Wanted: Comic Book Stylists


Before I get underway with this article, I need to admit that, as a designer, it’s entirely possible that my priorities are in other places than “normal” comic book readers. I’m happy to admit this, and it probably has some bearing on how strongly I feel about this, and how much notice you’re going to want to pay to this. With that in mind, there’s something that has gradually become too irritating for me to ignore. While comic book artists might be skilled in drawing people with superhuman abilities, flying through space, and exerting themselves in all kinds of superhuman endeavors, they are not stylists. Nor are they clothing designers, furniture designers, interior decorators, and definitely not architects.

When asked to draw people out of their spandex and leather costumes, your average comic book artist will, all too often, simply draw another costume, as if in daily life, people depicted in comic books don’t dress like people on the street. When is the last time you saw someone on the street or at work, walking around in a skin-tight, one-piece Lycra bodysuit? Do you know how impractical those things are? If you have to go to the bathroom, you have to take the whole thing off. Who has time for that? No one, that’s why people don’t wear them. Ever. And let’s not even begin to get into how difficult it is to find underwear that works under a skin-tight one-piece. It’s ridiculous to suppose that anyone but a superhero would wear one, so why do some artists draw regular people wearing them?

I’ve long been a huge fan of Alan Davis, but I find it difficult to enjoy his books, especially when his characters have any kind of life outside of their superhero activities. This is because his styling is so damn weird. I will always love his ability to draw musculature in movement, to make even the most hulking behemoths look elegant and fluid. I really cannot say enough good things about his work. However, he draws women with big hair, and men with mullets (and women with mullets too actually). Even today, he’s still drawing people wearing shoulder pads and guys in sports jackets with the sleeves rolled up! Miami Vice finished a long time ago. Worst of all would have to be his original design for Psylocke. While I loved that he’d created a British, female superhero, I had a very hard time with her pink costume (this in tandem with the lavender hair was seriously weird), and the costume’s shape was odd to say the least.. How practical can those draping sleeves with the keyhole cut-outs be in a fight? When the styling is interfering with the artwork, then it’s a problem.

Unfortunately I missed Nexus when it first came out, and so didn’t learn about the artistry and wonder that is Steve Rude until last year. And what a mad adventure Nexus is… Entire worlds and cultures are created, and this talented artist is more than up to the task of visually communicating every aspect of these alien environs. His inventive attitude adds a lot to the comic books wild science fiction feel, and provide a great counterpoint to the intense stories. Then I picked up the first three volumes of Children of the Atom. This is a book set in the ’90’s, and yet the furniture is straight out of Nexus. People perch on multi-colored, floating egg chairs, straight out of Steve’s imagination. Warren Worthington’s bedroom is furnished with a wrought iron bedstead, animal print bedspread, and frilly curtains. Is this really the room of a straight/sane millionaire? Some of the characters dress like typical late ’90’s teenagers, while others are straight out of the 1950’s, the combination is confusing and often, unintentionally comedic. It makes the story seem strangely unrealistic, and it’s confusing to say the least. If he knew he had to draw a book about young people of the day, why not do some research? He could have bought copies of Raygun and Vice Magazine (and I cannot recommend the DOs & DON’Ts highly enough as a prefect time waster), or just visit a couple of malls and sit around and people watch. Is that too much to ask? Maybe part of the fault can be placed on the colorist, with the inappropriately vibrant color schemes, but then again, he just draws attention to the Steve’s strange creations.

Do you remember Dazzler? All disco-fabulous in her white, skin tight jumpsuit, and her swinging sheets of long hair. It was what it was, not my type of thing, but she looked like a classic roller-babe and it worked for her. Then in the 1980’s she got a short, ruffled hair cut, (looked a little like a messy Princess Di thing) with a headband over it. A headband. I could see the rest of it working, she was way overdue for a revamp. But why would you want a headband as part of the costume? It doesn’t hide her identity, nor does it keep her hair out of her eyes. In fact, all it would do is ride up and get in the way. Not good, not good at all. No one in real life looks good in a headband (Paris and Mischa, we’re looking at you). They might be fashionable, but that doesn’t mean that they look good on anyone. Headbands provides zero functionality for a superhero costume, it just makes no sense.

