A Comic Book Entry: Artistic Conventions – Super-Costumes

Buckle up, lovely readers, because this is a long rant and chock full ‘o links!

And I’m not talking about cosplay here.  I’m talking about the oddities of superhero costumes that we readers take for granted to the point we forget these people aren’t actually wearing uniforms; i.e., artistic convention (as opposed to narrative convention).  They don’t actually have to wear what they are wearing.  Yes, there will be ranting about superheroines, but sometimes the superheroes wear ridiculous things too.  So I’m splitting this up into brief (ha) discussions of some of the common conventions.

1) Polyspandexylon Paint – I also call this convention “Color-blocking nudity.”  I’m referring of course to the body stockings (or less) that are the basis for almost all super costumes (even the ones that have capes or jackets or belt accessories).  With one exception (the Fantastic Four and their unstable molecules), I have no idea what material those costumes are supposed to be made of but it sure isn’t any material I’m familiar with, so polyspandexylon paint seems like a good term.  This stuff is so tight that it shows the outline of the most ripped of muscles and the most sexy of curves as though it was spray-painted on.  And yet the material is flexible enough to allow brawling heroes to kick like they’re wearing Chuck Norris action jeans, wicks away sweat to prevent overheating, and breathes like Egyptian cotton.  Unless everyone in Marvel and DC has their costumes made by Edna Mode, clearly this should not be the case.  Yet most if not all readers take it for granted that polyspandexylon paint actually somehow exists.

Real life, of course, provides counter-examples.  Famously, Michelle Pfeiffer was pretty much vacuum-sealed into her Catwoman costume and could only work in it a short amount of time before she got dizzy and passed out.  Anne Hathaway referred to her costume as a “psychological terrorist.”  But this is fiction, so we overlook the real-world issues.  By the way, if you want to see what really tight costumes actually look like in real life, check the links and also this one of Scarlett Johannson.  These are certainly tight, but not painted-on tight.

And honestly, a lot of this convention is making supers (heroines mostly) creatively non-naked.  As I said, color-blocking nudity.  For example, here is a Catwoman picture.  Here is a Tarot picture.  The only difference in the nudity (just that; please, please don’t flame me over the myraid differences in the actual comics) is purple ink.  Not coincidentally, I believe this picture of Catwoman is drawn by the same artist who draws Tarot.  And here one of the worst pictures I’ve ever seen of my favorite deranged clown-babe, Harley Quinn.  I actually have seen a picture of Tarot that is very similar, especially with the upward angle, but unfortunately I could not find it (I believe it’s in Issue 52); I should also note my search for that picture is what led me to this Harley Quinn picture (even though my search lacked keywords like “Harley” “Quinn” or “DC”).  But hey, Tarot is supposed to be porn and even her anatomy is not actually as detailed as Harley’s.  And Harley’s picture is not supposed to be porn (technically).  This picture in particular is so gratuitous I think if the ink was peach the picture would be more honest.

In the interests of fairness, this polyspandexylon paint doesn’t quite work for heroes, either.  Here is a picture of Batman, whom I’m pretty sure is supposed to be wearing armor and yet I could count each one of his Bat-abs.  And here’s Captain America, who wears what’s supposed to be a chainmail shirt, but it sure shows off his ripped arms, doesn’t it?  There’s also this one of the Human Torch, who is in fact not naked, but I think the artist may be to blame because frankly the whole scene makes me say, “um…”  So even though intellectually the readers know real costumes can’t be this tight, readers overlook this as a matter of artistic convention.

2) Underwear on the Outside – This actually mostly a male convention because for some reason women wearing underwear on the outside is sexy but men doing it is not so much.  Generally this convention afflicts Golden and Silver Age heroes.  I’m not entirely sure why this particular and obvious fashion don’t was the hot trend in costume design to begin with.  I know that Superman’s costume was inspired by circus strongmen, and in that case it makes sense.  But how it managed to endure until the very recent past is a testimony to the strength of artistic convention.  The Man of Steel, Last Son of Kypton, wears his underwear on the outside.  Even though I know the red underwear is just stupid and ridiculous, when I see Superman costumes without it, they just look wrong to me.

At least Batman managed to have his unobtrusively meld colors with the rest of his outfit because let’s be honest, if there’s one hero who should not have underwear on the outside, it’s Batman.  Or WolverineOops.

Marvel didn’t escape this trend either, even though the company got big in the 1960s.  The artists were likely inspired by the Golden Age trends and thus they were carried on.  The Thing gets a pass because he’s only wearing underwear, as does Namor and Beast.  But the original X-men costumes (and through the gritty ’90s [and even still I’m sure]) still feature underwear on the outside.  Basically, in the first X-men movie, Wolverine should have been counting his blessings for the x-costume.

3) Sneaky Like Ninja – This is a convention in which a super has a particular power set that has a certain costume in pop culture already.  The most common example are ninjas.  However, here is a picture of a ninja (allowing of course for historical inaccuracy).  Pretty much no ninja in comic books looks like that.  Good or bad, male or female, somehow the costumes are all tight, never black, and for the women oddly cut-out.  And we know better.  There are even comic books that depict more accurate ninja costumes.  And yet, for some reason, main characters wear these outfits and are called ninjas (or at least martial artists).  I guess readers are willing to overlook the actual costume as long as the person is depicted as doing awesome ninja things (or whatever their skill-set happens to be).

