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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

On the first day of our comics class, Leigh Ann told our students to draw a kangaroo in a rocking chair in front of a window. She said a kangaroo because people tend not to have a clear picture of one already in their heads, so they can’t draw a generic “idea.” The top half of the next illustration includes six of their first drafts, ranging from students with plenty of art studio experience to students who had never picked up a drawing pencil before. The bottom half are the same students’ revisions. It doesn’t matter what drawing experience you’ve had. Everyone can produce interesting art through revision:

Revising requires image research. Since we there were no rocking chairs and kangaroos in the art studio, students googled “kangaroo” and “rocking chair” on their phones and found images that appealed to them, studied them, sketched variations, redrew their first drafts, and inked them.  Further revision is always possible, but they all became much more specific and so much more interesting. A comics artist can follow this process with all of her panels, identifying objects, researching images, and revising for specificity.

Now unless you’re making a comic about a kangaroo in a rocking chair, this assignment won’t help you create a character. But the process will. The next illustration breaks it into five steps:

Begin by “doodling.” Draw anything in any style anywhere on the page. Let your hand do what it wants. This can teach you some of your own preferences for both style and subject matter. What do you like to draw? If the shapes of fish or robots come easily off your pencil tip, fish or robots probably belong in your comic. If you doodle flowers or geometric shapes, that might tell you something about your settings.

Our students doodled for fifteen minutes before stopping and looking over their pages. They all included rough drafts of their first characters. Some included many characters, but everyone chose one to develop. Henry began by drawing a fantastical semi-human creature with wings and bird feet. He added more reality to that fantasy by going online and selecting related images: bird talons, bat wings, a male torso. If you drew a fish, search for fish—and study their tails and gills and fins and mouths. If you drew a robot, search for machines and study their hinges and wheels and bolts and wires.

Now draw your character again, using your research to give more specificity. Experiment with distortion and detail—how little, how much, where and where not. Once you’re satisfied with the general arrangement of the image, revise it, giving the specific details more depth, more value, more line variation. When you’re satisfied, pen over your pencil marks to finalize the image.

You now have a character. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with them, so you need to know them well. Our students drew them fifty times in fifty different poses and angles and activities.

What does yours look like from behind, from the side, from above, from below? How do they look sitting, jumping, walking, running, falling, swimming, diving, flying, sleeping, crouching, dancing, punching, kicking, slouching, yawning, stretching, shaking, laughing, screaming, whispering, kneeling, crawling, climbing, eating, sneezing, squinting? Include objects if you like: tennis racket, unicycle, ten-ton weights. Or partial environments: cliffside, jail bars, operating table. Zoom in for close-ups of their face and hands at different moments. Draw them big—filling in new details because of the extra internal spaces that creates. Draw them tiny—what are the minimal details that distinguish them from a distance? And draw them with different expressive lines: light, dark, thin, thick, fast, slow, long, choppy, bumpy, straight. Let the lines create their personalities.

Look over your drawings. What do the images say about your character? What information do they convey? What possibilities about their lives and pasts and preferences and goals might they suggest? Write a list of possible facts about them. If you were working from a script, this list might have been your starting point, but now all of this character content can originate from the images themselves.

We asked our students a range of specific questions and learned facts not only about each character, but their larger world and life story too. Begin with these questions, responding in bullet points or in a steam-of-consciousness paragraph, expanding and moving between questions however you like:

Describe your character’s appearance.

What are their most striking physical characteristics?

How does it feel to be their body?

How old are they?

What physical activity do they most enjoy?

What activity do they avoid?

What is their full name?

What does their signature look like? Sign their name as they would.

Do they have parents and siblings?

Name a fact about a grandparent.

Describe their worst fight with a family member.

Describe an odd childhood memory, one they’re not even sure why stays with them.

Do they have any birthmarks, scars, tattoos, injuries, or recent wounds?

Where do they live now? What sort of dwelling? Do they own or rent it?

What do you smell when you walk in?

Do they live alone or with others?

Do they have a pet?

What sort of animals do they come in contact with?

What sort of bed do they sleep in? What is their sleeping position?

What is on the bedside table or near them when they sleep?

Describe a fragment from a dream they had last night.

Name five items in their medicine cabinet.

What clothing do they own other than what they’re currently wearing?

What is their clothing made of? Describe their shoes. Do they wear underwear?

Where do they get their clothes?

Do they wear a ring or other specific piece of jewelry? Where did they get it?

What do they eat? Do they cook? What is their favorite food? Where do they get it?

What is the best meal they ever had?

How would neighbors describe their personality? Would the neighbors agree?

Are there any people or places they avoid?

When they want to be alone, where do they go?

When they want to be with others, where do they go?

List ten actions they perform daily.

What happened yesterday at work?

Describe their workplace—the physical structure, the quality of light, the noise level. How do they feel when they’re there?

What is the last lie they told?

Name something they lost and how they lost it.

Describe a secret they’ve told only once.

Name two of their regrets, one big, one small.

What is the most violent event they ever witnessed or experienced?

What was the highpoint of their week?

Describe an odd way they have of killing time and the first and most recent times they did it.

Describe a smell, taste or texture they hate and why.

Describe the last time they laughed.

Describe something contradictory about them.

Describe an ambition they no longer have.

When they close their eyes, what do they picture?

Name two things they worry about, one small, one big.

What is one of their biggest goals? Name something specific they would sacrifice to achieve it. Name something they would not sacrifice. Name something they’re not sure they could sacrifice or not.

What do they think will happen to them when they grow older?

They have a nagging feeling that they forgot something. What was it?

Reach into one their pockets and pull something out.

What are they doing right now? Describe the location.

Are they having a good time?

What do they most want at this moment?

Describe your character in one sentence.

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