What Makes a Character Human?
by Travis Hedge Coke
When Cindy Moon, the superhero known as Silk, was introduced in comics, I could not see a person in her. She seemed a type, a collection of elements, and there was nothing expressly wrong with the comics she was in.
What makes a character feel like a person is immeasurable, but probably quantifiable. It is not replicable. It will not apply to everyone, and definitely not every time.
And, not every character is for everyone. I could go my life, hand soap could last for decades of comics, without her ever appealing to me on a personal level, or resonating enough to feel real are worth emotionally investing in.
Greg Pak and Nico Leon put her in Agents of Atlas, though, and things went tilt just enough to let me see the person. To invest.
Investing in a fictional character cannot be a conscious decision. It is not an approach.
I don’t know when I reached that engagement was Cindy Moon. It was the first issue of what is collected in Agents of Atlas: Pandemonium. I know that. Was it her first panels in the comic? A particular scene?
Leon gives her a very human face, specific, open, emotive. She has a definite personality, intimations of depth, in Pak’s writing. Wonderful interplay between her and the other characters.
I feel like a heel suggesting that she does not have these things in earlier appearances. They could be just as deft and communicative.
There are a number of entirely valid approaches in comics that turn me off. Some antagonize, some don’t click.
Most comics with small cramped panels. Flat artwork with little visual depth. When all the attention is at crotches. Muddy coloring. All of these things can keep me from an intimate connection.
This is not a judgement of quality. Maus is a quality comic by most standards, but falls flat for me, especially at a character level. There are comics by writers and artists I adore, where I have not one character I can connect with.
Which means that it is not about real people or the authors having heart either. Maus is about the author’s own family. His heart is in it.
Is it seeing something of ourselves in them? In their words, their face, their ethics or situation?
I don’t necessarily see me in Silk (I do), but I definitely see people I know.
Maybe it does come down to some base line familiarity.
That feels a little horrible. I can disperse some of that feeling by framing it in the context of different characters, different takes reaching different, overlapping audiences. That it is not inherently related to bigotry.
Everyone Agents of Atlas: Pandemonium is carefully and deliberately an individual. Characterization, visually, through dialogue, through actions and into relation, was clearly paramount to the authors. Silk wears a mask over her face, showing only her eyes, her forehead.
So, why, of everyone, did she become so engaging for me? Could be because what we see is her eyes. Lot of expression in the eyes. But, I feel like I can intuit the rest of her face, the rest of her expression, in every panel.
The characterizing dialogue? The attentive naturalism? Leon’s articulate cartooning, rendered delicate and vivacious by colorists like Rachelle Rosenberg and Federico Blee?
Pandemonium is it a brilliant comic, balancing a large ensemble cast, presenting a very believable storyline that is also sharply satirical and loudly fantastic. The artificial, corporate, unsustainable, heartful pan-Asian nation of Pan is funny, real, emotionally and politically tangible.
I do not doubt anyone’s motives, their reactions. It is possible that Cindy comes alive for the first time, for me, because she is surrounded by other also viable, believable characters I find worth investing in. Characters I cannot help but invest in.
What Makes a Character Human?
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