Saturday, May 13, 2006

Do Clothes Make the Character?

As some of you may know, David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane had a dispute about 12 years ago or so, over whether McFarlane was the "co-creator" of the character Venom. Michelinie came up with the idea of a bad guy who used the alien symbiote to try to kill Spider-Man. McFarlane took the design idea of "a big guy in the alien costume" and turned out Venom - basically a monster with the alien costume look, rather than a person wearing the alien costume, complete with a grotesque tongue and giant teeth.

The question remains, then, IS McFarlane the co-creator of Venom?

I think it goes back to the basic question - does the character design of a character define a character? DO clothes make the character?

For a time in the 1970s, John Romita would design pretty much any new character (if an artist didn't already have a design in place, like Dave Cockrum with the All-New, All-Different X-Men) that a Marvel writer came up with. For example, Romita designed the costume for the Punisher.

Is Romita, therefore, the co-creator of the Punisher?

Is Romita the co-creator of Wolverine?

Is designing the character the same thing as "creating" them?

Peter David famously came up with the WACKO theory, which stands for "Writer As Creative King/Overlord," which posits that, unless we are given specific reasons otherwise (like someone saying, "We created it together" or the Silver Surfer, which Jack Kirby came up with out of whole cloth), the writer should be considered the creator of the character, not the artist.

Comics are clearly a visual medium first and foremost, so the LOOK of a character is extremely important.

Enough, though, so as to consider the DESIGN of a character to be co-creation? Even if the background/history/motivation of the character has already been planned out by the writer?

In other words, is character design a necessary component of comic character creation?

I'm thinking yes.

Anyone think otherwise?

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26 Comments:

Blogger T. said...

I say yes. I think it all depends how important the artist's contribution is to the character's appeal. EVERYTHING that made Venom cool was McFarlane's doing. Michilinie just wanted a muscular guy in the black costume. It was McFarlane's idea to add the teeth and claws and that made all the difference. The character's motivation was just stupid (what was Spider-Man supposed to do, let a killer go free so that Brock could keep his story?). His character wasn't compelling. He would have been just another Humbug, CHance or Cardiac, but I remember as a kid seeing that McFarlane visual and loving it. At that point I didn't care how badly written or conceived Venom was, that visual was enough for me. I think it's a big reason why the character couldn't survive that long without a good artist and is currently in limbo.

5/13/2006 08:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

Absolutely. Comic book characters are like flags: you see what they look like long before you find out what they're supposed to stand for, and eventually that look itself becomes a symbol of what they represent. These characters have become so associated with their designs you can indicate them with just the most iconic elements of their costumes: Superman IS the S-shield, Batman IS those pointy ears, Spider-man IS those big white eyes.

To take your Venom example again, the Venom concept is actually pretty damn weak as a character: he's just another schmuck with a totally irrational desire to kill Spider-man. It's the design - particularly the monster look with the huge teeth and the tongue - that made the character stand out for so long.

To be honest, I had no idea this was ever in dispute. Every time I think of Venom, I think of Todd McFarlane because he did co-create him. The thought experiment to use here is: would these characters come out the same if the writers tried to design them themselves? I can't think of a single instance where that's true, simply because artists actually do stuff. Their contributions really do matter, and in comics they often matter more than the writers' contributions.

I think a lot of fans actually take artists for granted simply because while the vast majority of fans don't draw, everybody writes to some extent, so more people can relate to what a writer does more than what an artist does. But seriously, it IS a visual medium, and if anything the artistic side has progressed much farther than the writing.

Peter David famously came up with the WACKO theory, which stands for "Writer As Creative King/Overlord,"

It's no coincidence this spells out a synonym for "nutcase." I don't think even Peter David takes that one all that seriously.

5/13/2006 10:07:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

"Michilinie just wanted a muscular guy in the black costume."

Actually, he wanted a *woman* in the black costume.

5/13/2006 10:16:00 AM  
Anonymous JohnBritton said...

If you're really interested, take a look at Gaiman v. McFarlane. Basically, the judge says that in comics, writers and artists combine to create characters, and that Gaiman and McFarlane were co-owners of Angela, Medieval Spawn, and Cagliostro. But none of it really matters in the context of Venom: it was all likely owned by Marvel as the employer, so in the eyes of the law, Marvel is the creator of Venom.

