Daily Archives: February 3, 2010

Dressed for Success

12 Reasons Why Retiring the Capes, Cowls and Codpieces of Our Costumed Combatants Would Be a Really Bad Idea

1. It’s just so damn cool.
Back in 2001, about a month after 9/11 and right around the time we kept being told Things Would Never Be the Same Again, there was a minor movement afoot to de-costume our beloved superheroes. The reasoning went something like this: These are serious times and our heroes should be looking the part, not flouncing about in tights and masks while fighting garishly garbed forces of evil. But let’s face it — there’s just something undeniably cool about the sight of a superhero in his or her full regalia, the cape billowing the breeze as s/he scans the horizon from atop a lonely rooftop. In the comics, as in real life, who you are often isn’t as important as how you look, and many of our heroes would be hard pressed to make a proper impression upon both their colleagues and the readers in anything other than their union garb. Imagine, for instance, this scene with Batman eschewing his trademark threads in favor of, say, a polo shirt and a sensible pair of khakis. Doesn’t have the same visual oomph, does it?

2. It’s practical attire, given the job.
Notwithstanding the extreme butt floss sported by some of the more risqué crime-fighting femmes, the tight outfits sported by most hard-working superheroes just make sense when you think about their line of work. Think of gymnasts or other professionals whose jobs require maximum mobility and flexibility. Now imagine, say, the Batman scampering across Gotham’s rooftops in a jogging suit, or Spider-Man swinging from a webline with a silk tie thwapping in his face, or Wonder Woman wiping the streets with a gang of punks whilst wearing bellbottom pants (which actually happened once, but that’s a story for another day). Ridiculous, you say? My point exactly.

3. Dude, it’s called a secret identity for a reason.
This one should be self-evident, but it’s worth mentioning all the same — with so many of our heroes involved in affairs that would attract the wrong kind of attention from super-criminals and law enforcement agencies, it only makes sense for them to take measures to conceal their true identity. Masks are the obvious accessory here, but never underestimate the power of a wig (Black Canary), a good pair of lifts (Anarky) or a pair of glasses (Clark Kent, which one could argue is the mask while Superman is the “real” person). Speaking of Black Canary, you can also make the argument that many female heroes prefer the fishnet stockings and cleavage-enhancing bodices as a way of… um, distracting the attention of evildoers and nosy reporter types who might be otherwise tempted to study their faces.

4. Sometimes, the clothes really do make the (super)man.
While it’s hard to argue the point when so many superheroines wear stiletto heels to the “office,” the better writers in the business have gone to great lengths to explain the many practical applications of donning a superhero costume. Batman is the classic example; his “utility belt” contains all the lock picks, smoke bombs, acid pellets, and other paraphernalia necessary for his line of work. Even apparel that looks less than useful on the surface can be highly functional: Superman’s cape (in the old days, anyway) contained a hidden pouch for Clark Kent’s clothing, just as other heroes use their capes as both defensive and offensive weapons in battle. Masks can contain two-way radios and protective lenses, while gloves protect the hands and prevent errant fingerprints from revealing one’s identity. And heck, I don’t even wanna know how long Tony Stark would last without the ultimate “power suit” at his disposal, what with his tendency to get chucked out of airplanes and all.

5. Because criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot.
In the classic “Batman: Year One” storyline, we are introduced to a younger Bruce Wayne, who feels he is financially, physically, and mentally prepared for the life he’s chosen… but there’s just something missing. In his first outing as a vigilante, he gets soundly clobbered by a couple of garden-variety warehouse thieves because the bad guys weren’t sufficiently cowered by a guy in regular street clothes. Our young Mr. Wayne deduces that the right costume — one that strikes fear in the hearts of criminals — would buy him the extra precious seconds needed to disarm his foes. Enter one wayward bat on cue, and voila. (Hey, wouldn’t you wonder what’s up with a guy in a batsuit if he came by your place of business on a dark night?)