Not all comic book artists are so detached from the mundanities of everyday styling. There are artists like Jamie Hewlett, Jaime Hernandez, and Philip Bond who all draw people who look like folks I know. I remember pointing out an issue of Superman that John Byrne drew, to show someone the lines of Lois’ bra, as they pinched her back. He knew how clothes worked on a person’s body. It’s as if these artists wander about and take mental snapshots of the people around them, to use as the well-dressed models for their artwork. David Mazuchelli and Bryan Hitch know how to draw believable environments, so that even if the space is playing second fiddle to the characters, it never looks incongruous. I asked Bond how he was able to create such real looking people, and he said that he just looked around him. It’s that simple, and I think this pinpoints the problem.

As far as I can tell, a lot of comic book artists and writers work alone, at home, in their quiet, isolated studios, day after day. With little everyday contact with people, perhaps they stopped taking in what is happening in terms of fashions and interiors around them? Perhaps part of the comic book creator’s job ought to be a strict regime of research, involving subscriptions to Vogue, GQ, Dwell, Wallpaper, and a revolving range of materials relating to whatever they’re working on at the time? Getting out of the studio obviously couldn’t hurt either, maybe someone needs to take these poor, struggling artists out for dinner once in a while? Or perhaps the key to this problem is even more extreme, perhaps what we need is a new member of the creative team; A comic book stylist, who’s job is simply to get used to the characters and storylines as they are described, and dress them accordingly, choosing an appropriate environment for them to inhabit.  


Sonia Harris lives and just about dresses herself in San Francisco (where just today, she saw a girl waiting for the bus, wearing a pair of fairy wings, so clearly this environment is quite silly.) You can email her your thoughts and ideas at sonia@ifanboy.com.

Comments

  1. Obviously someone missed the classic issue of X-men where it was revealed that Rambo was Dazzler’s favorite movie. Hence the headband.

  2. Enjoyable as ever, Sonia!

  3. I totally agree with this article. I mean Im barely 23 so I think I have a good idea of what clothing would look good today and not outdated but as an artist I always think about what the characters would wear. And on many occassions I have bought womens clothing magazines for better reference on stylish clothing, though it is a double edged sword, if you stylize the characters too much, ten years from now it will look outdated. I mean Im sure we’ve all looked at 80’s comics where the characters may have had some really outdated hair style or fashion.

  4. I agree with you that Alan Davis’s clothing choices do need a bit of an update, But have you checked out his work on Clan Destine? There are some good examples of normal clothing, and of course there are outfits that have starched colars that seem to stand up so straight they might have a mind of thier own. Great Article, i always enjoy it when some one brings a new take to view comics that i would have never thought of. Thanks.

     

  5. Oh, now this is good.

    The worst offender to me is George Perez.  Lots of unintentional humor in his most recent Avengers run.  John Romita Jr., too. 

  6. Steve McNiven on "Amazing Spider-Man" is the best stylist I’ve seen.  His 3 issues made Peter Parker look modern.  The clothing never looked better.  look to that to find good clothing in modern comics.

    "Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane" by manga artist Takeshi Miyazawa had excellent clothing styles as well.  He knew how to draw young women and men looking great.

  7. Great article Sonia. I always liked Ethan Van Sciver’s out-of-costume designs, they felt very regular. I also think Quitely draws some creative clothing that fits his style perfectly. It’s retro and futurist at the same time. Sean Martinborgouh, is probably the best plainclothes artist I’m seeing right now. His pencils for Luke Cage Noir are awesome.

     

  8. That’s a funny article.  I’ve never really thought about it till now.

  9. I don’t know what to think, on the one side I’d like my comic art to looks as realist as needed to tell the story but for me it normally always is.  Comic artist by their very nature have to drawn everything from the human form to city scape’s, it’s a big and expansive task.  I can’t expect them to excel at everything and bring on another person to monitor the style chooses wouldn’t help the price point.  For a single picture fine, get everything perfect but in sequential storytelling I don’t see it as a priority.  Interesting though.  

  10. Amy Reeder Hadley (Madame Xanadu) is probably the only (current) artist I can think of that really puts a great care on clothing and interior designs.

    In a recent interview she pretty much made Sonia’s observations and said that she is much more interested in clothing design than action in her comic art.

    Sonia, you should definitely check Madame Xanadu out if you haven’t done that yet.

  11. Name escapes me at the moment, but the first artist on Marvel’s Runaways series? I thought he did a fabulous job of using appropriate styles for each of the characters, giving them each a style and personality through their dress, while remaining era/age appropriate for the kids.