As far as credit goes? Neither one should be crowing that loud. They just connected the final dots that were all laid out in Secret Wars by Shooter and Zeck.

5/13/2006 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger Walaka said...

While I think you could make a case that "character design" is an integral part of character creation (along with "background/history/motivation," your summative label for the more 'writerly' contributions), it seems that it's a bit reductive to necessarily equate that with "costume design," and I don't know that the simple of fact of having drawn X first is compelling. The facts would need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.

5/13/2006 10:48:00 AM  
Anonymous thekamisama said...

All McFarlene did was put the black costume on a bigger body and give him a Joker smile (the lower jaw fangs thing really was not in the first appearance) So I guess that Mike Zeck. Rick Leonardi, and Bob Kane co-created him too.

5/13/2006 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger Iagorune said...

As much as I hate to do it, I’ve got to agree with McFarline on this one.

In the case of graphic characters of course the artist who desigined the characters look is a co-creator.

Did Michilline come up with the basic idea?

Certainly, so I guess you can say that he created Venom, but at the same time it was Todd who gave the character his rather distintctive looks, so it’s hard not to say that Todd helped to create the character.

It’s like Batman in a way.

Yes artist Bob Kane came up with the idea of someone called Batman, but his original drawing was of a blond guy in a red suit, batcape and a domino mask. It was writer Bill Finger who came up with the pointy cowl, the gray suit and moody exteriors. But it was Kane who got the creator credit, not Finger, and yet it is undeniable that Bill Finger was a co-creator of the graphic art character that we call Batman.

It's the same way for any combination of artists and writers who work together. Yes a writer comes up with an idea, but since comics is a visual medium, the person who designs a characters "look" certainly has something to do with the characters "creation".

- rick

pop culture love

5/13/2006 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger T. said...

I wouldn't exactly call it a Joker smile. The corners of the mouth crept up all the way up to the sides of his eyes. It was something different than Joker's smile.

5/13/2006 01:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Vincent J. Murphy said...

I will agree and disagree. For many characters, the visual look is important, for others, not so much.

Should George Perez be stripped of his co-creator status of Nightwing because the costume changed? I'd say no (and because Perez was co-plotting at the time). Going by this logic, however, the person who last tossed a costume on a character could be considered a co-creator.

The truth is that the character is much more important than the look 9 times out of 10. And the writer is the one who defines the qualities that make the character work.

Yes, there are certain iconic costumes that define certain characters. Superman is as much a look as a character, as is Batman. But in both cases, the writer also defined the secret identities, the character traits, etc.

I could concede that there are certain characters that are indistinguishable from their look: the Joker, the Hulk (mostly), the Silver Surfer. In those cases, it depends on if the writer told the artists "make the surfer silver" or if the artist was left to do it themselves.

McFarlane embellished the graphic design on the character, but the basic look was already dictated to him.

5/13/2006 03:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

"Going by this logic, however, the person who last tossed a costume on a character could be considered a co-creator."

Not really. A character redesign is akin to any other revamp. Lee and Kirby created the Hulk; Peter David didn't "recreate" the Hulk or "co-co-create" the character when he introduced the amalgamated "smart" Hulk. Similarly, the artist who drew Robin's new costume is a revamper, not a creator.

5/13/2006 04:42:00 PM  
Anonymous JR said...

I'd lean yes as well. The visual of a character is the first thing you notice and is the part that gets one to ask "who is that?". The writer's job is to answer said question in a manner that makes said visual an interesting character (hopefully). You can have an interesting character idea but if he looks like William Katt at Mardi Gras then you're not going to get alot of interest for him. The reverse is true as well though.

I wouldn't put tinkerings, revamps, or redesigns in this catagory, however. McFarlane didn't "re-create" Spider-Man or Mary Jane when he tinkered around with their designs even though it did re-popularize the characters (hey you notice how nobody seems to complain about how said updates have pretty much reverted to the Romita designs? It's anti-growth I tell ya!).

