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Sometimes, comic artists are famous (or, more likely, infamous) for having very little differentiation among their characters.
Excellent artists, though, can create a vast array of physiques and faces for characters, thus making them easily distinguishable from each other; these artists are masters of character design, or so it seems...
It's only until you get to the artist's collected works that you realize that he is halfway cheating - using some of the same characters over and over again, in different works, as though they were "actors" playing "roles".
This doesn't always detract from an artist's work, however, as this is often done purposefully when one character in a story plays a similar role as they did in an earlier one; in fact, knowing that this is the artist's style can greatly help the audience identify The Hero, The Big Bad, and everyone in-between by their "actor." It also offers the potential to have an "actor" Play Against Type.
Such troupes are what are known as "Star Systems": a collection of animated "actors," who play different "roles" in different "productions," just as real-life actors would. In fact, this used to be the way it worked in Hollywood; actors would be signed to a studio, not a production, and would appear in production after production with the studio's other stars. Taken far enough, this might be a Virtual Celebrity.
Anime and Manga
- The former Trope Namer here is taken from the Star System, the name given to the collection of characters who features prominently throughout the career of Osamu Tezuka. These characters include:
- Shunsaku Ban - Featured as a detective in Metropolis, a teacher in Astro Boy, and just about everything else in between. Noticeable for his moustache. Ban is probably Tezuka's most recurring star, save for Gourdski, appearing in nearly all his works, from as early as Metropolis, to as late as Buddha.
- Acetyle Lamp - Short, stocky bald guy with a pencil moustache and a dent in the back of his head. Usually plays a cowardly, two-faced con man and other dishonest types; Tezuka frequently draws a lit candle sitting in the dent.
- Duke Red - Noticeable for his big hooked nose; often appeared as a villain.
- Ham Egg - Another recurring villain; reasonably short, gangly, and with a thin, curled moustache.
- Rock Holmes - A "tough guy" character with shiny black hair; started out as an upstanding heroic lead, but in Tezuka's later works, he is usually a particularly cruel villain, providing the equivalent of an actor reinventing his persona.
- Gourdski / Patch-Gourd - Tezuka's "trademark", and a gag-item/character; a small, pig-like, patched-together gourd.
- Professor Ochanomizu - A large-nosed, heavy-set professor, dubbed Professor Elephun in an early dub of Astro Boy, Prof. Ochi is almost always portrayed as a learned, wise man.
- Hosuke Sharaku - A small bald kid with a bandage on his forehead. Originally from The Three-Eyed One. Usually a good guy (when with his bandage).
- Saruta - Looks like Ochanomizu, but differs in that his nose is usually covered with pimples, and he sports a beard.
- Atom- Astro Boy himself appears in different roles in a couple of Tezuka's works. Most notably, he makes a cameo in one series as little boy who ends up getting stabbed. Tezuka wanted to shock readers by presenting Astro as a human instead of a robot in this story and having him bleed to death; the response from readers was tremendous, and the story remains controversial.
- Osamu Tezuka - Tezuka often drew a caricature of himself into his stories. When he wasn't representing the author and speaking directly to readers, he would play a down-on-his-luck artist or similarly pathetic figure.
- The only real exception: When Black Jack appears, it is almost always as himself.
- Tezuka actually kept a list of how much money the actors in his "troupe" were paid for each "performance." He would periodically give them "raises" or "pay cuts" based on their popularity with fans. It was his whimsical way of keeping track of what characters his readers liked.
- Hayao Miyazaki also has accumulated a fairly large number of recurring castmembers, though, unlike Tezuka, they have no set names (at least, none known to the public). Some of the most notable include:
- Lana - The female lead in nearly all of Miyazaki's works; she stars (via various "ages") as Nausicaa, Kiki, San, Sheeta, Satsuki, and Sophie, as well as nearly every major female role in anything else Miyazaki has done.
- Conan - Miyazaki's 2nd most prominent character features as the male lead in many of Miyazaki's films, and is almost always the romantic interest to the female lead. He has played (again, through various physical ages): Asbel, Pazu, Ashitaka, Howl, Tombo, Haku; it should be noted that his face is often given more attention to the "harshness" or "softness" of its appearance than Lana's, so as to befit his current character more.
- Dola - Introduced in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, she has appeared over the years as bit characters, but recently starred as Old Sophie in Howls Moving Castle.
- Kamaji - Originally introduced as the old engineer of Dola's ship in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, as well as Dola's husband, he was given a name in his role in Spirited Away. He is recognizable for his sunglasses and extremely large mustache (some people think he inspired Dr. Robotnik/Eggman).
- Mei - Miyazaki's end-all-be-all toddler girl. It's somewhat insinuated visually that Sen of Spirited Away is a much older Mei, rather than a very young Lana. Alternatively, she's a very young Ursula. She's perhaps best known for her starring turn as the title character in Ponyo.
- Yubaba - a relative newcomer to the Miyazaki gallery, she seems to always be represented as a witch with an extremely large head. She also appeared in Howls Moving Castle.
- Charles - a fairly regular comic-relief character; most notably appeared as one of the Ironworks' men in Princess Mononoke, aside from his supporting role in Laputa: Castle in the Sky.
