Character Design, part II: The Comics

What is it?  What makes these two guys so bewitching?  Is it their trenchcoats?  Is it their grace and skill?  Their evident cool in the face of extreme danger?  Their animal-like nature?

Or is it the talent of the artists, the quality of the line, the starkness of the lighting, the mastery of the shading?  Is it that both figures, although hefty with three-dimensional weight and mass, also paradoxically border upon complete abstraction, a collection of shapes and shadows?

In my daily life I have no interest in thugs or demons and my idea of a personal hero is someone like Thurston Moore, but these two big lugs consistently make me want to stop what I’m doing, take a load off and look at some comic books.
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59 Responses to “Character Design, part II: The Comics”
  1. eronanke says:

    Oh man… Now you’re inviting me to talk about comics?
    I’ll need a few hours to compile a list for you. 🙂

  2. greyaenigma says:

    I didn’t chime in with the animation one, but I’m sure these have comies: Powerpuff Girls, Stitch from Lilo and Stitch.

    True story about Hellboy — there’s a comic store here in town with a bunch of iconic characters painted in the windows. One of which was Hellboy, ten years or more before anyone made a movie of him. It always made me want to go and check out his story. Marv is a little less iconic. A lot less, actually. I think he probably wouldn’t even work if you took him out of the starkness of Sin City. Which is not a criticism of that work at all, but it’s something to consider as a criterion for character design.

    Some of my favorites (including cheap and easy ones — not surprisingly, good design will often have staying power):
    Dream / Sandman from Sandman (Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg)
    Death from Sandman
    Superman ( Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster)
    Batman (Bob Kane)
    Wonder Woman (Dr. William Moulton Marston)
    Flash (modern, i.e. red suit)
    Fantastic Four (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
    Spider-Man (Stan Lee)
    The Hulk (Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
    Concrete (Paul Chadwick)
    Dr. Manhattan (Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons)
    Rorschach (same)
    Swamp Thing (Len Wrightson)
    Darkseid (Jack Kirby)

    I would like to have researched these a little better, as well as get into some indie comics better, alas.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Oh, and how could I forget MODOK! I thought there was a reference to him in Hate Floats, and it may yet have been, but more tangential.

      Also, I meant to include The Joker in the original list, because he’s about as iconic of a villain as we’ve got.

      Also Moore and Gibbon’s V (for Vendetta).

      • robolizard says:

        Oh yes. Absolutely the Joker. His look is so much of the evil. The madness in his eyes, the sickness of his face, reminding us he is a human fused with evil, the evil… within us all…

        Heck, without that look he’d just be a glorified Julian Day.

    • Todd says:

      Stitch. Love Stitch. Nani too. And Pleekly. Oh man, the character design in that movie is just dreamy.

      Your list brings up a good question: what is the character and what is the artist? Wonder Woman by Peters and Wonder Woman by Adam Hughes both have roughly the same outfit, but would we say that they are the same design?

      Dr. Manhattan and Rorshach, great designs.

      • greyaenigma says:

        I’ve been pondering that. Part of the test I was applying was whether they would still work in superdeformed mode.

        And that gets to the question (I love questions) of what is it that makes good character design. Popularity? Timelessness? Cross-demographic appeal? Distinctness? Mostly we’ve been working off of personal visceral reactions, and mostly just to the look, rather than the character itself.

        An interesting reaction I have in the game City of Heroes/City of Villains — sometimes I see a character whose name and costume design are really appealing, and then they’ll have no description. For me, coming up with the backstory is a big part of the fun of making the character.

        And, while I’ve touched on names and concept beyond the visual: I ran across Gypsy Moth/Sybarite/Skein a while back, and while she’s not a great character, she’s interesting. And her multiple name changes say something about the different eras she was active. I seem to recall a gypsy moth scare in the northeast circa early 80s, and so they make a Romanian woman that can weave cloth (I’m reminded of gypsy moth egg cocoons) and then as comics turned darker and punchier, she becomes Skein (with a skimpier costume, of course.)

        • Todd says:

          sometimes I see a character whose name and costume design are really appealing, and then they’ll have no description.

