Tag Archive: Character Design

Happy Samurais issue #1 Layouts

Happy Samurais issue #1 Layouts

When working on a comic, I usually layout and draw one scene at a time. My fear has always been that if I laid out something like sixty pages, that my drawing, storytelling and layout abilities would improve so much during those first twenty or forty pages that I’d have to re-layout a ton of pages to incorporate all that I’d learned. I’m not sure if there’s any truth to that at all, but it made sense to me for a number of years.

Two things have recently helped change my thought process on that. One, during my time at the Atlantic Center for the Arts residency last year, I talked with Craig Thompson about his experiences working on Habibi. (Though Habibi just came out this September, Craig had finished it as of October, 2010, so I’d seen the completed book while I was there). Craig had laid out the entirety of the 600+ page Habibi at least three times (I wanna say it was actually more like five). Each layout wasn’t just a change of camera angle or adding another panel, it was completely changing the way he was telling the story or more often, changing the story itself. He felt laying out the entire book was the only way to really see how the story worked. You sat down and read it from beginning to end.

Craig’s group at the residency was working on longer form comics — stories with page counts at least 100 pages in length. Members of his group each had to have a huge chunk of layouts done for their story, which they’d then share with the rest of Craig’s group in a workshop type of session. Craig said he was more convinced than ever after his experiences workshopping with his ACA students, that laying everything out ahead of time was the way to do it.

The second thing that made me change my thoughts on layout was hearing details of how Pixar develops their movies. Directors at Pixar screen their films internally every 16-20 weeks for their “Brain Trust”. The “Brain Trust” is considered to be John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars), Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo), Pete Docter (Up, Monster’s Inc.) and Brad Bird (Incredibles, Ratatouille) — though I believe other key people like Bob Peterson, Ronnie Del Carmen, Michael Arndt etc. are involved in some form as well. They “screen” the film in whatever form it’s currently in to get feedback on how it’s progressing. So during the first screening, the film is probably still an animatic (animated storyboards), the next version is maybe an animatic with temp voices/music, then onto a version with blocked in 3D models etc.

This screening process isn’t necessarily a straight line through to a finished film. Often times they get three or four steps into the process only to decide things aren’t working and go back to square one — both Monster’s Inc. and Up went through multiple false starts. Andrew Stanton has said, “I don’t believe in a scene until I see it on the reels.” As Stanton describes Pixar’s process, it’s essentially making the film three or four times to get it right. (Incidentally, Stanton feels that Pixar isn’t the best at making movies, but that they excel at re-working them). What Pixar doesn’t want to do is waste time making a story that doesn’t work. They want to, as Stanton says, “Be wrong as fast as we can.” So Pixar turns it into a movie (even if it’s animated storyboards) as soon as possible to see how it’s working out. Thus it only makes sense to turn your comic into a comic as soon as possible to see how it reads.

Before I can lay out a scene though, I need to know what the characters and environment for that scene look like. If you design a characters that’s super-wide, or maybe has some ornate costume detail that sticks out three feet off each shoulder, you’re going to compose a shot with that specific costume differently than you would a generic mannequin figure. Same thing with a location. The shape and design of the architecture is going to suggest unique angles, framing, composition and backdrops to set your characters against. The background should never be an afterthought to the characters.

I currently have about half of the triple-sized Happy Samurais #1 penciled (not all consecutive scenes, I jumped around a little). To apply my new strategy of laying out the rest of the issue, I had to finish off all remaining character and location designs. I like to make a reference packet for each character/location (see stack in the photo below). The packet will have printouts of whatever designs I’ve drawn and any other reference I might need. As of yesterday, I FINALLY finished off all the design work for issue #1 and this morning I start laying out the remaining scenes. The design phase always bogs me down (when I think back on many of the projects I worked on that fell apart, the design phase was almost always where it occurred.). It just happens to be the most time-consuming task for me. Super-happy with the designs I came up with, but honestly more psyched to be done with it and back to drawing and telling stories.

