ComicsAlliance Roundtable: The Fashion of the New DCU
With no fewer than 52 titles to be launched, relaunched or rebooted in September, DC Comics has certainly been the center of discussion amongst superhero fans and creators. A particularly contentious facet of the debate concerns the redesigned costumes of DC’s finest, from subtle changes like Nightwing’s Batman Beyond-esque unitard to drastic makeovers like Harley Quinn’s barely-there threads.
What is the impact of these costume changes on both the characters and the readers? What do these costume modifications may tell us about the audience that DC Comics hopes to attract? We explore these questions and more in this ComicsAlliance fashion roundtable.We have assembled a super style council composed of comics fashion blogger Bethany Fong; Editor-in-Chief Laura Hudson; Associate Editor Andy Khouri; and Senior Writer Chris Sims to critique some of the redesigns that we’ll be seeing in full force this September, specifically with respect to the implied identity of the characters and the appeal of the new costumes to both fans and potential readers. To that end, we also enlisted the help of Andy’s girlfriend Stepho, an occasional cosplayer and fan of the DC icons in the mass media, particularly the Batman, Superman and Justice League animated series — precisely the kind of reader DC presumably hopes to attract with the controversial initiative.
Because the marketing materials released last week provided extremely limited background as to what to expect in the September relaunch, we were left mainly with the clues we can glean from the covers — specifically, the costumes. The comic book cover on a newsstand was once the only hint a new customer had as to its contents, and DC readers find themselves in a similar situation today.
As we delved further into the significance and implications of the redesigns of DCnÜ, we quickly realized that almost all of the superhero makeovers were not just generally unappealing, but did not feel true to the characters (as we know them, at least) and sometimes raised questions about the role of sexuality in their makeups.
Bethany: So first off, we have Action Comics #1, which shows an image of Superman stopping a giant boulder in Super-civvies; emblem t-shirt, jeans, and a mini-cape.
Andy: The pose and the patched clothing reminds me of the brutish construction worker-types from old Looney Tunes cartoons. But if the outfit is meant to suggest a radical departure from the Superman idiom we’re familiar with, I think it works. I get none of the majesty of Superman we’re used to seeing on DC Comics covers, particularly Grant Morrison’s work. But as an ensemble, I myself am fond of torn jeans and a Superman t-shirt. The itty bitty cape is weird.
Laura: Are we sure this is a real costume? It’s so Casual Friday. This picture makes me think he’s helping build the Transcontinental Railroad.
Bethany: The symmetry of the knee patches really bother me; it feels either too cartoon-y but also like those jeans were manufactured to look that way (a la pre-ripped jeans).
Chris: The Action Comics cover is one that I think a lot of people are taking too literally. I don’t think we’re actually going to see Superman walking around in a t-shirt and jeans, I think it’s just an image meant to represent the two sides of his personality, the super-hero and the farmboy. That said, given what we’ve seen of the actual costume Superman’s going to be rocking, I’m pretty sure I’d prefer the jeans, patch and all.
Andy: Stepho, all these costumes are meant to appeal to you, the non-comics reader who is generally familiar with these icons but not immersed in their comic book continuities. What do you think of the outfit on Action #1?
Stepho: That costume looks like Superman joined the Village People.
Chris: Looks like they finally found a use for those Total Justice action figures.
Laura: No more undies.
Chris: They were TRUNKS, Laura. I swear, people that didn’t grow up watching pro wrestling…
Andy: Recognizably Superman, but with more… lines. I think the metallic armor undermines the character a little, but more than any of those concerns I think it just looks too busy. So many lines and little details to draw.
Stepho: What happened to his neck?
Laura: Steph, do you really notice a difference in costume? Can you tell this is non-standard?
Stepho: Well, unless those are his knee caps, it looks like he is wearing knee pads?
Chris: Yes. Superman, who cannot be hurt, is wearing kneepads.
