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The Obligatory Top 10 Favorite Character Designs

Character design is paramount to pretty much any kind of comic.  Most comics have things in them, and some of those things are characters, and those characters better be well-designed.  Design allows the artist to communicate essential information to the reader about a character, and a good design allows for versatility independent of minor details.  I’ll probably write a more specific post later about the mechanics of character design, but for now I’m just compiling a list of my personal favorite comic character designs.  All of the one I list exhibit all of the key essential design elements:

  • Silhouette - the outer shape is clear and unique
  • Value - the lights and darks provide effective contrast
  • Color - meaningful and compelling color choices
  • Versatility - details of the design are flexible
  • Iconic - striking, memorable imagery

Here are my favorite designs from the world of comics:

#10 - Spider Jerusalem

The crotchety protagonist from Warren Ellis’ spectacular cyberpunk series Transmetropolitan was designed by Darick Robertson.  It’s a masterful exercise in simplicity; Spider’s outfit is mostly black, bisected by a “band” of light tone created by his exposed torso.  He’s a bit of a looming figure, but it’s broken up nicely by the odd glasses, which are really the most distinct element of the character.  They’re not only instantly recognizable, but the unusual pairing of shapes suggests a facial expression (specifically the raising of an eyebrow).  This is a great twist on the iconic nature of sunglasses, which are traditionally associated with the hiding of expression.

You can pretty much know it’s him from any angle, and even from silhouette, Robertson generally maintains the sunglasses as visible.  Clarity of design and the striking shapes makes Spider Jerusalem a visually memorable character.

#9 - Thor

Designed by the king of superhero comics, Jack Kirby, Thor succeeds in suggesting historical and mythological elements without being bound to them stylistically.  Aside from the hammer, there’s very little that’s literally Norse about the details of Thor’s outfit, but Kirby gets the point across effectively and stylishly.  Wrapped boots, the suggested armor circles and the feathered helmet are there to add to the theme of a near-invincible god, rather than hit us over the head with the premise.  

All the primary shapes and colors emphasize Thor’s power and build:  his exposed arms and wrist bands emphasize his musculature, and the pointed shoulders and raised cape accentuate his already broad frame.  Even the shape of the hair hugs the outline of the head to suggest both a powerful and royal feel.

#8 - Calvin & Hobbes

I’m counting these guys as one design, as one really doesn’t work without the other.  The beauty of Calvin & Hobbes is that they contrast so well, and their design tell us not only about themselves but about each other.  Calvin’s diminutive, his scruffed hair and dropped face suggests a child at odds with authority, but only through his own chaos and not through direct malevolence.  Hobbes towers over Calvin, and often hunches a bit to see him, emphasizing that he is often humoring Calvin’s speeches.  One thing I especially like about Hobbes is that although he’s very cartoony, he still moves and acts like a cat.  His body coils and stretches, and his fur will often stand on end in appropriate fashion.  It’s nice to see a character that isn’t just “generic talking animal #357.”

#7 - The One Electronic

You didn’t think I wouldn’t have a robot, did you?  T.O.E., the mysterious sometimes-protagonist from Evan Dahm’s Overside stories, is a good example of a character design that isn’t tied to a specific costume.  There’s definitely a color theme and general silhouette requirements (purple and white are dominant, with either a cape, poncho or coat), but it’s T.O.E.’s distinctive head that gives him away.  His face is a television screen that, in each panel, displays a different image from vintage film or television (despite existing in a completely different universe).  It’s an unusual flourish that is never explained, which is all the better.

This character reeks mystery, and everything about the design emphasizes that:  the head is a simple, recognizable shape, the colors are always subdued and T.O.E. can somehow eat and smoke a cigarette with only a glass screen.  When we see T.O.E. we immediately want to know what he’s thinking.  It’s a character that draws us into the mystery of Dahm’s stories.

#6 - The Elric Brothers

Edward and Alphonse Elric, the beleaguered protagonists from the manga Fullmetal Alchemist, are a wonderful exercise in shape and silhouette dynamics.  Al, the giant suit of armor, plays against visual type and generally behaves very timidly, while Ed is the diminutive hothead.  The designs are largely about shape contrasts; despite having some spikes and a mean looking head, Al’s body shape is bulbous, almost like a baby or toddler, hinting at his childlike nature.  The shapes created by Ed’s red coat and unusual cutoff jacket make him look shorter than he is, and there are some subtle sharp edges created that suggest his prickly personality.

