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17 October 2007 @ 02:01 am
14 Functions for a Superhero Costume  
14 Functions for a Superhero Costume


At one time or another I have written all sorts of commentary on various aspects of the superhero lifestyle, but I don’t think I’ve ever said much of anything about the nifty costumes! So let's take a look at the subject. It occurs to me that there are many different possible parameters a superhero might want a costume to meet. Different heroes will have different priorities in choosing their wardrobes, and sometimes the poor costume is expected to perform several functions all at once!

The 14 Functions

01. Masking
02. Built-In Firepower
03. Restraining Power
04. Camouflage
05. Colorful Propaganda
06. Intimidation
07. Titillation
08. Team Uniform
09. My Appearance is Freeform
10. Natural Appearance
11. Continuing a Proud Tradition
12. Homage to an Inspiration
13. Body Armor
14. Artificial Body Parts


01. Masking

“The key thing is to make sure nobody can recognize my face!”

Probably the most common reason for wearing a costume in the first place, although some superheroes refuse to worry about it. The Fantastic Four never bothered to try to hide their true identities, so they ran around bare-headed all the time. And some heroes don’t bother with masks per se, but manage somehow.

Superman’s costume doesn’t involve a mask, but he expects the glasses he wears as Clark Kent to serve much the same function of confusing the eye of the observer. Pre-Crisis Wonder Woman handled it the same way, wearing glasses in her identity as Diana Prince. Other heroes have been known to use wigs, or special chemicals that will instantly change the color of their hair back and forth, in order to confuse the issue. There's probably somebody who uses artificial facial hair (moustache or beard) in one identity or another, although I'm having trouble thinking of an example off the top of my head.

For instance: the first and second Black Canaries both had naturally black hair, but often wore blond wigs. I think the second Canary may have settled for using hair dye these days, but I've lost track. The Pre-Crisis Kara Zor-El Supergirl used to wear a brown wig in her Linda Lee (later Linda Danvers) identity, and eventually she acquired a comb which somehow (the details escape me) turned her blond hair brown or her brown hair blond whenever she used it at superspeed as part of a costume change. (To give credit where credit is due for perceptiveness: The first time Ambush Bug laid eyes on Pre-Crisis Kara in her role of Linda Danvers, right after his battle with Supergirl, he whispered to her that he definitely preferred her as a blond. Maybe no one else could see it, but he knew at a glance that it was the same beautiful girl each time no matter what she had done to her hair!)

02. Built-In Firepower

“Without this costume, I’m helpless!”

The costume isn’t just decorative; its presence is essential to getting the job done! Tony Stark wouldn’t be able to fire repulsor blasts if he tried to do it sans armor.

Note: I wouldn’t really count the Green Lanterns in this category, however, because the typical power ring is a very small item. Only a tiny percentage of the “costume” the hero is wearing. Hal Jordan in street clothes, with the ring on his finger, is still capable of doing anything he could do in his full costume.

03. Restraining Power

The polar opposite of the previous Function. Instead of giving the hero more power than he’d otherwise have, the costume may actually be a safety feature to tightly restrain the power he already has!

Lately I've been rereading some of Paul Levitz's old Legion of Super-Heroes stuff from the 1980s. Wildfire was basically a bundle of "anti-energy" (whatever that is) who could only take a solid, humanoid form by sealing himself up inside a specially built containment suit so that he could have something resembling a social life as he interacted with other humanoid types. (I have paid very little attention to the two Legion Reboots of the past 12 years, so I don't know offhand just how the character has been handled -- if at all -- in more recent versions of the LSH.)

On a smaller scale, Cyclops needs his ruby quartz visor to restrain his optic blasts from smashing anything he looks at. (However, the rest of his wardrobe is optional. His costumes have generally gone for the "Team Uniform" look as I recall, clearly marking him as a member in good standing of the X-Men or X-Factor, rather than trying to make any bold new fashion statements.)

04. Camouflage

“Ideally, they won’t see me until it’s too late to matter.”

