The Fine Art of Superhero Costumery*

*may or may not be a word

Yesterday was kind of a weird day  for me, because I had two conversation with two different women, both about Captain America.

Which in the Land of Dorks, that’s known as a “Star-Spangled Twofer.”

One of the conversations turned to the topic of costumes, and one of the ladies mentioned that she was dressing up as Jean Grey for Comic-Con, and my first thought was, “should my erection be this painful?”

My second thought was “wow, this woman really knows her stuff,” because she pointed out that a lot of the costumes from the early 90’s (AKA “the Dark Ages”) just don’t work. For example Jean Grey and her ridiculous outfit.

Why? Why? Why? Nothing on this costume makes sense.

Compare that to this.

I know, most people would associate the color red with the Phoenix, bear in mind, she ate a sun and wiped out billions in the red version of this costume.

Now, neither one is, you know, everyday wear, but the second one is simple and iconic and the first I posted is too busy, overly complicated and brings nothing to the table in terms of design, theme, or function.

Let’s look at Aquaman.

He should be called Fish King, as that's his actual power. Aquaman should be able to control water, right?

Not the coolest costume, but it works, and is the defacto version in everyone’s mind.

Here are two of his later costumes:

And DC wonders why the market won't support an Aquaman book.

Now, the first one makes sense as aquatic camouflage, but what the hell is happening with that second one? That’s not even gritty or edgy. It’s a quarter shirt made out of metal for someone who swims in the ocean. Both were drawn up to try and modernize or make Aquaman edgy, but one looks like a figure skater and the other makes him look like a pirate who only plunders cock.

Aquaman is welcome to put whatever he wants into his various holes, but as superhero costumes it’s ridiculous. You have no idea who he is, or what he does, and both are way too busy to be truly iconic.

Let’s look at some superheroes who work, Batman, Spider-Man, and the Flash.

I pose like that for every single picture I'm ever in. Cape, too.

Batman’s is simple, sleek, and you know exactly who he is, with the added bonus of having a very distinct silhouette, which for a character who spends most of his time in the shadows, gives you a lot of room to get creative in terms of design, layout, and panel structure.

I asked for 100 Spider-Man's on my birthday, too.

Spider-Man’s nice because while the webbing may be complicated to draw, it’s actual design is simple: two parrallel lines with a half circle in the middle. Couple this with the bright red and blue which reflects the fun of the character, and the full face mask and big, blank eyes which can be kind of creepy and off-putting (because who really likes spiders), and it’s a costume that perfectly encompasses the character and all of his personality traits.

While 'the Flash' is kind of a silly name, it's a million times better than 'the Streak,' 'the Whizzer,' and 'Quicksilver.'

Finally, the Flash has a nearly perfect costume. It’s simple; it’s clean, it’s iconic, and it tells you what the character’s powers are: going fast. The hot rod red, the yellow lightning bolts, and the Hermes’ esque wings on his boots all tell you everything you need to know about the character in one look.

I bring this up, because nowadays movies and video games, for some reason, feel the need to add all kinds of shit to costumes to…what? Make them more realistic?

That's why the Nolan movies were successful; they lost the nipples, but kept the body armor abs.

Look at all those lines on the Batman costume from the Dark Knight. It’s supposed to look realistic because he’s a normal guy. Here’s what actual body armor looks like.

Needs more muscles.

So why is Batman’s so complicated?

And Spider-Man’s costume with the raised webbing. How exactly does a high school kid make that?

Why'd they bother putting that much work into the costume when he spends most of the fight scenes only wearing half of it with no mask? Hey, Sony, no one is in that theater for Tobey or the new guy. We want Spider-Man.

Even Superman’s has a weird texture thing going on and I have to wonder why? Homeboy’s bulletproof, they even shot him in the eyeball. THE EYEBALL. So the extra textural stuff to make the material more substantial is wildly unnecessary.

The flying man with lasers for eyes makes perfect sense, but not if he doesn't have a bunch of crap all over his clothes.

But why?

Some costumes don’t work in real life, like Wolverine.

Having said that, if someone made an animated X-Men movie that looked like John Cassaday's pencils, I'd give them all of my money.

But Batman and Spider-Man should be slam dunks. These unnecessary details are really becoming a trend even in video games. Look at all the unnecessary frills on these stills from Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. Why is that weird ribbing and piping there?

And yet, still a trillion times better than the movie.

Would it pull me out of the game if his armpits and thighs didn’t look different from the rest of his costume?

If you want unnecessary detail, at least do the giant scales on the upper body right.

Earlier this month (or was it the end of June?) DC showed the Jim Lee redesigns for the new Wonder Woman costume.  It looks like this:

"Oh, hey, I was just on my way to meet J'onn and Katar at Central Perk."

This is what the 90’s looked like in comics. A lot of of may have been too young for the Dark Ages of comics, or maybe you just watch the movies, whatever, but in the 90’s every hero had to get updated, so that’s why Spider-Man had a hoodie, Dr. Fate looked XXX-treme, and all the Avengers had ugly brown jackets.


Get down with the sickness.

So now we have Wonder Woman rocking a jacket for some reason and pants.

