Friday, November 26, 2010

Character Design #4

Here are Installment #1, Installment #2 and Installment #3.

As I begin Installment #4, it occurs to me I may be overanalyzing. I don't want to discourage anyone from creating comics by making it sound like a horribly complicated, laborious ordeal. Seriously, just sitting down and drawing is 90% of the job. While I do think about these design elements, I don't have a checklist. There's no formula or recipe. I don't know if they work. That's what makes writing and drawing more art than science, and a risky one at that. My way isn't the only way or right way, YMMV, etc.

With those misgivings, this is what I was thinking when I designed Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid. Like their counterparts Pop and Buddy, Cap and the Kid played similar but slightly different roles in WHTTWOT. Together, they represented and commented upon the comics, cartoons, TV programs, movies, books, pulps, and other futuristic pop culture produced during the eras of their adventures. However, having two characters let me attack from two different directions. Here they are again for reference:

Cap Crater's look was inspired by models such as:

Gemini astronauts
Apollo astronauts
NASA prototype spacesuits
Major Matt Mason, a popular toy from the 1960s.

Cap is an old-school barrel-chested hero. He's got a military buzz cut, and there's a tiny joke built into the name Commander Cap Crater: although "Cap" is usually a nickname given to a captain, our hero has the lesser rank of commander, suggesting he's been demoted. But the key to Cap Crater's design is that his spacesuit is relatively realistic, based on real-world examples. His look embodies the idea that sometimes the people making up stories about the future in the 1930s and '40s got it spectacularly right.

And sometimes they got it spectacularly wrong. In contrast to Cap Crater's fairly functional suit, the Cosmic Kid's uniform was inspired by models such as:

Tom Corbett, Space Cadet

Flash Gordon, of course

DC Comics' Adam Strange

Robin the Boy Wonder.

Not one of them practical or realistic in any way! So I wanted Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid to represent contrasting visions of the World of Tomorrow, but still look like they not only belonged in the same reality but worked together as partners. I used one subtle graphic touch to try to pull them together: the hose bibs on Cap Crater's chest--the little red, green and yellow "buttons"--are the same colors as the Cosmic Kid's uniform. No other character in the book ever wears that palette. Those shared spots of color make them a team.

With all that, Cap Crater is a real pain to draw. His rigid metallic collar is a circle, which requires perfect circles or ellipses to look right. I had to buy an ellipse template just to draw his neck.

Fine. You'd expect a craftsman to purchase the tools of his trade. But in addition, that collar doesn't really sit right on Cap's shoulder and chest, and his elbow and knee joints proved difficult to draw in proper perspective without making them too bulbous. Also, the accordion joints (the three Jetson-like rings) at his waist were yet more ellipses that had to be perfectly parallel, demanding more work by template, French curve, or careful freehand. (In fact, Cap originally had the same type of joints at his elbows and knees, but I edited them out mid-way through because, even when drawn perfectly correctly, they often looked odd.)

Cap before and after I ironed out his accordion joints. By the way, any similarity between the look and palette of this cover and the "World's Fair" Superman comic above was purely intentional.

The Cosmic Kid is a lot more fun to draw. He's less stiff. I like his floppy hair. His shoulder epaulets, belt, and the red stripes on his gloves and trousers provide easy visual cues that highlight his position and movement. There are different textures at play--for example, both his sleeves and boots are black, but I always imagined his sleeves had a soft wool texture while his boots were leather--which call for different types of brush strokes. I sometimes found myself "cheating" to avoid drawing Cap in certain positions or angles; I never had to cheat with the Kid.

Which is why, as I said at the end of Installment #3, if you meet me in real life and ask me to sketch any character I want, I will almost always draw the Cosmic Kid. Also, if I had it to do over, I'd spend another few days of pre-production refining Cap Crater. Not that I'm not very fond of the big lug.

And with that, I think I'm done with Character Design. Among the bullet points:

  • To help readers effortlessly decode your comic, design characters to physically contrast: male/female, black/white, human/animal, tall/short, fat/thin, old/young. Apply the Silhouette Test.
  • Characters have to live in the universe you create for them. Their world affects and reflects their design.
  • At the same time, you have to live with them. Be sure they work from every angle (turnarounds) and are designed to do whatever you might need them to do. (And don't give them big round metallic collars.)
  • Constructing characters with a good, solid design from the start can minimize the gradual changes that creep into their look over time, and potentially avoid a lot of work later.
  • Character design can help communicate deeper insights into story themes, forms, and approach to storytelling--often in ways the reader won't consciously perceive, but that you hope they might pick up anyway. My theory is that subtle details accumulate to create a mood or impression that affects a reader without them quite realizing why.
  • Here's the important point: I think these guidelines are valid and worthwhile, but they won't fit every character or story. Feel free to violate them. But I'd suggest asking yourself why you're violating them, and whether you might get just a bit better performance from your characters if you apply them instead.

Hope you enjoyed the interesting parts, skipped the boring parts, took what works for you and ignored the rest. I'll keep trying to get better at it.


Jim O'Kane said...

Even though the Sears/Mattel Major Matt Mason was a great synthesis of Robert McCall's 2001: A Space Odyssey suit designs, I still prefer the color scheme of his sidekick, Sgt. Storm. The NCOs in that Universe had great crimson suit cloth, on a par with the red of Apollo 9's EVA helmets.

Related to all this space fashion talk, the worst clothing scheme idea must be the Raymond Lowry brown utility suits of Skylab and ASTP. Horrendous. Astronauts shouldn't look like UPS delivery guys.

Brian Fies said...

I had a Sgt. Storm and managed to hold onto him until fairly recently, when I found him in the bottom of a drawer, liquefied. It was strange: somehow the cheap plastic from which he was molded has softened and...oozed...over the decades. I had to toss him; all I have left is his helmet.

I LOVED Skylab! It's unjustly forgotten (or remembered only for its re-entry) but did great work. And as far as I'm concerned, if your space station isn't big enough to let you jog zero-G laps around its perimeter, you ain't got a space station.

Jim O'Kane said...

Oh, make no mistake: I enjoyed the whole second-hand Moonshot-ness of the Skylab program. The airlock door on the Multiple Docking Adapter that was actually a Gemini hatch, the idea that it was Apollo 18's S-IV-B which would otherwise have crashed into the Moon, the silly triangular toe-boots designed to fit into the triple mesh floor panels - - all that cobbled-together tech symbolized everything right and wrong with NASA of the early 70's.

It's just the cardboard brown of the flight suits that seemed so out of place with the rest of the program. This was no way to suit up teams of astronauts. Heck, even Blofeld's minions at the hollowed-out volcano had better color sense in their worker-bee costumes. Skylab was the Star Trek: The Motion Picture of clothing design.