The Art of Character Design
Character design is an important step to establish the look and feel of a character. Designs and concept sketches are used in creating new characters, updating established characters, or creating a specific design for use in a particular story line. When introducing or re-introducing a character to an audience it is imperative to make an impact. In comics, a juxtapose of words and pictures, we at first visually see the page and then read the words. The visual has to catch the reader’s attention in order to stoke their desire to proceed with the story and becoming emotionally vested. The character needs to resonate and appeal to the audience. It is important to be distinctive and unique while keeping it simple. With an effective design much can be determined of their background, motivation, and environment.
How does it begin? In comics publication it can go about in a variety of ways. Often, a collaboration between the writer and editor will establish a tone and direction of a book. A premise is proposed, a narrative is constructed and a direction of what character or characters involved are determined. These are words and conversations and while powerful, a visual reference is required to bring a character to life. The editor will then work with an artist or artists to define that visual look. Important elements like height, weight, outfit, and accessories are established. Additional details like the time frame and environment are significant factors to visibly establish a character’s design. A look of a character should be simple, iconic, and able to stand on its own. The editor and artist may work back and forth, and it can take dozens of attempts before a final version is settled upon.
In August of 2012, Valiant Entertainment announced Character Design Covers for their October 2012 releases. Titles included Archer & Armstrong #3, Bloodshot #4, Harbinger #5, with designs by David Aja, and X-O Manowar #6 with designs by Jelena Kevic-Djurdjevic. Executive Editor Warren Simons stated “The Character Design Covers series is all about offering an insight into our medium and the artistic processes of two world-class designers.” Simons (now Valiant Entertainment’s Editor-In-Chief) was right! These were “order all” variants in that retailers could order any amount desired instead of incentive variants such as 1 per 10, 1 per 50, etc. Fans enjoyed collecting these variant editions without having to pay increased variant incentive prices. Usually character designs were used in-house and as references for the creators. Seeing fan favorite characters on the covers of these books as character designs helped introduce the comic buying public to the new Valiant Entertainment.
Other publishers have followed this trend, and it is now not uncommon to see character design variant covers regularly. Marvel Comics in particular has done several of these. Characters such as Captain America, The Winter Soldier, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Inhumans, Cable, and X-Force have graced their respective title covers as design variants. Valiant themselves have revisited this idea during their Valiant Next initiative. Titles such as The Valiant, Ninjak, Divinity, Ivar, Timewalker, and Imperium have utilized character design covers, once again giving the audience an insight to new characters and a look at the creative process.
Before Character Designs were the subject of variant covers they were used mostly in-house. Occasionally they would be extras as bonus features in collected editions. They were used by creators as reference and to help keep a consistent visual look and usually not shared with the audience. During the time Valiant was owned by Acclaim Entertainment many of their characters were being developed for video games. Character designs were utilized as a way for comic creators to communicate a character’s attributes to video game developers. With a larger team developing games it was important to have a point of reference to ensure consistency. Characters such as Shadowman, Armorines, and Turok made the transition from comic book page to video game. Other characters such as Bloodshot were under consideration and in development, but never made the final transition. Below are some character designs/model sheets by Sal Velluto featuring characters from Bloodshot:
An example of when character designs were utilized specifically for a special story was in 1995 during Valiant’s Harbinger Wars story line in Timewalker. Written by Kevin VanHook this story ran in Timewalker #6, #7, and #8. This arc featured Ivar traveling to the time of the Harbinger Wars as seen in Rai #0. Existing characters like Aric and Harada were depicted as older. New characters like Cannon and Phaze were created along with the look of Harbinger Troops. Artist Anthony Castrillo created character design sheets that established these characters in a dystopian vision of the future. Details like weapons, costumes, and technology all contributed to an established look of the future timeline during this 3-part saga.
As you can see, character designs are utilized in a variety of ways, but with similar goals. They are the first step in providing visual definition. They establish consistency, illustrate details, and designate personality traits. Many fans enjoy seeing the origins of their favorite characters. Original art collectors may especially enjoy adding these unique pieces of art to their collections. Whether they are the first appearance of a popular new character, updated costume, or re-visioning for other media, character designs are a critical step of the creation process.