I’ve seen that face before
by Tuomas Alho 14-Nov-10
Maybe the convention of drawing characters who exemplify Western body ideals also explains why many superhero comics are full of facial lookalikes? If the artists are expected to draw the characters to look physically ideal, they probably also make them correspond with Western ideals of beauty, which can be pretty narrow.
The clone syndrome in comic book art
When I first read the debut issue of Mark Waid’s and Barry Kitson’s Legion of Super-Heroes, I had a bit of a problem following the plot. It wasn’t Waid’s script that caused this problem, rather a particular aspect of Kitson’s art: he tends to draw characters that look very similar. The first issue starts with a scene where an unnamed teenage boy has a big fight with his parents about joining the Legion of Super-Heroes, after which he jumps out of the window. Rather than falling to his death, though, he activates a special flight ring given by the Legion, and flies away to become one of them. Later on we move to a scene where one of the new recruits to the Legion is introduced to everyone. The newbie is a kid who can turn himself invisible, and who looks like the fake suicide candidate from before. One might assume that this new kid is the window-jumping fellow, but on the other hand, maybe the first scene was just a stand-alone introduction to the series and the jumper was no one in particular? With some other artists we wouldn’t need to ask this question, but Kitson draws all the teenagers in the series (the Legion of Super-Heroes is exclusively a teen club) with the same physical characteristics, as if they’d come from the same clone family. The main distinguishing features between them are gender, skin colour, and hair.
Unfortunately several male characters in the Legion share a generic puffy “teenage hair”, so even that doesn’t always help. In a later issue we meet the invisible boy’s dad, who is indeed confirmed to be the guy from the beginning of issue #1. But even though this particular mystery was solved, it got me thinking about bigger questions: what’s the reason for this similarity of appearances? Is it a more common phenomenon than I had thought?
I don’t think Barry Kitson is a bad artist. He has a knack for composition, and he handles the sort of epic battle scenes Waid’s scripts calls for splendidly. And he’s hardly the only superhero penciller who draws characters that look alike, even if this tendency is particularly strong in his art. Is there possibly something in the superhero genre itself that would explain this “clone syndrome”? Anyone who has read more than one superhero comic is probably familiar with what some readers call “the most common superpower”: the fact that almost all superheroines have D cup breasts, if not larger. Even though there’s more variety among male superheroes, they too tend to have stereotypically “perfect” bodies. Maybe this convention of drawing characters who exemplify Western body ideals also explains why many superhero comics are full of facial lookalikes? If the artists are expected to draw the characters to look physically ideal, they probably also make them correspond with Western ideals of beauty, which can be pretty narrow.
But it’s not only superhero comics where the clone syndrome can be found. Take Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, for example. Even though it has the same publisher as Legion of Super-Heroes, Preacher has a very different set of aesthetic ideals. The series is known for its gritty and violent storylines as well as for its vulgar, sometimes downright grotesque characters. Yet if we look at Steve Dillon’s art in Preacher, we can find the same phenomenon as in Legion of Super-Heroes. The main female character in the series is called Tulip, and we also get to meet her best friend Amy. Here’s how Dillon draws the two women:
It’s a good thing Amy has dark hair, otherwise the poor reader might have serious trouble telling the two from each other.
At this point you might think that the explanation to the clone syndrome is simple: straight male artists tend to draw women who they find attractive, and that’s why a particular comic is full of female characters who look like the artist’s ideal woman. No doubt this is partially true, but it isn’t the whole truth. Let’s take a look at the two male protagonists in Preacher, Jesse and Cassidy:
If you don’t count their various accessories, or Cassidy’s ghastly skin (he’s a vampire), they look pretty similar too: both have angular jaws, strong but not-too-big noses, somewhat sensual lips, symmetric faces in general. Clearly the case is not just Steve Dillon’s taste in women. Should we, then, deduce that Dillon can only draw one type of male and one type of female face? That isn’t quite the truth either. Let’s look at one more scene in Preacher, this one featuring none of the protagonists rather a bunch of incidental characters:
Here we can see that Dillon has no problem drawing a variety of face and body types, as long they belong to characters who are in a supporting role, and who are supposed to be a funny. They can afford to deviate from the norm.
Anyone familiar with manga knows that the clone syndrome is much more prominent there than in Western comics. The protagonists in Japanese comics usually have the big-eyed “manga look” that can make their faces almost indistinguishable from each other. What’s interesting, though, is that this unified look often doesn’t apply to the supporting characters. While the big-eye faces are supposed to make the main characters look appealing, the supporting cast are allowed to look imperfect, odd, or even ugly. This is supposed to emphasize their otherness, the fact that they’re not the protagonist, not the ones who we’re supposed to identify with. The same applies to many Western comics, such as Preacher. It’s a common cliché in both Western and Japanese fiction that beauty corresponds with goodness, whereas ugliness is often affiliated with evil or funny characters. The antagonist and the supporting characters can have a wide variety of physical imperfections. But when it comes to drawing the good guys, the ones we’re supposed to root for, it seems the options are more limited.
I’m not saying the idea that “good is beautiful” is the only explanation for the clone syndrome. The field of superhero comics is dominated by heterosexual men, both as creators and as consumers, so no doubt it’s often just a case of straight guys putting their dream girls on paper for other straight guys to ogle at. But men outside the superhero genre can be guilty of the same, as can female artists such as Pia Guerra or Wendy Pini. Of course, some people may draw characters that look alike as a matter of personal style, regardless of general aesthetic ideals. And some artists are simply so inept they’re unable to draw anything but the same type again and again.
If the clone syndrome is a specific kind of visual trope, what can be gained from avoiding it? To illustrate the answer, let’s look at another example. This one comes from a Finnish comic book called Saniaislehdon salaisuudet (“The Secrets of Fern Grove”), written and drawn by Kati Närhi:
This splash page comes from a scene where the protagonist (the dark-haired little girl on the foreground), her best friend, and the friend’s mother go to the opera. As you can see, Närhi puts a lot of work in making her characters look distinct from each other. In fact, every character in the comic has her own unique facial features, her own body shape and dressing style. This isn’t something that’s absolutely necessitated by the plot. Unlike in Legion of Super-Heroes, there aren’t many similar characters in Saniaislehdon salaisuudet, so there’s no risk of confusing them with each other. However, making each character look unique can help the flow of the story in more subtle ways. For example, later in the comic the protagonist – who is an orphan living with her granny – meets a mysterious woman who claims to be her aunt:
It’s not hard for the reader to accept the supposed aunt is speaking the truth: she and the protagonist have similarly shaped eyes, noses and faces, suggesting that they are related. Saniaislehdon salaisuudet also features photos of the protagonist’s late mother taken in various stages of her life, and Närhi doesn’t need to point out they depict the same person, because she draws the mother with distinct facial features that are easy to recognize. Paradoxically, even though Närhi’s style is less realistic than Kitson’s or Dillon’s, the emphasis on the visual distinctiveness of characters makes them look more like living, breathing human beings than the protagonists in Preacher or Legion of Super-Heroes. You can of course say that Närhi’s cartoonish and exaggerated line makes it easier for her to design unique-looking characters. While this is true, that doesn’t mean artists with a more realistic style can’t do the same – the Steve Dillon panels above are a fine example of that.
Ultimately, what bothers me most about the clone syndrome is not that it can make plots harder to follow. It’s irritating when that happens, but it’s still quite rare. Most artists who draw the same face again and again are kind enough to give us other visual clues that help to tell characters from each other: hair, skin colour, accessories, clothing. Superheroes are usually easy to distinguish based on the colour codes in their uniforms. But if comics are supposed be a visual representation of our world, the clone syndrome can reduce the rich variety of people we see in real life to a dull and flat mannequin display.
Even though Hollywood movies are often accused of casting only beautiful people, at least they are limited to what kind of flesh-and-blood people exist in the actor pool. No such limits exist for the comic artist. Sadly, this lack of limits doesn’t always transfer to the sort of visual diversity you might expect. Especially when it comes to designing protagonists that are supposed to look appealing, the scope of possibilities can become very limited indeed. The clone syndrome could be seen as the ultimate expression of a uniform beauty standard. Since comic artists aren’t bound by the imperfections found in real people, they can make their characters look perfect. And if there’s only one ideal of beauty in our culture, that means these perfect people will be clones of each other.
It’s perfectly possible there are other explanations for the clone syndrome than the ones I outlined above. As I said, sometimes it can be a part of an artist’s personal aesthetic; some artists have such idiosyncratic styles that designing easily identifiable characters isn’t really a priority to them. But more often than not the syndrome is there because of cultural ideals, rigid genre conventions, or sheer laziness. Just as we criticize those artists who can’t draw proper perspective or anatomy, we should be critical of those who fail to portray the diversity of human appearance. That it’s easier to draw the same character again and again is no excuse.Tags: Barry Kitson, Kati Narhi, Steve Dillon