If you’re interested, I highly recommend checking out the following links to Pixar related podcasts:

Andrew Stanton – talks about upcoming John Carter movie & Pixar’s film-making process.
Pete Docter & Bob Peterson – talk with Jeff Goldsmith of Creative Screenwriting about Up.
Brad Bird – brilliant interview about Brad’s career and work in animation.

Design Work for The Happy Samurais Issue #1


Thought it might be cool to take a look at all the development work I did for a new character in my Happy Samurais comic. I compiled all the drawings I did for it in the images below.

In the past, I’ve almost always designed characters with pencil and paper and I still did most of the “daydreaming”, “what if…” type of stuff that way. But when it came time to try out all the subtle variations on the designs (what if these lines go up instead of down, or what if I make that part fat instead of skinny…) I started using Photoshop. When drawing on paper and I’d want to compare design variations against each other, I’d just bust out another drawing — which invariably would be slightly off (proportions, shape, silhouette) from the original. I gotta say, I really loved being able to just keep tweaking the same image over and over and end up with dozens of variations to chose from. Admittedly, I went a little overboard (60 + variations!) but the process also helped me arrive at what I think is one of the coolest character design I’ve ever done.

Character Design Development Sketches

Character Design Development Work

Is all this a little much for one character design? I guess that all depends on your point of view. Monthly comic book guys would NEVER spend this much time on a character design. They just don’t have the luxury to work on something this long that’s NOT a page. And I get that. Monthly comics gotta get out the door. But I also think that’s one of the reasons most comic book character designs are so average. Seriously, character design skills among comic artists are way inferior to our brothers in video games, animation and film. Hell, half the time, comic artists are designing characters on the page. There’s no way you’re going to come up with a strong fundamental design that way.

I’m also trying to make a different type of comic than most. One that’s developed more like a film than a comic — where tons of time and effort is placed on character design, prop design, location design and special effects, etc.

Yes, that’s a lot of work for one character design, but badass shit isn’t made overnight.

Will it all be worth it in the end? Only one way to find out.

And I know I’m being a tease by not showing the final design, but I’m still trying to figure out how much to hint at and how much to show in this making-of process stuff. After all, I don’t want to ruin any of the comic reading experience.


Here are the character designs for The Happy Samurai’s rival band, Pink Dragon Dirt Bike. The overall design theme was “sci-fi glam”. Darth Vader meets David Bowie. We’ve got Red Nozaki, the brilliant guitarist, vocalist and songwriter. Goken (literally translates to strong fist) on drums. Fastest guitar player in Tokyo, Uzi Suzuki plays lead. And Lady Blitzkrieg locks down the low end on bass.

Red Nozaki of Pink Dragon Dirt Bike

Goken of Pink Dragon Dirt Bike

Uzi Suzuki of Pink Dragon Dirt Bike

Lady Blitzkrieg of Pink Dragon Dirt Bike

Pink Dragon Dirt Bike


Picking up where we left off last time then, my goals when planning out The Happy Samurais #1 were to try and do what the first issue of a good manga does:  introduce the world and characters, setup the status quo, introduce some story problems/conflitcts AND get across the series premise/hook.  On an even higher level, I wanted to craft a story so strong, that if someone picks up this new series from an unknown creator, they’d not only enjoy the first issue, but be compelled into picking up the ENTIRE series.

Now, that’s a damn tall order in your typical 22 page comic.

That’s why my plan was to do what I mentioned previously and go with a double-sized first issue.  Somewhere during the writing process though, that double-sized issue became a triple-sized issue and the final page count is pushing 60 pages. (Now whether a 60 page first issue is an idiotic idea or not is a discussion for another day, but I will say the whole point of making this comic is to make it exactly the way I want and fuck everything else.)

So The Happy Samurais #1 has ended up feeling somewhere in between a single issue and a trade paperback (most TPBs collect 5-6 issues, which would be 120-130 pages).  I’m used to working on 22 comics.  It’s familiar.  The finish line is always in sight and that’s a VERY comforting thing.