This is different from the “Masking” function, although sometimes a costume is meant to achieve both functions at once. “Masking” means you don’t want anybody knowing your real name and face. But as long as your privacy is protected, it may be fine with you if they do notice you are walking toward them! “Camouflage” assumes that you want to make it very hard for people to notice your presence.

Batman’s dark costume does very well at both the "Masking" and the "Camouflage" functions. He’s supposed to be very good at “blending into the shadows” and all that. Understandably enough, he prefers to operate in darkness when the opportunites for camouflage are much greater.

05. Colorful Propaganda

"I'm Captain America! See the red-white-and-blue color scheme? The stars and stripes? Truth, justice, and apple pie; that's what I stand for!"

The polar opposite of the “Camouflage” approach; this costume is meant to catch the eye and then hit the observer over the head with the Obvious Symbolism of the design. For instance, national flags are well-known symbols, and Captain America's costume is just one of many "Red, White, and Blue" outfits that are meant to demonstrate a U.S. citizen's patriotism. Likewise, many heroes from other lands have based costumes on their own national flags. Union Jack, Sabra, Hauptmann Deutschland, and the Collective Man all spring to mind.

(Of course, there are many other types of powerful symbols a hero might choose to adapt for his own purposes.)

06. Intimidation

"Maybe that's the answer . . . maybe I've got to become more than a man . . . I've got to become a symbol! Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot -- so I have to wear a disguise that will strike terror into their hearts! I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible, like a . . . a . . ."

(Go on! Take a wild guess what flew in through his window in the next panel, like an omen sent to guide him! First Hint: The speaker's name was Bruce Wayne. Second Hint: This version of that classic speech was quoted verbatim from "The Untold Legend of the Batman #1." With those clues, if you can't figure out what sort of critter came in through his window then I give up on you!)

07. Titillation

When I think about such designs as Vampirella's original outfit, or the Phantom Lady costume that dates back to the Golden Age, or even Zatanna's fishnet stockings, it's hard to believe that they were going for "practicality" in their costuming.

One theory goes that the typical street criminal is probably a red-blooded heterosexual male thug who, when suddenly confronted with such a fascinating view, is likely to waste a few precious moments just staring in frank admiration. Rather than feeling "threatened" and opening fire immediately, as he might do under other circumstances -- if the hero walking into his line of sight was a big tough-looking male authority figure, for instance. This delayed reaction can give the heroine extra time to get the drop on the thug, somehow.

I wouldn't find that theory incredibly convincing in real life, but I admit that it's interesting to try to find a motive for such costuming that's more "in character" than such cynical "real-life" considerations as, "So the publishers can put these scantily-clad, voluptuous babes on the covers and attract more attention from teenage boys!"

08. Team Uniform

“I wear this because all my colleagues wear this! Makes it easier to recognize who the good guys are in the heat of battle!”

There are good sound reasons for members of a police department or a military unit to wear standardized uniforms. FBI agents normally wear suits and ties instead of a distinctive uniform, but I believe that under some circumstances they all pull on jackets that say "FBI" in big yellow letters in various places.One reason for this would presumably be to reduce the risk of one agent shooting another by mistake in a violent situation, such as a raid on a house believed to be full of dangerous criminals. Some superhero groups have followed similar logic in outfitting their members, although sometimes their "dress codes" lighten up later on and allow more room for freedom of expression.

As possible examples: the Fantastic Four generally wear very similar blue uniforms. Professor X used to issue almost-identical costumes (blue and gold, or black and gold) to new students who had just arrived at his academy. At one point, when recently-enrolled student Kitty Pryde was so presumptuous as to design a very colorful personalized outfit for herself, the Professor said frostily that a personalized costume must be earned, not taken for granted, or words to that effect.

And on a much larger scale: Hal Jordan and his thousands of fellow members of the old Green Lantern Corps (back around the 60s, 70s, and into the 80s) all wore much the same uniform, allowing for differences in their basic anatomies. (Not every GL was recruited from a species that had two arms and two legs.) Later the Green Lanterns apparently drifted away from that rigid “dress code” for some reason. For instance, in his earliest appearances Guy Gardner used to wear an outfit that was basically a copy of Hal's; but what he wore years later, in his tenure as the fulltime GL member of the late 80s/early 90s Justice League International, was definitely a different design, although it used a similar color scheme (heavy on the green and dark gray, with bits of white thrown in).

