In the past I’ve not spent nearly as much time working on character designs for my books as I really should have. Certainly this was the case with Oyster War and as a result, I wound up having to do a substantial amount of pre-publication redrawing of the main characters–especially in the early pages where I was still basically working out the character designs as I went along. I vowed to avoid this pitfall with In the Weeds and indeed I’ve spent the last couple of months with my nose to the grindstone, really trying to come up with solid, fully developed character designs.
As mentioned in my last post on In the Weeds, I’m using animal characters for the book. One consistent question I get when I’ve described this book to people is, “Why animals?” Short answer, “Why not?”
Comics (and children’s book illustration for sure) has a long and rich tradition of using animal characters. It’s part of comics’ formal tool kit–and a part of it that doesn’t seem to be utilized as much as it could be. The animal comics tradition seems to me to be more vibrant in Europe than in the North America. Is this maybe because of Europe’s historical infatuation with Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics? I don’t know. Whatever the case, though, with a few exceptions (Usagi Yojimbo comes immediately to mind, as does Mouse Guard) most modern North American comics with animal characters are coming out of the furry subculture and few manage to penetrate into either mainstream or alternative comics readership here. I’d love to see more animal comics front and center in the North American comics scene.
One of the main challenges I faced in designing the animal characters for In the Weeds was making them sufficiently human-like to be able to walk and interact, while also giving them distinctly animal-like features. There’s a reason a lot of animal comics default to a sort of “house style” of essentially putting an animal head and tail on a human body: a human body interacts well with its environment and other human-like characters in a way that can be difficult for more animal-like designs. You can see, for example, how this sort of design (by Jen Suzuki, in this case) is very well suited to being just dropped into a real world environment:
For me, the gold standard of animal characters that really look a lot like animals yet are able to work in a real world environment are Richard Scarry’s characters:
I love how Scarry’s characters retain many of their distinctive animal features–hooves, haunches, etc.–and yet are sufficiently anthropomorphized to walk upright, use their hands like people, and otherwise interact with a fairly realistic environment. I knew my characters would need to be somewhat more human-like than Scarry’s, but I definitely took my cues from him design-wise.
Another big challenge with animal characters is scale. Again, it’s obvious why the default way to deal with this is to normalize the body sizes of the characters–regardless of what animals they’re based on. Not doing so creates a very tricky problem, given that the real world around us is designed mostly for interaction from similarly sized creatures: us humans. If you don’t standardize the size of your animal characters, you have to radically re-imagine the environment–something that the recent film Zootopia did brilliantly. Here’re the relative scales of the main animal types in Zootopia:
If you’ve seen the film, you know that the makers of Zootopia went to some pretty impressive efforts to create a unique world in which characters of radically different scales can interact.
With In the Weeds designs, I wanted to preserve some of the size differential, but because of the nature of the story I also want the characters to be able to operate in a world that’s fairly similar to our own. So ultimately, what I wound up doing was just decreasing the “dynamic range” a bit. There’s still a size differential among the characters, but it’s just been normalized enough so that they can function in a largely real life environment.
And of course, the biggest challenge for me design-wise is simply that this is all new to me. I’ve never done a comic with animal characters before, so I’m really just figuring it all out as I go along.
The Final Designs
I tried out a lot of different animals, but eventually settled on a cast that I thought looked good together and showed off a wide variety of shapes and features. Here’s me sketching/designing from photo reference of various animals:
So, here they are. The protagonist of the book is employed as a chef at a country club and plays in a band on the weekends, so I needed to develop two sets of character designs: the work characters and the non-work characters. He’re the former:
That’s our protagonist second from the left. (These characters all had names at one point, but I’ve decided to change most of them; I’ve just been referring to them by their animal names.) I initially had a pig character in place of the yak, but I decided it would be best if none of the characters were animals that are commonly used as food.1 It just seemed weird, ya know?
And here’re the non-work characters:
The four on the right comprise the rock band in the story. I tried to give each of them a nineties-appropriate dress style. The badger has a Happy Mondays/nineties 70s revival look. The poodle is loosely based on the great drummer, Cindy Blackman. The rhino’s body shape and stage moves (but not clothes at this point–I’ll probably change his style of dress) are coming from Minutemen guitarist D. Boone.2 The hyena, Kathleen, is an amalgam of various riot grrrrl band members style-wise. (“Katheen Hyena”/”Kathleen Hanna“… get it? Har har har.)
One nice thing about using animal characters is that it’s pretty easy to get really recognizable, distinctive body shapes–something that I’ve always struggled with when using human characters. Without even really thinking about it during design phase, the characters easily pass the “silhouette test.”
So, what’s next? I’m probably going to spend a bit of time doing loose sketches of these characters in various poses and with various facial expressions, just to make sure I’ve got all that well ironed out before I put pencil to page. But, beyond that and a few small revisions to the script, I’m just about ready to start thumbnailing!
1. Yes, I know that people sometimes eat sheep, but it’s not like people are regularly chomping down McLambchops.
2. Yes, I also know that The Minutemen are from the 80s, not the 90s. The Minutemen are so awesome that they transcend all eras and are not bound by the normal constraints of space/time.