June 20th, 2013
What makes a character like the Batman, Superman or Iron-man leave an everlasting and almost irrefutable positive impression on an audience for almost a century? What makes characters like Bruce Wayne or Tony stark leap out of a page of complete fiction and illustration with a convincing air of sophistication, while exuding opulence?, an effect that we all wish we could possess? Why do characters like the Falcon and the Black panther convince us that the “super human” or the messianic heroes we imagine are truly real? It is a combination of the things we all long for and seek in every human being, the things that make us label a few among us “role models” or icons. These elements include (but are certainly not limited to ) Sophistication , goodness, intellect and admirability. This article is an exploration of what African character design has become in comparison to European, American, Korean and Japanese approach to character design, what it lacks and why few if no icons or “role models” similar to those created by the Americans, the Europeans and the Asians may never emerge out of African sketch books if the ideation process and mindset of the African Character designer does not embrace change.
During a character design lecture in my class I opened with a quick challenge to my very astute and talented students. It was simple. I asked them all to quickly thumbnail what I generally described as an “American Character” in under 5 minutes. Not knowing why they were asked to do this they each scribbled away assuming it was some kind of a speed sketching exercise. When their time was up I asked them each to raise their sketches to show me. There was a variety of different archetypes and characters in general, from wrestlers in spandex, to cool high school jocks to Barbie style models with figure 8 bodies. All in all there was a display of various interesting and fairly complex characters. When they were hoping it was all over I asked them again to sketch under 5 minutes what I generally described as “An African Character” they scribbled again for a few minutes and I asked them to reveal their drawings but what they exposed was far less flattering than in the first instance. A rather mundane and cliche line up of masked black men in animal hides, women in dashikis and spear wielding brutes was the outcome… And there began my lecture.