Posts Tagged costumes
In Superman: Secret Identity #3, the Man of Steel wonders if his costume might be a little snug. It’s the latest of god-knows-how-many updated retellings of Superman’s origin story, so we get to see him wearing his costume in public for the first time – uh, again – and muttering: “All right, Clark. Don’t think about how tight it is.”
As far as catchphrases go, it’s no “Up, up, and away!”, is it? When even Superman is worried that he looks stupid in his iconic, entire-industry-inspiring costume, you can understand how difficult difficult it is to wear your underwear on the outside.
The popularity of superheroes used to be able to force anyone into costume. In his book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre (2006), Peter Coogan uses a character called The Scorpion to illustrate this trend:
“The Scorpion, created by Howard Chaykin, exemplifies this shift. The Scorpion’s adventures were set just before WWII, and the character himself was a pulpy soldier of fortune with some science fiction elements. The Scorpion debuts without a costume, wearing a leather jacket, flight scarf, riding boots, and armed with pistols. A new creative team was brought on after the second issue, and the Scorpion was made over, appearing in the third and final issue in a blue-and-orange cowled affair sporting a large scorpion chevron.”
Like I wrote when talking about Power Girl and her costume’s notorious cleavage window, you’re currently more likely to see superhero comics apologising for oulandish outfits than embracing them. The first example I can remember was a decade or so after the Scorpion’s crisis, when John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad ditched their costumes altogether.
The Suicide Squad was a team consisting of various villains and sociopaths, forced into good deeds by their government in order to reduce their prison terms. It was a serious espionage story with an alarmingly high body count. (At least it seemed high when back in 1987; now, a smattering of character deaths seem to be expected in even the most lighthearted superhero books.)
In time, the supervillains on the Squad ditched their costumes altogether, deciding on a more ‘serious’ look for their serious stories. I can see why. This year, DC released JSA Vs. Kobra. It’s a grim tale of global terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and suicide bombing that took itself absolutely stone-faced seriously – even while starring a character called Mister Terrific who has the words FAIRPLAY written down the sleeves of his jacket in giant letters.
I’ve spent my whole life honing my ability to suspend disbelief, and I still had to stifle a giggle at this yawning chasm between style and content.
For the non-comic-reading public, costumes can be an even harder sell. Recent superheroic TV shows don’t dare. Smallville is still clinging to its long-standing “no flights, no tights” policy for young Clark Kent. And NBC’s deservedly-maligned Heroes is happy to be one of the stupidiest shows on TV – but god forbid they’d ever put their characters in costume, because that would just look dumb, right?
Coogan suggests three elements to define a superhero: mission, powers, and identity. Costumes, he says, is an integral part of the latter – “iconic representations of the superhero identity”. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins agreed, concreting the importance of Batman’s “theatricality” in the minds of the millions who saw it. However, it still required his costume to become practical military-style armour, rather than just bright fabric for symbolism alone. (Well, okay: symbolism and ease of impromptu dancing.)
The costumeless Suicide Squad later find themselves unwillingly involved in a major crossover called “War Of The Gods” in issue #58 (1991). Before they head off to battle angry mythological figures, they’re told to put their old costumes back on by the immortal antihero Black Adam:
“Everyone who has one should be in costume. [...] We go to fight gods and magic. Ceremonial garb has a value and should be worn.”
Maybe it’s that simple. Superman should remember this the next time he’s feeling shy.
This is a sentence I never thought I’d write: I want to talk about Power Girl’s cleavage.
A story in this month’s JSA 80 Page Giant features what seems to be a rather odd metafictional moment. Here, DC Comics’ charmingly brash superhero, Power Girl, thinks that her revealing costume is being mocked by her rookie teammate, Cyclone. When Cyclone explains that, no, no, she loves the costume, Power Girl shoots a barbed look out towards the reader. She says: “Most women don’t react quite that way.”
Some readers explained that they felt they were being lectured by the comic; reprimanded for daring to think that there’s sexism present in the way Power Girl is drawn (with her seemingly ever-increasing bust size) and the costume she’s drawn into (with its notorious cleavage-window).
The writer of the issue, Jen Van Meter – in an incredibly classy move – responded to one of her critics. She explained that Power Girl’s glance out of the page wasn’t present in the original script, before going on to say:
“Do I like the vast and very gendered disparity in costuming in conventional superhero comics? No. Do I love superhero comics despite the many flaws of the genre? Absolutely. Having chosen to write superhero comics for hire on occasion, must I work with what’s available to me? Sure.”
Spend any time online and you’ll witness the argument usually used to shut down talk of this ‘very gendered disparity’. It goes like this: hey, all superhero costumes are skintight and ridiculous! Shut up!
And while that misses the point entirely, it’s true that superhero costumes are inherently ridiculous. More and more, supermen and superwomen seem a little embarrassed by their outfits. (This is made even worse when they’re translated into non-animated films. Real actors, real physics, and real fabrics just make the problem that much worse.) Comic books have struggled to find logical ways to explain these bizarre spandex fashions.
(My favourite justification comes from writer Grant Morrison. He suggested the X-Men originally dressed like superheroes because the public already trusted superheroes, and therefore they’d be more willing to accept mutants with strange powers within that preexisting heroic framework. That kind of conceptual möbius strip isn’t for amateurs!)
Power Girl’s costume, however, is seen as so uniquely provocative that her writers constantly have to address the issue. Sometimes it’s taking the reader by the hand for a guided interpretive tour, like Cyclone’s subsequent pro-costume speech, above:
“’Cause from a theatrical point of view, it’s perfect for who you are and what you do. It’s all about contradictions. The hole draws the eye precisely where everyone knows they’re not supposed to look – putting anyone you’re dealing with off-balance. The name says girl, but the costume says woman… and not just woman, I mean. It says, “I’m tough enough to handle everything I am. Are you?’”
Sometimes it’s a quick gag, as in JSA Classified #1: “Green Lantern used to ask me why I never wore a mask. It’s because most of the time… they ain’t looking at my face.”
The oddest explanation for Power Girl’s outfit comes out in a heartfelt, tears-in-her-eyes conversation with Superman in JSA Classified #2:
“People always ask me why I have this hole right here. They think I’m showing off… or just being lewd. But the first time I made this costume, I wanted to have a symbol like you. I just… couldn’t think of anything. I thought, eventually, I’d figure it out. And close the hole. But I haven’t.”
Remember that tragic justification for why Batman constantly disappears on a mid-sentence Commissioner Gordon? This scene attempts the same retroactive poetry, but fumbles badly.
Years ago, I interviewed DC Comics’ writer Gail Simone for a feature in Yen Magazine. (How long ago? Joss Whedon was still directing the Wonder Woman movie, that’s how long ago.) She said that she might be considered a “contrarian” in the debate over gendered fashions of superhero outfits. She said:
“I think it’s fine if most of the male and female characters look fabulous, even if the outfits are impractical. I owned a beauty salon before I became a writer and I know there’s a power in glamour. That said, sometimes the outfits betray the nature of the character, and that’s unforgiveable.”
You could easily argue that trying to make Power Girl’s cleavage an empty symbol of angst is a betrayal of her character; it certainly seems more cynical than depicting her as owning her costume-choice with a shrug or wink or smile.
But here’s the final chicken-or-egg riddle: how much of her tough-talking, fun-loving personality has been slowly developed to justify her costume – and not the other way round?