Travis Hedge Coke
I was once, briefly, a Textile Design major. I’ve designed and sewn clothing for magazine shoots, movies, theater, and because I just felt like it. When I was a kid, I made a scale duster with little weapons loops for a Casey Jones action figure, because sometimes Casey clearly needs an impressive coat. If you went to my grandpa’s home right now, you could find boxes worth of superhero costume and casual wear designs I did in my teenage years, unless someone’s thrown them out. I like cloth. I love clothes.
And, possibly because I do nothing with mine, I love hairstyling. All hair is versatile, full of potential styles and twists. Anyone who thinks they have unmanageable or terrible hair is more than likely trying to force it to behave as a different kind of hair would, but the flaw there is in expectation, not in possibilities.
Somewhere between clothes and hair, in some weird I’m-not-a-serial-killer-honest way, is skin. Skin is great. It covers people, it has color, tone, variations, edges, elasticity, and can, in art and in life, communicate so much, so incredibly.
So, why do so many comics artists have a difficult time with these three things and either fake them shoddily or stick to a few tried and true types and styles?
First, let’s make sure they are having difficulty and not making conscious (if, perhaps, ill-conceived) choices. No matter what material a story may claim the average superhero longjohns are constructed from, what is drawn is a skin with fewer sexual characteristics and more pattern. That is a choice. When someone draws a tuxedo that fits so tight and smooth it looks like a tuxedo pattern painted onto a naked body, that is much more likely to be a sign of inability or, at least, shortsightedness. (Shortsighted, in this sense, meaning that it may be easy to assume that fudging something in one panel or one comic will not be brought up again and again on internet Top 10 Shitty Drawings of Artist X lists or in fans’ discussions. All things are now, legally or illegally, being scanned, cleaned up, excerpted, archived, and otherwise are subject to the internet and the internet age. The laziest professional work any of us have released is either visible on the internet or buyable through it.)
There’s a famous set of critical notes by Alex Toth on some Steve Rude pages, wherein Toth says many intelligent things, often harshly, and occasionally goes too far for most tastes. He criticizes Rude for faking setting and clothing, especially, or cheating on communication, and what he’s criticizing of Rude is essentially a comics version Naturalism, in that it’s designed to be inoffensive, mildly antiquated, and naturalistic without being as rough, bright, or unpredictable as reality can be. It’s true, Rude fakes the folds of the turban in those pages, and the tipis are silly and out of place, but they’re not real tipis, they’re a symbol that relates a feeling. Rude is not simulating, he is evoking. The turban isn’t a real turban, it is the symbol of a turban.
Most comics artists are cartoonists, not in a disparaging sense, nor am I implying they are animators somehow failing to animated, or working in an animated style, but because they must communicate not by thoroughness or inventiveness, but through what is understood a priori by the audience. They work from the engram out, the same way all young media must, from the concentrations of understood content. In Comics and Language (buy this book!), Hannah Miodrag says visual images may not be capably broken down into “pictemes” and “syntactemes” the way words can be parceled into at least semi-functionally into phonemes, and she backs this up with better examples than I can mirror, mostly from David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp.
For our purposes, no fold makes the turban a turban, no matter how true to life it may be, but no abstracted element of the turban symbol makes it one, either. It gains its meaning from context and piled up expectations, différance in play (if you want to be pretentious about it, and I do). And, because this use of implication in place of representation, this deferral to expectation over accuracy of representation, we may grow more frustrated the more significantly we understand the inaccuracy. I know I feel it in Darwyn Cooke’s much beloved by many The New Frontier, between the brick red skin he has given a Native American character to the general tone of his 1950s America and the elements thereof he chooses to focus on, in correlation and combat to those I anticipate by reflex.
For maybe forty to fifty years now, perhaps even since the birth of the Marvel Universe, English language comics have been bouncing uncomfortably between the ease and directness of playing to (unquestioned) expectations and trying for greater reflection of reality as it is seen, if not felt.
Veering towards graded shading has, unfortunately or not, long been prized by the English-language comics culture as superior to representation of intensity. This is especially notable in the realm of superheroes, where Alex Ross’ soft tones or Watchmen running a range of characters from morally-grey to morally repulsive continues to be seen as the heights of realism and artistic integrity. We tend to give props to accuracy in reproduction of the expected, not the actual, and to disregard potent evocation as didacticism or immaturity. Blunt statements are mature, pessimism is artsy, but melodrama is unrealistic when in fact tons of people are goddammed melodramatic especially in highly emotional situations.
Comics culture often feels retrogressive to me, probably because I do care a lot more about comics and comics culture than I do other mediums and their focused fans and critics. When I see us barely hitting cap-R Realism in the 80s (ten to twenty years after the just-as-young motion picture medium?) and still rolling around in that kind of pessimism and the defensively conservative Naturalism of the Earth X trilogy and Rick Remender comics, it bugs me. Not because those comics suck or how dare Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have written something a bit depressing twenty-some years ago, but it’s so embraced, that even when Moore and Gibbons moved past it, we’re still stuck there and we can’t even enjoy, collectively, that along with the spills and stains Gibbons could put in Watchmen, there’s slick design and attention to pleasing detail as well.