09. My Appearance is Freeform

"My costume? I keep one around, but I almost never wear it in public. My usual 'costume' is whatever disguise suits the circumstances of this adventure!"

These characters may have recognizable costumes, but their powers and behavior patterns are such that they almost never use them. Their physical appearances are whatever will help them infiltrate a certain place and get the job done.

When Raven Darkholme (Mystique) is out in the field, she doesn't have to look like her "normal" self (dark blue skin, yellow eyes, and whatever costume she favors this week) unless she really wants to do so for dramatic impact, or to identify herself to an ally. Similarly, Tom Tresser (Nemesis) and Christopher Chance (The Human Target) have both specialized in disguising themselves to impersonate other men for some worthy cause, although they had no superpowers to help, and thus they couldn't hope to duplicate Mystique's versatility.

As a variation: The "costume" itself may be specially geared to make quick disguises very easy. Spider-Man's foe the Chameleon has, at various times, used theatrical disguise techniques (similar to those of Nemesis and The Human Target), holographic technology with controls in his belt buckle, and severe changes to his own epidermis so that he can "really" change his facial features, skin shade, etc., instead of just "appearing" to do so! Spider-Man himself once wore a costume that turned out to be an alien symbiote that could modify its own appearance, according to the wearer's psychic commands, to look like a black-and-white costume or any other type of clothing that Spidey cared to wear, although (near as I can recall) Spidey never made much effort to use that to its full potential (such as impersonating costumed supervillains and infiltrating their hideouts, for instance). Then the costume turned on him and eventually merged with Eddie Brock to become Venom, but that's another story.

10. Natural Appearance

“Costume? What costume? This is the real me!”

Although the general public may assume otherwise at first glance, sometimes the most exotic features of a hero’s appearance are “natural.” After all, Ben Grimm didn’t start out his superhero career as a physically normal man who was voluntarily wearing an artificial suit that made him look like a pile of cracked orange rocks and gave him enhanced strength in the process. That was his real epidermis after his transformation; his actual "costume" was just a pair of shorts for the sake of modesty. (Although, a few decades later, he went through a phase where wearing an artificial suit that looked like a pile of cracked orange rocks was exactly what he was doing. Long story!)

Likewise, such characters as Sasquatch, Swamp Thing, etc., are really cases of "what you see is what you get."

11. Continuing a Proud Tradition

“I'm just trying to pick up where my predecessor left off. Same name; same costume; new user!”

This neatly skips over the problem of designing and manufacturing a new costume from scratch. Just pull on some of your predecessor’s hand-me-downs!

Sometimes the hero is very frank about being a replacement for his Illustrious Predecessor; other times there is some effort to maintain the illusion that it's still the same guy inside the distinctive costume.

As an example of the "frankness" approach: after the death of Barry Allen in “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” his long-time protégé and nephew-by-marriage, Wally West, donned a copy of Barry’s classic costume and started calling himself The Flash. However, Wally also publicly revealed his identity around that time and never made any effort to fool people into thinking he was the same Scarlet Speedster who had been a founding member of the JLA many years earlier. On the contrary, he was quite frank about his former career as Kid Flash (the first one) of the Teen Titans. Wally was merely "imitating" his Uncle Barry’s general appearance as an effort to keep the Flash tradition alive.

As an example of the "confusing the public" approach: As near as I can tell, in the Batman comics of the late 80s and early 90s, the typical resident of Gotham City probably never knew that the "second Robin" had died. Batman wasn't in the mood to issue any press releases on the subject. Before too much time had passed, Tim Drake began training to be the third Robin. Since Tim seems to have been roughly the same size as Jason was before he died, with the same fair skin and short black hair, the typical Gothamite probably assumed it was the same Robin all along. (A few people, such as Commissioner Gordon, would have been in a position to notice discrepancies, but we're not talking about Gordon; we're talking about the "common perception.")

