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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

“The trend in uniform design is more toward making costumes for superheroes than uniforms for athletes.”

That’s ESPN reporter Paul Lukas. He’s also the editor of Uni-Watch.com. A website devoted not to sport teams but their uniforms. Lukas is not a fan of U of Maryland’s new string of high fashion helmets and jerseys. Under Armour (they’re designing all of Maryland’s varsity uniforms) is championing the new menswear trend of garishly bright colors.

But it’s not new for comic books. Joe Shuster’s Superman made the first superheroic fashion statement seventy years ago. And comic book heroes are still working the runways.

George Perez and Jesus Merino just retailored the Man of Steel’s skintight threads with a Kryptonian armor design (the red briefs have, mysteriously, vanished). And Sara Pichelli stitched a sassy new suit for Ultimate Spider-Man (the black and red is almost as bold as the brown skin underneath it).

In Hollywood, superhero costume design is its own industry. Look at just this year’s super fashion:

Designer Anna B. Sheppard trashed the spandex and went with a looser fitting cut for Captain America. The leather straps and metal buckles say “1940’s.”

Alexandra Byrne was thinking “ancient modernism” for Thor. The biggest challenge was the cape, which had to merge “completely believable” with the “sublimely magical.”

Ngila Dickson abandoned real-world fabrics. The Green Lantern costume is entirely motion-captured computer graphics.

David E. Kelley recently shot a Wonder Woman pilot for NBC, but his Amazon’s costume make-over didn’t make it into the fall line-up. Despite all the film fashion fun, the only superhero costumes on TV are on ESPN. Primetime heroes won’t touch them.

Syfy’s Alphas launched last summer. The team of superpowered government agents fight evil mutants in their street clothes. There’s not as much as a logo on their lapels.

Across the Atlantic, the BBC’s Misfits sport matching orange jumpsuits, but only because the characters are juvenile offenders clocking community service hours.

NBC’s Heroes solidified the trend in 2006, but it was the CW’s 2001 Superboy adaptation, Smallville, that first scissorsed the costume off a superhero.

The 1993 Lois and Clark, the 1988 Superboy, and the 1990 The Flash series all still featured their hero’s iconic wardrobes. Which was part of the problem.

“The appearance of realism in a super-hero costume,” explains Michael Chabon, “made from real materials is generally recognized to be difficult to pull off.” In fact, he goes on, it’s “hopeless” because the true superhero costume exists only on paper.

This is most obviously and hilariously true in the earliest attempts to move superheroes from comic books to screen. If you don’t admire Anna B. Sheppard’s Captain America, take a look at the 1944 film serial.

Adam West’s Batman could get away with leotarded camp in the 60’s. William Katt’s Greatest American Hero still could fifteen years later. The goofiness of their costumes was part of the appeal. But Tim Burton raised the bar with Batman in 1989. Low-budget leotards no longer cut it. Michael Keaton in Bob Ringwood’s award-winning batsuit changed the playing field. The 2000 X-Men said it outright: leather is better.

At least on the big screen. Responding to the same challenge, TV designers opted for a simpler solution. If it’s hopeless, why try?

Stan Lee never liked costumes anyway. “I always felt if I had a superpower,” Lee says in Confessions of a Superhero, “there’s no way I would wear a costume. I’m a show-off; I’d want everybody to [know]–I wouldn’t wear a mask, conceal my identity. And I wouldn’t want to look like some idiot in a costume.”

When he and Jack Kirby posed their first superhero team on the cover of a Marvel comic book in 1961, the Fantastic Four were no more fashion forward than the Alphas. The Thing made his debut in a men’s clothing store (“I’m sorry, mister, I just don’t have anything big enough for a man your size!”). It’s not till issue three that Invisible Girl reveals her secret superpower:

“Susan! You designed a costume for yourself!”

“And for you, too! It’s time we all had some colorful costumes!”

But now the anti-fashion fashion is filtering back into comic books. When Grant Morrison and Rags Morales revamped Action Comics, they made the most radical costume choice imaginable: Superman in work boots, blue jeans, and a t-shirt. There’s still an ‘S’ on his chest and a cape on his back, but the iconic unitard of the original comic book superhero is gone.

These surface changes are more than just surface changes. In comic books, costume is character. A change in tights is a change in meaning. The spandex look has marked superheroes as exotic outsiders since the 30’s. They fight for humanity, but their second skins separate them. They remain alien and so alienated.

Or they did. When TV’s Alphas or Misfits or Heroes perform extraordinary abilities in ordinary clothes, they are also performing their humanity. They are just people. People with really freaky skill sets, but at their core (which is a product of their surface) they are human. While their big screen brothers want to remain larger than life, the 21st century TV superhero is dressed for small-scale integration. We all pull our pants on one leg at a time.

So if you’re a costume connoisseur, stick with college football.

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