Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Character evolution

One of the main concerns that make drawing comics a rather different skill to gag cartooning or illustration is having to draw the same character over and over again. Lots of different poses and expressions are required, so an ability to render your central character convincingly over a series of strips really adds concincing depth. The strange thing about doing multiple stories is the way characters evolve. As a writer of strips, I can tell you that the personalities of characters definitely alter as time goes on. Different scenarios require different responses that might have not been built into the character at the time of conception, and as this process of organic world building continues, then characters definitely deepen and become more rounded, if not real.

However, this post is more concerned with a strange process that goes along with that-that of the evolution of the design of characters. Often this is a combination of conscious changes and subconscious or unconscious changes, and when you look back at the pages it can genuinely be a surprise at how much a design has evolved. Take a look at the evolution of my silent space gladiator, Pow.

I can tell you that the changes with his chin were part conscious and part unconscious. It was firstly a matter of necessity to alter the shape of it because as the strip developed from a half page to a multiple page story he needed to be capable of a far greater range of expression (mostly happy ones-he was a bit nasty when he started). The final changes where the jaw became more squared off just sort of happened. You'll notice in the final image that the shape of his feet have changed-I decided to do this a few strips ago as a general move towards softening him into a friendlier character. The strangest change is that in the first strips he is very heavy set and it surprised me greatly when I looked back and saw the transition to a more streamlined and slender design. I rather like his brutal appearance at the beginning, but his current incarnation is much more versatile to work with and actually helps him cope better with the situations I throw him into. He no longer punches his way to success, but has become more of a lateral thinker. 

When designing a character I use three simple rules: 

1. Make them instantly recognisable. There's a lot of characters out there, so a unique appearance is important. Matt Groening designed each of the Simpsons with a strikingly different silhouette. A well designed character should be recognised by their outline.

2. Plasticity. Cartoon characters need to stretch so they have to be designed in such a way that you can mush them up and they retain their recognisability. I use blue skin, pink hair and a robot arm as reference points that mean my character can be transformed into almost anything and as long as he keeps those three characteristics the reader can follow-very important in a silent strip where there is no speech or narration to help.

3. Make them easy to draw. If you bog your character down with loads and loads of detail and have to draw them 100 times a week you are going to get extremely annoyed with work you should be enjoying. This doesn't seem to apply to the more figurative end of cartooning-the sort of thing you find in 2000AD and Marvel. The more attachments to a character's outfit the better apparently. I've no idea how they do it, but for the kind of humour cartooning I do less is definitely the way to go.

Here's a great example from the other strip I produce for The Phoenix, Useleus. The artist Wilbur Dawbarn recently noted how huge Minotaur had become, and it was a surprise to him to compare old episodes with what he is doing now. Because Minotaur is really well conceived as a design, the evolution probably went completely unnoticed by the reader. Again, there have been conscious and unconscious alterations. His nose and jawline has changed to allow Wilbur greater freedom to give him expression. Take a look.

One of the most obvious and noted changes to occur to a character (probably because the books are so widely read and popular) is that of Obelix. I always liked the earlier Obelix, from roughly the 4th book to the 12th. After that, responding perhaps to Goscinny writing stories which dealt more with parody of modern existence and darker themes, Uderzo began to stretch out his characters. They became more realistically proportioned and less squat, although 'realistic' is pushing it with Obelix with his tiny legs and massive belly, but you get the idea. You can see from these images how Uderzo has modified Obelix over the 50 years he drew him. 

I'd say that this sort of change is universal with comic characters. Intriguingly, the biggest changes often seem to be from the first strip to the second. Perhaps because the designs are stretched to their limits over that story and found inadequate, and so have to be altered for the next.