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SyFy’s ‘Face Off’ Makeup Artists Have a Weird Concept of Superheroes [Recap]

If you’re as unfamiliar with it as I was about a week ago, SyFy’s reality show Face Off pits makeup artists against one another in character design and creation battles. Most of the time, those battles involve whipping up some movie spectacles. Last week, the contestants had to design a goblin king, for example; in another episode they had to create a cyborg.

But this week, the makeup wizards were tasked for creating a superhero which special guests and DC Comics Co-Publishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio promised would appear in an unspecified DC comic book (which means it’s almost definitely Earth 2) sometime in the future. The results were…odd, with most of the characters resembling Power Rangers villains rather than superheroes. One was pretty much exactly Hawkgirl. Another was named “Dick Gritty.” And it almost won! Which one did win? Let’s find out.First off, a few quick notes about the show itself:

  • All the makeup artists on the show apparently live in a house together. Can you imagine how long the wait is for the bathroom in the morning? Also, there is pretty clearly no reason for them to live in this house together, since they are there for a sum total of about 30 seconds.
  • I have watched a few reality shows in my time. I know virtually all of them stall and stretch and create drama where there is none in order to fill their run times, but there is no reason this show should be an hour long. The 25 minutes or so in the middle is nothing but the contestants worrying about clay sculpting and glue dilemmas. One contestant spends forever trying to stick a prosthetic onto her Iceman-but-glass character. It’s not particularly enjoyable television.
  • The big grand prize? It’s $100,000, a Fiat and a job as a guest lecturer at the Make Up Forever academies. That’s prestigious, I suppose, but wouldn’t it be better to get a job as a makeup artist on a big-budget movie? Isn’t that what they’re trying to prove themselves as being suited for?

Anyhoo, the contestants wake up in their home of always-occupied bathrooms to find a message telling them to pack up and come to Comic-Con. They arrive to discover that Comic-Con is apparently not much more than a rooftop in San Diego where they receive instructions from the host, Lee and DiDio. The co-publishers offer some character design advice. Lee says to stick with primary colors and make your heroes a reflection of your era (that means lots of seams, guys). DiDio says to consider your character’s silhouette and make sure the look relates to the powers. None of this advice is heeded.

After that, the contestants all get teamed up with a DC artist. Lee participates, as do Mark Buckingham, Tony Daniel, Cliff Chiang, Nicola Scott, J.H. Williams III and David Finch. The contestants describe their characters to the artists, who do quick sketches. Williams, who for some reason is the only artist who doesn’t receive the honor of actually being named on the show, has a hilarious moment where his eyes get really huge when a guy who looks like Wolverine describes a character named Elijah, Bringer of Plagues to him.

One of the contestants, Eric Z., seems to be the only one who’s really into comics, and he’s happy to be working with Jim Lee. He designs a character based on his father who looks a lot like Marvel’s Radioactive Man. The contestants’ superheroes looking like other characters, a lot of them villains, is kind of a theme in all this. It’s pretty clear most of them aren’t big comics fans.

Neither are the judges. After an eternity of sculpting and molding and applying makeup, the judging finally begins. It’s up to two makeup experts and a movie special effects guy to decide who’s going to be in this unnamed DC comic. One of them says during the deliberations that the key question someone designing a superhero should ask is, “What the hell happened to this guy?” That’s in reference, I should note, to Dick Gritty, whom the judges loved. You can see his heart and brain and stuff.

I think that mentality is about as wrongheaded as you can be. For a villain that seems about right, but heroes aren’t about, “Oh man, what happened to her/him?” They’re more about a sense of iconic wonder. Even the more grotesque or inhuman superheroes in comics still have an iconic look to them. These characters are all, by and large, monsters: Lava people, a bloody robot girl, that Bringer of Plagues, a space warlord guy, and some kind of egg-headed movie alien bad guy named Orion (which I think is taken). And the poor contestant who created the character made out of debris from the Twin Towers knows she’s over her head from the get-go.

DC has done a lot to over-complicate its superhero costumes over the past couple years, but it seemed like the point Lee and DiDio were trying to get at was that you shouldn’t undervalue simplicity and straightforwardness in a superhero design. These designs all do the opposite. The only two designs that really work for me in that regard are a punkish electricity guy named ReVolt, who looks great on paper but doesn’t come out so good in the actual makeup and costume, and Silversight, who, as I mentioned, is Hawkgirl.

The contestant who co-created ReVolt actually worries that her character may be too simple, but that’s the absolute wrong thing to worry about. It just proves there’s a really wide gulf between good comics design and movie-magic makeup done to impress.

Of course, the judges’ priority isn’t what’s going to fit in a DC comic. It’s makeup. That’s why this Power Rangers lava villain won.

At least it was a Cliff Chiang co-design.

The big loser of the night was the guy who looks like Wolverine. You might suspect he would have lost because his character looks like a one-off Batman villain, the fact that his hero is a “bringer of plagues” or his Marvel-character-like appearance, but no.

“You just didn’t give us any makeup to look at,” the judge tells him. That’s right. Makeup. The key component of a great comics character.

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