Now, I think the pants are a good idea. She’s from a warrior culture that’s not the Celts, so armor and protection would be wanted or at least a routine part of her life.  However she is bullet-proof, so if she wants nothing on her legs, it’s not like it matters. In the End, pants on Wonder Woman can only be a good thing, as now, collectively, comic dorks look marginally less like perverts.

The least slutty picture of Wonder Woman on the internet.


However, if you’re going to update Wonder Woman and change her look (which, let’s face it, is probably going to be around for a only a few story arcs before the status quo comes back), why not go all the way? All the patriotic colors and symbols on her other costume were because she was going to the “Man’s World,” specifically America, so she adorned herself in the US’s symbols.

That’s gone now. So why not make her look like a Greek Warrior, or a whole new color scheme design? Give her something that makes her stand out and maybe showcase what she is or her power set? The rest of the Justice League is some kind of cop or vigilante, and if the Hawks and Orion and Barda aren’t on the squad, then she’s the League only true warrior, especially in reference to th Big Seven. Dress her like it.

My point is this, when I was having the Captain America discussion with my future wife, I pointed out that most of the designs are simple and iconic. When I worked with kids at a summer camp, everyone liked the costumes that were instantly recognizable, because they were easier for kids to draw. The kids could remember and identify even the tiniest details instantly.

Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and Superman, are all simple, straightforward designs infused with character that stay with people.  There aren’t a million lines and logos, and that’s why they endure, because these designs have stuck with generation after generation since they were kids.

Yes, the mean age of comic book readers are over 18, as are gamers, and males who frequent movie theaters, and I think a lot of that has to do with carrying these bold icons in our hearts since childhood.

By and large, I'm not a huge anime fan, but giant robots with space cannons and lightsabers are all right by me.

But as the Eastern influence of Japan and it’s eye for complicated design grows here in the West, along with the ridiculous idea that we have to add edge and “realism” to everything, we’re slowly diluting our icons and mythology.


More examples of this can be seen in this fantastic io9 photo essay, which is a site you should probably have bookmarked if you read this blog somewhat regularly.



Posted on July 9, 2010, in Comics, Lists, Matt Loman and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I don’t know if I would call that io9 essay “fantastic”. Most of the photos he chooses are more just awkward random stills from the movies, and he picks one from almost every superhero movie, including 4 stills from parodies of superhero movies.

    If you go frame by frame in any action movie, especially one that features characters that wear outrageous headgear and weapons in the material its adapted from, you’re occasionally going to capture moments where the actors portraying them aren’t entirely used to wielding them.

    If it had gone into a little more detail explaining why each didn’t work instead of an implied “hey guys, look! He’s leaning in a weird way in this frame, that’s totally not how it looks in the exaggerated drawings,” maybe it would be a different story.

    • I thought he had some good examples, but then again, I was predisposed to not liking most of the designs anyway. I see your point, and the main reason for linking it was because it covered a few of the same points, and since it came out first, I thought I should give it it’s due. Plus

      I love io9.


  2. While you make some strong points for iconographic design that I completely agree with, I think you may have neglected some of the reasons that redesigns are more complex.

    Not only do we have the influence of the Japanese detail culture, but technology as a whole has shifted from when these characters had to be reproduced on newsprint. With new printing processes detail and colors exploded across the pages of comics, the designs are a byproduct of this.

    Now add to that the more recent advances in computer graphics and video games/movies, and you have a storm of ridiculous superfluous detail. Many of the designers for these games don’t read comics, and could care less about the culture and icons. What they care about is making a cool design, and in games and film, there is a completely different aesthetic at work. There is much more play between interior and exterior silhouette and large shapes and tiny details. Take that aesthetic and add to it some fuckstick executive who thinks he knows what good art and design entail, and you get texture (overlay and multiply modes in photoshop) and just about every other horrible idea to try to make it modern that you could think of.

    Taking those ideas and trying to apply them to comics is going to give you some hybrid designs that may or may not be successful, but will certainly change the course of comic book character designs.

    Luckily, we get to see all the train wrecks as well as the shining successes.

    Just my two cents.


    • The new era of tech and an understanding of how certain materials work and could benefit the wearer make a lot of sense, but I think it’s too busy. Texture stuff I can let slide, but all the extra lines and pads are just ridiculous.

      Also, I think a lot of the designers are comic book fans, or at least have a working knowledge of them, which is where the execs who want everything to look high-tech or edgy without understanding what those words mean, or maybe a designer trying to put his own spin on something, which I can understand.

      EA was working on a Marvel fighting game that took place over several city blocks for the stages, and the engine and ideas looked good, but they had some truly stupid designs for Captain America and, I think, the Juggernaut. If memory serves, it was EA Chicago working on it, when that branch got scuttled. Which is a shame, because large-scale Power Stone with Marvel Characters is exactly in my wheelhouse.


      • I agree with the piping, but I have to say in general we see that stuff in fashion design as a whole. Extra stitching or piping to move the eye around the figure. Furtunatly, I dont own any of those particular garments myself, but I will say I may or may not have seen many of the heroes on this site wearing such clothing.

        Which makes me wonder why comics would want to emulate such a design sense.

        Great article. I am passing it around my work.

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