Friday, July 13, 2007

Detour on Character - Observation VS Imagination

Observation and Imagination can be used separately or together in varying proportions to create art. Or entertainment.

But I want to dissect them somewhat to see what's different about the 2 concepts. I think this will help to understand character better.

Some arts are pure Imagination:

A musician doesn't try to make his music sound like the real world. You don't buy a cd to listen to fake ducks, dogs, people walking around, talking, quacking, brushing teeth or taking a bath.
(Unless it's a comedy album).You can occasionally evoke real things (Flight Of The Bumblebees) but you aren't trying to literally imitate them.

Music is meant almost purely to pleasure your ears. The sounds and all the technical mathematical rules and structures used have as their final purpose abstract auditory pleasure.

Talented musicians can make you feel emotions and moods that nothing in the real world can.

How many times have you listened to a symphony and said "Wow! I understand what he is saying!"...but you can't put it into words.

Music is probably the most purely imaginative and abstract art. No one has been able to achieve in the visual arts what musicians have. Cartoons have come the closest.

Yeah, you can add lyrics and tell a story about life to go with the music, but if the music sucks, who will listen? (Jorge excepted.)

Here listen to this song. It's a real Jim Dandy. I defy you to concentrate on the lyrics.


The girls sings the same verse twice in a row and makes it mean 2 completely different things. 2 different emotional messages.
Then the guy comes in and scats it and creates a whole new feeling. Genius!


Dance is similar to music. When someone gets on stage and tap dances, they are aren't imitating the motions of anything in real life. They don't try to fool you by masquerading as reality. They are just making stuff up-or building on dances that were made up long ago and adding their own ideas to it.

Dance relies on beauty, skill and style to make art.

Some Arts are Pure Observation.
Well, most people assume that all good art takes some imagination but I'm not yet sure of that. For now, I just want to make a point how some arts lean a lot more on observation than others.

Portrait Painting

A good portrait has to more than anything else, look like the subject. (Let's leave out Picasso and modern art for now.)

What makes one portrait artist better than another comes down to his skill in observation, and then his style.

I'm still trying to figure out what style actually is. Is it imagination? Maybe not. Let's wait for another post to think about it.

Landscape Painting

If you sit in front of a real scene, you have in mind that you want to paint something that resembles what
is in front of you.

You aren't going to just make something up. Hopefully.

Still Life
You have to see this painting in person. It's at the Getty. Your eyes will melt.


This is a combination of observation and imagination. A good caricature has to look like the subject, but that isn't enough. It has to be highly amusing and surprising and that takes leaps of imagination.


Here's a guy who has both observation and imagination in big dose. Watch him do celebrity impressions (observation) and then dance like a maniac (Abstract entertainment).

Realistic Characters (observation) VS Fantastic characters (Imagination)

These 2 artistic concepts relate directly to the creation of characters in stories and entertainment.


These are characters and stories that could physically happen in real life. Of course, real life doesn't have as many coincidences as fictional stories, but the characters are usually recognizable and have believable emotions and motivations.

Detective Story-Psychological crime drama
Soap Opera - bland realisticgeneral human types
The Honeymooners - a brilliant insightful caricature of real human nauture in conflict



Whoever came up with the first superhero must have had a wild imagination.

A human who wears colorful long underwear, is above the law, has fantastic powers and doesn't use them to satiate his lusts for women, money and power.

It's not only fantastic that he has super powers and dresses indecently, but his humanity is completely unrealistic. He has no normal human motivations.

Everything about Superman is preposterous. Not just the physics.

No one acts like real humans do in old superhero comics and they don't need to because that's not what kids bought them for. You wanna see them kick everyone's ass and do impossible things with as much primary color as you can stand.

I think classic Superheroes are a great American tradition. Mike Fontanelli collects all of them.

There is no logic in any Superhero comics. Superman puts glasses on and then no one recognizes him.

Nobody reacts to bizarre situations that happen in a realistic way.


Batman is even more preposterous than Superman. He merely has the long underwear. No powers.

No criminal has good enough aim to shoot him dead. The police let him take the law into his own hands. No one recognizes his voice or jaw when he is Bruce Wayne.