- Shougun Mouro/General - a balding/bald general, featured in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke, as well as cameo parts in several other works involving either police or the military
- Lepka / Muska, the square-jawed megalomaniac Big Bad.
- Soot Spirits - Introduced in My Neighbor Totoro, but have also been featured in other Miyazaki works, most notably Spirited Away.
- Although criticized heavily for a distinct lack of differentiated female character designs, Leiji Matsumoto has nevertheless made his own System, small though it may be. Major players are:
- Harlock - Matsumoto's most notable and famous character, most of Matsumoto's male leads bear a striking resemblance to Harlock, especially his trademark hairstyle.
- Emeraldas/Maetel- Visually, they stand as the archetype for nearly... scratch that - every one of Matsumoto's female actresses, period. Scenes involving more than three of Matsumoto's females often leads to insane confusion, at no fault to Emeraldas and/or Maetel themselves. (Some installments have the two as sisters.)
- Analyzer/ IQ-9 - Matsumoto's standard Robot Buddy design. He swiftly suffered Chuck Cunningham Syndrome in Captain Harlock, but managed to reappear in another "role" in Cosmo Warrior Zero.
- Tadashi Daiba also makes frequent appearances, usually as a young, upstart young man who grows and matures over the course of the series.
- Hiroyuki Takei of Shaman King directly referenced this trope when the U.S. Shonen Jump interviewed him and asked him about Anna Kyouyama's appearances in Shaman King, Butsu Zone and Itako no Anna.
- Akira Toriyama has designed so many characters that he tends to forget what he's done and hasn't done, and thus will occasionally create the same character multiple times. The most obvious examples: Crono and Lucca are Goku and Bulma A more obscure, but even more clear example is the star of his children's book "Toccio the Angel", who happens to look almost identical to Majin Buu.
- Masami Kurumada, creator of B't X, Saint Seiya, and a number of series not as well-known in the states usually has a few key designs as well, mainly from recycling characters from his first work, Ring ni Kakero. He subverted this in Saint Seiya, however, when Unicorn Jabu was given a design similar to the hero's rival in Ring ni Kakero, only for him to play a minimal role in the actual series.
- Naoki Urasawa plays with this, by casting the pacifist, good-with-children Epsilon in Pluto with his Johan design from Monster. There's also a character in Twentieth Century Boys (his name escapes me, but he's the one who seduces Kenji's sister and pushes her fiance in front of the train) who seems to be Johan with brown hair.
- Shogun looks like Martin with longer hair.
- There's also the retroactive case of Dr. Reichwein of Monster. Being a Tezuka fan, Urasawa decided to pay homage to Shunsaku Ban with the psychologist's character design. Of course, then Pluto(and therefore Shunsaku) comes along...
- Kevin Yamagata resembles Sahad who is a dead ringer for Karl Neumann.
- Dr Abullah is the persian cousin of God.
- Heckel from Monster shows up in a minor role in 20thCenturyBoys.
- Nina from Monster and Sahad from Pluto have the same professor.
- And Nina looks strikingly similar to Kanna herself.
- Go Nagai also does this, which probably helps when you've made hundreds of manga.
- Several characters from the works of Obari Masami. Examples include Gowcaizer, Hishizaki Shaia and Son Karin from Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer and Tachibana Mizuki from Gravion, all of whom show up in Angel Blade.
- In Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shinji is Nadia from Nadia: The Secret of the Blue Water, except with short hair, Akagi is Electra with her hair down, and Fuyutsuki is Lord Gargoyle.
- In Lifeguard, many of the same 'characters' appear as in Hayate the Combat Butler. This is also likely to be the case with the original story of Hinagiku and Yukiji's backstory, which was originally planned to be the story Hayate became.
- Some of female protagonists from Juni Itou stories looks almost identical, like Remina and Kaori.
- Adachi Mitsuru has created numerous unrelated short stories since 1978 featuring a small repertory company of a dozen or so characters. Originally published as standalone stories in various manga magazines they have since been compiled into a four volume collection Short Program.
- The Pokémon anime actually did this with crowd shots.
- Tony Harris makes extensive use of photo-referencing in his artwork. The difference between him and Greg Land, another artist who's well known for referencing works without permission is that Harris uses paid models and bases his work off the photos instead of tracing, and gives proper credit when he does use them. By paying the models for their time and taking photos himself (or paying a photographer either to take the photos or for use of photos already taken), he legally has access to those likenesses to use for reference. Greg Land's use of images from magazines and the internet, without permission of the photographers who took the pictures, leaves him wide open for charges of copyright infringement if one of those photographers wished to press the issue.
- By the same token, Alex Ross. The problem arises when you realize Mitchell Hundred looks kinda like Starman...
- Robert Crumb does this a lot, openly and without irony. Sometimes this is highlighted on the opening page of a strip, with names and thumbnail portraits of the characters appearing. It can be a little jarring when more "cartoony" characters (e.g., dots for eyes, Cheeky Mouth) appear in their original styles alongside more "realistic" ones.
