Friday, 29 May 2015

Deep Sequencing: Technocolour Character Design IN SPAAAACE!

Or a look at how the character design competition has been won by Saga,
by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples; Image Comics

Saga is visually tons of fun. There is just an endlessly imaginative and playful approach to the design of characters, technology, and location that just comes to life on the page. Sometimes it feels like Team Saga is just mashing together different things, seemingly at random, to create this constantly surprising parade of space oddities. Which is totally fine! The way Saga looks it's downright delightful.

The thing is though, the more Saga I read, the more I'm beginning to see a method to some of the madness in character design.

Specifically, I am really interested in the design of the Robots in Saga.

There will be *SPOILERS* For Saga Vol. 4

The Robot Royals have always been one of my favourite fixtures of Saga. There is something great about television headed robots wearing very old-fashioned looking military uniforms that is just iconic and fun. I think the crux of why I like these designs so much has to do with the amount of anachronism on display: the contrast between the retro-future monitor-heads and the 1800s-style jackets, trousers, and cavalry boots is just kind of delightful. Even without any other information, they are kind of the best.

Probably the main Robot character so far has been Prince Robot IV. In many ways he is prototypical to the Robot Royalty as he is usually depicted as a sleek-monitor-headed man wearing some variation on the old-fashion military uniform. He has the added elements of a black stipe on the sides of his head and a pair of rabbit-ear antennas that help make him stand out. Additionally he has a cracked screen, a visible mark of the physical and psychological scars he has suffered over the series. And, like the facial scar this crack is a fun play on, this disfigurement is another identifying feature that further differentiates the prince from other Noble Robots. Collectively he manages to look unique and somewhat removed from the mainstream of Robot society.

Princess Robot, the wife of Prince Robot IV has a subtly different and very clever design. She still has the grey humanoid body and monitor head, but hers is tweaked in ways that emphasize her role as an aristocratic woman. Specifically the two knob like projections on the side of her head create the illusion of ears while her sleeker, elongated monitor has a more traditionally feminine shape. Together these elements create a similar silhouette as hair piled into an elaborate bun, a style synonymous with aristocracy and pomp. This makes Princess Robot both recognizable as a character and cements her role in the story as a Noble Robot.

The son of Prince Robot IV is also an interesting bit of character design. Unlike the adult Robots, the infant and imagined child princeling has a round monitor head. This gives the character an instantly childlike look, his monitor approximating the rounder, chubby features of young human kids. It instantly sets him apart from his adult counterparts and cements his status as a wee one. Clever stuff.

Also, how great is it that the Royal Robots have literal Blue Blood? 

Saga Vol. 4 introduces us to the first Robot commoner, Dengo. It seems that Robot society is wildly unequal and is split between a wealthy aristocracy and a wretched commoner class who live in squalor in the shadows of the royal wealth. This class distinction is reflected in the design of the character. Instead of having a sleek, modernist monitor-head, Dengo has a more old fashioned looking television that is boxy and has large analogue controls on the front of it. His face is also, in a choice that is really effective, a black-and-white screen, as opposed to the coloured screens of the Robot Royalty. As readers we can instantly tell the difference in class by their heads: Dengo has an old fashioned TV like someone in his economic situation might, while the Royals have nicer monitors like a richer person would. The allusions inherent in this character design choice are amazing.

But it's King Robot who has maybe the greatest character design in all of comics. The King of the Robots just has a giant, whopping, high definition widescreen TV for a head. A modern flatscreen so big that it is introduced on a double page spread even! Just let that sink in. The highest class, most important Robot has both the largest monitor head, but also the most modern and expensive one. It is obnoxiously clever character design that conveys how important, arrogant (big headed), and wealthy the character is all at a perfectly executed first glance! It's pretty much the best.

So shut it all down folks, comic character design is over. It's done. It can't get any better.

Long live King Robot!

Post by Michael Bround



  1. Hello! I really enjoyed your article, and was wondering if I could ask you a question. In Vol. 5, the Royal Guard of the Robot Kingdom are introduced. They are odd from the get-go. Not just from their brand new never before seen uniforms, but also their heads. Their heads are...weird. Unlike all other Robots we've seen in the series, their heads are completely unornamented, and are the most boxy I think we've seen, including Dengo. That, combined with their darker grey skin tone (as opposed to the fair skin tone of the Prince and others of high nobility), would lead people to believe that they're commoners. But it's strange, because they just don't seem to fit the bill. A) Because they're Royal Guard, and entrusted with missions from the King himself, and B) Their heads don't match up with anything we've previously seen. As opposed to the color/black and white TV monitors, their screens appear to be green by default. And not only that, the images they display are pixelated, like an old computer/video game. So I can't make up my mind whether they belong to a strange middle class or something entirely different, but either way it's an interesting visual choice. And since you have such a strong grasp on the concepts, I was wondering about your ideas on it. Even if you choose not to reply, I did enjoy the read, so keep up the good work!

    You might not even see this comment at all actually, since this was written over a year ago...

    1. Thanks for the comment! I actually get emails whenever they come up, so I always see them. Sorry it took a bit to respond though: wanted to take a look at the comic again so it was fresh. (Also stupid busy couple weeks!)

      I remember seeing them on my read and going, huh, they do throw the system off a bit. My take, for what its worth, is that the design seems to indicate that soldiers are a distinct class of robot? That they have their own outlook/interests (etc) distinct from the royal and common classes. Which, I mean, could be an interesting commentary about how military service alienates and separates soldiers from their leaders and lay citizenry. (Especially if the military robots are like, made that way by indoctrination and started out as commoners...) Or at least that's my hand-wavey take on it.

      (Although with Saga, I always wonder if something I'm lending a lot of significance to might be like, Staples just having fun with character design. Like, some of the spaceships feel pretty "here is a rad looking ship".)