He has a bare legged teenaged sidekick. He risks the kid's life every day and is not arrested for it.

Superhero comics are completely opposed to common observation of not only the physical world, but of how humans actually are.

Look at the gripping emotion in this so human comic:Many comic artists draw as if they have never actually witnessed human expressions. Observational skills are not really needed for purely fantastic characters. Wild imagination is.

Peter Pan (mildly fantastic)Peter Pan is less imaginative than Superman - or less preposterous, depending on how you wanna frame it. He can fly, so that's a bit fantastic, but his personality is non existent. He's slightly mischevious, but that's not enough to call a "realistic" personality, nor an "Imaginative" personality.

Combinations Of Fantastic and Observed

Dick Tracy
Dick Tracy takes place in realistic cities, but the villains are fantastic caricatures and they are named after what kind of ugly they have.

Dick himself is a simple character, but many of the villains have weird psychoses and quirks. The strip is highly imaginative even thought it supposedly is serious and realistic.


Fantastic characters with preposterous or simplistic personalities generally belong in:

Horror Movies
Science Fiction
Kiddie Fare

Because of the interesting fantasy settings we suspend our disbelief at the craziness of the characters.

Simple personalities usually don't work in bland settings, and they sure don't work in bland stories that beg you care about them.

To truly care about a character, it has to have more depth than Dracula, Wonder Woman or any mdoern feature animation character.

If you cry in one of those fake pathos scenes you are being tricked by the staging and the music, not the dialogue, story or character's charisma. Unsure Directors work the audience like puppets using cheap filmic tricks. Now they even have the characters tell you to care about them!

Spiderman and Marvel comics in general

After the first few Superheroes had mined every imaginable power, they ceased to be very imaginative. They just became endless clones and a whole formulaic mindset took over the industry. Artists and writers unquestioningly churned out mindless unimaginative fantasy with personality less characters. Superheroes had become cliches, just as Disney cartoons did.

Then in 1960, Stan Lee did what every kid who ever read a superhero comic did-questioned the preposterous nature of it. He and Kirby and Ditko started making costumed Superheroes that had the same powers that had already existed for 20 years, but now they gave their characters more normal-or realistic emotions and motivations.

This actually made the stories seem even more fantastic, because you believed the characters were like us. It invited the fans into the stories. Stan Lee is a huge influence on me (and I'm sure a million other artists). I took this idea and applied it to comedy cartoons. Realistic shaded characters in crazy situations. I also invited the audience into the fantastic stories and events in the same way Lee did. I used his homespun marketing style and made the fans feel like they were in on the gags and everyon else wasn't.

In the 60s, what Lee did was a revolution. We were so used to seeing nobody ever act like humans in comics that all of a sudden seeing these fantastic characters act like us..they were greedy, horny, torn between good and bad. The mere shock of semi realistic personalities wearing brightly colored underwear in public was a great novelty and it breathed new life into comics for about 10 years.
Unfortunately this led to the utter ruination of comic books. Lesser men than Lee and Kirby came along in the 70s and put too much emphasis on the psychological problems of the superheroes. They also added current events, like war protests, the drug problem and homosexuality!!

The Hulk had a friend that was gay who die of AIDS! Holy crap! In a comic about a big green guy who goes around crushing everything in sight and saying things like "HULK SMASH!"

The underwear boys had become too serious and all the fun was gone.



This is the same old affliction so many popular culture entertainers have- the need to be respected, to have their silly works be accepted on a higher level than just pure fun or sheer beauty.

Jerry Lewis syndrome.

This thinking leads to limbo art and limbo characters, characters who are neither fantastic nor realistic. They are simplistic cliches that beg to be compared to "real" fiction, like movies and novels. This is the kind of art that lesser talents with inferiority complexes make, or worse- executives.

To ME, and I know this an unpopular notion these days, is that you need to use observation, imagination or both and in heavy doses to make great art or entertainment.

At least if it's going to last.

Stay away from cliched blanded down versions of characters that have already been beaten to death a thousand times if you want to be remembered.