- European Mickey Mouse comics do this in-Universe. Several comics are about Goofy telling Mickey about his draft for his new novel (Goofy is an amateur writer in those comics), in which the main character always looks like Goofy, his sidekick or occasional Decoy Protagonist always looks like Mickey, and if there is going to be a villain, he will look like Pete.
- Terry Pratchett tends to use his Discworld version of Death in his other books; there's subtle variations depending on the culture being represented, but Death will always have his characteristic accent.
- In Alice in Wonderland's sequel Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll included the characters Hatta and Haigha, who acted a lot like the Mad Hatter and the March Hare.
- The Tenniel illustrations are very much the Hatter and the Hare in new costumes; Hatta is even wearing the Hatter's topper with its advertising card.
- Gary Larson did this in The Far Side. Lampshaded in one comic, where he goes over all of his "actors", including the cow, the nerdy kid, and the woman with glasses and a beehive hairdo. Note that while they all appear in one work, they're usually seen in different roles.
- Kenji Eno did this with the video games D, Enemy Zero, and D2.
- Skip Ltd. has Tao the dog. He's a dog with a black-and-white face, and he appears in various roles in Skip games--from the family pet in Chibi-Robo! to a lazy Big Eater in Captain Rainbow. He even has a cameo in the Skip-developed Wii Ware game Snowpack Park as the first mask you find! He was based on a real dog owned by the company founder, but the real dog, sadly, died in 2009. (He lives on in games, though.)
- Hideo Kojima likes to play with this. Meryl Silverburgh (a female soldier with a hidden feminine side) was originally a character from Policenauts, but a younger version of her is also in Metal Gear Solid as Snake's love interest. Pettrovich Madnar, a Russian mad scientist who develops robots, was ported from Metal Gear to Snatcher and back again to Metal Gear 2. Peter Stillman in Metal Gear Solid 2 was originally supposed to be Ed Brown from Policenauts, but Kojima decided against it at the last moment (although their character designs and personalities remain extremely similar), and instead had Ed and his partner Jonathan as soldiers backing up Meryl in Metal Gear Solid 4. There's also Metal Gear itself, which is a huge nuclear robot in Metal Gear, gets ported to Snatcher as Gillian's sapient Robot Buddy, Metal Gear Mk. II, which was then taken back to its home canon in Metal Gear Solid 4 where it acts as backup for Snake, controlled by Otacon. To play into the joke, there's a sequence in Metal Gear Solid 4 in which Kojima dresses Snake up as Gillian.
- Game director Swery of Deadly Premonition and Spy Fiction does this with the character Forrest Kaysen, who always sports the same general appearance and name (although spellings may differ), starting from the Play Station 2 game Extermination where all the computer systems are from Forrest Electronics. Kaysen is also always evil and tends to die messy deaths.
- Other than Forrest Kaysen, General Douglas Lysander made an appearance in Spy Fiction as a Revolver Ocelot Expy, and then later appeared again in Deadly Premonition, not as an antagonist, but a scrapyard owner who seems to have an ominous past. Said ominous past does not involve the events in the game at all, and turns out to be war stories about a "Crybaby Timothy", whom he claimed to hate. After getting all of the parts necessary to fix your car, he reveals why he always wears a Sargeant Uniform and not a General's.
- Rhythm Heaven manages to do it in its own series by having mini-games in later games feature characters from previous games, as though it were a cast of characters performing different mini-games.
- David Gonterman has a few he loves to recycle... most, scratch that, all of them are some form of self insert.
- Scarlet Foxfire - The sentient alien/biomechanical fursuit.
- Jim Goodlow - Appears as a cartoonist once, the other time as a Straight Gay cop. He's the guy in Scarlet. (Ick)
- Adam Packbell - A magical boy, teen or young man whose powers either come from Magic: The Gathering-esque spells, or being a Lost Boy. He usually has a coffee addiction and a fetish for robot girls.
- Pippikin - A bunny fursuit much like Scarlet. He typically appears as a Complete Monster who takes over the minds of his hosts and engages in sexual debauchery, but has one incarnation where he's good.
- Davey/Eric/Etc Crockett - The standard self insert of infamy. Typically ends up thrown into another world, and becomes Mighty Whitey or a furry or both.
- There's also an android Sex Bot that he reuses with a variety of names.
- Some of the main characters of Cuanta Vida will have small parts in the author's next comic, This Is the Worst Idea You've Ever Had!, which, in turn, has revamped characters from her first (abandoned) comic, The Rift.
- Most of them are also focus characters for Sin Parase.
- Characters in Ryan Armand's various comics tend to look very much alike, possibly due to Generic Cuteness.
- European animated series Il Etait une Fois l'Homme tells the entire history of humanity using the same small roster of characters taking up all the roles of famous (and not-so-famous) people who made up history, from the creation of earth all the way to a theoretical Bad Future as a final environmental aesop.
- The same roster also forms the core of the expanded cast for the sci-fi animation Il Etait une Fois l'Espace.
- Some of the earlier Disney films were pretty guilty of this, particularly the use of Bambi's mother in The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, The Rescuers and Beauty and the Beast.
- In Time Masters, the character Jaffar has the face of Lieutenant Blueberry.