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Legibility IV: Character Differentiation and Posing

If you’re still with us, today is the long post; maybe you should get a refreshing beverage before you start reading.

It’s time to see if it’s easy to tell characters apart. Fortunately, this is probably where you’ll have the most leeway in a comic; your readers have had a lifetime of training that tells them down in their guts that “comics = a certain degree of looseness in anatomical representation”. Not that you should abandon anatomy entirely, mind (drag out Chuck Amuck again and flip to How to Make a Tennis Shoe for a Percheron), but within certain broad limits, you can exaggerate characters visually in whatever way you need or want to.

Even in a more realistic strip, there’s room for variation of height, build, hair, and suchlike. If you really want to see how different “real” people can look, check out Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise. Yes, it’s a print comic, but go buy a copy of issue #78 anyway. Check out the variety of character designs he uses, especially the effectiveness of switching between illustrative and cartoony styles on pages 15 – 1 7. You can do that! That’s the really cool part: you don’t get to design just one look for your characters … you get to design a bunch. In addition to making things more or less cartoony, play around with posture, clothing, POV, and especially posing.

The first benefit of these variations is that it serves the cardinal rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. Remember those old Marvel comic book panels with a hero crashing through a door and thinking, “I’ll surprise that villain by crashing through this door! Now to trap him with these ropes! ? Unless you’re shooting for a retro-cheesy style, that’s bad storytelling. The second benefit is these variations, especially posing, can convey emotion as effectively than words. Check out this panel of Shaenon Garrity talking about the end of Narbonic … do you suppose she actually threw her real-life, personal arms in the air like that? But you see how that exaggeration brings an emotional state, even without words? That’s your visual vocabulary, your stock in trade. Use it.

Here’s another example of how exaggeration works for you: take a look at Sluggy Freelance for April 19, 2005, panel #4, for an example of dawning comic horror. Pete Abrams provides a clean line, some variation in posing, and decent closeup on Zoe in the foreground. Now take a look at Phil Foglio’s Sluggy guest strip from June 22, 2003, panel #8 for another example. Same character, same emotion, much more impact in the second example as a result of the exaggerated character pose. Okay, fine, Foglio’s is in color and I said we weren’t going to deal with color. In fact, we can take color out of the equation entirely and still see the impact:

It is difficult to make sure that the reader is concentrating on what you want them to. One of the guidelines I use is an old animators’ rule of thumb which says that the emotion and action of your characters should read in silhouette. In other words, get his or her hands out in the clear and give them the appropriate posture. Within this broad gesture, I’m free to be as subtle as I wish.
— Jeff Smith, Bone Reader

Take away the color, take away the facial expression, reduce everything to a posed silhouette, and that emotion should still speak. Check out these panels from Digger (part of the first storyline, available as a free preview on Graphic Smash, or in handy book form), and revisit that self-portrait from Narbonic. Heck, Digger even features a recurring character that’s little but a silhouette, leaving nothing but body posture to convey inner state. Compare Digger’s Shadowchild to Greg from that same User Friendly strip as before, and ask yourself which conveys the concept of “puzzlement” better.

Silhouetting works for character recognition, too. Check out cast members from User Friendly, Wapsi Square and GPF (each of these silhouettes is of a character taken from the strip’s own cast page; jagged edges are an artifact of converting GIFs and solely my fault). Yes, if you’ve been reading consistently, you can tell which is Pitr and which is Sid … but every strip is going to be the first one that somebody reads, and if you don’t make it easy to jump on, it just might be their last, too. Ironically, having a high iconized cast design (like PvP or GPF) can occasionally work against you. Jeff Darlington has had loads of mysterious figures lurking in the shadows in GPF over the past several years, but the very distinctive nature of his designs means there’s not much mystery there.

Sorry, but I disagree completely with your Sluggy example. The characters aren’t conveying the same emotion at all. And I gotta say, I find the first black and white drawing WAY more effective at conveying emotion than the second, which seems a bit too cartoony and faked.

The first one conveys emotion so much more genuinely… that moment where you have SUDDENLY remembered something and it just poinks into your head.

In my own cartoons, I often use body language to indicate how characters are feeling… but it’s not always necessary. Sometimes simple facial expressions are a lot more helpful.

The glare in Esther’s eyes in panel three of this ScaryGoRound cartoon is a perfect example. The panel before she’s freaking out, arms flailing and hair wild. And then, in panel three, she’s simply glaring. And panel three is able to convey as much emotion as panel 2 is. Really, I think the emotional content of drawing a character is about getting the eyes and mouth right more than making sure you position their arms in some wacky and overblown way. Subtle emotions seem more real and will invetably strike the reader in a better way.

Posture? Posing? Expression? I don’t speak your crazy moon language!

[…] And if you’re doing anything even a little bit more involved than that, you need to create characters. And these characters need to be distinguishable from each other. And so you give them different haircuts (none of them anatomically possible) or different boob sizes (none of them realistic), and they wear different clothes (and never change their clothes). […]

[…] This page has previously mentioned Ursula Vernon’s Digger, although so far only as an example of art that clearly expresses emotion. This means that this page has neglected to mention any other aspect of Digger, such as the fact that it has an exemplary update record, sharp writing, gorgeous art, and is all-around the best thing on Graphic Smash. Today, it does something more. […]

[…] So, something PJ wrote got me to thinking about what makes for a good webcomic — archives that you can easily (and freely) navigate are the key advantage of webcomics over their print brethren, despite certain business models to the contrary. Jeff once remarked on the importance of infrastructure, including navigation, forum, and blurb space. And I’ve written about the importance of legibility in artwork. But what else is necessary for a really good webcomic? […]

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