Jan 03 2008
This article will help you design your superhero’s appearance for a comic book or novel cover-art. No matter what your style is, you can avoid these 9 mistakes that cause a superhero’s appearance to sink the story.
Common Flaws of Superhero Appearances
- The character’s appearance lacks a distinct theme.
- The character looks lifeless.
- He looks unrelatable.
- His appearance is inconsistent with his personality.
- His appearance is inconsistent with the story’s mood.
- His costume is too campy or demeaning.
- His appearance makes his secret identity implausible.
- The details of his appearance are inconsistent.
- He has too many accessories.
LACKS A DISTINCT THEME
Superman’s costume does a great job advancing themes and establishing what kind of character he is. It’s bold and it’s open. That does a solid job of characterizing Superman.
- Bold. It makes great use of striking, primary colors. If soldiers wore blue, red and yellow it would be like screaming “shoot me!” But Superman doesn’t care. He’s larger than life.
- Open. Superman is virtually the only hero not to wear a mask and still maintain a secret identity. There’s nothing between him and us. That reinforces that he’s relatively unconflicted and has nothing to hide. (Additionally, we can see facial expressions, which can really help portray what a character is thinking).
Visuals that fail to advance a theme are less effective. When we look at your character, it should be clear what impression we should get and what we should feel about the character. (Conflicting characteristics can work, too, but it should still be clear which characteristics are conflicting. For example, Peter Parker is usually drawn as a likeable dork.
This picture from the Geek Coefficient shows two characters, Green Lantern and a woman (?) in a hood. The hooded woman is far more effectively portrayed. We can see that she’s mysterious, out of reach, maybe enigmatic and cryptic. In contrast, Green Lantern doesn’t have any strong visual themes.
LIFELESS OR UNRELATABLE
Generally, faces are crucial to how an audience will react to a character. If someone’s face is completely masked, that might make him look lifeless. This is often a problem when a character wears a full-body suit, particularly a metallic one.
These tricks can make your superhero look more alive.
- Alter his mask to expose his mouth and lower face. (If you’re up for something radical, take away the mask entirely). I don’t recommend Green Lantern masks (figure 8s). They tend to draw attention away from the eyes to the mask, particularly if the mask is a glaring color.
- Try keeping the mask a sober color. The less it distracts us from his human features, the better.
- If your character wears a full-body suit and you don’t want to take away his headware, try taking away the gloves. (Or at least try cloth gloves that are flesh-toned). After the face and eyes, hands are the most expressive part of the body. The more his hands look human, the more human his gestures will look.
- If your character wears a powersuit, try using rounder edges. The suit should probably look more like an exoskeleton than a robot.
- If your character wears a full-body suit, try something nonmetallic. Firefighters and SWAT officers look more a relatable than Iron-Man. It may also help to make the suit slightly loose, like a surgeon’s garb.
- If you want a metal suit and mask, I’d recommend putting in a visor or sunglasses to cover the eyes. Eyes look pretty strange surrounded by metal.
Is your hero nonhuman? I have a few additional suggestions for nonhuman characters…
- Make his eyes look human. That will help readers relate to the character.
- Human-looking hands will make his gestures easier to understand.
- Symbolic accessories can help us relate to a weird-looking character. Agent Orange has a badge and trenchcoat, for example, because I want viewers to think of him as a government employee first and a non-human second.
- A human’s costume usually looks stranger than the human does. For a nonhuman character, I recommend plain attire because exotic clothes on an exotic body will probably overwhelm the reader. For example, Lizard’s labcoat works quite nicely.
INCONSISTENT WITH PERSONALITY
Hopefully this is pretty obvious, but the uniform should mesh with the character. A Punisher-esque character should have a much different uniform than, say, Dr. Strange.
The most important elements here are brightness/color, the type of clothing (like a trenchcoat instead of a labcoat or ninja-suit) and the level of plainness/accessories.
INCONSISTENT WITH MOOD
Are you writing a gritty story? Gritty stories should probably shy away from bright costumes and superfluous accessories like capes. They also tend to overload on leather (I blame the Matrix). If your gritty story uses masks, I recommend basing them on government-issue masks (probably SWAT team or urban commando) or ski-masks. Those are utilitarian and serious. If you’d like a sci-fi vibe, I’d recommend looking at the US Air Force, Star Wars or Fallout 2.
In contrast, if your story is mostly pleasant and optimistic, you’d probably want a brighter and more whimsical costume. Spiderman and Static Shock are great examples. However, I recommend against capes. The main customer base for superhero stories is 16-25 year old guys. Unless you’re writing for a distinctly younger audience, I’d leave the capes to DC Comics.
WHY WOULD HE WEAR THAT!?! (His costume’s too goofy/demeaning)
If your readers will wonder why your character would choose to wear something so stupid-looking, you have a problem. The best examples of this are Robin and most superheroines. It will probably help to keep these guidelines in mind.
- I highly recommend pants or shorts rather than a bikini-bottom (cough cough Robin). Shirts are also helpful (Namor).
- I’d recommend against using more than three colors in a costume. You have more leeway if the hero and/or the audience are young. For example, Static Shock used yellow, purple and white with black accents.
- A gratuitously revealing costume might distract from the story. This is mainly a problem with superheroines. Drive out to a mall sometime and see what women are wearing. As a rule of thumb, if you’d be embarrassed to show your art to a female friend, it’s probably too edgy.
- Ridiculously attractive superheroes and superheroines are harder to relate to.
IMPLAUSIBLE SECRET IDENTITY
Assuming your character has a secret identity, his appearance might raise plausibility concerns.
- It gives away so much that you’d have to be stupid to miss it. This is the main weakness of the maskless costume.
- The costume is too complicated to don quickly. Unless your character transforms magically, like Wonder Woman or Thor, he has to put on his costume whenever he’s needed. Usually the story tries to explain this by saying he hides most of his costume under his regular clothes, like Ironman. OK, but where would your hero keep his cape?
For example, Courtney’s eyes are brown. My first chapter mentions that and it has been in the header art. In another chapter, I once described his eyes as green. Even though the discrepancy is very minor, several readers noticed it.
This is generally more of a problem for novelists because it’s much easier for a novelist to forget how he has already portrayed a character.
If you’re writing a novel, I’d recommend that you keep a list of character appearances (tall vs. short, green eyes vs. blue, blonde vs. brunette, etc). If you ever use one of the descriptions, make a note of it (“Chapter 4 says that Courtney has brown eyes”). That way, if I ever decide that Courtney’s eyes are green, I’ll know where I have to edit. Otherwise, I might have to sift through tens of thousands of words for a tiny detail.
TOO MANY ACCESSORIES/CLUTTERED
Generally, you want one or two focal points that draw the viewer’s attention and reinforce the character’s main traits. For example, Agent Orange’s sunglasses and badge hopefully help viewers think of him as a sci-fi police officer.
I think that’s the right amount of visual action. It’s easy to go overboard. For example, Superman has his center logo, his cape, his signature tuft, and a costume that’s brightly colored everywhere.