INSIGHT: Kay Carmichael on Shock vs. Honesty

Comic artist and storyboarder Kay Carmichael taught a class for Animation SA’s outreach programme, Draw for Life. She originally posted this blog on her website. If you’d like to get involved with Draw for Life, please contact Julia Smuts Louw at

I gave a class on visual communication on the weekend with a group of students from high schools in Mitchell’s Plain. There’s a really potent exercise I like to do that I stole wholesale from Scott McCloud: a 9-panel comic of any 9 moments from the individual’s life.

Most things the teenage artists talk about in the 9 panel comics are life events like moving or school-changes. Sometimes the choices they’ve made in the art and moment are psychologically revealing, like drawing themselves alone in a frame in a schoolyard or in some way removed from their families. One or two people will attempt to tell a painful story honestly and then things get real, real fast.

Going into the exercise, I talked about the difference between shock and honesty. It’s a difference I wish someone had pointed out to me as a student. Shock is useful as an entry-point to students but it can be mistaken for authenticity and do often obscure what we’re really shooting for.

As teens and young people we try to overcome our painful naivety by shock-proofing ourselves against life and appear bored by every new development. We use shock humour to obscure our real insecurities and to seem mature.

The mentality of shock-as-art or even shock-as-relating-to-people can be hard to shake and grow up from. A lot of people don’t know what having an honest relationship with themselves and the world even looks like and have never quite broken that barrier of learning to be honest with themselves and dig deep.

In art, shock is a strong spice that shouldn’t overwhelm the story and it cannot substitute for a real story, anymore than salt by itself can be a full meal. Frankly, shock used cynically is irritating.

Honesty – vulnerability – is what we are hard-wired to recognise in stories. We crave it. We crave authenticity and connection with fellow people. Shock doesn’t allow us to connect; if anything it armours us and seperates us from people, trying to show them how we have suffered and how they couldn’t possibly relate. It pushes people away and encourages them to gawk at our specialness. Starved of real connection, shock feeds on attention and will do anything to keep it.

We respond viscerally to honesty; it’s gripping to us. Few things can capture our attention so fully; a moment of authentic emotion on a Facebook video, however badly captured, can move us to tears faster than most Hollywood films can. Successful actors aren’t merely good at simulating an emotion; they successfully empathise with their characters until they’re really feeling that emotion. Honesty is the real secret of entertainment, and entertainment isn’t only about laughter and joking – it’s engagement. It covers the full emotional spectrum. And, even in comedy, especially in comedy, honesty is what makes the material ring true.

Honesty and vulnerability are simple but not always easy to practice. It takes a lot of hard work to find the truth. It takes a practiced courage to display it for people and to receive the reactions afterward. And the reactions to honesty are distinctly different from the reactions to shock. Shock might get a little naughty titter, a bit of stuffy outrage or (mostly) sighs of irritation and boredom.

But honesty gets tears. Bursts of laughter. It might reach deep and tweak something in people’s hearts that they don’t like, and they might tell you so with unexpected ferocity. Honesty gets thank yous. Thank you for sharing that. Thank you for being brave enough. Thank you for finding the right words to say it.
Honesty shocks people.

Shock doesn’t last. It needs to find newer and ever more depraved subjects and confluences – just ask a tabloid. What was shocking yesterday doesn’t turn a head now.

Honesty is evergreen. Incisive observation is still just as rare. Truth always retains its anti-septic sting.

Shock tarnishes; honesty clarifies. Shock hurts; honesty heals. Shock is often crass and sordid and honesty is humbly intentioned, if sometimes dirty in the work it must do.
The work is done when everyone is a little less alone in their feelings.