On a similar note, a few years later, during "Knightfall," Jean Paul Valley initially wore one of Bruce Wayne's spare Batman costumes in an attempt to convince the people of Gotham that Batman hadn't really been crippled by Bane after all.

On the other hand: there was a period in Tony Stark's life, back around the late 80s/early 90s, when the official version was that the original Iron Man was now tragically dead after having gotten himself into all sorts of legal hot water, and the guy flying around in the latest model of the Iron Man suit was supposed to be a rookie Iron Man, newly hired by Tony Stark to replace his former high-tech bodyguard. So here we had a different approach to misleading the public -- getting them to think there had been a "change" behind the mask, when there really hadn't been any change at all! (Even Tony's fellow Avengers were not let in on the secret of what had really happened, although various old-timers -- Wasp, Captain America, etc. -- seem to have noticed that the "new guy" already had all the background knowledge and skills they would expect from the original Iron Man, a founding member of the team. But they were polite enough not to press the issue right away.)

12. Homage to an Inspiration

“As you can see by my costume, I was heavily inspired by another hero in creating my own ‘look’ and ‘heroic identity’! But I'm not recycling his name; I'm trying to create something new!”

In “Continuing a Proud Tradition,” I was thinking of cases where someone else basically “recycled” the name and costume of a predecessor as a package deal. (Whether or not he admitted to the public that this was what he was doing.)

But then there are times when the new character deliberately wears a costume that is blatantly intended to remind people of the classic appearance of some veteran hero who serves as a “role model” or “inspiration” – but the new character makes it crystal-clear that he is the new kid on the block and goes by a different name! Sometimes the veteran hero who served as “inspiration” is still very active in the costumed crimefighting game when the new guy debuts, and sometimes he isn’t; sometimes the newcomer "inspired by him" serves as the veteran's sidekick while learning the ropes, and sometimes not.

Examples: In the Silver Age, Donna Troy’s first “Wonder Girl” costume was inspired by Wonder Woman’s outfit. Not an exact copy, but with an obvious resemblance. (The coiled golden lasso certainly helped get that point across. How many other people do you know who carry them?) Wally West’s first “Kid Flash” outfit was a copy of his mentor’s outfit, plain and simple (allowing for his being much smaller than Barry at the time). And Tom DeFalco’s “Spider-Girl” (May Parker, teenage daughter of Peter and Mary Jane, named after Peter's Aunt May) wears a costume closely modelled on the classic design of her daddy’s old fighting togs -- but not identical to the design he usually wore before he lost one leg and retired from the superhero lifestyle.

However, Donna was not trying to “claim” the identity of Wonder Woman for herself when she became a founding member of the Teen Titans, Wally was not trying to set himself up as “the new Flash” at the time he first wore a copy of Barry’s costume, and May Parker would have laughed herself sick if anyone had looked at her and said, “Hey! That must be good old Spider-Man making a comeback!”

13. Body Armor

“I’ve got to wear this costume! Otherwise, some rude bandit might ventilate me with his nine-millimeter!”

John Byrne once suggested in an interview that if one of us normal people became a superhero, we wouldn’t fool around with colorful spandex. We’d pull on a suit of bulletproof body armor with all the built-in firepower we could get! (I believe he was about to take over the Iron Man title at the time, so you can see why he had this on his mind.) I saw the force of his argument. Tony Stark wears state-of-the-art bulletproof alloys; other characters have worn chain mail, breastplates, thick leather, costumes that generate force fields, or other stuff that is meant to somehow reduce the chances of being shot, bruised, cut, or otherwise injured in the line of duty. Captain America's bulletproof shield falls into this category, and the last time I checked there was supposed to be some type of chain mail included in his shirt.

Some heroes either can't afford really good body armor, or just prefer to get by without it for one reason or another. Sometimes these reasons are hard to determine; other times they're fairly obvious. (For instance: Spider-Man, with his uncanny agility, superhuman reaction time, and slightly prescient Spider-sense, usually finds it easy to avoid any bullets that are fired in his general direction. Wearing layers of Kevlar might just slow him down.)

