JUDGING A COMIC BOOK BY ITS COVER
THE BRAVE, THE BOLD AND THE FASHIONABLE?
VOL I: DC STYLE
Comic books have always served as vehicles for tackling profound issues, social disagreements, mankind’s fascination with categorizations of good and evil and the relationship between violence and erotica. Through comic books, topics such as Bullying, Corruption, Racism, the Environment, War and Pacifism can be drawn away from the political stage and over to the artist’s nook. What makes the superhero comic book genre particularly comely is that the audience, or the reader per se, plays a crucial part in the creation and continuation of the hero’s story. For without an audience, the story of the hero could not be told.
Thus, as the reader, we are made not a witness but a confidante; we become the first sidekick in the superhero’s tale.
We can argue that the superhero ideologies put forth in movies, TV shows, books or graphic novels have been ingrained into our cultural DNA; simple ideals transmitted through the superhero’s vantage point are ubiquitous and our society has adapted to the exposure of the hero’s imaginary and its social singularities representing the restless morph of cultural change. Today we will take a look at how life, in this case, often imitates art.
Whether we look at Superman’s vibrant colours or Clark Kent’s sepia-tinged alter ego, The Green Arrow’s fabricated closet logic that seamlessly works for the organized quiver or the suit pocket, similarly to the “rodentophile” Bruce Wayne and his metal fetish, The Flash’s quite youthful and eager costume attire, or Wonder Woman’s patriotic warrior’s outfit laced with archetypical femininity, the superhero costume is the synthetic soliloquy of the hero’s unique status in his/her world and serves to animate and provoke the audience emotionally and visually.
Superhero “fashion” has not only influenced fantastical Haute Couture but is reflected in street wear, sports apparel as well as in high fashion runways of the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier, Armani or Moschino, and has even played a main part in upping the physical and sexual prowess we associate with avant-garde clothing and body image.
Like any kind of costume, superheroes’ outfits are consciously created to divide one world from another and signify, not only to others but also to themselves, to what purpose they truly belong. Once the superhero understands what he stands for and makes a promise to value his ethical code of principles above all other, the acquisition of the costume is the metaphorical trumpet sound of the final emergence.
Throughout the years the notion of the hero and Superhero has undergone a process of alteration and evolution, a metamorphosis and maybe even rebirth. Their manufactured ideals have become part of the genre’s great appeal and have been pieced apart, overhauled, hemmed, dusted off, patched up and embroidered to fit a new era and the ever-changing Zeitgeist of our civilization.
It all started with men faster than a speeding arrow, more powerful than a walking talking Titan and able to leap the Olympus in a single bound... Welcome to Ancient Greece.
The concept of the hero of Greek’s high society, is a simple one; measured by the complexity of the various facets of extraordinary gifts, multiplied with the millions of seconds spent by actuating the above mention gifts in a non-beneficial, non-advantageous and non-remunerative way and divided by the average amount of piles of mortals suffering from any kind of damage as a result of the use of the beforehand mentioned gifts you get badged “SuperHero”. Your shirt will be taken off but you get to keep your underpants.
Underpants that have finally outlasted their purpose after centuries of overuse, however (even among circus performers).
But while our familiarity with the statuesque remembrance of our old Greek ancestral superheroes and heroines has kept up with us in other ways, the world around them has changed in many, many ways.
While today’s Superman is still the Blue and the Red in his story, his luminosity has been diminished to critique the colours of a much darker world. Red was supposedly the first colour to which man gave a name. Connected to the colour of our blood, the use of Red in Superman’s cape is mainly used to mediate power and passion. The material character of the colour red is in perfect unity with the immaterial color of blue. The cool and quiet blue is used to regulate the volume of the loud red.
Red has been a favorite in the color palette when drawing comic book heroes, whether we look at The Flash, Arsenal, Captain Marvel, (who is a DC Character btw), Deadpool, Daredevil or Hellboy, (who belong to the Marvel Universe...).
But all of this is better understood when looking at the Comic Book Printing Press. Color Printing is done in the CMYK format; that’s Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (Key). When Superman was created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel (and by Superman I don’t mean the slightly bizarre, evil, bald guy from 1933, no, the final version of the man in the red sheet from 1938) colourists had, due to the expensive printing cost and high amount of work volume, only a few colours available. Since darker shades got easily lost, colourists tried focusing on the strong primaries and secondaries, the ones easily recognizable, the eye-catchers when walking down the bustling corner of W 34th St. & 7th Ave; The Red, Blue and Yellow and even the Green in, for example, the Green Arrow comics. Since the Green Arrow was the most political of all superhero creations in the DC Universe, asking the pressing questions at times perched at the nerve of a knife, someone who supported Native American Rights and preached about Climate Issues, the green could also easily be attributed to that, and of course it’s association with Robin Hood. Due to budget cuts in later years that would see the Batman character hitting the Newsstands next to the Evening Post, various colour percentages were dropped, mostly in the yellow niche, quite a foresight they had, since the colour yellow has mainly been abandoned in an old phone booth along with Clark Kent’s fedora in a dark alley away from all superhero life action adaptations today and has at best been replaced by a more golden tone.
