Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Six of one: the cut of his jib

Let's start out with something direct and colorful. I was recently browsing though some search or other on superhero comics and was struck once again by the sheer, outrageous garishness of superhero costumes. Superheros almost never work in live-action films unless the costumes are dialed down from 11, modified into body armor or motorcycle leathers, and otherwise made more "real."

Costumes are part and parcel of the whole superhero genre, arguably definitional, and I have no problem suspending disbelief when it comes to the outfits some characters wear - I've had a lot of practice, after all. My recent perusal of the cavalcade of images of this hero-wear got me to thinking: which superhero costumes - not characters - do I really dig, just for how they look? Here's the six that made the cut.

6. Spy Smasher. Full disclosure: Spy Smasher is one of my all-time favorite characters, but I do think that one of the reasons I like him so much is his costume, and it's not that his costume made the cut because I like him so much.

Spy Smasher is a classic of the Aviator Hero mold, with tight leggings (instead of jodhpurs) and a cape that take this WW2 comic book hero out of the pulps and place him firmly in the superhero camp. Added awesome: the detail on his belt includes the symbol "⋅⋅⋅—",  which is Morse Code for "V" (for Victory, of course) and which also represent the first four notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, which tune SS was always associated with. Pretty cool.

There were other superheroes, most notably Captain Midnight, who tried this look, but never quite captured the elegant simplicity of Spy Smasher. One modern hero deserves honorable mention: Marvel's Crimebuster was a late 70s hero who incongruously hung around with some space types but carried on the look pretty well.*

Man, you just can't go wrong with goggles.

5. (Sword of) the Atom. Okay: first, the Atom was a Golden Age hero, a 40s tough guy in a costume, who just happened to be short. In the late 40s, he got super-strong, but was just still a short tough guy. When superheroes were revived and renewed in the late 50s and early 60s, the Atom was a college professor who had learned how to control his size and weight through white dwarf star matter, so of course he fought crime in spandex. Then, for a time in the 80s, the Atom was trapped at his six-inch size and lived with some tiny people in the South American jungles, having the kind of sword 'n' monster adventures that suited Conan more than crimefighters.

He still had the spandex costume, but supplemented it with bracers, a loincloth, and sturdy boots. The whole effect should have been goofy, but thanks in no small part to the art of Gil Kane, I thought it worked.

4. Pow Wow Smith. Not quite a superhero, I guess, the "Indian Lawman" fought Old West crime as part of DC's contingent of Western heroes. I liked his all-dun rawhide look, especially with the added touch of white kid gloves and the black shirt collar sticking out. (Hmm... khaki, black, and white - add a green apron and those are Starbucks Uniform colors.) I thought this outfit was a nice deviation from the boots-jeans-blouse-and-mask get-up that most gunslingers favored.

3. Sandman. No, not Neil Gaiman's darling-of-the-Goth-set, but the original Golden Age hero. I first encountered him in the 60s when the Justice Society characters of the 40s were being taken out of mothballs and revived in the pages of Justice League. In the middle of Biff! Bam! Pow! Batmania gaudiness and camp, my attention was caught by Sandman's double-breasted suit, slouch hat, and cape - I mean, take off his gas mask and his outfit would hardly rate a second glance. It managed to help him maintain some modicum of pulpy gravitas when they swapped out his gas-gun for ray gun that affected people's nerves and made them do the Watusi. (I wish I were only kidding.) Anyway, great kit.

2. Ferro Lad. This could-turn-into-living-iron guy had a short career with the Legion of Superheros in the 60s - short because he Sacrificed Himself to Save Earth®. There was a lot about this costume I thought (and still think) was cool: the pale color palette, the "Fe" symbol, the buttons that look like rivets, the banded belt and cuffs, and the almost featureless metal mask. That helmet-like contraption served not to hide Ferro Lad's identity - all the LSH members were public figures - but rather to hide his Horribly Disfigured Face®. Hey, when you're ten, that's real pathos. And the costume just seemed to capture Ferro Lad's no-nonsense, can-do personality while looking clean and slick.

1. Daredevil. For an inveterate DC guy, I have to 'fess up and admit that my all-time favorite costume is that of a Marvel Comics character. While most would associate Daredevil with his all-red outfit, he premiered in this yellow-and-red get-up designed by the great Jack Kirby. While he only wore it for a half-dozen issues,  I thought it was way cooler than his red longjohns - the contrast, the details in gloves and boots and billy-club holster, and the subtle evocation of old-timey athletics. The costume would become the fulcrum for a Daredevil graphic novel in 2001, but to me, it is the distilled essence of Silver Age superhero couture.

*Bonus geeky nit-pickery: If you check out that image of Crimebuster above you can see he's wearing two pistols in cross-draw holsters on his chest. This makes a lot of sense, and actually could be just two shoulder holsters worn a bit forward. But a lot of more recent images of this character, such as the one to the left, show him with two holsters way forward on his chest, with the gun butts pointed outward. It would be really awkward to try to draw those weapons, and the whole thing is stupid.

Not that I've over-thought it or anything.


  1. I never realized how much Jeff Dee's 1980s-era D&D/AD&D and Villains and Vigilantes art owed to Gil Kane - although I would have if I'd just looked at Iron Fist long enough. And I concur - goggles = awesome.

  2. Also among the goggle wearers in comics are the James Robinson-created Starman (who pretty much owned the "self-consciously retro goggle-wearing hero" space in his time) and at least one villain, Dr. Cyclops from the original "Dial H for Hero" strip, whose gimmick was several different pairs of goggles each of which offered a different advantage.

    I agree with almost all these choices but can't get on board with the "Sword of the Atom" series, in large part because I loathed the comic itself. I'll grant you that Gil Kane was unmatched in masks that expose the hair, big thick wristbands, and heavy boots, so giving the Atom this look was playing to his strengths. It just never said "Atom" to me.

    (A miniature hero look that I always dug was the outfit Hank Pym sported during his early Seventies solo strip in Marvel Feature. Trapped at tiny size without his costume, he resorted to a red turtleneck and white trousers sewn for him by the normal-sized Trixie Starr, so the seams and stitching were meant to be highly visible. A nice idea that helped sell the whole "Incredible Shrinking Man" premise.)

  3. Jason: I always thought I saw more Cockrum in Dee's early stuff than Kane.

    RAB: Spot on with the "self-consciously retro" observation - might be why I have trouble getting that series. I remember that Ant-Man arc - I'll have to look that up to see it again. On a related note, I do like Pym's new Wasp outfit - at least the one in the mini-series with the annoying Ant-Man - that has a sort of frock coat effect.

    1. W: good point! I think that's especially evident in the "Phoenix's mind-control hallucinations" segments in the Dark Phoenix saga, when she sees the world through 17th-century lenses and everyone's clothing adjusts to period. I especially like what he did with Storm and Nightcrawler's looks in those panels. Plus, SO MANY SIDEBURNS.