By David Seidman
(Mildly NSFW images below.)
A good costume can help to make a comics character a star. In a visual medium like comics, a costume tells a huge amount about a character.
So how can you design a costume that works? I’ve got advice from both comics creators and designers of costumes for other media.
Designer Aaron Diaz has a good set of guidelines. He says that a costume should:
1. Read: Silhouettes and essential shapes should be instantly recognizable.
2. Inform: The costume should tell the reader essential things about the character.
3. Compel: The costume should invite the reader to learn more about the character.
4. Move: The costume should never impede the flow of action within the comic.
How do you design such a costume?
1. Start with character.
“The costume comes from the character, and the costume should reflect the character,” The Wicked + The Divine artist Jamie McKelvie said during a panel on costume design at Emerald City Comic-Con. Cristina Araújo — key costumer for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — has explained to the website Production Hub that she looks for “what is going to help people identify or understand the character through their wardrobe.”
Jean Gillmore, who designed costumes for Disney’s Frozen, offers a couple of examples: “Elsa the Snow Queen’s gown was to be simulated ice crystals, snowflakes and reflective surfaces common to ice in its various forms. Kristoff, the ice harvester, has much more rustic, primitive clothing styles and materials.”
And so it goes in comics. Thor is regal, so he wears a royal cloak. Batman is mysterious, so he wears dark colors and conceals his eyes; he’s dangerous, so his cape, gloves, and cowl feature sharp points.
This approach even applies to costume elements that a character doesn’t have. Superman is open and honest, so he doesn’t hide his face behind a mask. Spider-Man takes a light and breezy approach as he swings through the sky and tosses out quips, so his costume has no cape, jacket, hood, belt, or other encumbrance to weigh him down.
If you need help to get started, Araújo has a tip: She and her team make “a mood board that contains ideas, color palettes, textures and the looks that inspire us.”
2. Understand what readers need — and what you need, too.
The reader has to recognize your characters even when a story calls for them to appear very tiny or in a crowd — or on a small medium like a phone screen. Design costumes so that a reader can recognize them no matter how and where they appear.
A good test is drawing your characters in silhouette. Here’s an example of well-designed costuming:
Go ahead, tell me that you don’t recognize that quartet. If your costumes don’t read well in silhouette, re-design them.
Since you’ll have to draw your characters in panel after panel, keep the designs simple. The fewer elements you include in a costume, the fewer you have to keep track of and the fewer you can screw up as you draw them over and over and over.
Besides, simple designs often read well on page or screen. Batman ranks high on lists of the best comics costumes, but lists of bad ones often spotlight DC’s Azrael when he took over for Batman. A key reason, for me at least, is that the traditional Batman has less clutter.
(You can argue that Batman’s creative team deliberately made Azrael unappealing to make Batman look good by comparison. If so, nice work!)
Keeping costumes simple isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. The web lines running all over Spider-Man’s costume haven’t stopped his look from becoming iconic.
But I’ll bet that a lot of artists have gotten tired of drawing them. And at least Spider-Man’s silhouette is clean and streamlined.
3. Don’t be sexist.
When mostly male artists and editors create characters for a mostly male readership, and that’s been the way in almost all American comics, they can slide toward sleaze.
Take, for instance, Mike Deodato Jr.’s revision of Wonder Woman from the 1990s:
Not only is sexism bad in itself, but exposed flesh can distract your reader from your story. If a character’s stories aren’t about sex, then a costume emphasizing her sexiness is stupid, as Martha Thomases, Val D’Orazio, and Norm Breyfogle noted a few years ago:
4. Don’t worry about practicality.
Marvel costume designer Kris Anka told The Onion’s AV Club, “Something I find with these new designs that are really resonating (Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen) is that the focus isn’t really on how they work, it’s the visual captivation of the costume. I still don’t know how Gwen gets into that suit, but it doesn’t matter because of how striking it is. We know immediately who that character is, and that should be the design’s first goal (it’s also easy to draw, which doesn’t hurt).”
This bit of advice pains me, since I’ve picked on characters for wearing impractical costumes. In the essay collection Batman Unauthorized, I pointed out that running in a cape can create aerodynamic drag that pulls your shoulders back, and executing a quick turn or pivot in a cape can make it bind your arms. In a blog post, I noted how silly it is for Captain America to have an arrowhead shape on his forehead.
But none of that matters. If your costume follows the guidelines of Kris Anka, Aaron Diaz, and other experts, then it’ll probably work.
And if cosplayers and superhero-movie actors find your costume unworkable — well, you can always apologize. If your character is so popular that people are spending good money to turn it into a physical reality, you’ll be able to afford a few gracious words, won’t you?