          This happens on a daily basis with my son. He can’t read, but he loves poring over group portraits and pointing out people. And yeah, often he’ll come across someone who he finds really cool and either it turns out they’re really lame superheroes, or else they’re just kind of generic place-holders that the illustrator had put there to take up room in the background. But he’ll still keep asking me about them, day after day. “Dad, who’s the member of the Justice League who’s the cowboy with the guns?” (we discourage him playing with guns, so anyone with guns is automatically cool.) And I have no idea what he’s talking about, but it turns out there’s one shot — one long, panning group shot, where, hey, look at that, way in back, there’s a cowboy with a blue shirt, red bandana and white hat. The heck?

          Turns out to be a DC character called Vigilante. Has no superpowers whatsoever, outside of the ability to shoot things and live in the old west. How he got to be in the Justice League is beyond me. I guess Waverider went back in time and fetched him, and they used their teleportation technology to get him up to the Watchtower. Not sure what they expected to need him for alongside the likes of The Atom, Captain Marvel and Dr. Fate, but then again I don’t know what Black Canary would do there either. I’m lame that way.

          • greyaenigma says:

            It amuses me that Vigilante and Shining Knight hang out together a lot in the watchtower. Two guys that are just good with their weapons, out of place. I think they’re both featured in Morrison’s Seven Soliders, too.

            There have also bee a couple of JLU episodes explicity giving the second fiddle characters a reason to feel good about themselves, either by being tenacious (Vigilante and Shining Knight) or just being the one to show up. (Booster Gold.)

            Black Canary kicks ass. She at least has a super power. The Question’s probably only up there because everyone’s afraid he has some dirt on them. Besides, they need her there to keep Green Arrow there, because Batman never knows when he’ll need Ollie’s help to take down Superman. It’s already established in the JLU universe that Batman always carries around some kryptonite just in case.

            A couple more great comics designs:

            The Tick

            • robolizard says:

              Booster Gold is really fleshing out in ’52’ [which, except for the Question, is pretty… sigh]. As for Vigilante and the knight, well, like Batman, despite being powerless they’re good at what they do, shooting, sword fighting, whatevar, after all the league can’t be everywhere at once…

              The Question is Batman lite, and really the only reason he gained membership is probably because Roscharch would have had Watchmen been a DCU story. He’s still a great character though… and he notices things Batman would never dream of noticing. He’s Batman only instead of trauma his hangup is pure paranoia. He’s also a Randian symbol. Oh well.

              Civil War is blowing mah mind though with its intenseness. [oh man!]

            • Todd says:

              Black Canary kicks ass. She at least has a super power.

              She does? I thought her super power is that she wears fishnets. Which is certainly a formidable super power, don’t get me wrong. Have I missed something?

              • greyaenigma says:

                After I said that, I went and read up on Black Canary and Green Arrow (they’re a long time item) et al. Turns out she’s been around since 1947! And he’s been around since 1941! Anyway, in addition to her world-class fighting skills (her martial arts skills are on par with the best of the Justice League, except, probably, Batman) she has what I learned is called her “Canary Cry” which is a sonic attack of fairly devastating power. She got it after fighting some cosmic entity, then when she was too old for the continuity, they gave her a daughter who was born with the canary cry instead, and is the current Black Canary.

                • Todd says:

                  when she was too old for the continuity

                  How telling is it that even a comic book character has to be pushed aside because she’s “too old.”

                  I thought she was Batman without the costume (which is, honestly, on the whole, a much more balanced, reasonable approach to vigilante justice imho). I thought the “canary cry” was just her daughter.

                  • greyaenigma says:

                    Of course, she wasn’t actually pushed aside, she was just re-incarnated in the form of her daughter to keep her young. But that doesn’t explain why Green Arrow and the guys weren’t aging at the same time. Comics are weird. The canary cry became just her daughter after her daughter was invented. This is why they keep having Crisis events, to try and straighten all this stuff out.

                    I see another re-jiggering script in your future — “Batman in Fishnets!”

                    “Robin! Bruce! Dr. Scott! Janet! Robin! Bruce! Janet!”

  3. robolizard says:

    The great thing about high quality goon like characters is that they actually look like they suffer, those two in particular. Of course the beautiful shadow work only helps.

