From the Drawing Board: Character Design, Collaboration, and Carnies

While I contribute to Charleston City Paper with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every week, I occasionally field additional illustration gigs for them. A recent such gig wound up an interesting exercise in character design and collaboration.


The Rough Cut

The art director reached out to see if I could help out with an upcoming issue with a “traveling carnival” theme. I’m usually asked to provide spot illustrations to complement feature articles, playing off the writer’s wordplay and focus; in this case, they were looking for something more freeform, something playing off the theme to incorporate into advertising leading up to the issue. Oh, and there was an additional request to try to also incorporate a superhero element, as that had been a runner-up theme and maybe something they’d want to call back to in future issues. Overall, it seemed like an interesting creative challenge.   In the end, carnies—the sideshow characters common to old school carnivals—proved rich fodder to play with. I grabbed a handful of archetypes—the barker, the dog-faced boy, the strongman—and added a superhero-esque character into the mix. A fun composite, and I was already piecing together a nice backstory in my mind for how/why a superhero joined a traveling freakshow (maybe that’s a comic idea for another day). 

The Next Iteration

The feedback from the art director was promising, and it was clear I was on the right track with the carnies approach. But they had a few requests:

  • Rather than a single group shot, could I do a treatment of each character individually? That way they could do more of a longer-form advertising campaign playing up the them. (Sure, easy enough.)
  • The barker was read more like a circus ringleader. (Fair enough, especially with that top hat and coattails.)
  • Oh, and they decided to forgo the superhero element. Maybe instead work up a fortune teller who uses the City Paper as her crystal ball? (Change of plans, understandable.)

Breaking up the group meant going back to the drawing board, but it was fun nonetheless. I sketched a spot illustration of each, keeping a consistent framing and pose so they could be paired together as necessary for the advertising design. From a character development perspective, the strongman and dog-faced boy are such archetypes, they came together almost immediately. The barker was another fairly easy fix, with a simple wardrobe change making him less Big Top/more Boardwalk. The fortune teller, however, was a larger, from-the-ground-up revamp. 

The Fortune Teller’s New Outlook

Again, the response was positive. Everyone was looking good, the barker was clearly no longer traveling with the Ringling Bros. And the fortune teller looked the part, but…. One last request: An iteration where she’s sitting at her table rather than standing like everyone else. Apparently the consistent framing and pose wasn’t a need, so I was game. The suggested image would definitely push the archetypal image of a fortune-teller and help sell the crystal ball/City Paper switcheroo. Throw in some more dramatic underlighting and expression, and boom, she came to life.   In the end, a nice collaboration, albeit at times a game of Telephone, with a bit of shifting requirements mixed in with constructive input. But most importantly, a nice reminder that character design is seldom one-and-done. Even when working by yourself instead of as a collaboration, take time to iterate on your character designs. Explore different takes. Sketch multiple versions, and see how the character changes with each. Once you establish a character’s look, don’t be surprised if they continue to morph as you draw them based on the lessons you learn from continued refinement and as your own style evolves. And most importantly, have fun… like a trip to the sideshow.

Steve Stegelin

Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic)  BOONDOGGLE