By day, Everett Downing works as an animator at Pixar, contributing to films like Up and Ratatouille. But in his off time (after he steps into the phone booth, takes off his glasses, etc.), he’s embarked on a hero’s journey all his own, a quest to create 365 new superheroes from whole cloth.
The project started a few years back when Downing found himself in something of a creative funk. When he was casting about for ways to get himself drawing regularly again, he turned to his longtime love of superheroes, deciding to create a new one every day from scratch. Without the ability to stop time, that hero-a-day schedule proved a bit too ambitious, but after some three years of the exercise, Downing has accrued an impressive catalog of 300 new characters.
Some are relatively straightforward, like Mechanaut (Super #272), a beefy, masked type, clad in armor. Others are more whimsical, like The Nutcracker (#238), a cape-wearing crusader with a nutcracker in hand and an acorn for a head. Some are rough, black-and-white sketches; others are clean, colored renderings. Some are very clearly agents for the side of good (Billy Dynamo! #190), while others are unmistakably baddies (Nefarious, #125). Many have more ambiguous allegiances, like Whistlin’ Dixie, a buxom ginger lass clad in a Confederate Flag top (what cause is she fighting for, exactly?). But all are united in the fact that they spring from Downing’s imagination and get about an hour of his attention.
“I tell you, there’s almost a muse that speaks to me when I’m drawing these characters sometimes,” Downing explains. “Many of the supers are, frankly, pretty shallow. I’ll have a name and a funny or really cool idea will come to me (or it won’t, but I’ll draw something anyway). But sometimes a character speaks to me, and I’ll come up with really elaborate backgrounds and origins.” Downing pulls from a list of names he and friends have compiled when he sits down to start drawing–there are plenty of puns–but each character is created in one go, no stockpiling allowed.
The rewards of this type of endeavor are obvious for an artist like Downing, but he says the exercise has worked some creative muscles distinct from those used daily at Pixar. “Basically you’re exchanging guidance and mentorship for self-expression,” he explains. “When I’m working on films for Pixar, I’ve got this filter of amazing artists and directors that help ensure my work is awesome. They can tell you ‘Uh–no that stinks. Or why don’t you try ‘XYZ’?'”
“I’ve learned so much from [Pixar],” he continues, “but in the end I’m serving someone else’s vision. When I do my own work, I’m much more free to explore what I want and make whatever decision I feel suits me. Of course when you put yourself out there like that you run the risk of presenting raw material. You also run the risk of sucking really badly.”
Downing has, however, benefitted from a few new gizmos added to his tool belt along the way. Where some of the earliest sketches were drawn on a professional-grade Cintiq drawing slab (which kept him deskbound) and others rendered in a paper sketchbook, lately he’s been enjoying the freedom of tablets and their accompanying crop of drawing apps. “It’s amazing how the technology has really improved over the last few years,” he says. “When I started doing this, it was on the iPhone in Brushes and Sketchbook Express and I used my finger. Now I’m using a pressure sensitive stylus on the mini iPad.” Downing says recently he’s been using Paper to sketch out ideas, which he then fleshes out in apps like Procreate, Sketch Club, or Sketchbook Pro.
So after inventing nearly 300 characters, what’s been the big takeaway? The grand rule of superhero design? “I think the look is important,” Downing says. “First impressions are key, and you really want to try and grab someone’s attention right away (or strike fear into the hearts of weak-willed men!). But in the end, it’s all about the origin story. If Bruce Wayne became Batman because he was bored or Spider-Man for the hell of it, I guarantee you they wouldn’t be bankrolling all these multimillion-dollar franchises.” That doesn’t exactly bode well for Super #156: Capt’n Generic.