    Mah favorite designs aaare… Tim Sale’s Batman world. Just… beautifully hyper realistic, and hyper realism isn’t something the DC world goes for often [usually its straight realism]. Jack Cole’s Plastic Man is pretty sweeet, as are most of Jhonen Vasquez’s characters [JTHM in particular], and of course Calvin and Hobbes are brilliant drawings, as is Aaron McGruder’s Huey, Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Alex Ross’ Superman, Spiderman and the Hulk of course can’t be ignored, nor can Robin. ROscharch would probably make number one on my list of greatest designs, while Chris Ware’s ‘young’ Jimmy Corrigan would be a close second, and Antonio Prophias’ Spies. Also the characters from Mutts… and… THATS ALL FOR TODAY! [flees] [flees back] Oh, and so much of what Kyle Baker does, and what Frank Quietly is doing right now for Superman… [flees]

    • robolizard says:

      Oh, aslo Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. Quintessential real people who stand out in a world of fantasy characters.

      I’m going to list the characters of Maus too. Simply brilliant.

      • Todd says:

        I don’t get a clear picture of what constitutes Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson. My five-year-old has no problem with it, of course, but I do. I like the Fleischer’s Lois and of course Bruce Timm’s, but there are whole decades of Lois in the comics that don’t mean anything to me.

        The characters in Maus work almost as well as Prohias’s Spys.

        • robolizard says:

          Bruce Timm had the most love [or at least showed the most love] towards those characters. In the comics, in attempts to make them realistic they tend to make them look kind of dull. Jimmy Olsen is indistinguishable from anyone else at the Daily Planet, while Lois Lane is only distinguishable as such because she talk to Clark/Superman. I was introduced to them ‘officially’ through the cartoon but thier looks, much like Superman’s, is ingrained in the cultural languague.

    • greyaenigma says:

      I actually considered mentioning Anne from Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn. Calvin and Hobbes are, of course, great. Hell. Opus, too. Eventually.

      • robolizard says:

        Aww, why eventually? Opus is in his prime right now…

        I haven’t read ‘Why I Hate Saturn’ [apparently its what he’s famous for though…] but I did read his ‘Captain America: Red White and Black’ probably one of the greatest graphic novels… period.

        • greyaenigma says:

          Have you read any of the very early Bloom County? Opus just isn’t quite himself in those. Similar to Bug Bunny and Micky Mouse, it took him a while to get into the familiar form we all know and love.

          I don’t know that I’ve read any of his straight-up superhero work. Breathtaker was sort of a twisted superheroic, while the other stuff I’ve read (Cowboy Wally Show, You Are Here, some others that are escaping my mind) just had regular people in messed up situations.

          Also, while I’m thinking about it, Scott McCloud’s character of himself in Understanding Comics is quite a good, albeit very basic, character. It’s all about the iconography. Oh! And 9-Jack-9 from McCloud’s Zot. (Has the creepy blank, round glasses later(?) used in Sin City)

          • robolizard says:

            Red White and Black wasn’t really straightforward heroism, it was the idea that when the government experimented with black soldiers during WWII, one of the experiments was the Captain America serum, so there was one black captain america, without ruining any of the other parts. He didnt wirte it, just drew it, but the art is him at his best. Plastic Man isn’t bad either.

            Ah Scott McCloud…eh. Good but not amazing. The Question however… is…

            • greyaenigma says:

              Ah. I had heard about that, but I don’t think I knew he was drawing it.

              Other random thoughts: Nowhere Man (and his gang) from Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. There’s other characters I love, like Flex Mentallo (Hero of the beach!) and Danny the Street, but those are mostly interesting and unique in concept rather than appearance.

    • Todd says:

      Calvin and Hobbes is, I think, the best-drawn strip in the history of the medium.

      Huey is a great piece of design.

      I find I can ignore Robin. He’s never made sense to me, either as a character or as a design.

      Prohias’s Spys are masterpieces of minimalism, right up there with Mickey Mouse. Instantly identifiable, they read fast and move like dreams.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Robin in his brightly colored garb hanging out with Batman reminds me of the bit in The Dark Knight Returns where he explains that he has one brightly colored spot on his outfit because that’s where he wants them to shoot.

      • robolizard says:

        Robin was made to give kids someone to identify with [although, as Feiffer pointed out, he just seemed to children like a know-it-all who will always be better than them], and when he was killed another was put in his place to give Batman someone to talk to. It also kind of gives him someone to protect… which is good sometimes… the artist currently working on Robin is giving him darker reds and greens… a Batman for the Superman crowd, and he works if used sparingly [Batman, in a wise decision, isn’t around him so much of the time], but it should be noted that out of all the lame characters in Bruce Timm’s series, Robin was the single character he couldn’t make work [of course, he was also 19 or 20 in that].

        I’m going to add Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Dogbert. Because… those are indeed intensly sweet and timeless designs. Oh, and Wolverine in his yellow and black costume. Under the hands of even the clumsiest artist, he was always good, but in the hands of a talented artist, its just beautiful. Also the Toyman from the current Superman run. I can’t find a photo of him, but its a hyperrealistic version of the Timm design []. Oh, and he’s blonde.

        • greyaenigma says:

          Of all the bad decisions in the Schumaker Batman films, putting Robin in a Nightwing-like costume was probably the best. It’s still weird to see Robin in the Teen Titans still wearing the bright colors. (Although it was a fun episode when all the other Titans put on the costume and played Robins for a day.)

          Phoenix/Dark Phoenix was pretty nice design, too.

          • robolizard says:

            Eh. In reality if Robin’s costume is foolish, Superman’s is even more so, considering he has bright colors in broad daylight. Of course there’s less sneaking around, but most costumes will look odd when next to Batman. Robin probably would make a good daytime hero…

            I really like the Creeper too. And Harley Quinn. Two intense designs [the second one is far better though]

            • greyaenigma says:

              I never really got the Creeper.

              I like Harley, especially since she started on the TV series and then moved into the canon.

              • Todd says:

                Who gets The Creeper? I’m not sure The Creeper gets The Creeper.

                Harley Quinn, though, I gotta say, for a late-edition new character, has established herself with a real force.

                • robolizard says:

                  I dunno… there was a Creeper section in ‘Brave New World’… it was… it was pretty good, despite being… vaguely anti liberal [you see, the Creeper’s identity’s job is he’s a liberal Bill O’Reilly… and those do not exist…]Otherwise he’s just like the Joker only as a hero! …yeahh… … …zzzz….

            • greyaenigma says:

              Yes, but Superman is neither all about the Stealth (he has superspeed, anyway), nor is he the ward of some guy that dresses in all grey and black.

        • Todd says:

          I’m going to add Charlie Brown

          Well, Charlie Brown is a freaking miracle. Charlie Brown should be painted onto the side of a spaceship and sent out into space for aliens to find as the pinnacle of human artistic achievement.

          Could not possibly be more simple. A circle, two dots and a few curvy lines. And yet, as so many imitators have shown, he is well-nigh impossible to reproduce and the most subtle shifts in expression reveal oceanic tides of emotion and inner life. The best character design ever.

  4. rennameeks says:

    “That’s a fine-lookin’ coat you’ve got there.”

    For me personally, when it comes to these two characters, their body language reflects the core of their being. Their inner strength becomes tangible. There’s a je ne sais quoi about them.

    It takes a talented artist to give two-dimensional characters (or even three-dimensional digital characters) souls.

  5. greyaenigma says:

    Web comics:

    Strong Bad
    Strong Sad

    I’m not sure Gabe and Tycho count for this sort of thing (whether the design is good enough) but the characters are nicely done.) I know I’m missing some.

  6. robolizard says:

    Hey, is your new title an ‘All Star Batman’ reference?

    • Todd says:

      Um, no, actually it’s just a pun, one which no one seems to get, which I guess makes it a bad pun. I’m cursing the darkness, see? Instead of lighting a candle. See? ‘Cos, you know, my projector is still broken. So there’s no big TV in my office.



      — cough —


      [Todd goes off to think of new subtitle, stealing robolizard’s “bracket” gag and taking it with him.]

      • greyaenigma says:

        I liked “Spoiler Alert”.

      • Anonymous says:

        Bracky! Come baaack! Ah loved yoooo!