The designs also tell us about the history of the characters, specifically the premise of the show.  Al actually has no body, his soul bound to this suit after their accident.  Ed too has a prosthetic arm and leg, which are sometimes (but not always) hidden by his outfit.  They’re tough kids with a rough history, and it comes through perfectly.  Also I’d be lying if I said Edward’s prosthetics weren’t a partial inspiration for my own protagonist.

#5 - Popeye

Ugly as sin and built like a bag of hammers, Popeye’s visuals communicate so much about his character.  His head looks like it was caved in, perpetually in a facial expression of mild annoyance.  His limbs look as if they were squashed, emphasizing a scrappy, combative personality, and the second highest contrast area directs us to his bulbous arms, clearly indicating this is a character who does most of his thinking with his fists.  Popeye is one of the best examples of design going beyond just what the characters are wearing and into how the characters are physically built.

#4 - Hellboy

Mike Mignola is one of my favorite comic artists in general, and nowhere is his solid art sense more evident than in the design of Hellboy.  There are some strong, simple shapes going on here, both in the massive stone right hand and in the two “circles” on his head (which are actually shaved down horns).  The big, clear shapes make it possible for the little shapes (like the details of the belt and coat) to be very flexible, meaning Hellboy doesn’t really need a set “costume” for us to know it’s Hellboy.  

Mignola avoids the traditional “heroic broad shoulders” design elements for Hellboy, instead pushing the posture and build of a working class man.  Fighting monsters is just his job, and there’s a tired look in his expression and in the downward sloping shapes created by his coat and body.  He’s a tough, stoic character, and everything about the design conveys this.  If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the guy was carved out of rock.

#3 - Tank Girl

Tank Girl, brainchild of Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett, is a special case in a couple ways.  For starters, she’s sadly one of the only dynamically designed female characters in mainstream comics, but also she seemingly breaks some of the rules I put forth at the beginning.  Where are the clear shapes, colors and lines?  They’re actually there, but they’re produced by the chaos of the details.  I mentioned earlier that we don’t really need to know the details of what’s on Hellboy’s belt, just so long as it’s there and there’s stuff on it.  This concept is taken to its extreme with Tank Girl, who is generally decked out in all sorts of military and punk-themed paraphernalia.  The designs are anything but generic, and despite what should be clutter in the hands of any other creator, it holds together.  Why?

There’s a method to the madness.  There are repeating elements like the helment, her hairstyle (within a range), the types of shapes created by the gear and clothing.  Similar to T.O.E. earlier, certain types of clothing “fit” the design, while others don’t.  It also helps that outside of the clothing, Hewlett designed Tank Girl’s body and face to resemble a real specific person and not “generic comic book lady.”  If you’ve seen his work on Gorillaz you’ll know that he does a good job of swapping out costumes on characters without ever losing the iconic “feel” of those characters.  You can always tell it’s Tank Girl.

It’s also not just style for its own sake.  Tank Girl’s appearance tells us a lot about the character: crude, chaotic, but pragmatic in her own right.  This also sets the theme very well for the tone of the comic itself.  An absolutely ingenious design that would be a mess in the hands of a lesser artist.

#2 - Arzach

French comic legend Mobeius' comic Arzach has always been near and dear to my heart. Although many in the US may not know it directly, we’ve seen its legacy, being the partial inspiration for such great works as Nausicaa and Panzer Dragoon.  Arzach, like Tank Girl, isn’t tied to a specific outfit but rather a style of outfit, the most iconic two elements being his unusually pointy hat and his “stone pterodactyl” steed.  However, unlike the intentional chaos of Hewlett’s design, every element of Arzach’s outfit is carefully chosen:  he is a warrior and traveler, and carries with him only items of absolute necessity (aside from the ceremonial trinkets).

Arzach never speaks a word in the series (in fact, it’s virtually wordless), flying across a dreamlike landscape in his surreal, partially symbolic adventures.  Not only does everything about the design convey “weary traveler,” but it also hints at a culture and world we’ll never fully know.  His tunics are always wide, emphasizing his broad shoulders, and he is covered from head to toe in hand-stitched garb and gear, reminiscent of both Mesoamerican fashion and Natives of the American West.  With his pterodactyl, he symbolizes a striking, dreamlike freedom that we want to follow, but the weapons on his person also suggest a warlike past.  He is the Odysseus archetype, forever wandering, but also conquering his foes through wits.  Arzach is the ultimate visual oneironaut.

#1 - Moon Boy

Moon Boy is a naked monkey that rides a dinosaur.