Doing a long form comic though presents it’s own unique set of challenges.  And I will admit that 60 pages BARELY qualify as long form –especially if compared to say, Craig Thompson’s 600+ page Habibi (which I had the privilege to read last fall).  But 60 pages is still half of a standard trade paperback and it feels radically different from a 22-pager to me.

And that brings me to the point of this post.

As I draw The Happy Samurais #1, I kinda feel like I’m only making progress on the project when I see the finished page count tally rise.  For whatever reason THAT and ONLY THAT seems to be how progress is measured (maybe because it’s the simplest quantifiable way?).  I might do six character designs, three location designs and five pages of layouts over a couple weeks, but because I didn’t add any pages to the tally, I feel like I didn’t accomplish a damn thing.

And feeling like you’re spinning you’re wheels (even though you know that’s not true) can depress the hell out of you.

One of the biggest factors in seeing things through to completion is handling the inevitable ups and downs that accompany a project that requires such a long period of work.  Day to day and hour to hour, you’ll go from believing you can slay dragons, to convinced you’re so awful that you need to find a new line of work.  For me, the surest way to feel good about myself again is to draw pages and add to that tally.

But making comics isn’t JUST drawing pages.  Well, at least for ME it’s not.  Even though finishing pages is the only way you feel like you’re getting closer to your goal, you can’t jump the gun and rush to start them.

You have to have something to say in your pages.

You have to build the pages on the foundation of your world and the story you want to tell in that world.

If you’re in too big a rush to draw the pages without laying the proper groundwork, they’ll ring empty and hollow.  You can’t just toss stuff out there.  If you want people to notice, if you want to them to give a shit, you have to world build.  And that means thinking how one character, one object, one prop, one location etc. is going to affect EVERY other thing in that world.

And to do that right takes time.

Don’t get distracted by things you WANT to draw (design that one character, setting or maybe that promo image that you’ve been dreaming about for years) and make sure they’re things you actually HAVE to draw in order to get the next page done.  That’s always a good test for me.  Do I HAVE to draw this model sheet super-tight to make the next page work?  Or can I just do it medium-tight and still have it work?  What’s the “endgame” for this piece?

The pages will come.

You’ll add to your tally.

Just keep plugging away.

Complete each step.  Move on to the next and stop worrying about how close you are to the finish line.

As discussed a few weeks ago, you’ve got to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.


Note: click here to read a couple of Craig Thompson’s thoughts on long form comics from my time at ACA with him.

Late night design work for a supporting character in The Happy Samurais.  For a lot of my character design work lately, I’ve been doing the preliminary idea sketching at my computer desk until I figure out the basic idea for the character (overall shape, silhouette, proportion etc).  Then I’ll compile all the specific reference I need to do the final design, print it out and head over to the drawing table to do the final model sheet.

I mentioned it on twitter last week, but I think the first time I REALLY start to understand a character’s personality is when I design their outfit — whether that’s jeans and a t-shirt type of design, or some latex and shoulder pad getup.  As I’m writing the script I’m creating the character’s back-story, their motivations, their goals etc. and I THINK I know them backwards and forwards.  But really, once I start to design their outfits, a lot of that changes pretty drastically.  “Would kind of person wears ‘that’ kind of outfit?”.  It takes takes some balls to wear some of the ridiculous outfits you see rock stars or hipsters wear.  Balls or stupidity I guess.  Take your pick.  So is that something my character would wear, or are they too self conscious?  Or is that not ostentatious enough for them?

This specific character is the manager of the series’ main rival and he’s just a colossal asshole.  Not physically intimidating in any way, but he’s so conniving that you have to be aware of him at all times.  And one thing I’m starting to learn is that I LOVE designing the asshole characters 10x more than the “good guys”.  A large part of that has to do with that “what kind of person would dare wear an outfit like this?” question.  And the answer is usually, “an asshole”!

So ridiculous outfit = asshole = fun to design.

In the future, I think I’ll probably work back and forth a little more when creating a character.  Always starting from the story point-of-view — what is their purpose in the story? — and then working on visuals at the same time as motivation, goals, etc.

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