Venom exists in this strange area of being both a revamp/redesign and a new character. Both the black costume and Brock had been around in the Spidey-verse for quite some time before eventually becoming Venom. Yet combining them into a single character was new and McFarlane is certainly responsible for creating a menacing look that really caught on in a big way (for a while anyways). So I would give McFarlane credit for that much at the very least.

5/13/2006 05:44:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

By the by, I BELIEVE that Eddie Brock was actually created by Michelinie, and then Peter David, helping Michelinie add the back story, then added the Eddie Brock plot to the Sin-Eater storyline, giving Michelinie the necessary incentive for Eddie Brock (which, by the by, a later writer felt was not enough of an incentive, so later retconned Brock as having terminal cancer).

5/13/2006 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger Sean Whitmore said...

"and then Peter David, helping Michelinie add the back story, then added the Eddie Brock plot to the Sin-Eater storyline"

Say whu? I don't think Eddie was ever in the actual Sin Eater storyline. I'm pretty sure his first appearance was a good three years later, with the symbiote.

5/13/2006 09:18:00 PM  
Blogger Rohan Williams said...

What happens, then, if the design is later changed to something completely different?
The earlier example of Nightwing is very interesting, not just because Nightwing's costume has changed since the initial Perez design, but because it brings up a whole other point: Should Perez be considered the co-creator of Nightwing at all? Isn't Nightwing basically just a new costume for Dick Grayson?

5/13/2006 09:40:00 PM  
Blogger Apodaca said...

Why anyone would want to take credit for creating Venom is beyond me.

5/13/2006 10:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

Venom's case is a curious one. First Machilinie really pretty much continued a storyline that was already going on the spider books for some time (and one could say that the very lame Brock was the least important thing about Venom). Then, one should add that McFarlane didn't do much in terms of actual design, it's pretty much a big guy in the alien uniform, only a little scarier than one might expect at first. Still, was McFarlane style that sold Venom. It's less about how he looks, but about how he looks with McFarlane art. If McFarlane run on Amazing started around issue 303, Venom first appearance might had got a colder reaction but he would probably still caught on with most readers when Michilinie brought him back with McFarlane.

5/14/2006 12:47:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

"Say whu? I don't think Eddie was ever in the actual Sin Eater storyline. I'm pretty sure his first appearance was a good three years later, with the symbiote."

The second Sin Eater storyline, in Spectacular #134-136, which introduced Eddie Brock and his screw-up over Sin-Eater's identity.

It came out a couple of months before Venom debuted in Amazing.

Kudos to PAD for helping Michelinie out.

5/14/2006 02:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

"What happens, then, if the design is later changed to something completely different?"

Again, how is this different from a revamp? Mort Weisinger and George Papp created Green Arrow as one certain kind of character - a sort of Batman-clone with an arrow-shtick. But he was radically overhauled several times over the course of several decades, most notably by Adams and O'Neill and Mike Grell. We can accept that Mike Grell didn't rob Weisinger of creator-status when he did "The Longbow Hunters"; it's a revamp, not a recreation. So how is visually revamping a character any different?

5/14/2006 05:56:00 AM  
Blogger Rohan Williams said...

Iron Lungfish said...
"We can accept that Mike Grell didn't rob Weisinger of creator-status when he did "The Longbow Hunters"; it's a revamp, not a recreation. So how is visually revamping a character any different?"
Well, that's the whole point. Weisinger doesn't lose his creator status, but does Papp? Even in a revamp, some elements of the original characer will stay the same... the name, for starters, will remain.
But if the costume is massively overhauled, and bears no real resemblance to that of the original design, does the artist get to keep his co-creator status?

5/14/2006 07:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

"But if the costume is massively overhauled, and bears no real resemblance to that of the original design, does the artist get to keep his co-creator status?"

No. The character originates with the original creators - BOTH of them. That's what it means to "create" something (regardless of how the comics industry bastardizes the term "creator"). Whatever changes are made to them after the fact are incidental to the fact that they were created by their creators. This is so obvious it's tautological.