And to be fair: some heroes are so tough that they don't need any artificial body armor! You don’t expect to see Superman or his cousin Supergirl (the newest of several Supergirls) pulling on a bulletproof vest every day just to be on the safe side! And whatever you may think of the current Supergirl’s costume, you have to admit that the chances of her painfully skinning her knees as she runs around bare-legged are close to zero.

14. Artificial Body Parts

“I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I can't really take these things off.”

In contrast to "Natural Appearance," much of the hero's distinctive look is not the way his body just "naturally" appears these days. We're not talking about living cells that can regenerate if he gets hurt. It's artificial stuff that is not just decorative, but has replaced body parts the hero used to have and then lost somehow.

In some cases, the Artificial Body Parts are vitally necessary for the continued survival of whatever is left of the organic body the hero used to have.

Examples: The original Robotman of the Golden Age, Robert Crane, was only saved from death by having his human brain transplanted into an experimental robot body. Much the same thing later happened to the second Robotman, Cliff Steele, a founding member of the Doom Patrol. Many years later, Victor Stone (Cyborg of the Titans) ended up with large portions of his body replaced by white metal and electronics because that was the only way his daddy could find to save his life and let him continue to walk around on his own two (metal) feet after Victor had been horribly mangled by an evil creature from some other dimensional reality. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?) None of these guys were offered much of a “choice” at the time; they had to take whatever was readily available to keep them alive and mobile.

On a less drastic scale, several other characters (Aquaman, Cable, Forge, and Misty Knight spring to mind) have used mechanical devices to replace at least one or two missing body parts apiece. Most of those characters could probably survive just fine without those artificial aids -- their hearts wouldn't actually stop beating or anything like that -- but they'd have to cut way back on their physical activities (crimefighting, etc.) quite a bit if they had to spend the rest of their lives doing everything with just one hand. (Not to mention coping with the absence of an occasional eye, leg, etc.)

And there are some heroes whose costumes are not exactly “permanently” attached to them, but literally appear out of thin air under certain circumstances. When the first Captain Marvel (Billy Batson) was created in the Golden Age, it never mattered what Billy was wearing when he said “Shazam!” – he would instantly become Captain Marvel, the big guy in the bright red suit with the golden lightning bolt on his chest. Likewise, a generation later, when Dr. Don Blake tapped his walking stick on the ground to become Thor, Norse God of Thunder, he would always end up wearing a certain costume after the mystic transformation. So, somewhat like the plights of Cyborg and the first(?) two Robotmans, those characters didn’t seem to have much choice in what they would look like when they were rushing off into battle in a hurry! The wardrobe was magically “programmed in!”



P.S. As always, I take it for granted that I've probably missed something. If you can think of any other possible functions for a superhero's costume, then please let me know!
 
 
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
cdrood on August 21st, 2008 03:14 pm (UTC)
15. Everyone Dresses Like This Where I Come From
Many superheroes aren't from Earth, or are from Earth but come from a hidden society of some sort. When they enter the hero game, they just wear alien street clothes that resemble a costume. It's never explained why their society never had the concept of having more than one outfit. Thor would fit this model, as would the Inhumans.
shroud80 on August 27th, 2008 06:35 am (UTC)
artificial facial hair
"There's probably somebody who uses artificial facial hair (moustache or beard) in one identity or another, although I'm having trouble thinking of an example off the top of my head."

The closest example that I could find:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Death_Sentence_(novel)
This was the sequel novel to Death Wish. In this novel, the vigilante, Paul Benjamin,
To disguise himself, he wears a Russian style winter cap (covering his hair and the back of his head, goggle-esque dark glasses, and a fake mustache. (page 138).
shroud80 on August 29th, 2008 12:28 am (UTC)
09. My Appearance is Freeform
Pinnacle had a series called the Penetrator written by Chet Cunningham. I think he followed this approach, because he remained anonymous (the public did not know he was the Penetrator) at least as late as the early 1980's. The Penetrator had special appliances to distort his fingerprints (he had served in the armed forces, therefore his prints remained on file. All members of the army get fingerprinted.)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )