Note: We’ve been fortunate to have many talented artists come thru P:R over the years from then-unknowns like Jamie McKelvie and Joe Quinones down to more recent breakout stars like Kris Anka and Dennis Medri. One of our most favorite P:R alums has been Annie Wu, and she’s currently tearing up both the comics and animation world. In addition to working on Marvel’s Hawkeye series, Wu is doing a stint on DC’s Batman Beyond series with writer Scott Peterson introducing an all-new Batgirl. And given Wu’s previous redesigns we’ve featured here, I couldn’t imagine a better artist to take on this challenge. With the first chapter of Wu’s Batman Beyond coming this weekend digitally, we talked to her about redesigning Batgirl for Neo Gotham. Thanks to Annie and DC for giving us the exclusive on these design sketches. – Chris Arrant
Project: Rooftop: Thanks for agreeing to do this, Annie. First thing’s first – how did you and Scott develop this new Batgirl and this new look?
Annie Wu: Scott Peterson broke down some of the main points for me to keep in mind, but apart from that, I had a nearly blank canvas. A lot of her attitude and look came down to what kind of character I wanted to see when I was a teen. So after hitting those ideas hard in initial scribbles, I presented a refined sketch to Scott and our editor at the time Jim Chadwick. The only big note I got was about adding a splash of color somewhere because, being as I am, I sent in this, like, all dark-grey and black uniform. I think that was the only thing, actually. So from there I refined things and messed around with some details on my own.
P:R: Since it takes place in the time period of Batman Beyond, how did you accommodate trying to make it look futuristic without being cliché?
Wu: Of course, the immediate thought when given the task to create a costume for Batgirl Beyond is to do a girl version of Terry McGinnis’ awesome suit, but you can’t! First of all, that’s no fun and, secondly, it doesn’t make sense because she’s not coming from the same place as Terry. So I guess I was addressing it more with the focus of “What are the needs of this particular individual who lives in Neo Gotham” rather than “Holy crap, it’s the future, I need to make it look futuristic.” With the former approach, any futuristic vibes are inherent, whereas the latter is kind of a slippery slope for clichés. Not that I don’t love a little bit of future-campiness sometimes. Actually, now that I think about it, I realize I’ve completely squandered an opportunity to put a Bat-character in one of those Back to the Future II hats.
P:R: The identity of this new Batgirl is a secret right now, but DC has confirmed that the former Batgirl Barbara Gordon has a role in this arc as Gotham’s police commissioner. Speaking of legacy, did any of the previous Batgirl costumes from comics or animation influence you in coming up with this new one?
Wu: Absolutely. I revisited all the previous costumes to see what recurring elements I thought were important to retain and what I thought had yet to be represented but should be. I didn’t know a person could think so much about utility belts. Or cowls! Many hours were spent trying to figure out if this new Batgirl would have her hair exposed (my conclusion was no, even though I love drawing hair).
I watched a bunch of Batman Beyond to refresh my memory and revisited Batman: The Animated Series. Since Babs co-stars in our story, I thought a lot about her contrast against our new Batgirl. Old-school Babs was often drawn with a distinctly hourglass figure, petite, hip popped to the side, one arm akimbo. And it suits her! But now let’s have Commissioner Barbara Gordon work with someone who shares her Bat-namesake but is in many ways different — who stands with sloppy posture when her guard is down, who is built more like an athlete, who is maybe more of a tomboy and celebrates that. Y’know, kitten heel teaming up with combat boot.
P:R: I’ve read you had very specific ideas in mind when you were given the task of designing Batgirl. Before you started drawing, what was your game plan?
Wu: Before I put pencil to paper, there were already a few goals… I wanted to create a character I would’ve been excited to see represented when I was a teen, add a little diversity to comic lady body types, and see what would happen if I played this as truthful as I possibly can, despite being given these extraordinary, futuristic circumstances. So I broke it down and made sure every design element was justified. I doubt most people would gather that there’s a secret history I’ve created behind these individual details, but I guess it’s really for my own benefit in the process.
Here’s a smattering of stuff I decided to address: Scott pointed this one out specifically… It should be futuristic but not insanely techy because our Batgirl doesn’t have Wayne money the way Terry does. So “homemade” but “futuristic homemade”. And I wasn’t going to have her run in anything higher than flat boots because that’s crazy to me (and by extension, this Batgirl). Instead of putting her in something that enhances her chest like a lot of other female characters, I’m going to make sure she’s well-secured in-costume and a reader will never be distracted about how she’s probably super-uncomfortable or magically keeping any bits in place while she’s doing the important work of kicking some goon’s face in. I also thought, when you’re a teen girl who is teen girl sized but also a costumed vigilante, you’d want to present the most menacing silhouette you can muster so you can strike fear into the hearts of many and whatnot. Posture can only take you so far, so let’s find ways to add to her presence by exaggerating her shoulders, having her cape fall in a certain way. The cape was my one indulgence, by the way — we’ve all seen The Incredibles and even logic tells us they’re bad news but, man, I like the way they look and the silhouette they create. But, even so, I made it removable!
So… Yeah, that’s quite a bit, but those were all thoughts drifting through my mind before I even started drawing.
P:R: So if and when DC makes a Batgirl Beyond action figure, will you get one?
Wu: Are you kidding me? If they make one, I will grab a shopping cart and Nickelodeon Super Toy Run-style swipe all available figures in the New York metropolitan area. It will be strange and illegal.
P:R: You mentioned on your blog that the cover illustration was one of several ideas you had for this illo – can you share with us those alternate ones, and any process work you have from designing the Batgirl costume?
Wu: I did a terrible job of documenting my process. I basically drew over the same piece again and again while editing, but here are a few versions of the costume. The two with the all-black bat symbol were the first sketches I sent in. And I submitted four cover ideas. I really liked the close-ups but that would have meant hiding a great deal of the costume. We ultimately went with the fourth one.
P:R: Lastly – we’ve featured you numerous times on Project: Rooftop for your excellent renditions of mainstream heroes. How important to you is good costume design in comics, and are there any benchmarks out there you admire from other character’s designs?
Oh, man, there are too many for me to name. I guess, off the top of my head… I grew up with Bruce Timm’s take on Batman in Batman: The Animated Series, so his designs have been permanently burned in my mind as default for all things Gotham. I also love Terry McGinnis’ suit and Cass Cain’s full face mask. In more recent designs, I’ve been obsessed with Kris Anka’s wonderful new Uncanny X-Force costumes.
Good costume design is important, absolutely. Especially if it’s a costume meant to have been put together by the character him/herself, because that’s a sweet, sweet opportunity to betray a lot about them without words.
I know this particular Batgirl design has gotten some attention for being unusually modest but, let me be clear, it’s not my across-the-board M.O. to make everyone cover up. I think there’s a time and a place to suspend disbelief; I don’t feel like it’s always necessary to be practical. Rather, it’s good to consider things case-by-case. Take into consideration other characters even in this same universe — they wouldn’t all be wearing practical things, because in reality people step out of their comfort zone all the time, depending on how they want to present themselves. Some characters would prioritize style over functionality, “branding”/personality over conformity, making up for their weaknesses over celebrating what they’ve got, flaws and all.
That’s why when I look at groups of superheroes (team uniforms excluded) and everyone’s wearing the same style boot or every single heroine’s suit is still drawn with an insane 80s high-cut, that makes me a little crazy. Variety comes up organically if you address characters’ individual backgrounds, personalities and agendas. I mean, not everyone likes wearing the same kind of underwear.