We live in a time of awesome superhero costumes. The growth and rise of cosplay culture, the emergence of comic artists with a savvy idea of fashion, and also the slow diversification that’s making heroes palatable to a broader audience, have all contributed to a costuming culture with more to offer than capes and pants.
Superhero costumes have always been an focal point in the market, because iconography helps establish character and create a brand. But the value of costumes in reaching audiences and reinventing characters seems to be recognized now as never before, ultimately causing the rise of artist-designers like Jamie McKelvie and Kris Anka, who don’t even need to be on the particular book to become called into make-across the characters. This is a great leap forward in understanding precisely what an effective costume can perform – as well as the special skills required to do it.
Moon Knight had been a mess of your character before his 2014 revival in the hands of Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire. Contradictory efforts by multiple creative teams to find the character’s core only served to layer junk upon junk. Moon Knight was intended to be complex; he became cluttered.
Ellis, Shalvey and Bellaire streamlined him down and gave him a clearly defined new role – the hero who protects travellers at night – plus a new look; a natty white suit. Both elements helped pull Moon Knight out of the mire of Marvel’s many failed faux-Batmen and make him his own man the very first time.
Moon Knight’s new costume at the same time underlines his insanity – his old white suit has never been the sane approach to fight crime, now it’s an authentic white suit – and exerts his outer calm, his cool lunar placidity. It gives him authority. It will make him scary. Plus it makes him normally the one superhero detective who dresses something such as a detective, which is like a statement of purpose.
The suit is not Moon Knight’s only costume – inside their six issues, the creative team also showed us a crazy bone outfit for fighting the occult along with a more conventional yet still refreshed handle his old cape-and-cowl look. Both costumes look great and then make perfect sense to the character – these aren’t Stealth Strike Scuba Assault Batman action figure costumes. However if there’s any sense worldwide, it’s the white suit which will become Moon Knight’s new default. It redefines him. It gives him a fresh place that is uniquely his own in the city of heroes.
Great costumes can offer just this sort of redemption. Shatterstar, a joke of the character along with his mullet and opera cloak, was suddenly credible as a result of a redesign (and a fresh haircut) courtesy of Valentine De Landro and David Yardin. Jamie McKelvie’s Captain Marvel design – arguably the obvious trigger for that current “golden age” of spiderman costumes – was about re-positioning Carol Danvers among Marvel’s premier heroes. The tailored military look drew a line between her present-day “top gun” persona as well as the old, victimized, drunken Carol, who seemed to prefer editing magazines to flying planes.
It’s challenging to suppose that even Batman group editor Mark Doyle truly understood what exactly he was tapping into when he handed Batgirl over to the newest creative team of Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr, with Stewart and Tarr collaborating about the character’s new look. I’m sure Doyle expected great things, however the torrent of fan-art that emerged from the 24-hours following the reveal of Batgirl’s new costume was unprecedented. Such was the mania that cosplayers almost immediately bought the world’s source of Drench Wellington yellow rubber Doc Marten boots.
What happened with Batgirl was the spark of the movement operating out of large part over a smart new costume that spoke to Barbara Gordon’s character, intelligence, style, and put in daily life. This design looked less like a Batman cast-off, and more like something a young woman makes for herself to craft her own identity underneath the bat-cowl.
Sure, there have been critics. Fans whose philosophy on from high-heeled shoes to strapless tops happens to be, “it can’t be impractical if she’s wearing it” were suddenly in revolt at the notion of a leather jacket that hid the character’s boobs. But the thrift-store style, the snap-on cape, the zips and buckles, were all character-first design elements, and that’s how good costume design should work.
We don’t yet learn how this change will translate to actual sales – we may never know how well it sells digitally, where a lot of its market is likely to reside – but the kind of word-of-mouth and on-line interaction generated by this costume redesign is hugely valuable into a publisher.
A good costume gets a crowd excited by letting them know what to anticipate. Cliff Chiang’s handle Wonder Woman played up her warrior strength and her status as both mythic figure and iconic hero. Jamie McKelvie’s costume to the new Ms. Marvel respected her youth and heritage as an alternative to pandering to some traditional crowd.
And it also works in reverse. Harley Quinn’s New 52 design clearly steered the type within a different direction from your ones fans expected, and sent a signal to readers as unambiguous as being the one sent by Tarr and Stewart’s Batgirl.
Here’s an announcement I never imagined I’d make: I want Marvel to give Gwen Stacy back through the dead. And it’s all as a result of costume.
Marvel’s upcoming Spider-Verse event brings together Spider-Men and Spider-Women from multiple alternative realities, including many that readers have observed before plus some brand new ones developed for the celebration. One of them is really a Gwen Stacy Spider-Woman, produced by Robbi Rodriguez – and Spider-Gwen wears a few things i think may be the most popular superhero costume in years.
The Spider-Gwen costume does several things with remarkable economy. It plays beautifully of the iconic design of the greatest superhero costume ever conceived, Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man costume. It strikes a contemporary tone with all the hood along with the neon Chucks – although with sufficient restraint which i don’t think it will look dated in many years to come. It generates shapes and breaks up space in such a way that’s gonna look powerful around the page. And it also immediately evokes character. I haven’t even read Spider-Gwen’s first Spider-Verse appearance, and that i already have a feeling of a tough, haunted, edgy young woman. I’ll eat a pair of neon Chucks if that’s not who she is.
Gwen Stacy is supposed to stay dead. As grotesque since it is when women are killed off to further the stories of male heroes, the death of Gwen Stacy feels too essential to Spider-Man’s development to be undone. Yet I enjoy this costume so much that, before the Spider-Gwen issue of Side of Spider-Verse comes out, I am aware I want Gwen back and kicking ass with this costume.
(I will accept a continuing set in Gwen’s alt universe. Heck, in case the Ultimate Universe scales to just Miles Morales, a Miles book along with a Gwen book will be perfect complements to each other. But I don’t think that’s where Marvel is heading.)
A great costume inspires stories – and tells a crowd what kind of stories should be expected. Catwoman created a new kind of sense when redesigned by Darwyn Cooke in 2004 – finally she wore the costume of your master thief, no Olympic luge rider. It causes whiplash at any time that costume appears in company to a story that doesn’t respect the type. The shape-shifting Loki being a puckish young man in swashbuckling adventurer’s attire – yet another Jamie McKelvie design – sparks very different stories on the sinewy old guy together with the giant horns. Stuart Immonen’s stylish All-New X-Men harley quinn costume place the time-tossed X-Men inside the modern much better than any level of exposition.
Costumes have been essential to superheroes – but perhaps more so than many editors realize. Some artists are wonderful at it, and a few are… less great. Like lettering, coloring, inking, editing, or dexrpky99 art, it’s a specialized job that perhaps needs to be restricted to those that have the skill set to do well at it.
Thankfully the comic industry has never had such a wealth of designing talent. Jamie McKelvie, Kris Anka, Cameron Stewart, Robbi Rodriguez, Cliff Chiang, etc., are a part of a generation of artists having this task very seriously, and they also make superhero comics smarter and sharper for doing this.
And they’re not alone. A growing number of artists are showing their designer flare as well as their grasp of contemporary style. Sites like Tumblr and DeviantArt provide fertile ground for artists to try out around with costume concepts – and also the excellent Project: Rooftop curates among the best examples. The musty superhero industry would benefit hugely from looking at the likes of Cory Walker, Mingjue Helen Chen, Dean Trippe, Corey Lewis, Becky Cloonan, Ming Doyle, Jemma Salume, Sean Murphy, Ron Wimberly, and many others, to re-energize the genre for tomorrow.