6. It shows your team colors.
If there’s a common theme in stories involving superhero teams, it’s this: together, we are stronger. That, despite the disagreements and quarrels that come part and parcel with being part of a surrogate family, we can overcome our differences and create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Team uniforms, much like those worn by firefighters and police officers, reflect that unity of purpose. (Plus, on a more practical note, it’s easier to spot your team’s players in the battlefield din when they’re wearing official team colors.) The best example of this is that quest-driven quartet known as the Fantastic Four. In their initial adventures (waaaaaaaay back in 1961), they sported the plain purple jumpsuits they wore during their fateful space flight. Not terribly stylish, and the initial plan was in fact to keep them in plainer attire, but the fans vetoed that particular idea. Indeed, aside from belting out Sister Sledge’s classic disco anthem to togetherness, what better way is there to proclaim to the world, “We are family”…?

7. It’s a branding thing; you wouldn’t understand.
Let’s talk a language the business majors out there can understand. Specifically, let’s talk “branding.” Now, branding (as I understand the term) is the act of positioning your product in the minds of customers in such a way that it stands out from its competitors. Business titans such as, say, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s achieve this branding in part by clothing their products in familiar shapes and colors: just about every person on Earth recognizes the red-and-white Coca-Cola logo, and I’d wager almost as many could tell you what’s on the menu when those golden arches appear on the horizon. Now, let’s talk about superheroes. Take away their distinctive packaging, and what do you get? Uniformity. Blandness. And, ultimately, consumer indifference. “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…. Superman! Or… no, could be Captain Marvel. Shoot, no, it’s Green Lantern. Wait, it might just be a bird after all… aw hell, let’s go watch Lost instead.” In a business that relies far more on the initial visual “punch” of its products than most others, it would be financial suicide for publishers to order the de-branding of their greatest assets, merely to satisfy a momentary whim for verisimilitude.

8. It’s a psychological thing; you wouldn’t understand.
Remember that scene in 1994’s The Mask, in which Jim Carrey’s character seeks help from a disbelieving psychiatrist? The doctor’s theory is that we all wear masks to hide behind, and he’s right. Any first-year anthropology student can tell you about the symbolic significance of masks among primitive tribes — how the wearer of a mask becomes something greater than himself once he puts the mask on. In other words, the simple act of putting on a mask or ceremonial costume allows the individual to sublimate his own personality and assume a new, more potent identity. This psychological “trick” is an invaluable tool to our modern-day super-heroes, as well. Think about it: you’re a rational human being, whose body and mind have been honed to near perfection. You have a plausible motive and the means to become your own one-man army on crime and corruption, and yet there’s something holding you back from leaping willy-nilly into the fray. You recognize it for what it is: doubt. And you recognize that doubt as the one thing that will someday get you killed. So what do you do? Get yourself a talisman — something that separates your “secret identity” self from the being that you become when you go fight crime. Would the Punisher be just as effective if he wore a three-piece suit while blowing away muggers? Probably, but it’s not hard to see how donning his skull-and-spandex ensemble makes him more willin’ to do some killin’.

9. They’re symbols of something greater than themselves.
Related to the “psychological” angle is the fact that superheroes, when in costume, become living symbols of something larger than themselves. Captain America is perhaps the best example of what I mean here. More than any other hero, Captain America is a symbol, first and foremost. To be sure, it’s the man underneath the costume that matters (as we learned during that brief period when Steve Rogers was forcibly removed from his costume and replaced with someone more enthralled with the form of American patriotism than its spirit), but it is the costume that signals to others that this is a man set apart from the rest by his ideals and his commitment to them. When would-be world conquerors and petty thugs alike confront our man in red, white, and blue, they know they’re not just confronting some blond guy with a Spandex fetish… they’re facing CAPTAIN FREAKIN’ AMERICA, the symbol of truth, honesty, fairness, justice, motherhood, apple pie, and all those other good things that the U.S.A. is supposed to stand for. In short, Captain America Minus Suit and Shield Equals Really Preachy Blond Guy, just as Thor Minus Cape and Mallet Equals One Long-Haired Mesomorph With A Messianic Complex, or Batman Minus Suit and Batarangs Equals Brooding Rich White Guy With Butler.  