        [If I see a Heist Pulling Ant talking in brackets, I swear to God…]

        Did you know according to Imdb, most of your writing projects have something to do with insects in the title… kinda makes you thin, huh…

      • robolizard says:

        Oh! I get it now! Heheheh… ahhh…

        Yeah, I liked spoiler alert. ‘Todd Alcott Procrastinates’ wasn’t bad either…

    • Todd says:

      Y’know, I’m the biggest Frank Miller fan in the world, but I couldn’t get into the All Star Batman title. How did it turn out?

      • robolizard says:

        I don’t know. Haven’t gotten into it either. Frank Miller seems obsessed with his ‘Batman is better than everyone and Jesus combined’ philosophy he’s been holding since ‘The Dark Knight Strikes Again’ [which is actually better than people say it is]. I left when Superman once more became some kind of jerk… Oh, and of course there’s this, if you haven’t already heard about it–> []. He’s talking to a newly orphaned Dick Grayson btw.

        All Star Superman is pretty… pretty extreme though…

  7. craigjclark says:

    On the subject of trenchcoats

    I’d say they work for certain characters because they’re the average (and sometimes not-so-average) man’s cape. Which brings me to the subject of capes.

    Take the character of White Shadow on Minoriteam. I can barely tolerate the show, but I love looking at it whenever White Shadow appears. Why? Because he has a kick-ass character design and I’d have to say a lot of that is down to the cape. I’m sure Minoriteam would be much more tolerable in comic book form.

    • Todd says:

      Re: On the subject of trenchcoats

      Gotta say, I saw a commercial for Minoriteam and it made me want to grab my child’s hand and hastily cross to the other side of the street.

      • robolizard says:

        Re: On the subject of trenchcoats

        At least the ‘ironic racism’ joke is getting one long nail into the coffin. We all had our good times with it, but now its time to let it rest. See, if I write ‘rest like a Mexican during work hours’, its not funny anymore. And we have Minoriteam to thank for that…

    • greyaenigma says:

      I only discovered PBF (put the images together with the name) a few months ago and completely love it.

      Penny Arcade is one of the sites I meant to link to earlier. (That’s the first strip — you can see the evolution aas compared to the characters at top.)

      Another I forgot to mention: Silver Surfer. And on a similar level of power, Dr. Strange.

      And, since I’m home, I can walk over to my comics bookcase and discover… crap, I bought the same TBP twice. Not that, though. No, what I meant to find was my copy of The Essential Guide to World Comics. So a few world comics characters:

      Briareos from Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell (he’s so rabbity!)
      Major Kasunag, Batou from Ghost in the Shell
      Goku from Dragonball (Z) — if only for the hair. Some of the other characters are nicely designed, too.
      The “kids” from Akira.
      Nemi, which I’d discovered a few years back and lost track of.

      And, of course, I have to mention Mafalda, since I was introduced to it a few years ago.

      And I’m probably neglecting Bone, which has some great character design in it as well.

      And before I sleep, another I don’t want to forget — ‘s Apocamon (“Don’t stare directly into the face of God!”)

      • robolizard says:

        Bone=very yes. A nice simplistic design set in the real world.

        Ooh! As long as webthingies are talked about, I just want to mention this–> . Its… hilarious in the weird way. A teenager drew a fanfiction with Dexter meeting the Powerpuff Girls… its… heh.–> Dinosaur Comics are… teh greatest.. NO. TEH greatest. Post Modernism fused with awesome.

        I’m going to go devour a baby. [flees]

        • greyaenigma says:

          Is that supposed to be Samurai Jack in the background? It doesn’t seem enough like him, but the others, especially Dexter, are great.

          I may be an old fuddy-duddy, but the novelty of clip art comics has worn off on me. And for Dinosaur Comics, the one I see quoted most often is the anti-grammar one, so that bugs me a little.

          • robolizard says:

            Samurai Jack is thier gym teacher. Its a WEBCOMIIIIIIC… [check out the MELODRAMATIC STORY].

            Clip art!? But the postmodernism! The idea… oh well.

  8. Todd says:

    Oh, and let’s not forget this little guy.

  9. dougo says:

    This made me think about the character design of Thurston Moore, and then I remembered that Sonic Youth was on The Simpsons.