Bethany: There’s something about the perspective of this that’s causing his limbs to look disproportionately shorter (i.e. his right thigh). Also, his crotch looks disjointed from his legs, kind of like an action figure’s crotch. Not that I make a habit of scrutinizing the crotches of my action figures.
Andy: It’s so weird that they can remove an entire piece of clothing — the trunks — and yet it actually looks busier.
Chris: I really, really hate this suit. Superman’s costume is one of the best because it’s so simple, clean and striking, but it has so many great little design elements. The yellow of his belt that breaks up the blue/red pattern, the way his boots have those signature M-shaped tops. This is just goofy ’90s throwback nonsense with lines and stitching to look “realistic.”
Laura: This is going to be a continuing theme, I imagine.
Chris: They have basically succeeded in making Superman look like a character trying to rip off Superman.
Andy: Crucially, how is the Nehru collar meant to be concealed under Clark Kent’s suit?
Chris: The new Clark Kent is going to dress like a secret agent from the ’70s. All turtlenecks and double-breasted jackets, all the time.
Bethany: Superboy #1. I think he’s supposed to be a cyborg?
Stepho: Invader Zim Superman??? This looks like some kind of containment suit Zim designed to hold a teenage Superman!
Chris: I’m glad to see DC picked up the rights to TRON. I would’ve thought they’d go to Marvel.
Laura: Does anyone remember the Phalanx? From the X-Men in the ’90s? It looks like they absorbed Superboy.
Chris: Hang on, Laura. Are you saying these new designs look like something from the ’90s?
Stepho: Why is “S” not really affixed to the chest?
Laura: Maybe it’s interchangable! It would be so toyetic.
Chris: Amazingly, this is the better of the two Superboy designs.
Andy: Oh my god. I think I figured out what this is. They’re doing ASTRO BOY.
Bethany: Ahh.. AHHHHHHHHH!
Chris: So he’s going to have machineguns in his ass?
Bethany: Here we have the new Supergirl.
Chris: So explain to me why they got rid of Superman’s trunks if they’re just going to use them on Supergirl’s long-sleeved swimsuit?
Andy: Look at those filthy, slutty knees.
Laura: What a scandal. Next, we’ll have ankle cutouts! After I heard the rumor about all the women in the reboot wearing pants, I honestly thought these were just red and white pants. It makes more sense than the weird knee cutouts.
Bethany: If the boots didn’t have those knee cutouts, they’d be absolute perfection.
Chris: Really? I don’t think thigh-high boots would work for Supergirl.
Bethany: The boots remind me a lot of the boots she wore back in the ’60s, with the shift dress.
Stepho: Shrink the boobs a little and put a guy’s head on there. It’d be a pretty decent Superman costume.
Chris: Again, the stitching is driving me insane. Why make it so busy and harder to draw, when the end result is that she looks like a robot? Unless she’s actually a robot, I mean, but even then, why do it on her clothes?
Andy: I kind of dig the pentagon motif on the collar, chest, belt and pants, but the way things are cut, it’s like Supergirl is wearing some kind of pelvic protection or a diaper.
Stepho: She looks too old to be Supergirl. I don’t think that’s something a girl would wear. This is definitely a grown-up version. I liked the shorts/t-shirt. It had a nice innocence to it. She lost all the cuteness.
Andy: I agree, I don’t think there’s anything particularly youthful or plucky about this costume. It has no teenage attitude, it’s quite erudite, like you’d imagine a Kryptonian to be.
Bethany: Yeah, I can see that. But to be honest I’m actually pretty pleased with this redesign. I was never a fan of the bare midriff, which felt very dated to me, but I think that this leotard actually looks pretty chic – most of Supergirl’s previous costumes were very “I’m wearing a Superman t-shirt with a skirt and/or booty shorts!”
Chris: She looks like a Supergirl from the Legion, you know? Like someone’s actively trying to look futuristic.