10. It’s a visual medium, so let’s have some visuals here.
Simply put, a comic-book character’s choice of costume can reveal a lot about the character itself. When you see someone in a hospital wearing surgical scrubs, a stethoscope, and a white coat, you most likely assume he’s a doctor of some kind. The same idea applies to super-heroes. In a visual medium that exists without the benefit of sound, artists need every tool at their disposal to convey their meaning visually as quickly as possible. As such, they may give, for instance, an ominous character a few things we associate with scary people: a dark cloak or a face hidden by a hood. Readers interpret these clues and are able to get a basic handle on the characters without requiring a lot of space-hogging exposition. This aspect becomes particularly important in those titles with a larger cast of characters. Try this experiment: take a look at this group portrait of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, circa 1983. Based solely on their costumes, can you guess which one is the White Witch? Sun Boy? Saturn Girl? Lightning Lad? Shadow Lass? Star Boy? Obviously, not everyone here is as easily identified — you’d be hard-pressed to know which one is Mon-El, for instance, if you’re not familiar with Legion lore. That being said, the costumes make clear we’re dealing with a book about a large, multicultural (multi-species, even) cast of young adventurers living in the future. Take away the alien faces and costumes and we could be looking at the original casting call for Glee or Dawson’s Creek, for all we know. Such is the power of positive visuals.

11. It’s supposed to be a juvenile medium, dammit.
And when I say “juvenile,” I do not mean “immature” or “infantile.” I mean “relating to or suitable for children and young people,” because this is precisely what comics books are supposed to do: relate to children and young people. Oftentimes, it seems the biggest proponents of “realistic” super-heroes tackling “real-life” situations are being, shall we say, a bit greedy with their toys — having discovered the wonders of super-heroes in their youth, they seem determined to make the heroes more mature for no reason other than to make them more palatable to their own adult tastes. There’s plenty of room for comic-book stories and titles geared towards a more adult market, but this becomes a problem when the adult fans fail to recognize that the superheroes belong, first and foremost, to the kids. And kids like costumes. Remember: prior to Superman’s debut in 1938, most comic-book adventurers were either plain-dressing fellows with a taste for adventure or costumed mystery men with no real “super powers” as such. Comic sales were only ho-hum until a certain Man of Steel stepped into his union suit and started bouncing across newsstands. Superman appealed to millions of Depression-era kids because he was super-strong, sure, but also because he was a larger-than-life character, made all the more so by his distinctive clothing that set him apart. By their very nature, these are stories designed to appeal to children, and children respond to stories about characters in bright colors and cool-looking costumes, many of whom can be easily imitated with nothing more than a towel tied ’round one’s neck.

12. This isn’t supposed to be real life, and the costumes reflect that.
Superhero stories involve characters who can shrink at will, fly to the farthest reaches of the universe, transform themselves into any shape possible, gain “spider-powers” from radioactive spider bites and shoot X-ray beams out of their eyes. Now, try to square that with the call for “realism” and “relevance.” A certain number of grown-up fans seem to want their bean burrito and eat it, too. They want that cozy feeling that comes with reading about the characters they grew up with, but they don’t want all the “silly” and “childish” things attached to said characters, things like costumes… secret identities… kid sidekicks… secret hideouts… outlandish villains… and so forth. This is an understandable impulse, but it doesn’t make sense. If you truly wanted to read about “realistic” heroes tackling “real-life” issues, then why on Earth would you read comic books? The costumes remind us that this is all just make-believe, and that’s OK — sometimes, we need a little more of that in our lives.