends on one’s personal visual contexts and perhaps some chemical indicators, but what’s interesting is that the man can be illustrated handsomely or illustrated to look like a nightmare. The gaze of the artist, upon their subject, results in the basic terms of the secondary image.
The Handsome Cumberbatch is by Jay, the mangaka responsible for Titan Comics’ soon-to-be released official Sherlock comic. The Horrible Cumberbatch is by Hannah Krieger, from a dream sequence of her own that she illustrated. It’s pretty clear that Jay regards Cumberbatch as a suave lead—as do many viewers of the BBC’s Sherlock—and Krieger sees him as some sort of lizard prince, demanding and malevolent.
Benedict Cumberbatch: love yourself. Stop reading this article now, please.
Both Jay and Krieger are demonstrably fine likeness artists. Their renditions of the same man, and of other people within their comics, are recognisable and allow one to feel the pleasure of the familiar. “Yes, that is Benedict Cumberbatch!” It feels good to see a well-drawn image of a person one knows. And in fact, their successful but different versions, Handsome vs. Horrible, rely on the same elements of Cumberbatch’s facial structure to make their cases. The very high, sharp cheekbones, his pale and very slim eyes; the depth of crinkling around his brow and within the eye socket, his rather messy eyebrows and the pronounced downturn of his mouth at the very corners and in the middle of his upper lip. The high, tight pull of the crest of his nose, and sharp drag of his nostrils. They are, very surely, drawing the same man, seeing the same face. Neither is lying. One simply sees pleasure, and one dismay. But what is it we see, you and I, in the drawings of the man, that tells us what they’re trying to communicate about their opinion of his face (and perhaps, of his bearing)?
There are some strong differences in their approach, by my eye. Krieger puts a lot of focus on the doubling of Cumberbatch’s chin, which Jay entirely avoids. And Krieger puts Cumberbatch in a situation, gives him a behaviour, which is absurdist and unreasonable. This seems like a key element of the difference in their drawings, but on further thought it can’t be reliable: Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is also absurd and unreasonable. He calls himself a “high functioning sociopath” and, as traditionally, his methods of detection and deportment (see above) are outlandish and unfathomable to the general public, to Watson, and the viewer or reader. Not to mention it’s perfectly possible to watch the real man, Benedict Actual Cumberbatch, playing Sherlock Holmes and find him detestable or, more basically, unhandsome. The subject of his adventures, his requirements to those around him in them, and the intensity of his mood within the comic cannot be the primary reason for his apparent handsomeness or unhandsomeness.
That leaves the chin thing, and it leaves the application of line to paper or pixel to screen.
Let’s take the chins first.
Cumberbatch, both as Sherlock and in other roles or in his own time, indeed is given to the appearance of rolls in the flesh beneath his chin. All human beings are; we have enough skin there to allow us to look straight up, or around, without ripping ourselves. When the bone of our jaw retreats towards our spinal column, that skin, flesh and fat stacks up upon itself. Cumberbatch himself seems given to a gesture of jaw-regression, and against his usually svelte head this seems a shock. The apparently elongated nature of his head, the doritoesque shape of it that is suggested by triangulation between his wide cheekbones and pointed chin—both areas seem to trip forward, thanks to the shadows of the hollows of said cheeks and the undulation of his face between mouth and peak of chin—looks suddenly to have been completely changed, subsumed into a new whole. Or, depending on the angle, appears emphasised. The mobility of his lower jaw and propensity for this rolling up has been noted by Sherlock fans in droves. It has memes.
It’s a very recognisable function of his head, and the shock of its sudden difference coupled with the edivent sulkiness (it seems to meander between meaning don’t ask ME, idiot, and a more deprecating well gosh sorry, don’t ask me, ahaha) lends itself to humour—Krieger’s choice to include it her comic is sensible. Its success as a marker of horribleness cannot entirely be divorced from fatphobia, but I believe that it’s more something like functionphobia—the horror we’ve built into bodies existing outside of preened photographs, of being caught in motion…the stretch’n’squash of real life becoming as rejected as the bottom oval of route B, below, would be if suggested as “a picture of a rubber ball”.