The excellent dress sense of some Watchmen characters, or the collection of traits that are all unquestioningly understood from facial hair to shoulder pads, which Gibbons (and Moore, perhaps, as well) have put into play, are rarely noted, while many a critic and fan are still enthralled by the bean stains on Rorschach. Stains are real. Moustaches and shoulder pads, bare necks and cigarette holders aren’t what we are, often, prepped to take in as equally real. And, maybe that’s why Cooke portrays Watchmen’s Silhouette so differently than Gibbons, visually, as well as, apparently, in other senses. Silhouette’s dress, demeanor, and the way of visualizing her changes from Gibbons to Cooke. While Gibbons drew her with a straight back, sharp angles, bare neck and angled face, to compliment Moore’s caustic dialogue and sharp positioning, Cooke rounds out her face, covers the sharp angles of her clothes with a scarves and folds, and bedroom eyes. So much, in the examples I have seen, of the bedroom eyes. The loose-lidded look communicates an entirely different set of potential meanings and Cooke is smart enough to have, I presume, done this with every intent.
The hawk-nosed, brick red Indian of New Frontier, similarly, is not a genuine Native American person, but a symbol of a supposed past representation of such. It’s an homage to the idea of an older representation, which, in my experience, doesn’t even match up to how that character had been drawn or colored in era-specific comics in the first place, but then, my experience is both limited and filtered through me, as much as Cooke’s is filtered through his inner (and outer, projective) Cooke-ishness. And, included in all that, is simply that he may like certain visuals, certain styles or cuts more than I do. I must, functionally, accept this and defer to it, as I must with Liefeld’s refusal to draw consistent details into his otherwise often exploding with minutae and hatching work. I still know who Cooke is drawing, or what, if not by isolated images, by context, and so, too, I know perfectly well when Liefeld’s drawing Captain America, even if it’s a very silly version of Captain America who somehow stands two feet below ground level and is asymmetrical in continually different ways from panel to panel.
In Earth X, Alex Ross has designed Wyatt Wingfoot a costume and helmet that include a wooden bird-evoking helmet, because, presumably, wood bird-head carvings say “Native American” effectively, and because Wyatt is in this story teamed up with Captain America, who sometimes teams up with a guy called the Falcon. Ross favors ethnicized costumes and romantic parings, it seems, and sometimes this has a frisson beyond orientalizing, that really works, but again, I think it depends on what you anticipate to come, as well as what you anticipate the base elements to mean. In terms of pure design, I prefer Liefeld’s mix and match portentousness to what Ross’ costuming or hairstyle designs communicate (I like Liefeld’s tonal range better, too), even if Ross is, on most levels, the superior artist. This does not require me to particularly laud either.
Even the same basic design (of outfit or hair) is dependent on the method of illustrating it, in how it is altered to rest on a body, on how the entire frame is arranged, on what aspects are given emphasis. There are pencilers who can take a simple slacks and dress shirt ensemble, a little bracelet, some hoop earrings, and get the figure they adorn on their knees, ass up, back bent abnormally, helium balloon tits still projecting forward, and blushing, vacuous-stare face angled painfully forward on an obviously busted neck. That an artist or communicator may not fully appreciate how a fashion element affects all or any movement, is not a total condemnation.
Please reread that last sentence.
The second false equivalency is that these elements serve the same function for us, the reader. Flash’s decorative elements, from the head-wings to his chest emblem are for us to identify his speed. Black Canary has high heels because they extend the legs and manipulate the butt in ways that are often visually pleasing to many readers. Elevated shoes can encourage a perception of tallness, but the elevation of the heel in exaggerated relation to the toe, is for reasons of sexualization first. You either take that head on, and make your case, or maybe it’s preferable to drop the debated element or avoid addressing it.
Canary’s heels and Flash’s mask are functional signs, allowing us to infer things about the characters, not physical tools for them to employ. They do not aid them, but us. They are as useful to the characters, in their world, as the Scarlet Witch’s lack of underwear, which is, itself, something that will never affect Wanda on-panel in anything like the continual fashion actual clothing, or lack of, by nature must.
Underwear and hairpins. Who wears them into the field? I’ve read comics where I flinched, because my anticipatory read of Catwoman’s cleavage is that she’s going to catch her zipper on her breasts. That’s not the anticipatory read the artist intended, surely, which is probably that there’ll be an unveiling shortly. I have seen it defended when an artist confirmed for us the color of Oracle’s panties but could not true-to-life illustrate a shower sequence, because well, many people wear underwear and was I a prude? But I have read so many more Superman comics than comics with Oracle, even though I like Oracle better, and the only trunks I know Superman wears for sure are the little red ones that go on the outside, and even those are now out of continuity.
Did Superman even have an extra layer under the blue and the red? With a belt, then, too, over that? If so, he throws another layer of work clothes, such as a heavy business suit over those layers. How can even a Kryptonian walk around in all that without losing mobility or tearing something? He doesn’t walk around with all that. Superman does not walk. He appears in static images and what is out of sight is, effectively, gone, until culled up again by the magic of storytelling. Like the Scarlet Witch’s lack of underwear, we know Superman’s costume is, sometimes, under his Clark Kent clothes, but until we see it, we are not invited to wonder how it functions there because it does not function.