Bethany: Yeah, it’s definitely more serious than Supergirl’s standard look, but I still prefer it greatly over the midriff.
Andy: She’s certainly less armored than Superman, which I hope his fellow Justice League bros clown him about.
Chris: Oh god barfing everywhere barrfffff
Andy: This is really shocking.
Laura: That tattoo, you guys. That tattoo looks like it came out of a package of bubble gum.
Stepho: Sick bro Superman!!!!! Siiiiiiiiick. Are these the Ed Hardy redesigns??? This looks so so bad.
Chris: There is nothing about these designs that is not wretched. I will say this, though: I really, genuinely want to know if there’s an in-story reason for Superboy to have his logo/tattoo on a piece of paper that is then stuck to his back with masking tape. That’s not the sort of thing you can just drop on someone without explaining it.
Andy: The contents of Red Robin’s utility belt have been redistributed to pouches on his legs.
Laura: I’m kind of down with Red Robin’s feathers, though. They’ve got got a strangely organic look to them.
Chris: Hang on, are we actually sure that’s Robin and not…
Laura: I think I know who it is…
Bethany: WHAT IS THAT I WANT TO TRY FLYING WITH THAT
Laura: It is Condorman!
Andy: I’m just going to say it: Why is Witchblade on the Teen Titans?
Chris: Or is that… oh what’s her name, from Cyberforce? And Wonder Girl? Budget cuts have forced her to replace her golden lasso with Red Vines.They don’t force you to tell the truth, but they are a delicious snack.
Andy: I’ve actually never liked any of this Wonder Girl’s costumes.
Bethany: Me neither – Cassie Sandsmark has never really been blessed in the costume department. The bodysuit is red and sparkly so it feels like Cassie is wearing a hybrid of two of Donna Troy’s costumes, with a circle scarf hood.
Andy: The hood is to indicate she is a belligerent THIEF.
Stepho: Did she bleach the tips of her hair?
Andy: So many of these covers look like alternate-reality stories I vaguely remember from the ’90s.
Bethany: For serious.
Chris: They have out-Youngblooded Youngblood. I would not at all be surprised if this cover came out with the word “X-TREME” above the title. And maybe a notice that these are not our fathers’ Titans.
Andy: Behold, the new Black Canary.
Stepho: Eww no. Terrible. WTF lame latex fishnets? Stupid. The top and bottom don’t match. I loved how she looked before with the high-cut leotard and fishnets with combat boots. It was perfect. This looks like they tried to make her old costume into a Rated-G version.
Laura: I don’t know about the weird green fishnets, but I kind like the armor-like look of her top half with the yellow piping.
Bethany: I think they’re metallic/latex legwear with trompe-l’oeil fishnets. I can’t tell if those lines on her feet are printed on her legwear or if she’s wearing sandals (ew).
Stepho: OMG they do kind of look like sandals.
Laura: I think they just felt like they had to give her fishnets even if they didn’t match.
Andy: I do not believe this is a costume that Dinah would wear. I think she’d look at this on the rack and say HELL NO. Black Canary is a uniquely style-conscious heroine, part of her badassery is the glamorous way looks while kicking ass.
Chris: Is that Katana? So just so we’re clear, Katana’s old costume (and codename) weren’t Japanese enough, so they have her now wearing a Japanese flag on her face? That makes sense. Otherwise how would you know that Katana, the Asian woman dressed like a Samurai, was Japanese?
Bethany: I love the white mask, but I’m really unsure about the Japanese flag motif.
Laura: I kinda like it. It’s very dramatic and Noh.
Stepho: No. No. No.
Andy: Harley Quinn is the biggest disaster of the lot.
Laura: This is awful. Has anyone else ever worn a corset?
Chris: I thought I told you never to ask me that, Laura.
Laura: Because all I can think about is how this looks like a freeze frame of a corset that is falling off. This is some unsustainable lacing.
Stepho: This is a 14-year-old Goth Topic kid’s doodle. Talk about dated. Some chick probably wore this identical outfit to a Marilyn Manson concert in the ’90s.
Chris: I think maybe they just wanted to make the Arkham Asylum version look good by comparison. It looks like the Suicide Squad’s first mission is going to be infiltrating the Gathering of the Juggalos.
Stepho: Where is her can of Faygo???
Chris: She left it on the helicopter ride in her rush to get to the once-in-a-lifetime Dark Lotus show.
Laura: Also can we talk about the hair? She has dyed one half of her hair a totally different color, I assume with Manic Panic.
Andy: It’s a carry-over from her old costume, which was dual-toned.
Chris: I also like that her big clown-hammer has been replaced with an actual sledgehammer, which is missing the point so badly that I can’t even process it.
Stepho: Is she smoking meth? Are those little lines of smoke coming out of her mouth?
Bethany: Honestly, what is it about Harley Quinn that everyone feels the need to give her a new costume in every entity outside of comics (and I guess, now within comics)? Her original costume is absolutely gorgeous, and I understand wanting to make fun redesigns with the black-and-red color blocking (many of which can be really cute). However, all of the licensed redesigned incarnations of Harley are just absurd.
Laura: This is what I’m talking about. It’s like the two-tone theme is a hammer and they have to hit everything with it.
Bethany: A SLEDGEHAMMER. I also realized that her makeup is meant to emulate her domino mask. Which CAN look pretty cool sometimes… however it really just adds to the Jugalette feel of this.
Chris: To be fair, Harley Quinn IS down with the clown.
Andy: Bruce Timm’s Harley Quinn design was one of the best costumes EVER. This design undermines everything about Harley’s personality. She would never wear this. Harley is not Catwoman; she doesn’t carry it like this.
Stepho: Most ridiculous of all, nothing about this resembles a harlequin doll. So what’s the point?
Chris: “So what’s the point?” is the question about pretty much all of these redesigns.
Andy: There is a really bizarre attitude about sexuality in some these redesigns. Harley Quinn is not really a “sexual character,” as such. She’s insane. She has a devotion to the Joker that’s like Betty Cooper with Archie Andrews. It’s kind of cute and wholesome in a completely f*cked up way, which is why she’s such a great character. She is completely into the Joker’s whole idiom, hence her classic costume and all her acrobatics and jokes and hijinks. But she’s a villain and society says sexuality is basically reserved for them, so I guess she has to look like a Juggalo stripper while a hero like Black Canary has to look like a hockey player.
Chris: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she’s not a sexual aspect to her character, because I think there is one that’s meant to play off the complete asexuality of the Joker and his obsession with Batman, which really comes to a point in Mad Love. But I think this design completely misses that in favor of trying to hot her up.
Andy: The sexuality in Mad Love speaks to the character’s asexuality, I think. You see her in a very sexy lingerie but she still has the clown makeup on. It’s a darkly comedic, comedically tragic thing.
Chris: I totally agree with the idea of her as a twisted version of Betty Cooper, I just think that it’s ramped up.
Andy: Harley is not about titillation like Catwoman or Ivy can be.
Chris: Okay, that I agree with.
Bethany: Agreed and agreed.
Laura: I like the idea of danger and precariousness, and I like the playful sexuality she often has but here — they wanted to turn the sexy up to 11 and superhero comics only knows one way to do that, and it is to take off clothes.
Bethany: There’s this anime character that I see cosplayed A LOT at conventions and Harley’s redesign somewhat reminded me of it.
Chris: Sailor Juggalo?
Laura: Question: What if Harley’s boyshort undies connected to her thigh-highs and the corset was actually tied closed and extended down to her waist. Would it be a decent costume?
Stepho: If they did something about those pigtails, maybe.
Bethany: Eh, I feel like a properly-fitted corset would still look outdated.
Andy: She’d still look like a raver at Burning Man.
Chris: I don’t think the costume itself isn’t salvageable, but it’s still wrong for the character and nowhere near as good as what they had.
Laura: I’m okay with her being a little wackier when it comes to style but the skin just doesn’t ring true. And isn’t that what so many complaints about how women are drawn in comics come down to? The fact that they are drawn this way so men can look at them and not because it makes any sense or because anyone has thought for five seconds about how the character might want to dress?
Andy: Why was Black Canary’s classic fishnets and leotard and leather jacket, obviously titillating, considered cool but her new costume isn’t? It’s about the character and about their style.
Chris: That Black Canary costume is hilarious. It’s like, do they think people like the fishnets just because they like looking at little X’s?
Stepho: I don’t understand why a hero has to have her clothes painted on and a villain has to have her clothes ripped off. Black Canary had a somewhat revealing costume before, but it wasn’t suggestive or overtly sexual like this Harley Quinn nonsense.
Laura: I really wish we had artists who were thinking about how these characters would dress themselves. I bet a lot of them would dress sexy! But this is like — did you ever watch Beauty and the Geek? These women look how the girls did when the guys went shopping for them. Female superheroes always have the guys going shopping for them. Well, almost always.
Andy: The problem has gotten worse over time when it should have gotten better. The classic looks of Black Canary, Wonder Woman, Zatanna, etc. were all so much more iconic and sexy and worked for those characters than the modern reinterpretations have.
Chris: I think the Harley Quinn redesign also has a problem in that it’s so obviously angling for a specific goal. That’s not always a bad thing — Superman’s costume should look heroic, Batman’s costume should look scary — but I think this one is really going for pandering towards an audience that wants a “grown-up” sexy version that isn’t what was in a kids’ cartoon. In their comic books. About super-heroes.
Chris: I really miss her Members Only jacket with the rolled-up sleeves.
Bethany: And the star-studded shoulder pads!
Chris: I’m just kidding. I actually think this is good step, and worlds better than the “classic” Wonder Woman suit, although there are still really weird elements to it. Like the stars on her thighs. Why? They’re only there because Wonder Woman used to have stars on her pants.
Laura: I like the armor look of the breastplate framed by the gold “W” trim. The stars do cheapen it, though.
Andy: I think this is actually a step down from the television show costume. There’s nothing majestic about this to me. Nothing about this tells me she is an exotic amazon princess. I really like the pointy knee-cap on her boot, though.
Stepho: She looks more generic to me, less heroic. Like, just an ordinary woman who threw a costume on. But she is not ordinary!
Bethany: Is she wearing leggings, over the knee socks and knee-high boots?
Stepho: Perhaps jeggings?
Bethany: It looks like there’s a divide between the boots and leg-wear, though, with some knitted/padded material.
Stepho: I actually think she’d look more imposing bare-legged with the same boots.
Laura: I do think Steph was right about the bare legs, and I complain about women never wearing pants. More of them should wear pants, because “pants-free” is a ridiculous default, but I don’t know if Wonder Woman would.
Stepho: Part of the reason she is so awesome is because she can kick your ass with bare legs and not think twice about having to put on some dumb protective jeggings.
Chris: I think it would look better if it was more colorful. The black-and-red motif — already in use by Batwoman, Harley Quinn and now Nightwing — doesn’t really pop like it should for someone who needs to stand next to Superman and Batman.
Andy: There is a consistent attempt to blacken Wonder Woman’s costume, starting back with the Mike Deodato version in the ’90s, then the Jim Lee version from last year, and now this. I liked the TV show version because it was essentially the classic costume but with pants. The famously tacky image we all think of was later refined with dark blue pants and red boots. I thought it looked great, vinyl not withstanding.
Bethany: Yeah, I really think that Wondy just needs to take back the red, white, and blue, before she gets lost in the sea of red and black costumes.
