Behind the Character Design: Saulon January 6, 2014 at 12:01 am
It’s now difficult to believe, but there was once a time when it seemed like we would never have an operational Saul.
Considering that Saul appears on almost every page of Atroxity, this was a little worrisome.
Let’s rewind a bit: back in 2005 when Atroxity (then called “Atropolis”) first started to coalesce in my brain, two critical components arrived fully formed. I first saw the city, a monstrous labyrinthine structure that resembled several quaint European towns stacked on top of each other (“and gone to hell,” as I was fond of saying). Almost simultaneously I saw the man in the middle of the urban maze, a cocky, streetwise guy slouched in the shadows and taking in his surroundings through a burning, suspicious glare.
At the time I was under the mistaken impression that I could handle all the art myself, and so I created the following character sketch (influenced in no small part by watching Dominic Monaghan in Lord of the Rings interview footage).
“Well that was easy,” I thought, completely unaware that the spark so easily channeled into this image would thereafter decide that it had better things to do than hang around with me, and I would find myself unable to recreate Saul, in this expression or any other, despite many, many tries.
This was foreshadowing, as it turns out.
Luke climbed on board a bit later–we had been discussing the project a lot, but it wasn’t until I reviewed his incredible art school portfolio that I swallowed my pride and finally admitted I should probably just stick to the writing side of things–and one of Luke’s first tasks was to work on sketches of Saul.
And so I received the following:
“Good lord,” I thought. “That is so not Saul.”
“I was kind of picturing him as a younger Clive Owen,” Luke said.
And so I was introduced to the perils of collaboration without adequate communication. If I as the writer had a specific image in mind, I sure as hell needed to make it clear to Luke as the artist.
And so I wrote up a character design doc, that described Saul’s hair color, outfit, posture, facial expressions, and mannerisms (and contained some surprisingly beefcakey photos of Dominic Monaghan attached, because why not?) Luke and I went back and forth a bit, which resulted in some sketches featuring a grizzled looking menace eyeing up convenience stores to rob.
“Saul isn’t exactly a nice guy,” I thought, “but he’s nicer than this.”
In some ways, the issue was that Luke had too much information at this point. I had completed a rough draft of the first three chapters of the book, and reading them had caused Luke to fill in the cracks and form a very specific Saul in his head that didn’t match mine. He saw a villainous-looking thug, whereas I had in mind a guy who looked at least capable of doing the right thing, even if he frequently decided otherwise.
Attempts to bridge this gap after both parties had lived with a certain version of a character in their heads for three chapters wasn’t easy. There was a constant stream of sketches going back and forth, some of which got us closer to a mutual Saul and some of which pushed him ever further away. It seemed like there was no progress that we couldn’t somehow convert into defeat, with Saul smirking at us just out of reach.
Finally, Luke sent me the following sketch:
The skies cleared, angels descended, and a choir of heavenly voices took up the chant of “you’ve found Saul’s faaaaaace, you’ve found Saul’s faaaaaace!” The design was the perfect combination of boyish good looks and defiant attitude. The design was Saul.
“STOP RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE!” I shouted to Luke. “THAT’S HIS GODDAMN FACE.”
Of course, because nothing is ever easy and Saul wasn’t yet done making us sweat, we then discovered that there was actually a lot more besides Saul’s face to disagree on. Luke sent me some full-body studies that put Saul in bulky, muscular-looking clothing and fist-clenched hero poses, neither of which I found appropriate for a scrawny but scrappy little shit who walks with a defensive hunch. I was adamant that Saul needed to appear somewhat vulnerable, and any strength he possessed shouldn’t be immediately obvious.
In short, I wanted Luke to forget everything he knew about character design for comic books, but I (again) made the mistake of not actually communicating this to him.
There was also the matter of deciding on Saul’s expressions. Luke drew up multiple character sheets, many of which featured the kind of exaggerated expressions that make perfect sense in comics but would never flit across the face of the Saul I knew. Saul is an incredibly guarded and suspicious character, and the wide-eyed, open-mouthed faces Luke drew looked (to me) like the actor who plays Saul horsing around with the catering staff between takes.
I do have to pause here to point out that none of these failed Sauls were due to errors on Luke’s part–he was doing what good artists do: attempting to find a character by drawing him repeatedly in different ways. The problem was just that Saul kept giving us the middle finger and dancing just outside of our field of view.
Adding to the stress was the fact that we were already deep in the final inks of the prologue at this point, and we were getting close to running out of pages that didn’t feature this visually elusive protagonist. Luke kept cranking out different sketches in an attempt to appeal this difficult writer he was saddled with, and in return I sent back countless embarrassing self-pics in which I mimicked various Saulian expressions in an attempt to show Luke what I had in mind.
All journeys do eventually reach their end, of course, and so it was that our communication paid off and Luke finally pulled the Saul I knew into the light. It was with the sketch on the left, which you might recognize from the version on the right:
That’s right, the first completely successful sketch of Saul was created in a panic while staring down the deadline for the last page of the prologue (it should be noted that this was originally the very first appearance of Saul within the comic, as the shot of Saul leaving the alley wasn’t added until later when it became obvious that the sequence needed some clarification.
Of course, Saul continued to evolve over time, through the practice known as “Luke drawing the same character over and over again for a shitload of panels.” It’s weird now to look back and see the degree to which this one character resisted coming out of the shadows and showing his true face, but in retrospect I’ve got to hand it to the guy:
That was so Saul.
And not in a younger Clive Owen kind of way.