Travis Hedge Coke
Representational and Abstract are not as distinct as we might sometimes prefer. Most art is a mix of the two and like intent or accident, they will not save your ass if the end product is bad, unappealing, or strikes the audience as wrongheaded. The motives for a call are always of less significance to an audience than their own, individual reaction to the product of those motives. Whether you choose to represent, for instance, Superman via a classically representational figure, with care to accurate scale, biology, features and style, or you choose to represent him symbolically by outline or chest emblem, to dramatically cartoon him with exaggerations, or you just scribble from the gut and name it Superman, if the audience doesn’t intuit a true and proper Supermanness from the art, you are sunk.
Luckily, humanity is a forgiving species, though we may not look it at all times. We understand that sometimes, drawing, writing, storytelling, characterization, costuming, that sometimes art can just suck. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we do things on purpose, but the call was bad. It doesn’t end the whole thing. A bad representation of Superman, an awkward version of Clark Kent, it’s not going to ruin Superman forever.
Superman is a long-running, omnipresent character marketed dozens of different ways across the globe. We know Superman in a way no single representation can devalorize or take away.
George McGee? Not so omnipresent.
I just made up George McGee, who happens to be an Italian of Korean descent living on a high school teacher’s salary in a small town in the south. Now, there are some things about people, about small towns, about high school teachers that are easy enough to generalize. We could do that. Take some generalities and apply them as visual and characterization. What do Italians wear? And, the moment I ask that, I’ve got nice suits in my head, and Leonardo DaVinci. Small town Italy? Small towns have to have no skyscrapers, probably two lane roads, and… I don’t know. His name, by the way, is George McGee because he’s in a European country and George and McGee are European names. So, that works, right? Maybe I could base the town on small towns I’ve lived in. So, everyone has nice suits, my guy has a European name, and the town is a New Mexico pueblo with less adobe. Or, do they have adobe. Most of the Italian movies I’ve seen are crime movies or westerns but my audience, likely, will mostly have also only seen such from Italy, if anything.
I’ll aim for my target audience, then.
Alternately, I could take twenty minutes with Wikipedia and Google and check stuff out.
Guess which method most folks in comics take when doing a character or place they are unfamiliar with?
In brief, here’s seven representational choices I could do with a lot less of (less, people, not that they should be removed entirely, because, hey, it’s entertainment):
1. Implausibly Hot – Let your schlubby guy be a schlub, your plainjane, plain. If someone is hurt or distressed, make them look hurt or scared, not orgasmic or come-hithering the reader. They’ve been living in a van for a year? Their clothes better have some pit-stains and their hair can’t be producty. If someone is massively strong, go ahead and put muscle on them. Yes, even the women.
2. Anachronismo – It’s easy to forget how long we have had bifocals or when a foreign empire actually was, but try to get at least the modern day stuff looking modern day. Hint: Most places on Earth now have both shirts and cars.
3. Mechanical Tracing – When you are photo-referencing, do not simply copy details without planning or agenda. Those details, themselves, may be accurate without being functional and you want them functional. Same for characterization or actions. Being drawn from life, drawn from reality, does not defend poor narrative or entertainment choices, even in nonfiction works.
4. Earthy Ethnicity – How do you know an X-Man is not white? They go on some kind of ancestor-connnecting, feeling the earth spirit journey. Yes, all of them. And they’ll probably wear something more ethnic-y just for the trip. You’ll never see Professor X half-starved in his ancestral lands learning his connection to the dirt or indigenous animals because you probably shouldn’t see any of them in this scenario.
5. Posing For Us – Not just butt-n-bewbs fight stances, but any sort of cheesecake that isn’t sensible in the moment in any fashion. Somebody stands there as a badass, give us a badass. Somebody being tortured? Grieving at a tombstone? Show it. If they want show off, know if they are doing it for themselves or for someone watching and then make sure it contextually works. They can’t show off for us, because we are not there.
6. Ignorant Assumption – We have so much access to information, it is so easy right now to network with people from nearly any country, any culture. Making ignorant assumptions about a society’s prominent religions, style of dress, subcultures, weather, or how many feathers they stick in their hair is no longer even as speciously defensible as it was fifty years ago.
7. Clone Stamping – Different people, even background people, should look like people, not one or two guys who cloned themselves to fill a background.