Stepho: She loses some of her mystique with black leggings on, for sure.
Chris: Doing red and blue with those silver accents could be pretty neat, I think. But as we’ve previously discussed, I’m a dude who hates the idea of Wonder Woman dressing in an American flag.
Andy: I’m not married to the stars and stripes look as much as I am some sense that she is an exotic warrior princess from some far away place. I’ve seen the classic costume work that way and I’ve seen it not work at all.
Bethany: At the very least, Cliff Chiang does draw a beautiful Wondy.
Stepho: I’d probably still pick up the comic. Nothing about this design offends me like Harley did.
Andy: Zatanna is a lower-tier DC character in terms of publishing but is nevertheless a huge hit with artists and cosplayers because her costume and attitude are both so great. Stepho, you’ve cosplayed as Zatanna before. What do you think of the new version in this image?
Stepho: Which one of them is Zatanna?
Chris: That’s Zatanna?
Andy: She’s the club rat of the DCU!
Bethany: Complete with fishnet armwarmers!
Stepho: Oh f*ck off. This is terrible. WTF happened to her AWESOME magician’s tux? A pleather costume-in-a-bag from a stripper store is not something a superhero should wear. If you put a little headband with cat ears and pinned a cat tail on, it would look like any generic Catwoman Halloween costume.
Bethany: Ugh, SO TRUE. This feels really Hot Topic, circa late 90’s mixed with a Buffy ensemble from Season 1.
Andy: Zatanna’s costume was actually a real costume, in-story, given her work as a stage magician. There was no reason to change it.
Chris: It’s always funny when you read old comics from the ’50s and ’60s and someone like Lois Lane dresses up as “a magician” and she’s wearing Zatanna’s costume. And then you realize “oh, no, that’s just comic book shorthand for what lady magicians wear.”
Andy: There seems to be a very deliberate effort to move as many DC icons away from any look that seems retro or classic in favor of something that seems modern. But modern to whose sensibilities? As we’ve observed, most of these new looks are already 20 years old.
Chris: The thing about ditching something and replacing it with something “modern” is that it’s always going to end up looking dated, but these look dated AND THEY HAVEN’T COME OUT YET. Doubly troubling when you’re replacing something as timeless as Superman’s costume.
Andy: I think there’s a strong argument to be made that classic, even kitschy looks like Zatanna’s, or the Blackhawks or Harley Quinn are actually more in vogue than ever.
Stepho: Definitely. A classic is a classic for a reason. It never goes out of style. They can be updated, but don’t need to be replaced entirely.
Bethany: I think that’s definitely the direction of modern fashion – there’s a lot of new appreciation for retro. Almost all of these redesigns really missed the mark.
Chris: Also, those classic looks tell you a lot about the characters.
Bethany: Exactly — there’s a huge visual narrative in the classic costumes.
Stepho: Very true, Chris. Most of these characters I would never recognize based on what I knew about them from the cartoons or cosplayers at conventions.
Andy: With some exceptions like Chang, even the drawing is in a very specific style that reminds you of a very specific time where a very specific aesthetic was dominant.
Chris: The new costumes all look like toys or weird live-action movie costumes. And I forget who it was, but someone said that costumes in comics should never need to look like movie costumes, because movie costumes are constrained by having to actually exist, while comics aren’t. So instead of doing a costume that looks great, they’re letting other concerns dictate limits on what they’re doing. Like the hockey pads and the armored gauntlets.
Bethany: It’s funny that you say that, because a couple comments that I’ve heard amongst my friends was that a lot of these redesigns weren’t worth cosplaying.
Chris: Exactly! Because they don’t look right! They don’t look majestic or heroic. They look like dudes in action figure suits.
Bethany: Exactly! CHALLENGE US, DC!
What do you think of the costumes of the New DCU? Let us know in the comments! For more superhero fashions, check out Bethany Fong’s Fashion Tips From Comic Strips.