Saturday, July 14, 2007

Distinguishing Characteristic

I'm about twenty minutes into X-Men: The Last Stand... but this isn't a film review, just an idle observation. After a few minutes, I noticed that visual elements that work fine in comics look odd on the screen. Why does Rogue have a white streak in her hair? Why is Storm's hair totally white? Why is Professor X bald? Why is Hank McCoy blue?

I realized that it's not an inherent part of their powers, but an essential element of comics storytelling: every character has to look so distinctive that he or she is recognizeable regardless of the talent--or lack thereof--of the artist illustrating that story. Comic book writers can't always count on getting a Curt Swan, who could portray a seemingly infinite variation of facial and body structures. Many artists seem incapable of illustrating more than a small handful of visual archetypes--and when it comes to drawing women, the number seems particularly limited. The distinctive hairstyle, the eye-catching primary-color costume, the unusual physical characteristic (like hair combed back to an exaggerated point and long sideburns)... it's a way to ensure that people can tell they're looking at Wolverine or the Beast or Professor X no matter how crudely the artist might illustrate them.

A reader recently complained that he was having trouble telling characters apart in many of the comics he was reading. The problem, it seems, is that artists and writers have forgotten this very basic story element. Many superhero comics today devote a large number of panels to talking heads, or to shots of characters in their human identities.. and unfortunately, the artists simply can't make one character look sufficiently distinctive from the other to enable readers to instantly tell them apart.

You might argue that the FF, for instance, had the same costumes. Sure they did--but one was a brown-haired man who stretched, one was a woman who could turn invisible, one was a blond teenage boy who burst into flames, and one was an orange rocky guy who wore only his costume shorts. If you couldn't identify those four in spite of similar costumes, you really weren't paying attention...

Considering the state of comics art nowadays--lots of flash and exaggeration and animation influences, but little subtlety--maybe it's time for writers to revisit the past and realize that stories make much more sense when readers are sure which character is doing what...

1 comment:

Tredekka said...

This piece gives me a new appreciation for Pia Guerra, artist on Y: The Last Man. For years she's drawn a comic that was 99% women (not even elaborately costumed women) and I can't remember a time when I couldn't tell one character from another. Although I still can't tell her girl monkeys from her boy monkeys. I agree 100% about Storm in the movies, too--the most puzzling element being her jet black eyebrows.