When you pick up and begin to read a prose book, the characters in the story are inherently formless. The first time you run into a character, you only have a few distinct descriptors to hold onto–”a tall redhead,” “a stern-looking man.” As you continue to read and the character takes more action in the story, more little pieces of description are pushed your way, and you can gradually shape a picture of a human being based on the context that is given to you.
In comic books, this isn’t the case. Your first impression of a character comes all at once the first time they’re shown on a page. In an instant, you should be able to tell who they are and why they’re there. A character’s design gives us something to latch onto right away. The first time we see Rorschach in Watchmen we know we’re in for a gumshoe vigilante—though of course as the story goes on he’s revealed to have more to him than that. There’s no mistaking messy-haired, scowling Tetsuo in Akira for an honors student, and his role in the story only gets clearer when he starts wearing a curtain as a cape.
This doesn’t always have to go as far as the bright primary colors of superheroes or the spiky-haired silhouettes of shonen manga characters. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel and her family members are average-looking people, dressed like average people, with average-people hair. That fits with the somber, low-key story that Bechdel is telling. The characters are simplified, but recognizable as distinct from each other, which is exactly what they need to be. In a comic book, the way that the characters look is one of the most obvious and important things an artist can do to carry the tone of the story across.
As part of my job as the lineartist for our group’s webcomic, Social Butterfly, I had to design the two main (and only, really) characters, the hard-working college student Kaitlyn and her mischievous imaginary friend Byrd. At a glance, they had to get across the light-hearted, all-ages tone of the comic as well as the characters’ own personalities.
For Kaitlyn, I gave her long hair that could be put into a variety of hairstyles depending on the situation, with two long strands in front of her ears that curl like a butterfly’s proboscis. She has the sturdy body of an athlete and a tan skin tone that suggests she gets a lot of sun and could belong to a number of ethnic groups. Unlike some comic book characters that dress the same no matter what, she dresses differently from day to day, in clothes that are often lifted right off of my fellow college students, for a sense of realism.
Byrd is a butterfly, and it took a little tweaking to make a butterfly look like an actual insect—no sausages with smiley faces on one end here—and still look expressive and cute. I actually took some inspiration from alpacas for the curve of Byrd’s neck and the all-around fluffiness. Originally I didn’t want Byrd’s face to have any expressions at all, like a real butterfly, but that was too lifeless and weird, so I compromised with myself by never letting Byrd blink and not adding eyebrows to the face. To make up for the expressiveness lost, and to underline Byrd’s magical nature, Byrd’s wings change color to reflect the setting and mood. And, for an extra touch of childish imagination, Byrd has gloves or sneakers on the ends of all six legs.
Is it possible for character designs to be “bad” or wrong? I think there are some ways that they can be. A character design that’s too busy, generic, or is hard to tell apart from the other characters in the story doesn’t fulfill the job that the artist has to make every design distinctive and recognizable. Characters in a comic are icons in the same way that the lettering is, or a drawing of a tree is. They should be instantly recognizable as the thing they are. However, as we’ve seen in the comics we’ve read in this class, a character design doesn’t need to be flashy to be good: it just needs to get across who the character is, so that they come to life in our minds the first time we see them.
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