The thing about working on comic book fanfiction while playing Injustice 2 is you get thinking about comic book costumes. And you get thinking about most people, from artists to fans to critics, are thinking about comic book costumes wrong.
Join me under the cut!
The Captain Cold/Shocker Theory of Costume Design.
I won’t lie, Leonard Snart is my favourite character from Injustice 2. Not because I’m any good with him, but because the design of his costume gives him an arrogant, snarky demeanour that matches well the actual snark he dishes out.
Even better, his costume is comics accurate, looks good, and embodies what I think of as the perfect comic costume theory.
Here’s the breakdown:
- Snart’s costume is practical. I don’t mean practical in some abstract sense; I mean Snart (in-universe) designed it around his limitations and powers. He wears goggles (in Injustice 2 it’s often a helmet with goggles built in) , a parka and other winter gear, and a cold gun. He isn’t immune to the cold, so he built his suit to protect himself. Note the similarity to Spider-Man’s foe the Shocker’s costume design. Yes, both are silly costumes. But both men embrace the silliness in exchange for real in-universe benefits.
- Snart’s costume directly references his gimmick. Gee, a guy named Captain Cold wears a parka and snow goggles. What genius!
As far as I’m concerned, these are the basics of good costume design. So what, exactly, does this have to do with leotards?
The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze
Jules Léotard, the man who popularized the eponymous garment, was one of the most important circus performers ever. In addition to popularizing leotards, the dude invented the art of trapeze. From him, much of modern circus performances are derived.
However, we’re mostly interested in the eponymous garment. Léotard, being a rather clever bastard, put together a garment specifically for his new artform. It was streamlined, one-piece and skin-tight. The display of the man’s impressive physique was a side-benefit: Léotard built the garment (which he called a maillot; French for a tight shirt of various designs; it now seems to have become a type of swimsuit) specifically for the problems he encountered as an aerialist and a trapeze artist.
It is, hands down, the most practical outfit for gymnastics. Its close cousin, the wrestling singlet, is used similarly in wrestling matches for the same reason. The cloth is hard to grab, doesn’t snag, is (reasonably) comfortable to wear for extended periods, and with modern materials deals with sweat easily.
You would think, given that superheroes are engaged daily in extreme athletics daily and martial arts, that the leotard and its cousins (the wrestling singlet, the unitard, the bodysuit) would be the standard base for superhero costumes. And for decades, it was.
And now it isn’t. Why?
I Blame The Seventies, But It’s Actually Complicated
There are, I think, several interrelated trends that have screwed with the perception of the leotard as acceptable superhero wear.
- The Rise of Fetish Wear. Let’s face it, spandex is popular in certain circles. As is leather and latex, the other popular choices for superhero costumes (at least in live-action). Which is fine in and of itself. The problem isn’t with the people into fetish gear; the problem is the rest of us. The rise of fetish wear has given leotards and their close costuming cousins a permanent element of sexualization. Which is unfortunate for two reasons: one, leotards are still used in athletic events for underage kids (and are flat-out required in some cases) and two, it colours our perception of comic book characters. If leotards are inherently sexualized and objectifying, then everybody who wears them must be sexualized and objectified. Which would be quite the revelation to early comic book artists, who drew their characters (men and women alike) in the athletic wear popular at the time.
- The Overall Acceptance of Leotards As Athletic Wear. I know this one sounds a little odd: how can the overall acceptance of a garment lead it to being less accepted as superhero attire? The problem is two fold: one, people are more familiar with the flaws and limitations of spandex and the like, making it harder for some people to accept a superhero fighting in spandex. Even though amateur wrestlers do it all the time. The second problem is the Eighties and their neon-coloured spandex. Anybody who lived through that, which is the majority of modern comics creators, is going to have a hard time taking spandex-clad superheroes seriously.
- The Rise of Bad Artists. This one is self-explanatory. Rob Liefeld and his ilk came into the comics scene and pissed on it. One of their enduring legacies has been, not merely the objectification or sexualization of women, but the gratuitous objectification and sexualization of women. Of men, too, through some disturbing power fantasies, but that’s a different of objectification than what we’re talking about here. It was during this time that, for example, Wonder Woman’s athletic shorts became a swimsuit bottom and then a thong. Diana wearing a leotard I can get behind; the thong is a bit much.
