Process Junkie: Superhero Costume Design with Elena Casagrande
Welcome back to Process Junkie where we look at the behind the scenes making of comics from all different angles. Today we’re talking with the incredible Elena Casagrande about superhero costume design!
Although it’s hard for me to imagine any of you guys following this Substack NOT knowing who the insanely talented Elena Casagrande is, just in case I’ll do a short introduction.
In addition to drawing the hell out of our Eisner-winning BLACK WIDOW book, Elena has worked on books like CATWOMAN, BATGIRL, BATMAN SECRET FILES, and much much more.
Elena has made a name for herself in a very short time as one of the best action artists in modern comics with her incredible action speads in BLACK WIDOW, but she’s pretty great at the non-action stuff too. I did a cool process post on one of those spreads from Black Widow #3 which you can read about here:
And I plan to have Elena back to talk some more about those action spreads, but TODAY I wanted to talk to her about another thing she’s becoming known for - really terrific superhero costume design. So let’s dig in!
KELLY: Hey Elena! Thank you so much for joining me on here! I am hoping to have you back soon to talk about some of those incredible action spreads from Black Widow, but today we are going to talk about Black Widow costume design and I want to jump right in, if you do not mind?
KELLY: This costume was scary to even consider changing, because Natasha has one of the great iconic looks in comics – very simple but with huge impact. Were you intimidated by that?
ELENA: Thinking about it today, yes, I'm a bit intimidated because reading the feedback by the readers I'm surprised (in a positive way) how much they enjoyed it and gave real importance to the design. Initially I was really excited, I always get big pleasure creating costumes or dresses, and this represented to me a huge opportunity to have fun and give to the character something mine. I can't deny I had some anxiety when I had to find a way to keep the classic version of the costume and at the same time to make it more contemporary, but I love these kind of challenges!
KELLY: Even I was hesitant to change her costume, because I love the existing one, but we knew for the story that we needed to indicate a change in her, one that should show even in her costume – a make over of your life has to include your costume, right?
ELENA: Yes, totally agree! We "refresh" our look when something is changed in our life, like new haircut or new wardrobe, why she shouldn't do it? Something huge has happened in Nat's life, I think it's really human to let that be acknowledged in her costume and also in her very concept of hero.
KELLY: When you are designing something like this how do you even get started? What kind of references do you look at? Do you go back and read old comics? Is there any trick you’ve found to help trigger you?
ELENA: If I'm working in a team I consider all the opinions from my team, they can give me a lot of great input and help me understand the ways I have to explore. From that point I look for references from the real world — obviously we don't have real superheroes, so I look for work-uniforms or tracksuits that could have the features that could be useful in a fight. I don’t usually look at the movie version of costumes, because despite the fact that they have great designs, they're often too complicated to re-create into comics. And yes, I check old comics, to have some idea how the character moves with the different costumes, and to just to keep in mind what seems nice to repurpose and what not. My personal trick (don't laugh) is to put me into character's mind, imagine what she/he has around and try to image what she/he can build with that material... like a cosplayer, ahaha!
KELLY: I think that’s really smart, especially for a character like Natasha. In fact, we were really interested in something that was practical – not just that she could fight in – but also that we could debut a lot of fun – but hidden toys. Was that a big part of your approach on this one?
ELENA: I thought that like in the old version of the costume, she could have a lot of tricks into the gauntlets and into the belt (also - it’s not a classic belt but a belt of circles full of tiny gadgets), but the biggest part of this design has been the backpack. I had to create something "hidden" but consistent that she can use in a practical way, so, inspired by the back of the motorbike tracksuits, I imagined this parachute inside her jacket that she can digitally program by remote or with a little touch screen on the top allowing the parachute to fully open - letting the backpack open like a lotus flower and then close again once she on the ground. The backpack is integrated as part of her new jacket, in order to keep her stable during flight, and the jacket has two straps to be sure she's safe with it. I'm pretty satisfied with the result!
KELLY: What do you find gets in your way when you’re trying to design for others? What about for yourself?
ELENA: Well, I don't find big difference between design for others and design for myself, surely when I do something with a team I have more "limits" to consider because I have to respect and realize what others have in mind, but when I do it for myself I can put away some limits that usually are always practical: how complicated is this costume? Can I draw it every time in every panel? Is it practical for the character or is just fantasy? So there are different obstacles but no more in a situation than the other one.
KELLY: Obviously Widow is the big draw here, but you also did a terrific costume for new hero Lucy Nguyen. It was a tricky directive in that we needed something that at first felt like she could have assembled it from Black Widow’s spare stuff…but we still needed it to eventually look really specific and personal to Lucy. How did you approach that design?
