In this blog I’m partially going to tread onto Dawn’s turf, but hey, comics are a continual mix of words and pictures (even if sometimes you can toss words completely out of the mix, which is why comics writers are such an insecure bunch). She’s talked about writing before, and now I wanna talk about art.
Specifically, I wanted to talk about how important it is to keep a sense of distinction between your characters that an audience can instantly grasp. This isn’t just limited to comics, as this trope entry shows, but because comics often tend to abstract the human face and form, I think it becomes that much more vitally important.
Now, if you’re good enough and have enough time, you could not only create very distinctive faces but distinctive mannerisms for your whole cast, to the point where they would still be identifiable even in nude silhouette. Tracy Butler worked really hard at this with Lackadaisy, and for the most part succeeded. But plenty of professional, well-regarded artists in comics have fallen prey to the “Only Six Faces” syndrome, whether that comes from complacency, need to meet deadlines, or both.
Does it make them bad comics artists? Not in my book… as long as I can tell who I’m looking at. That’s the key point. The audience should never have to spend any time figuring that out (with an exception of course for when identity confusion is an intentional plot point).
That’s where the “accessories” come in. An iconic costume. A unique hairstyle. An unusual body type. Maybe even a certain way of speaking. Anything and everything that you can scrounge up to eliminate confusion and keep the flow of story as intact and transparent as possible. And when you’ve made your primary choices, it’s important to always keep them in mind as your tale progresses.
For example, the Only Six Faces trope linked above singled out the second artist of The Walking Dead comic as having some troubles with this, which was unsurprising to me after I checked out a free issue (#8 I think?) and became totally lost on who was who as the narrative kept jumping from place to place. I believe I recall one particular instance where a blond woman is just getting out of a shower, but is a completely different blond woman than the one on a previous page. I did have the thought that maybe I just was lost for not having kept up with things for awhile, but still, it’s a monthly comic, right? And if “most of the women… are only identifiable by their hair and/or hats”, then you can see the immediate problem when one is stepping out of the shower and hasn’t bound up her signature ponytail yet.
Now think about Batman and Superman. In their superhero costumes, you’d never mistake them for one another–but take them out of the costumes and you’ve got two big, muscular, black haired, square-jawed dudes. Writers have even played with this down the decades by having Clark and Bruce pretend to be each other, the same way there’s not a few Archie comics where Betty and Veronica have done switcheroos by simple expedient of some dye and a hairstyle switch. South Park’s superhero spoof episode had Mysterion reveal his identity at the end by showing his face… the same face that 99% of the kids on South Park share.
The closer to each other your characters look, the more you have to work at the accessories. One thing that makes offerings like The Walking Dead comic more complex is not only the fact that everyone tends to be dressed and presented in a realistic fashion, but that the comic itself is in black and white. Can you imagine trying to read a Power Rangers comic in black and white? If you can manage it, color is quite the powerful accessory. Color allows you to have two girls with ponytails, one with light brown hair and one with blond hair. Maybe. But what if you end up having a scene in a poorly lit room, or a moonwashed moor? Now you need to change it up. Garishly distinctive costumes, but similar faces? Be cautious when zooming in to catch the glint in their eye.
A lot of iconic characters have a range of accessories accumulated–possibly just because they looked good, but also possibly because the artist was giving themselves some options. Superman’s signature forelock? Well, now you can switch between close-up headshots of him and Bruce Wayne conversing. Crystal of The Inhumans and Susan Storm having a cup of coffee in street clothes? You can bet Crystal’s still going to have those funky ties in her hair (it’s like Jack Kirby foresaw that someday Marvel would be releasing colorless versions of their comics in the “Essential” collections).
And when all else fails, there’s words. Let’s face it, these are all cheats in some form or other, quick and dirty ways to connect… but there ain’t nothing wrong with that if the alternative is loss of clarity. This is where, if you’re a writer, you can really help your artist… or if you’re both writer and artist, you can help yourself. If you’ve got two dark-haired white women in your comic with similar faces and bodies, and you’re showing a long shot of one emerging naked (or towel-wrapped) from a shower in some neutral area (perhaps a police station both work at?), this might be the time to shove in some words so we know we’re following Laura and not Audrey.
- A passing co-worker asks, “Shift over, Laura?”
- Laura has a thought bubble: “Man, I hope Audrey isn’t still sore about this morning.”
- A caption: “After a long day, Laura washes her body clean, but her mind remains troubled…”
Words can serve as an accessory even when all the visual options are exhausted. Whatever you do, just give me something to go on, and give it to me right away. Don’t keep me waiting and keep me guessing unless its supposed to be a mystery where gloved hands and shifty silhouettes are the order of the day.
You don’t have to be an incredible artist who crafts each character into their own multi-layered snowflake… just keep asking yourself, if you were reading for the first time, “Would I know who this is?” It’s even worth asking this from a pure writing perspective as well… if you’re doing an O.P. (off panel) word bubble, someone speaking that we can’t see, is it clear who’s speaking? For instance, in this week’s comic, I inserted a “ma’am” in Frank’s word bubble in the last panel. Did I need to? Maybe, maybe not, since I don’t think Frank and Rosa sound much alike… but for the sake of clarity, I figured it couldn’t hurt.
Before I sign off, I thought I’d leave you all with a venerable example of character clarity where the designs are much less complicated than Lackadaisy’s. I hadn’t even considered it much until I started thinking about all this, but it’s been staring us in the face for decades:
Oh, sure, snicker about how lazy and formulaic the animated adventures of the Mystery Machine crew may have been… but take a good look at these characters. Scooby obviously doesn’t need help, but the rest?
- Different hairstyles. Check
- Different colored hair. Check.
- Iconic outfits. Check.
- Distinctive color palettes on those outfits. Check.
- Differently shaped bodies. Check.
- Differently shaped faces. Check.
Even those very, very simply done faces have subtle differences. Shaggy has that big nose. Daphne has those upswept eyes. You will never, ever worry about mistaking one member of the Scooby Gang for another. Heck, they even all had a specific way that they ran.
The supporting cast? Yeah, a pretty interchangeable mix of shady butlers and matronly widows, but as far as the main kids went, well, you almost know what they’re about before they ever open their mouths, and you know they’re all about different things… except, of course, solving the mystery. Now that’s accessorizing.