- Americans Are Terrified of Sex. It’s true and you know it. Fear of sexuality is so pervasive in American culture (and Canadian culture too) that it is literally impossible to escape. Whether its American flavours of feminism, patriarchy, history, social commentary, graphic design or even T.V. shows, anything and everything even remotely sexual is looked at with fear and suspicion. Which brings us right back to point number one. In this case, there are two flavours here: feminists rejecting the leotard because of sexualization of women, and dudebros rejecting leotards on male characters because of potential sexualization of men. My sympathies lie more with the feminists than the dudebros, but in my opinion both positions are silly and indefensible. While it is true that some characters (Star Sapphire) are poorly drawn and overly sexualized, it is not necessarily true of all characters wearing leotards. Strip the leotard of its sexual connotations, and it becomes athletic wear, nothing more.
All Right, You’ve Sold Me. The Leotard is Fine For Superheroes. But Not Every Hero Should Wear A Leotard.
This is true. So here are some lists for you:
- Characters who should wear leotards/unitards/bodysuits/singlets/tights:
- Superman. He started the look, he gets to keep it. As an added point, making his costume spandex helps leave him vulnerable. Rip up the costume a lot and it looks like Supes is getting hurt or at least in trouble. And keep the red shorts, please.
- Batman. No, Batman should not be armoured. He’s a detective-ninja; he needs to be able to move quickly, silently, and without heavy encumbrance. He is not Iron Man. Same goes for the rest of the Bat family.
- The Fantastic Four, aside from the Thing. He gets shorts.
- Harley Quinn. She is, literally, a harlequin. Harlequins are from the Commedia dell’Arte and they have a specific costume. If Harley isn’t wearing motley, you have literally failed at existence. Also, she’s a gymnast; guess gymnasts wear?
- She-Hulk and Red She-Hulk. For the simple reason that spandex is stretchy. Also I don’t care much for the leather bra-and-gun belt that I remember Red She-Hulk carrying.
- Black Canary. However, while she should wear a leotard, it should be under a leather jacket, and her legs should look like fishnets without actually being fishnets. Also, she wears a wig because wigs alter the shape of your head. Dye does not. It does, however, damage your hair enough to leave bits of it all over the crime scene.
- Power Girl. Mostly cause no other costume ever works on her.
- Characters who can wear leotards/unitards/bodysuits/singlets/tights but don’t have to:
- The Thing. He does actually have bodysuit and singlet costumes in the comics, and they look decent. But mostly, the Thing wears shorts.
- Wonder Woman. The solution to Diana’s costume problems is to make the armour shapeshift. That way, you can have Diana in full bronze plate when she’s in trouble, a leotard when she needs to do gymnastics, a swimsuit for swimming, and fancy clothes for parties. Ta-da!
- Supergirl. My preferred version of the Supergirl costume is a blue long-sleeved leotard and red skirt combo, but the real trick to Supergirl is to not make her overly fanservicey. No panty shots (that means bike shorts or tights under the skirt), no bare midriffs, none of that crap.
- The X-Men. It depends on their powers. The X-Men have an advantage here in that they’ve been in a lot of different costumes in the comics, so you can mix and match depending on their powers and personalities. Just avoid the thongkini on Psylocke, please. Not all leotards ride that far up the ass!
- Characters that should never wear leotards/unitards/bodysuits/singlets/tights:
- The Joker. Dude wears tails. You can put him other costumes, or variations on his suit, sure. But he doesn’t wear tights.
- The Hulk and Red Hulk. Normally I don’t care for the ‘people won’t take them seriously’ argument, because the amount of crap we take seriously in our day-to-day lives defies all logic. However, I think in this case it applies. Nobody is going to take the Hulk seriously in spandex. Same with Red Hulk.
- Thor and the rest of Asgard. Just doesn’t fit their aesthetic.
- Tony Stark and the rest of the Iron Man team. For reasons that should be obvious.
- Lex Luthor.
- Brainiac. They tried it back in the Silver Age, it was lame.
These aren’t comprehensive lists, merely a guide to what characters should be wearing what. Further rants are forthcoming.
Robots and Vampires (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NDLMDT4): Two hundred years in the future, a young cyborg stops the richest boy in town from killing a gynoid. Now he must flee from the only home he’s ever known to Fort City, base of the mysterious Standard Technologies, Inc. Can he trust them?
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