It must be noted that people still want to bang him, whether he appears with chins or a monochin. It cannot be said that the application of many lines, to suggest many rolls, would cause an illustrated Cumberbatch to become unhandsome. Quantifiable desire for him, as an attractive man, would remain. Jay resolutely avoids this aspect of Cumberbatch’s image.
This caricature, a much lesser success, attempts to root into the effect of Cumberbatch’s habit of jaw recession without illustrating its rolling results. I believe that the lack of flow between the various, technically well observed elements of his face in this example is what causes it to fail. The slim, pale eyes, the crinkled bridge of the nose, the downturned mouth and tall nostrils—all float within the basically correct outline of Cumberbatch’s head, unrelated to one another. The regular presence of the chin folds speaks to nothing more than it does the mobility of this man’s face, and removing the features’ ability to impact each other in motion, to relate to each other, is a removal of much of his appeal. Positively or negatively, what a viewer wants when they look at this man is to see his face move. On this, if without its most prominent symptom, Jay delivers.
The fluctuation of line isn’t evident in Jay’s work until one looks closely and purposefully. The overall impression is of skidding elegance and refined ability: ability to effect a likeness, ability from Sherlock to handle a scene. There’s a balance to every drawing of this face, which is implied gently with shadow and confidently with the winding line of his nose in response to the winding line of his outer cheek. His mouth is never precisely straight, but the line is placed with great delicacy.
Consider the two tiny strokes, overlapped by a triangle of shadow, beneath Sherlock’s ear on the image directly above. Consider the fluctuation of width of every line on that image, and the way each quirked feature leads you to view the whole of the face. These features are either still or they’re bouncing, which in effect, in illustration, becomes charisma. Krieger’s lines are rough and ready, they have speed and passion in them. One can feel the joy of breakless creativity: Cumberbatch’s face is so unusual, so singular, that an artist must either approach it with absolute refinement or completely unbound, fearless attention to detail. One must exercise active respect, maybe kindness, or one must make peace with the possibility of an output that is cruel. Krieger’s strip is effectively cruel, but cruelty (especially in visuals) doesn’t have to be active. “Your mouth is best suggested as a scribble, sometimes” may be true but it’s socially unacceptable, because social approval relies heavily on politeness and affirmation. “Yes, oh my god, this looks JUST LIKE YOU, it’s amazing” is an affirmation, even an affirmation of positive response. But it’s not an affirmation of socially positive description.
Krieger uses a much harsher shadow than Jay, and this perhaps is the ultimately atmospheric aspect of her piece. The blue shadows lie directly down the centre of Cumberbatch’s face, allowing light to hit the sides. To a face of already unusual shape, this creates a funneling effect. Of course it’s also a traditionally sinister form of personal lighting, and his white eyes shining out from his personal darkness lend extremity to this face given to intensity. Krieger also has a marvellous fluctuation of linewidth, and a strong sense of feature interaction. She allows the roundness of his cheeks to repeat the longer roundness of his lower face, and uses the grooves beside his nose and mouth to draw the reader’s eye up and down his face, along the lines of his body. Krieger draws Cumberbatch’s eyes very symmetrically, whereas Jay tends to keep them off the same plane. Isn’t this strange? Symmetry is supposed to register as beauty!
So what is it? What’s the difference? Is it that Jay’s Sherlock has clean planes on his face? Is it the neatness of his lines? Is there something in the body language, or the angle from which the face and body are drawn? Does it come from outlining the upper lip, or the larger width of Jay’s Sherlock’s eyes? Krieger’s use of a heavier eyebrow? Or perhaps, in the end, just the conservative hollowing of Jay’s Sherlock’s cheeks. It is fascinating that there is more than one way to accurately represent a very recognisable individual. It’s fascinating that intention and attitude can register so supremely in illustration. With no attraction to Cumberbatch and an aversion to his Sherlock Holmes, I find enormous enjoyment in Krieger’s excellent dream sequence comic. For those who enjoy one or both of the former, in Jay’s hands a Sherlock manga is clearly something to sing about. Krieger’s comic is available to read for free online; Titan’s release of Jay, Moffat, and Gatiss’s comic begins in June.