ELENA: Like I said before... like a cosplayer! XD I imaged Lucy in Nat's refuge walking around and seeing what she can use and what she would like to have on her, so I considered keeping something from her civilian style and something high-tech (you suggested to give to her a belt with potential toys!), then I had to fuse these needs also with her new power feature: that she can't touch pretty much anything! So the base of the costume is a "basic" tracksuit ("basic" but obviouly it has tecnology that can help Lucy to be more resistant, strong or just safe) like it could seem to be Nat and Yelena's ones, and put something over it that was more personalized, in her street-style, like the poncho-cape-gloves and the boots with the straps.
KELLY: You seem to have a real talent for complex costumes – that have multi-functional pieces – like jackets and capes and gloves and toys – but you still keep the design really elegant and sleek and almost simple. What’s your secret? Any tips or tricks you can suggest?
ELENA: Comic artists need to be a lot of things at the same time: art directors, actors, set designers, sometimes scientists, photography directors and obviously costume designers. Based on the kind of comics I'm working on, I used to imagine myself to behave like a real costume designer, who works for movies or TV series, imagining something that can be "easily" used by the actor/character but it's also cool to see for the audience. The part of the job I have to consider more than that is that I have to replicate the costume by myself every time, so I try to be cool but "smart" as well.
KELLY: What are some of YOUR favorite superhero costumes?
ELENA: I love the modern version of Hawkeye, so simple but cool; the version of Catwoman by Joelle Jones is a perfect combination between the movie version, the classic version, and a stylish modern version; Batgirl by Cameron Stewart has been a great example of how to renew and actualize a character and I LOVE LOVE LOVE the new design of Spider-Man Miles Morales by Chase Conley. It's so stylish, fresh, in character, and cool to draw... it's perfect!
KELLY: What do you look for in a good costume?
ELENA: Beyond all what we said about practical inspirations and various references, aesthetically I always look at the dynamic lines and how they go be broken: I refer to them like ideal lines that suggest the most important parties of a body or its movements, that can suggest fluidity; but having only them can be boring so what I like to see it's how they can be interrupt by something else, some opposite lines. It can happen into haircut of a characters, into their dress, their shoes, their armor. White lines on Nat's dress follow this fundamentals and give something more dynamic to see.
KELLY: Do you feel like you make different choices when designing for a male character vs a female character?
ELENA: No, I don't. Gender is less important than the personality of the characters. The origin of a costume is exactly that: not what they are, but what they feel to be.
KELLY: A lot of people are very into more practical/realistic costume design and a lot of people really hate that idea – where do you fall?
ELENA: In the middle! Why is it impossible to think that there's a way that can be a perfect combination of the two situations? Honestly, it depends on the target of the audience of the comics I'm working on, but I do look at reality when I think about how the character will move in their costume, and then I use imagination to let it be more catchy for the readers. Like those white lines on Nat's costume I mentioned: they have no practical sense, they're useless, but they didn't invalidate it and are cool to look at.
KELLY: Does whoever is asking you to do a design EVER pick your favorite?
ELENA: I did few designs during my career and most of them I did for creator-owned projects, so the visual supervisor was only me and I didn't have to spend too much time fixing them, ahaha! When instead I did designs for famous characters, they have not always they picked my favorite, but in the end I felt this could bring me to do a design even more beautiful than the design I initially fell in love with.
KELLY: How does it feel to see other iconic artists like Adam Hughes drawing your design? What about seeing fans cosplay it?
ELENA: I grew up looking at Adam's works and cosplaying characters by others, so every time, EVERY SINGLE TIME, that I see them use something I created... I still need to realize it! I don't know if I'm stupid, naive, or it's just me who doesn’t want to admit I'm getting old and now I'm on the other side of the fence, ahaha!
KELLY: You are none of those things! But you ARE a brilliant comic maker - just like those you looked up to like Adam!
KELLY: Did I miss anything we should talk about?
ELENA: Yeah! One of the hardest parts of the design of Nat's costume was how to hide her identity... ahahaha! Remember initially we needed to keep her face under the radar? I proposed a lot of things but nothing that was so cool and practical (to dress and to draw), and then the simpliest idea won: the hood!
KELLY: You’re right of course. I liked a lot of these ideas, but since she’s not gone to much trouble to cover her face in the past, I felt like the hoodie was the simplest solve that made the most sense for her.
ELENA: It has been really nice to work on it together!
KELLY: I feel the same, Elena. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to work with you on this book - we have an amazing team.
KELLY: Well, thank you for doing this, Elena, I hope you’ll come back and talk about those famous action pages with me sometime!
ELENA: Thanks as always to you Kelly, my deep pleasure! To the next time! ^_^
Okay, my doves, that’s it for this week. I have a couple more interviews with awesome creators in the pipeline and I’m also working on a fun scripting piece. Plus I want to start ramping up the BLACK CLOAK teasers as that launch gets closer. So gird your loins…and make sure to subscribe so you keep getting this content! There will definitely be something cool next week that is BEHIND the paywall, so get in now! ;D
Be good to yourselves and others and make sure to wear a mask and wash your hands. Again. <3