Superman’s chest revealed beneath the shedding shirt of Clark Kent is a transformative cartoon, not a true to life reproduction. It may be Naturalist or Symbolist, but when photorealistic, or adapted over to movies, television, or even toys and statues, the nature of the materials and their use must be changed on basic levels. For the longest time, a spandex or nylon nature was supposed, when superhero costumes were brought over to video representations or photography. We know these materials do not function as superhero costumes usually do, but they approximate after a fashion.
When drawn, Superman’s costume, Green Lantern and Spider-Man’s costumes, these are bodies, they are forms with color, not spandex, which is clearly a layer over the form. Spandex heroes look wrapped, losing tone and texture that is implicit in the musculature delineation seen in almost every drawing of a superhero. In comics, this has been tackled by giving the materials costumes are made of different fancy names and properties, and ten years ago, with DC One Million, the future superheroes were intentionally designed with chest symbols and patterns that took advantage of what we can do with contemporary screening, printing, and pattern reproduction, to counter the designs that usually still privilege 1930s design capabilities in the form of solid colors and blocky, easily cut and sewn shapes.
In movies and television, we saw a rise in fake muscles and mimicry of biological aspects, from TV Flash’s molded six pack, to Batman and Robin’s rubber nipples.
Then, more recently, there’s been a fad of using exciting textures to distract from the relative simplicity and to avoid the semblance of the hero being wrapped in material. Even the homemade superhero costumes in recent movies are pebbled or airbrushed to look far from what our homemade superhero costumes, as children, or as adults, might look like.
I do not recall ever seeing the exact moment or mechanism for Superman attaching his cape and, truly, I don’t think I want to. Superman’s cape attaches by the power of Superman wears a cape. It is a fait accompli of symbolic power, of signatory potency, not functionality.
I really liked, no matter how silly, when Grant Morrison had Lex Luthor draw in his eyebrows, in All-Star Superman, because it is silly, it is vain and obvious, and people do that shit in real life. Lex Luthor’s drawn in eyebrows are both a sign, a symbol, and of real-life function to him in ways Superman’s cape really is not. Luthor needs those eyebrows to function, to be taken as Luthor by people he encounters, and are just as artificial, as hairless legs on the average American woman or me in shoes. When my colleagues envision me, if they do, I probably have shoes on. Finding a dude who just assumes women don’t have leg hair, even if they should know better, is not horribly difficult, because the forer effect is in full motion, always and in all ways. We focus on what is of concern to us, what rewards our anticipatory understanding. Superman’s cape helps readers understand, while Luthor’s eyebrows help him and the person next to him understand.
And, on the subject of Luthor… How does cartooning Telly Savalas as Lex Luthor turn into “he must be black”? Easily.
Black men without afros in comics are usually bald. And, indeed, fro or bald can be read, in terms of cartooning, as “black.” See recent TV cartoon Lex Luthor or the occasional pop-crit essay on Telly Savalas in television; that’s not optimal, it’s not even particularly sensible, but it is culturally and cross-culturally understood, at this point, it’s an expectation. The anticipation on encountering bald cartooned man, especially with prominent lips, is that he is black. You can cartoon Savalas-as-Luthor and have it read anticipatorily as “black man” the same way you cannot cartoon me and have it read “Native American” (True story: I was on a wushu TV series, recently, and to explain why my light skin still doesn’t match my fellow “British Navy”, they braided my hair back and had someone rumor that my character was half Chinese).
Are other to-be-read-as-black hairstyles, or the hairstyles of actual true life black men that hard to draw, so as to be avoided? Are cornrows ever as complicated or finger-achy to draw as the knots in Spider-Man’s webbing? Is a pattern shaved into closely cropped hair that hard to space accurately panel to panel, if we know intimately how Superman’s S-shield looks from any angle? Bald or fro are not the defaults because they are the true life most common hairstyles, they are default because they are dramatic and functional as cartoons of immediate anticipatory understanding.
Black Canary can run in her heels. We know, in-story, she can, and we know, outside of the comic, that some people can run pretty well in high heels, they can even, maybe, do a decent spin kick at least once without problem. But, it is perhaps just as significant that her high heels are not genuine high-heeled boots. They are a symbol of such boots. They signify what heels can signify, in their context, and they represent the idea of high-heeled boots, from femininity to sexualization, modernity, elevated step, and so on. They do not function as high-heeled boots in-story.
“These aren’t real people”, “these aren’t real clothes” are dodges, useful for avoiding certain criticisms or to defend against considering things within the bounds of real life boundaries and functions. Like any dodge, it’s often used to encourage sloth and indulgence, but within the dodge is the proof of the strength and attraction of this distinction between accurate representation and symbolizing or evoking.
Beyond doing what looks best, doing what feels right is both admirable and, by nature, suspect. Good looks and good feelings prove nothing, but stimulate so much.
Some of the books in this article are: