On Friday of C2E2 Oliver Sava of the AV Club gathered a panel of some of the most distinct and talented artists in superhero comics to discuss costume design and character in comics. The regular rogues gallery included Babs Tarr (famed for co-designing and drawing the Batgirl of Burnside and co-creator of Motor Crush), Erica Henderson (artist on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Assassin Nation), Annie Wu (artist on Black Canary and creator of the upcoming Dead Guy Fan Club), Russell Dauterman (one of Marvel’s ‘Young Guns’ and the artist on Cyclops, Thor, and War of the Realms), and Kenneth Rocafort (artist on Superman, Red Hood and the Outlaws, and The Ultimates).
The first question was what priorities the writers had when creating a cast. Henderson said that she wants to make sure that every character is distinct, that means different shapes and appearances, enough that you can identify them at a distance. Tarr and Dauterman added that you want to think about the character and what they would need or have access to. Things like income level, age, and their desire or lack thereof to be trendy are all important elements to consider.
Wu built off of that, saying that the world and character can also clarify how realistic you should be when considering these things. In big superhero stories you can fudge the materials and the practicality a little. Additionally, even if it isn’t practical, some things feel right in motion, she said. In an action-driven comic, a piece of clothing can accentuate movement or the presence of a character: Superman’s cape being a fine example of both that isn’t necessarily practical.
Rocafort chimed in to say that, oftentimes, writers and editors have ideas that can help clarify what the design should look like. Those ideas can provide guidance and ensure that the character serves the proper function in the story. He also warned against making costumes ‘trendy’. “Trendy is easy,” he explained, but design for comic characters is about finding a style that will last rather than chasing a trend.
Sava then asked about that collaboration in character design. Rocafort always likes to do his own colors, rather than work with a colorist, and that really affects his design process. He builds out from the colors to find a palette that inspires the design. Tarr said that she didn’t do the initial design of the Batgirl of Burnside, but came on board early in production. When she found it, Barbara was wearing a fairly plain leather jacket. Tarr immediately added seams and details to the jacket and offered different versions of Barbara’s hair and accessories. She felt that the design was already strong but implied that it was made without the experience of wearing women’s fashion and that this was her point of entry on the redesign.
Henderson was asked to redesign Squirrel Girl based on very little, not even the promise of a series, much less who would be writing it or what direction they would take the character. As such, she just drew four pages of different outfits. Eventually she picked one to use once the direction was established but it initially surprised her. The design she and her editors settled on was originally “…more of a pin-up-y outfit the way [she] drew it, that’s why it has more of a princess neckline…” Tom Brevoort suggested adding the ears on a headband and Henderson leaned into the new interpretation, giving rise to a classic. Despite the exhaustive process, it wound up being useful as a number of the rejected designs were included in the book as alternate costumes.
Asked about changing costumes, Wu said that Black Canary was an interesting example because the character was fronting a rock band and she figured that no one wanted to see someone wear the same outfit every night. As such each performance would have a unique take on the classic Black Canary iconography.
Henderson was thrilled to have Squirrel Girl in a myriad of costumes. “How many 19 to 20 year olds want to wear the same thing everyday?” Henderson said that she would just always try to nudge the book towards featuring different costumes. She took full advantage of the post-“Secret Wars” reboot and kept creating and advocating reasons for Doreen to change her style.
Sava then asked the panel what their favorite comics design. The answers were not necessarily surprising, but rather telling. Tarr chose the 90s jacketed Kon-El Superboy, calling it perfect. Henderson thought about it. When she was a kid, she thought that Rogue’s 90s Jim Lee outfit was the coolest thing, “…now I’m mad because it’s a brown jacket with the jumpsuit situation, like oh noooooooo…” Rocafort adores Jack Kirby’s Kamandi. He was offered the opportunity to draw the character by Dan DiDio, who urged him to be as inventive and divergent as he liked, but Rocafort felt it would disrespect the King to change such a strong, simple design. Dauterman needed no additional time to select the original Cockrum Phoenix design, “I just love how simple it is. If you look at that there’s so few lines on it but it conveys so much.” He’s also a fan of the Jim Lee 90s Jean Grey costume, saying that he knows that its probably objectively horrible but he loves it. A fellow fan of 90s X-Men, Henderson offered solidarity, “…it’s not good but it’s soo good.” Wu wanted to pick a Catwoman costume, but couldn’t choose one and kind of settled on the character in general, saying that each era has a very different take on the design, some more sultry and some playing up her role as a crime boss, but they all feel distinctively ‘Catwoman’. Upon Henderson calling out support for the Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman, Wu amended her answer, “My favorite costume is Michelle Pfeiffer“. Sava rounded things out, with love for another Kirby creation, Big Barda.
Sava asked about designing characters’ hair. Dauterman said he likes to treat hair like a character. Working on Malekith, Dauterman always draws his hair slithering around his head to match the character’s way of being, with it swirling around his enemies as if attacking or constricting them. Freyja, on the other hand, was something of a blank slate, having appeared in small roles in a variety of ways throughout Marvel canon but essentially rebooted for Jason Aaron’s stories. Dauterman settled on a bouffant hairstyle and and intricate armor accentuating her features in order to depict her as an equal to the Kirby excess of her husband, Odin. Specifically he cited the hair and headdress as a way to help her take up physical space to compete with Odin’s squat, massive frame.
Tarr generally gives characters hair that she wants to draw to vicariously enjoy impractical haircuts and so that it doesn’t become tedious. Though the character was very established, she wanted to do something different with Barbara Gordon’s hair and toyed with the idea of giving Batgirl bangs, only to realize that everyone regrets that change, so why would Barbara be any different? Henderson actually prefers to be a little more utilitarian with hair. In Assassin Nation, all the women just pull theirs back because they just need it out of the way to murder some people. Squirrel Girl also had a utilitarian bent, cut short to keep it out of the way. Eventually some people complained that her hair wasn’t sexy enough, so Henderson made it even shorter.
With Nancy, Henderson was inspired by a friend who attended Yale undergrad only to discover that she was effectively the only black person around. This led her to start thinking about black hair politics, shave her hair off, and grow it back natural. Henderson borrowed this friend’s look immediately after shaving her hair and gave it to Nancy, joking that she benefited from this uncomfortable experience of her friend, but later saying that she did this all for her.
Rocafort added that it’s important for an artist to draw something that reflects the character, rather than just their own sensibilities. Wu tries to reflect not just the character in general with her hairstyles but how they exist in the present. She mentioned a troubled character in Dead Guy Fan Club who she imagines having had a pixie cut six months before the start of the series, and who is now going through “the most miserable experience” of growing it out to match the misery of her life.
Wu also pointed out that characters, themselves, will also have style icons. Perhaps they’re trying to imitate someone. That sort of character can be very clearly communicated through hair and dress.
Asked about their favorite designers in comics, the panel agreed on Jack Kirby but added others. Dauterman cited Frank Quitely and Adrian Alphona. Wu agreed, saying that she felt that “you could shop confidently shop for each of [the Runaways].” Henderson had to add Darwyn Cooke, saying that he was a master of altering costumes in minor ways that kept the essence effortlessly, mentioning the New Frontier Wonder Woman and his Catwoman design by name.
The next question was what the panel would like to see more of in costume design? Tarr and Henderson agreed that they’d like to see characters wearing different costumes on different days, or even just having costumes for different scenarios. “You could even do it like those Batman toys: like it’s winter Batman!” Tarr admitted that companies really wanted their characters’ costumes to be iconic, but Henderson didn’t see those two points as inherently opposed. She brought up Project: Rooftop, the superhero redesign website, saying that these characters have sufficient brand recognition that even radical redesigns are easily identifyable. Rocafort actually had a Batman and Wonder Woman design featured on Project: Rooftop, among others, and said that he had actually pitched them to DC and been rejected. That being said, DC liked the design enough to produce a statue of the Batman, which will release soon.
Not something Henderson wanted to see more of but something she wants to see less of is tactical armor on characters, especially those who don’t need armor. Sava pointed out that that probably came from movies “where they have to add all that extra…” “Do they though!? Do they?” cried Henderson, “How good does Christopher Reeves look? There are like two lines in that costume.”
Jumping off of that, Tarr brought up a sore point that obviously hadn’t diminished with time: where did the movie Wonder Woman’s costume come from? The panel debated what material her top was intended to be made from, wondering how they designed “this crazy rubber thing” or if it was supposed to be some sort of leather or brushed metal that didn’t read that way. The gods must be crazy…
Sava wants to see different body shapes more in superhero comics. Wu championed the X-Men Team costumes, which are similar but they suit the individuals powers and shapes, perhaps even accentuating them. Dauterman explicitly kept a height chart during his work on Thor to make sure that all of his characters remained distinct from one another.
At this point, Rocafort noticed an unused design of his for Lobo on the screen. Sadly, Rocafort explained that he was offered to work on one of his favorite characters, but his vision of the character simply didn’t match what the editors wanted. Lobo has always been a character of excess and unrestrained, some would say parodistic, masculinity, but during the New 52 DC decided to try a new take on the character that the panel agreed deviated too far from the core identity of the Main Man. Rocafort did four designs for the book and, every time, he felt that the result was weaker than that last. Rocafort even got blame from fans for the designs. He said that he often has trouble definitively picking a favorite character, but Lobo is never far from the top “and they ruined my precious Lobo…”
The panel then turned to designing monsters. Henderson said that she thinks that monster designs fail when they don’t have any tie to reality. If you can’t imagine them getting up and chasing you, you won’t believe it in some way. Rocafort also bases a lot of monsters on his nightmares. As a child, Rocafort would have horrible nightmares. But then, he would get up happy and draw his monsters.
One questioner asked about how you differentiate characters when you have a uniform. Rocafort said that its good to avoid that whenever possible and just provide different variations on a theme. Though it may not be realistic to real world militaries, consider whether an elite team would be given uniforms that are personalized for their powers or body types. Tarr added that accessories really help with that. Jackets, scarves, and the like can add a touch of personality to a uniform outfit. Maybe they hold onto something from their past. Henderson pointed to the Howling Commandos from Captain America: The First Avenger as a fine example of distinguishing characters without actually modifying the outfit. “Different bodies will wear the clothes differently.” Dauterman agreed that changing how the characters stand will accentuate those differences. Wu pointed to pop groups, giving Destiny’s Child as an example, or Misfits where the entire ensemble will wear the same thing but literally wear them differently, with tops cinched or shoulders bared.
The next question was which character the panelists loved to draw the most. If they could go crazy and draw whatever one charadcter they wanted, who would they pick? Henderson barely had time for a breath before calling out “Jubilee!” Tarr wanted Sailor Moon. Dauterman went with Storm. Wu stayed on brand with a confident “Michelle Pfeiffer”.
The panel also paused here to address a statement from the audience about how women are drawn to feel powerful, using the example of the film versions of Harley Quinn, who wears essentially the same outfit between her two appearances, but radiates a wildly different energy between Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. Tarr felt that the difference came down to having a woman behind the scenes as a director in the later case.
Asked about the color symbolism of comic heroes, Henderson and Wu agreed that much of it came down to the limitations of printing in the era when many of the most iconic heroes were designed. Interestingly, the classic green and purple look of many comic book villains, notably Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, reportedly came about because those colors were more expensive to print and therefore were better suited to occasional appearances from contrasting villains.
Rocafort said that he feels that its especially important to respect the original colors, at least in relation to each other, when redesigning a character. Dauterman agreed, but added that you can remix or tweak colors as long as you retain that core understanding. In his design of Odin, for instance, he added some hot pinks to help the character pop and fit his aesthetic.
Turning back to the original question, Rocafort urged artists not to be too beholden to color symbolism. It’s a language that has to feel right more than be right and its culturally specific. For instance, in the west red usually represents something dangerous or powerful, blood or sex or force, but in Asia it’s an auspicious color that represents peace and good fortune. Henderson suggested using color theory not to represent a character’s objective truth, but rather their own perception of themself, villains rarely see themself as the bad guy, after all.
At the end of the panel I went up to the mic to ask the panelists what unused designs they wanted to see implemented in comics. Sava championed Gabriel Picolo, who has been brought on to work on Teen Titans: Raven for DC Ink, and said that he wished that the canonical Titans felt more like teens. Henderson received huge applause for declaring, “I would like all of Kevin Wada’s very horny X-Men designs.” For Dauterman’s part, he just wants to see Emma Frost wear as many of Kris Anka’s designs for her as it would take to soothe her icy heart and endless funds.