Anywho... since the cinematic reality of the superhero is in most cases a copy of our own, its context has desaturated its vibrancy throughout the last years and has made it in many cases more relatable and has undoubtedly become a character of its own. The superheroes playground has gotten darker, issues have become more pressing and quite often more narcissistic... cities have gotten windier... and capes bigger...
Capes have probably been the earliest decoration for man’s pride, as we can follow this fashion trend’s start to ancient Egypt, (maybe even back to when men starting walking upright), throughout the Roman empire’s hold on history all the way to Louis XIV’s European hunting ground of aestheticism, to the beginning of comic book history. The cape as a statuesque symbol, that has been excused to serve a pragmatic or even practical purpose which in some superhero cases may be true, if we look at the Flash and his aerodynamic apparel, has become the added flag with a capital F to encourage the patriotic image that is mediated in the story. From the cape to the boot to the optional belt or mask, the latter used for protection, to hide behind, to distract and/or to become other, the idea of masquerading and “masking” yourself is deeply rooted in ancient rituals, its theatricality and supernatural faculty. This makes Superman as well as Wonder Woman an oddity among oddities, as they are not concealing but rather living up to their true self.
Superhero costumes are “seamingly” not unlike the uniform of military personnel; a police officer, a fireman, a soldier... especially evident in the original uniform of Wonder Woman, who was decidedly drawn to be a walking star spangled banner meeting a 1940s pin up girl meddling in US Government affairs (no pun intended).
By no means do all these associations always create a wholesome picture and in many ways have their legal authoritative quality been put under scrutiny similar to their super heroic counterparts in the comics. Superheroes were created to indulge in self-sacrifice, protective mannerism, their motivation serving a higher purpose, monogramming themselves as the ultimate civil servant. Emblems, Monograms and Insignias have long carved their value from practicality to prestige and since the early 20th century have been made the crown jewel of selfbranding. From Louis Vuitton to Coca Cola, from Coco Chanel to Levis over to Lacoste, Apple to maybe even hashtagging...
Costumes are a form of escapism that let us shed a person, their fears and regrets and the banality of day-to-day life. It lets us be the tailor of a new personality that doesn’t belong to the same past and controls his own future. This is particularly well crafted in the Batman universe, and while Superman doesn’t constantly remind us of our failed potential, Batman surely does, and he does it well.
What makes Batman quite a captivating fella are his relentless attempts at outsmarting himself. He is quite enthusiastic about reaching the boundaries of physical limitation and while bereft of all of Superman’s divinity, he doesn’t lack in imagination. A master at accessorizing with a suit full of tricks, a cape endowed with unwavering self-confidence, and a knack for mankind’s thirst for technological advances with the ardour to highlight masculinity, physical dominance and athleticism, he livens up the shadows of the Gotham Mainland, often compared to the socially dramatic playboy figure of Oliver Queen and his alter ego, The Green Arrow. While Batman’s gadgetry definitely outlasts The Green Arrow’s, the Emerald Archer’s universe functions under considerably different circumstances and has a quite divergent motivation and origin story. But while Batman is 180 degrees different from his civilian Bruce Wayne, it can be argued that Oliver Queen and the Green Arrow are essentially the very same person. The part that connects both superheroes is that they can actually both fund their superhero lifestyle.
Quite contrary to the mask Superman has created for himself, Clark Kent: a translucent but rational disguise, that helps him balance his checkbooks and make it possible for Superman to live up to his calling. Adorning himself with a pair of glasses, and an onset of Golden Globe worthy acting chops... Clark Kent’s character is living on the edge of recognition, cloaked in secure and guilty browns and antique and earthy beiges, with the weakness, or power of turning the world’s story around in its detail making the big picture, or the actual message, seem unimportant, highly precious and its deliverance by many unwanted. The Superman universe unlike any other, shows how awfully arrogant the human race can be, in that if we don’t expect to find something somewhere we don’t expect, we probably won’t see it.
The superhero universe was not a thought brought forth to confront us with the abnegation of our individual responsibility but rather a collective idea created by human beings to prove to themselves that they are worthy of being saved. Its stories have served a didactic purpose of encouraging us to have faith in our own abilities, however limited they might be, or in other words, to not marginalize our own transformation and fall victim to our own fears and flawed motives... and to wear our occasional Jimmy Choos with good hearted benevolence and unswerving confidence. ;)