Costume Drama: The Ever-Changing Look of America Chavez
After a couple of years as the undisputed champion of ‘character most bafflingly lacking their own comic’, Ms America Chavez finally has a solo title. With the second issue about to land, it’s a good time to look at one of the very best things about the character: her costume design.
Winding back to her first appearance, in 2011’s Vengeance #1, only the basics of America’s current look are present. Nick Dragotta puts her in the red white and blue, with a star motif --- adapted from the costume of the ‘40s Miss America she started out life as a riff on --- but his most lasting contribution to the character is the absence of traditional superhero garb.
That’s something that Jamie McKelvie would double down on a couple of years later, when he gave America a new look for 2013’s Young Avengers, the comic that really put her on the map for most readers.
It’s an approach to costuming that breaks down the usual divide between a superhero’s all-action adventuring and civilian life. Even for characters who don’t have a secret identity in the traditional sense, they normally slip into something more comfortable when not battling big bads. Not so for America Chavez.
A denim jacket, hoodie, t-shirt and hot pants. That's the America we meet in Young Avengers #1 (or in Marvel Now Point One #1, if you’re going to be a nerd about it). It’s the outfit she wears in combat and to dinner, out clubbing and in outer space. It’s a great, stylish approach to superhero costuming that lets fashion-conscious artists like McKelvie pull straight from glossy magazines and clothes-store racks.
It’s also reflective of America’s character, in a couple of ways. It highlights how physically invulnerable the character is --- she doesn’t need to wear protective gear, or augment her abilities with a combat suit.
That lack of a divide I mentioned is also key. As an orphaned child from a parallel universe, who grew up hopping between dimensions, she doesn’t have two lives, the way someone like Spider-Man does. This is something that’s started to be explored in some of Chavez’s more recent appearances, in The Ultimates and particularly her solo series.
She’s the kind of person who never really switches off, who’s always on the job even at home. That’s incredibly relatable --- it just so happens that America's day-job involves reality warpers, Galactus, and socking Hitler on the jaw.
That’s just one half of what make Ms America’s design so interesting. The other is how often it changes, tossing aside the classic costume-redesign-as-marketable-event sales tactic, in favour of something closer to a between-song outfit change at a Beyoncé concert.
After Young Avengers came to an end, America’s initial look --- the hoodie and hot pants --- threatened to codify into her uniform, as she made one-off cameos in an assortment of books. But as she’s started to crop up more regularly, the tradition of multiple looks between issues --- and sometimes even scenes --- has been upheld.
While most heroes have a static logo displayed on their chest, the approach with America Chavez is closer to a brand’s clothing line, and that’s something Kenneth Rocafort has done a great job with in the pages of The Ultimates. He keeps the core elements but mixes and matches them in constant new variations, the way you might when grabbing clothes from a wardrobe before heading out for the night.
On the strength of America’s first issue, it seems we can expect Ms America Chavez to keep cycling her looks this way. In one scene, Joe Quinones pushes her look further towards a traditional superhero costume than ever before, with an outfit that recalls the look of America’s moms. A page turn later, he dials it back to believable, if unusually eye-catching, streetwear. And then finally, as Chavez goes to super-college, he knits the two together into something closer to her classic look.
It holds together the comic, which moves at a breakneck pace. As much as I’m buying the next issue to follow the continuing story of one of my favourite characters, the question that will really keep me coming back is: What is America wearing this month?
Oh, that and: Which fascist will America be delivering a fistful of justice to this month?
I can't wait to find out.