  12. To be fair to Davis, JR Jr, and anyone else drawing in the 80s, fashion was a bit awful then. Byrne’s X-Men had some decently appropriate civvies, though he leaned heavily on flannel, if I recall.

  13. @daccampo   Adrian Alphona!

     Bob Layton on Iron Man was my favorite for terribly inappropriate fashions.

  14. Equally, couldn’t it be argued that the fashions, architecture and settings of the superhero comic are part of the appeal? The fact that the characters can get away with such outlandish attire is an indication that their universe is a step removed from reality. Should artistic liscence be an individual response from a creator as opposed to being dictated by trends that we can see everyday and everywhere and but comics?
    That said, research does go a long way in a creator building a world view for a comic book.
    Great article. Food for thought.

  15. The piece of fashion that always perplexed me was the "face bra" sported by Gambit and Jean Grey that seem to exist for no reason.  I actually saw someone dressed as Gambit at a con and I couldn’t help staring at this part of his costume.  It looked ever weirder in person.

  16. @Xomneon – What you call ‘artistic license’ many would say is being out of touch with fashion.  Hmm, my father would probably appreciate me using the term ‘artistic license’ rather than ‘lame’ when discussing his jean shorts.

  17. People were one piece body suits at comic cons….and that might have something to do with the bathroom lines, now that I think about it…..

  18. I think costume design has to be flashy and memorable moreso than functional.  The headband makes Dazzler look less like everyone else in the book.  That’s why it’s necessary.  I can see being upset over the weird chairs and clothes in some books, but its never bothered me in super hero books.  Like Xomneon said, it’s a world removed from my own.  Who knows what kind of chairs X-Men sit in?  If it’s a more realistic story or a period piece, I do think that an artist should be careful about getting it right.  Another good article Sonia, it sparked a debate at my work this afternoon.

  19. @ultimatehoratio I think more would say that ‘artistic license’ is what sets a creators work apart and defines originality. Let’s all read comics about people dressed like us, who go to work like us, drive cars like us, reading comics like us. Where’s the escapism?
     
    I think making artistic license synonymous with lame is short-sighted. You don’t think the bunny ears in ‘I Kill Giants’ are a fine example of artistic license? In which something wholly unnecessary, yet aesthetically astute gives our heroine a sense of identity and originality?
     
    I do. And I think comics would be a poorer place were it filtered through to meet conformity. 
    Long live head bands, capes, buckles, weird furniture, warped architecture, and DIFFERENT worlds. 

  20. I feel like I should preface all my comments with how much I enjoy Sonias articles but can’t help but think it’ll get repetitive,bordering on sycophantic if I say it every week.So just for the record even when I voice any different opinions I appreciate your work Sonia.

    I think part of the problem with bad clothing choices has to do with it being a medium of fantasy and I think a lot of the choices are a window into what some males would like to see women walking around in.I think it shows too in breast size and amount of cleavage shown.I can’t even think of 1 flat chested superheroine off the top of my head,yet I can name at least 5 ladies in my everyday life with modest chests.

  21. I can deal with the odd costume designs just fine, since I can rationalize it as fantasy.

     But what really throw me off is when artists draw people in plain clothes that are way off from what people in real life would wear. E.g. Ultimate Peter Parker’s giant cargo pants, any time girls have baggy pants with their underwear straps showing (NEVER seen that in real life), I could go on and on…

    It’s almost the same problem as with artists who draw the same woman, but with different hair styles.

  22. I’m wearing a headband right now.  It keeps the sweat out of my eyes while I furiously grade papers.  The headband is fluorescent pink.  I thought it was cool.  It looks great with my popped collar polo shirt, pleated (and tightrolled) khakis, and Eastlands.  Later I’m going to hop in my DeLorean and head down to McDonalds to pick up an Arch Deluxe and a Crystal Pepsi.  

    I’m Audi5000, Homeys.  

  23. Stulach, that’s some serious grading!!

  24. @savinglala – I’m a very serious man.

  25. Nice article. Even though I always make fun of the 80s comics with all those clothes, but I never aware of the clothing styles of today’s comics. I should start going through some of them and see who is the worst offender. Sonia, did you read Models, Inc? Are the clothes from that comic looks updated? Tim Gunn is in there.