Give ‘Em Elle: What is Up with Superhero Costumes These Days?
Welcome to Give ‘Em Elle, a weekly column that hopes to bridge the gap between old school comics fandom and the progressive edge of comics culture. This week I wanted to talk about superhero costumes. I solicited questions on the subject on Twitter, but a lot of what I got were variations on the same basic question: "What's wrong with superhero costume designs these days?" So I'm going to attempt to delve into that.
First, a caveat. I’m going to focus on male superhero costumes in this column. Obviously I have a lot of feelings about women’s superhero costumes as well, but they’re a whole different set of feelings about a whole different set of problems. So I’m going to cover the men for now, and return to talk about the women another time. It’s very rare that you’ll catch me focusing on men over women, but in this case there’s a lot to say, and I feel like it hasn’t been covered as thoroughly.
The problem with superhero costumes is basically the problem with superhero comics. Somewhere along the way, the people in charge seem to have decided that superheroes aren’t cool, and that the way to fix that is to do away with as many of their traditional trappings as possible.
So what are the traditional trappings of superhero costumes? Skintight bodysuits have been the norm since 1938. Most early superheroes dressed like circus performers, often with the masks and cloaks of their pulp predecessors layered on top of that. The original template was simple, unmistakable, and easy to build off for greater variety. Skintight shirt and leggings in one color, and then gloves, boots, trunks, and sometimes a cape in another color. The mask could be either color, and in domino or full hood style, if the hero wears a mask at all.
There were always interesting variations, of course: The original Green Lantern wore about eight colors. The Flash wore a shirt, pants, and a Mercury helmet. Captain America… was Captain America. Daredevil (no relation to the later Marvel hero) wore a fantastic full-coverage harlequin ensemble. And then there were guys like Namor and Amazing Man, who barely wore anything at all. But they were all united by their comfort in tight, brightly colored clothing.
In the decades that followed, superhero designs got more varied and complex, with artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby creating especially groundbreaking looks in the 1960s. But the basic template of the skintight bodysuit remained. Even in the '90s, when comics art pulled in some pretty weird directions, characters like Darkhawk, Sleepwalker, and Spawn still dressed in what looks a lot like spandex. There were more and more exceptions of course, mostly characters with black leather and spikes like Lobo and Ghost Rider, but the classic heroes still had classic costumes, and nobody thought that was weird.
But somewhere in this century something changed. As superhero movies became ever more popular, superhero comics wanted to be more like the movies. I think it started in books like The Ultimates, but it has since bled deeply into the main continuity at both DC and Marvel.
First it was body armor. Boots with laces. Pants instead of trunks with tights. Captain America in a helmet instead of a hood. But even the characters who aren’t armored up were suddenly covered in extraneous seams and details. Costumes that had once been iconic in their very simplicity, like Barry Allen’s Flash suit, were covered in lines. When the New 52 launched, the overreliance on lines, seams, and high collars was widely mocked, and DC has backed off of it to a degree in the years since, but it’s an aesthetic choice that isn’t entirely going away, as much as we might think that it’s baffling.
A related problem is the heroes who just don’t wear superhero costumes anymore. Clint Barton/Hawkeye is a perfect example. Ever since the first Avengers movie, he’s dressed the same in the comics as he did there: Sunglasses and nondescript body armor. Obviously, in a book like the Matt Fraction/David Aja Hawkeye, it makes sense for Clint to do his thing in a T-shirt and jeans. But when he’s active as an Avenger, why can’t he wear a purple cowl and buccaneer boots?
I’m biased on this, because his classic costume is one of my all-time favorites, but I just don’t understand the necessity of the change. Clint Barton is a man who made a conscious choice to become a superhero, and who looks up to Captain America as an inspirational mentor. So why wouldn’t he wear a superhero costume in a style similar to Cap’s? Of course neither of the current Captain Americas wear buccaneer boots either, so I guess my ideas are just outdated.
And okay, I’m going to bring gender and sexuality into this. As queer culture moves closer to the mainstream, there’s a defensive tendency within conventional heterosexual masculinity to maintain its distance from anything that resembles queerness. Or as straight guys put it, “no homo.” So I have a hard time looking at a bunch of superheroes (mostly straight men written and drawn by straight men) who used to wear colorful tights and short shorts, and who now wear military boots and body armor, without suspecting sexuality is a factor to some degree. I’m absolutely not saying that every guy who prefers army boots to buccaneer boots is a homophobe, but as a larger trend within the culture of superhero comics, I think it’s worth examining.
But here’s the big thing about superhero costumes: I look at so many of them now, and I think about the previous versions, and I wonder what has been gained. I know this is subjective, but I also know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
How is Steve Rogers’ new costume better than the one Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created, which endured for decades before Marvel decided to start messing with it?
And of course there’s Spider-Man, who looks almost the same as he always has, except that now his spider insignia is backlit in green! Who decided that made sense?
I don’t mean to imply that every male superhero costume these days is terrible. I’m a big fan of the Miles Morales Spider-Man suit, and Batman’s looking pretty cool in Rebirth, while Aquaman totally still looks like Aquaman. It’s just that there are trends I’m not thrilled about, and I think it would be beneficial to accept that comics are not movies, and the same aesthetic rules don’t have to apply.
And as long as we’re accepting things, it may be time to adjust to the fact that some male characters are meant to wear tights.