Art is a language, and character designs are stories told in that language
With this volume, comic artist Malik Shabazz addresses a problem that has held back my personal creative expression for years. What I expected to be a book about technicalities of skin tones and hair types is so much more.
I (the book reviewer) live in South Mississippi just outside of New Orleans, an area with rich African-American heritage and culture. Like many other white artists I know, however, I’ve avoided depicting African Americans out of fear of getting it wrong. This fear, of course, is problematic in itself and contributes to the issue of under-representation in media. To quote the author, “Sometimes you have to get things wrong before you can figure out how to do them right.”
In this chapter-by-chapter review, I would like to look at some of Shabazz’s unique insights into character design presented in this approachable and innovative book. Note, this is not a paid review and I even bought my own copy of the book, and subscribed to its author’s Patreon after discovering what an amazing work this is.
Art as a Language, Design as a Narrative
A single word in any language is different from a single image. A character design is a purposeful combination of many different elements that, if done correctly, tell a story.–Malik Shabazz
Chapter One begins with the author’s insights into art and character design, expressing the need to familiarize oneself with Black culture in order to create accurate depictions. While this may seem obvious – as a member of the LGBT community it’s painfully obvious to me that many problematic depictions come not from a place of malice, but from a lack of exposure and understanding.
The author then briefly addresses the fundamentals of character design – asking questions like “what is the character’s gender”, “what is the character’s view on spirituality”, and “how does this character feel about their place in the world” with recognition that not all characters will be fully developed.
The first exercise to the reader is what first really struck me in this book. The reader is asked to design three characters using the prompts given – a man, a woman, and a non-binary person. To see a book attempt to tackle race and culture, as well as addressing gender and sexuality told me this book would be something special.
The impressions people make on you, either through personal experience or observation, serves as reference material.–Malik Shabazz
The above quote, I will posit, is true of all character design. When lacking in personal experience, and observation largely coming from trope-filled media like sitcoms its all too easy to fall back on those tropes and stereotypes and not even realize why they are a problem.
The book’s author takes a look both at historic and present-day stereotypes and tropes such as “The Mammy”, “Thugs”, and one I’ve been guilty portraying of in the past, the modern-day “Safe Negro”.
“One of the first visual stereotypes to come into common use was the docile negro. Also known as a “pickaninny” or “sambo”; this cliché told the story of Black people that were akin to mischievous children. By infantizing Black people, the stereotype contributed to acceptance of Jim Crow laws.“
This chapter contains insights that I’ve never previously considered such as the importance of understanding cliché and stereotype not only as something to be avoided but as something that contributes to cultural identity (for better or worse).
Culture, Aesthetic, and Theme
Chapter four begins with a deep-dive into the cultural character creation prompts given in Chapter One. When creating characters (individual or groups), the book’s author advises first breaking the initial process down into 12 questions – not only obvious ones like race and age. For example, the character’s physical differences play a role:
Consider the character’s mental and physical health/differences. Things like blindness, autistic spectrum disorder, albinism, anxiety/depression, and paraplegia are all things that will help shape a design.–Malik Shabazz
Along with these cultural design questions, Shabazz says to look at the aesthetics and theme of the character – things like color scheme, shape language, and how hair styles, tattoos, and accessories convey the character’s culture to the audience. The theme helps decide how the character reflects the world of the story in which they live.
Chapter four is what made this book personal for me. It begins with gender and sexuality – a topic very important to me, that both influences and is influenced by all cultures. I’m not gonna lie, I literally started crying when I read this section. The author’s brief but mature and informed treatment on the subject of sexuality and gender strongly reinforced that this wasn’t just a book about drawing people with a different culture or skin tone than mine. Its a book about people, and the characters that represent them, in all of their beautiful complexity.
One topic not covered here is African body phenotypes, which seems like a potential future supplement to me, given the extensive treatment of common Black facial features and hair types in the next chapter.
This chapter centers around the nose, mouth, hair, skin tone, and cheek bones using what Malik Shabazz calls “The 3/5ths rule” – that is to say if a character’s visual design includes at least 3 of the 5 African phenotype identifiers then the character will read as Black. Keeping this rule in mind, one can create believable characters when considering the effects of the African diaspora.
Black people do not all look alike. Understanding that black features are not only culturally significant but also complex results in more nuanced designs.–Malik Shabazz
Considering this complexity of facial feature representation, this chapter on facial anatomy is written from two perspectives. First, Malik Shabazz gives an overview of the “diamond method” of drawing the nose and determining eye position based on this feature. Next, portrait artist Lion writes a section on eyes, noses, and lips emphasizing the diversity of shapes found especially in bi- and multi-racial individuals.
This chapter wraps up with an amazingly helpful exercise titled “Am I drawing blackface?” that reinforces the 3/5ths rule.
Coloring Black Characters
This chapter, the longest in the book, starts with an issue that some Caucasian readers may be unfamiliar with, or have only a cursory understanding of – colorism – a bias against dark-skinned people and preference for light skin, typically among people within the same ethnic or racial group. The book’s author does not delve deeply into this subject, but does inform readers that skin tone affects a character’s life experience, conveyed succinctly in an illustration showing a dark skinned young woman being taunted with phrases like “gotta turn on the lights to find her ass”, “hey little tar baby”, “little roach”, etc.
Next the reader is presented with a system of 12 color groups the author calls the “African Phenotype Color Palette (APCP)”. Combined with the detailed instructions on their use, this color palette offers an easy way for colorists to create believable skin tones across a wide array of nuanced skin tones. It is, of course, only meant as a starting place, but this system provides a very solid foundation.
The author goes the extra mile in this chapter describing how melanin works on different parts of the body and even how scars look on darker skin tones.
Next, artist and illustrator Lindsey Swop contributes a section on coloring Black skin tones using grayscale base paintings and a gradient map method and gives helpful tips for reference materials (such as watching makeup tutorials intended for people with your target skin tones).
One of the strongest African phenotype identifiers is hair. Coincidentally, hair is also one of the features designers struggle with the most.–Malik Shabazz
Before reading this book, I had never heard terms like “3C hair type” or “type 1 hair”. Such classification systems were completely foreign to me. Since reading this book however, I’ve noticed these classifications are actually very well known and they had somehow flown under my radar this whole time. This book contains detailed sections about all common African hair types and instructions on how to digitally paint them using the author’s free set of brushes for the popular illustration and comic software Clip Studio Paint.
Hair, of course, is a lot more than just the shape of its strands. Afros and Fades are covered with an especially detailed section on Cornrows.
The book then finishes up with reference guides, a glossary and acknowledgments.
As I’m sure you can tell, this book has touched an emotional spot with me along with being a tool to aid in my own professional and personal growth. Its not without its flaws but being the first book of its kind, I’m comfortable saying its biggest shortcomings are things that would easily fit into Volume 2 (such as covering more hair types, head coverings, African-style clothing, etc.). I hope this book inspires more books of its kind and I look forward to seeing the art that its readers create!