Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Superheroes without the Tights

Slate has an article tying in the show Heroes with some newer comic books that feature characters without costumes. I think that they are overlooking a lot.

Back when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby re-invented the superhero, they tried to have heroes without costumes. Their first effort, the Fantastic Four, wore coveralls in their first couple of issues. It was only in issue three, after unprecedented fan response (in those days, any fan response was unprecedented) that they introduced uniforms for the team.

Stan and Jack kept the idea of team uniforms instead of individual costumes when they introduced the X-Men, also. Even then, they slipped in quite a bit of time when the heroes were out of costume. In one issue in particular, the X-Men were racing to find a new mutant before Magneto could recruit him and went searching for him in their civilian clothes. While the rest of the team eventually got into costume, Cyclops was still wearing a business suit at the end of the fight.

The real purpose of the costume on a comic book hero is to make him instantly recognizable. Some characters are recognizable enough on their own that they don't need costumes. The Hulk and the Thing are examples. The original Ghost Rider wore the same outfit most of the time. It just looked different when his head caught on fire.

Some normal-looking characters are recognizable enough that they didn't bother with costumes. Professor X and the Charles Cauder from the Doom Patrol were both in wheelchairs so they didn't need costumes.

Then there are special cases. When he first appeared, the Phantom Stranger wore a black suit with an overcoat and hat. Outside of his eyes always being in shadow from the hat, he was wearing contemporary clothing. Later they modernized him, replacing the dress shirt and tie with a turtleneck and pendant and the coat with a cape. Still, it was the 1960s and he still would not have attracted a second glance in many places.

Deadman had sort of a reverse costume. He was the host of a circus aerialist who appeared in the costume he died in (he was sure that the audience only came to see him die and wanted to rub it in their faces). Normally he was invisible and intangible. He could only affect the world by possessing people so, when he used his powers, he looked like a regular person.

In honor of their 20th anniversary, Marvel invented a new universe that was closer to reality than other comics. It was basically our world except for a "white event" which gave some people special abilities - very similar to the way that people suddenly started exhibiting powers in Heroes. While some characters had distinctive clothes, most did not. They wore regular clothing.

Finally, if we go back decades, we find the Spirit. His creator, Wil Eisner, didn't like costumes either so the Spirit's only concession was to wear a domino mask with his suit. But then, the Spirit wasn't a super hero. He was a (sort-of) costumed detective.

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