Let's take Spider-Man. Spider-Man was, rather uncontroversially, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The last major revamp of Spider-Man, however, has not only changed the look of the character (Steve Ditko's major contribution) but the character's origin itself (Stan Lee's major contribution). So by your logic, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko are no longer the creators of Spider-Man - instead, Spider-Man, right now, is the creation of J. Michael Straczinski and Joe Quesada. Jesus! No wonder nobody reads comics anymore!

To put this in real world terms: you will always be the child of your parents. You may have changed incredibly and irrevocably since the day you left your parents' house, and you've no doubt had many more influences and role models on your life than just your parents, but that doesn't make your parents no longer your parents, any more than it makes your various teachers, professors, employers and other role models your retroactive "co-parents."

To solve the riddle of Robin/Nightwing: Dick Grayson was created by Kane and Finger. He was given a radical overhaul by Wolfman and Perez, to the point of taking on a new Superhero name, but this doesn't change the fact that he started out with - and was created by - Kane and Finger. For yet another parallel: Bucky was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Making him a cyborg and changing his name to "the Winter Soldier" was a revamp/retcon, not some weird "character debirthening" that retroactively made Brubaker and Epting co-creators of Bucky.

5/14/2006 09:01:00 AM  
Anonymous Patrick said...

Iron Lungfish sez...

No. The character originates with the original creators - BOTH of them. That's what it means to "create" something (regardless of how the comics industry bastardizes the term "creator"). Whatever changes are made to them after the fact are incidental to the fact that they were created by their creators. This is so obvious it's tautological

For the most part I think this is true, but I'm not certain it's always the case. You could argue that the modern Green Arrow we're used to is so fundamentally different from the original that he's basically a different character... a character created by Adams and O'Neil.

I wouldn't make this argument, but it wouldn't be entirely unreasonable. My take is that Green Arrow, if he were ever to get a movie or something, should get a "created by" credit for his original creators but, equally importantly, should also have an "inspired by the work of" crediting O'Neil and Adams. The lack of such a credit in most comic book movies these days, which usually mine elements from several creators, has always kind of bothered me. It would have been nice to see an "acknowledgement to the works of" in Batman Begins for folks like O'Neil, Adams, Finger, Miller, etc.

5/14/2006 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Arndt said...

Marv Wolfman and George Perez created Nightwing?

what?

Did you ever read a comic published before 1983?

5/15/2006 09:34:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Arndt said...

If the costume makes the character than George Perez created Nightwing. If it's anything beyond that then Dick Grayson was created in forties and the Nightwing name originated in the fifties. Maybe I am off on a decade or so.

Assuming that we don't reassign creator status because the characterization changes under a new writer then assigning George Perez a creator status of any sort is a load of crock when it comes to that character.

5/15/2006 09:39:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Arndt said...

That said, Todd McFarlane is the co-creator of Venom.

The black alien costume may have been created by Shooter and Zeck or just Shooter or whomever.

Ultimately the alien costume is NOT the Venom character. Whoever designed the visual of the black costume and whoever designed the character as he was created into the plot and whoever came up with the plot and its intricracies should have the character creation credit.

Now as for whether or not the Eddie Brock Venom back story is bad or not... he hates Spider-Man to a homicidal extent because he's irrational. That doesn't make his motivation stupid... the fact is that few comic book villains have a rational purpose and reason for what they do. Venom's is no worse than Captain Cold's.

The true fact is this. Peter Parker has no in-story reason not to sell a web-fluid formula 3M and solve all of his financial problems. The outside reasons is that the writers can't do that because that would kill some of his so-called core purposes and core aspects. Instead of being a finanically-secure Spider-Man the character was impoverished for decades because there are times when the characters are irrational. Nearly all of Flash's villains engineered god-like tools. They designed gadgets which would make them rich but they rob banks. That is irrational.

Venom is a serial killer of sorts. If you need a "Smart" motivation for him your expectations are ridiculous.

5/15/2006 09:51:00 PM  
Blogger Mauricem said...

I would have to agree that the writer should get credit for creating a character. After all, would McFarlane have even drawn Venom without Michelinie? Probably not. On the other hand, the reality is that Venom is visually striking and that's what made the character popular.
One could actually argue it was the Mike Zeck who deserves the credit because he designed the black suit in the first place, but that's a bit of a stretch.

5/16/2006 12:04:00 PM  
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