4) Stripperiffic – An artistic convention that affects primarily superheroines (or villainesses).  Obviously this refers to wearing costumes that are gratuitously revealing for no story purpose but only provide fanservice to the reader.  You can read a bit more about that on my last rant as Tyrant-in-Chief.  Men almost never suffer from this kind of artistic convention.  Within the context of the comic, the stripperffic outfits make no sense at all.  Why would a street-level fighter like Huntress suddenly start baring her midriff instead of wearing armor?  In fact, if armor is available, why wouldn’t any super without physical resistance (see “Body of Real Hard Stuff“) not opt for it?  And why would the psychic ninja Psylocke suddenly start wearing garters (yes, I know she’s not wearing a real ninja outfit as discussed above; however, the additional of garters just highlights how impractical her outfit really is).

Artistic convention.  It’s a chicken and egg type thing – comic book readers expect it so artists draw it so readers expect it.  I’m not sure if it started with the artists trying to attract readers or readers being attracted to skimpy costumes.  Probably a combination of both.  There are very, very rare exceptions where a stripperiffic outfit isn’t a detriment within the context of the world.  1) the super is damn near indestructible (and certainly more so than their clothes [see She-Hulk]) or 2) the super is in no way ever a physical combatant (see Emma Frost prior to her secondary mutation).

Men are almost never subject to this.  Consider Namor; this is a typical outfit but it’s not really a detriment in the world because he a) spends most of time underwater, b) when he is on the land he’s usually at the beach, and c) while a brawler, he has the flying brick powerset which allows him to get away with it.  Dr. Manhattan also walked around naked because he was beyond physical harm. But along those lines, unless Superman is expecting to run into kryptonite and thus wears lead-lined underwear, his costume is completely irrelevant.  He could also walk around naked, but he doesn’t.  This doesn’t excuse Power Girl’s boob-window; in fact it highlights the double-standard.  Here’s a picture of Power Boy, which is her spear counterpart and someone’s effort to demonstrate the boob-window wasn’t just for cleavage.  It doesn’t work.  Along those lines, see this website as well.  I actually kind of like the rendition of Green Arrow’s costume for Black Canary.

By the way, I read a Justice League comic way back when and Black Canary was fussing with her costume.  You can read it here because the internet is occasionally awesome like that.  When I originally read that panel I thought, “Ha ha you showed him!”  But then I thought about it further and realized that it still doesn’t excuse the double-standard.  Sure, the Flash’s little lightning wings are kind of useless.  However, no one is actually going to ever be able to grab those in a combat situation (if they can, Flash is in a lot of trouble).  But Black Canary, as stated before, kicks people in the face.  Sure, spiky heels may hurt more, but given all the drawbacks (difficulty balancing, wear and tear on the feet, etc.), there is no logical reason for her to wear those.  If Wonder Woman wants to wear heels, fine by me. She’s a flying brick.  Footgear doesn’t count for so much when the hero’s feet don’t touch the ground.  Superman could wear heels too if he wanted because he can fly.  Obviously, he doesn’t and never will.

5) Is that Even a Costume – Some characters go low-key with costumes.  So low-key in fact it’s not obvious they’re wearing a costume.  The Question, for example, dresses like a 1930s film noir detective.  That is a costume, except that’s pretty much also what he does.  So is it really a costume?  It’s like Don Draper wearing a suit and tie.  That’s not a costume; that’s his business-wear.  Luke Cage isn’t even trying in the New Avengers.  Now, granted, when Luke Cage was the Hero for Hire Power Man, his costume was, erm, extremely era-specific, shall we say.  Still, couldn’t the artists figure out something besides a t-shirt and jeans?

And then there’s Black Canary.  Here’s an experiment – find someone who doesn’t know anything about Black Canary.  Show them a comic with a picture of Black Canary in costume.  Do not even tell them her name.  Ask this person, based on the panel (or picture or whatever you present) to tell you about Black Canary.  If this person guesses “crime-fighter” I will be pretty surprised.  Once you tell this person Black Canary is a crime-fighter, ask this person what she’s doing (i.e., what crime is she fighting).  I am 75% certain this person will be surprised to find out this isn’t an outfit Black Canary is wearing to break up some kind of prostitution ring or drug ring at a nightclub.  I am 99% certain they will not guess her name.  Black Canary does not wear a superheroine costume.  She wears a sexy biker chick Halloween costume.  Okay, yes, I know this is technically Black Canary I’s costume and Black Canary II just wore the same thing, but why was Black Canary I wearing this at all?

This is artistic convention.  She’s been drawn this way so long very few people even question why the hell she’s wearing what she’s wearing.  It doesn’t even have anything to do with her codename.  Sure, it’s black but nothing else is even remotely bird-like, much less canary-like.  And that is odd considering no matter how ridiculous the theme, superheroes/heroines usually proudly incorporate into their costume.  Even costumes that don’t necessarily corrolate with codenames, such as Huntress, look like super-costumes and not like something that was pulled out of the bargain bin at a costume store on November 1.  Now, I have seen the New 52 costume and at least that might kind of look like a costume, so it only took how many years for some artist to look at Black Canary’s costume as ask, “what the hell is she wearing?”  Of course, now I’m wondering what the hell Starling is supposed to be wearing.

So where does this leave us?  Well, artistic convention is as hard to change as narrative convention.  Hopefully in time more artists will look at their characters and realize that artistic convention can in fact be broken.  Hey, if Power Girl’s boob-window finally got closed, and Superman’s artist(s) finally ditched the red undies, maybe there’s hope artists can move past convention.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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