I recently read comic book writer Grant Morrison's book Super Gods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. This is well researched history and penetrating analysis penned by a major participant in the field. I gobbled it up. Totally recommend it.
Morrison's a Beethoven of comic book scribes: big bombastic bow-wow stuff. Multiple universes about to collide and collapse, time travel, the fate of all life, everywhere. And yet in Super Gods he also provides insight on one of the great mysteries of the genre: why does Superman (and pretty much every other superhero) costume himself up in brightly coloured tights, with the underwear on the outside? Why the big boots and cape? Who wouldn't be horribly embarrassed to prance around in public like that, no matter how many mountains he can juggle? The answer is surprisingly simple.
Circus strongmen of the 1930s wore "the familiar, faintly disturbing overpants-belt combo" as Morrison describes it. "Underpants on tights were signifiers of extra-masculine strength and endurance in 1938. The cape, showman-like boots, belt and skintight spandex were all derived from circus outfits and helped to emphasize the performative, even freak-show-esque, aspect of Superman's adventures. Lifting bridges, stopping trains with his bare hands, wrestling elephants: these were superstrongman feats that benefited from the carnival flair implied by skintight spandex. [Artist Joe] Shuster had dressed the first superhero as his culture's most prominent exemplar of the strongman ideal, unwittingly setting him up as the butt of ten thousand jokes." Traveling circuses and fairs once held a prominence that's hard to imagine now. They were emissaries of the unknown, the otherworldly, the freakish, the tantalizing, the magnificent, the imagined, the stuff of dreams. Superheroes came from these exact realms.
The fact that Superman was the first costumed hero is quite salient. Morrison points out that the cover of Action Comics no. 1 features "a particular unrepeatable virtue: It showed something no one had ever seen before. It looked like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall ten thousand years from now - a powerful, at once futuristic and primitive image of a hunter killing a rogue car."
Compared to the invulnerability and cosmic feats of strength Superman displayed in the ensuing years (in Jim Kruger and Alex Ross's series Justice, he survives being hurled through the sun!)(as does his costume), lifting a single car is akin to you or I holding aloft a glass of water. And yet in his initial incarnation, as described in Action Comics no. 1 he could: "LEAP 1/8th OF A MILE; HURDLE A TWENTY STORY BUILDING… RAISE TREMENDOUS WEIGHTS… RUN FASTER THAN AN EXPRESS TRAIN… NOTHING LESS THAN A BURSTING SHELL COULD PENETRATE HIS SKIN!" Flying came later, as a way for the animators of his movie serials not to have to draw him crouching to initiate each mighty jump. His extra-terrestrial origin also arrived a little while into the mythology, as did his weakness in the presence of kryptonite. The earliest incarnation of Superman was an exaggeration of those exact circus strongmen whose appearance he'd borrowed. His initial adventures took place in a modern city, not in space or in a fortress in the arctic. He fought thugs and gangsters, not alien robots, inter-dimensional tricksters or an evil, bald super-genius.
Superman caught on instantly, and soon every pulp publisher cranked out copycat characters, angling for a slice of the market. The form had been set. The imitators imitated it. The stylistics of Superman and his adventures were the template, and they've been so ever since. Superheroes dipped in popularity in the 50s. Talking animals, westerns, romances, detective stories and a red-headed teenager with two girlfriends took over the medium. Heroes came back in the 60s and now most people aren't aware they ever were any other kinds of comics. And the physics defying musclemen still wear tights, capes, belts and big boots. They have their logos on their chests. These conventions have been maintained, even though the referent of circus strongmen has long passed into the dusty cobwebbed corners of cultural memory.
It hasn't been easy to keep the guys in tights. Transport these characters into physical representations on film or TV and they look pretty silly. Adam West and Burt Ward wore costumes completely faithful to the comics for the 60s TV show Batman, and look like demented simpletons or frighteningly earnest kinksters. Despite his beefed up physique, Tobey Maguire's Spiderman costume included muscle padding, as did George Reeves' 50s TV Superman. The X-Men in the movies wear black leather flight suits instead of spandex. Fans costume themselves like their idols at conventions, and even the most faithful and elaborate representations look like loving tributes to colourful fantasy, not anything a genuine crime fighting badass in this world would wear.
But now DC comics, in a bid to recapture its waning audience, has bet everything. They've rebooted their titles. All of them. As of September, 2011, the previous adventures of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, the Justice League and dozens of other comics didn't happen. Each begins anew at #1, no previous continuity to consider. There are two Superman titles. In Superman, he won't wear tights and visible underwear anymore, sporting traditional Kryptonian armour instead. He won't be anywhere near as powerful either. Action Comics takes place five years in the past, featuring a young, brooding Superman, an alienated alien. We'll see the public eventually accept and embrace him, and vice versa. His costume: jeans and a t-shirt. And a cape. And Action Comics will be written by none other than Grant Morrison. "If the skintight ballet suit has to come into it," he said "I want to have a really good explanation."
But will the public accept a Superman in jeans and a t-shirt? Haven't the tights passed into the common mythic imagination? Well, Supe's new outfit doesn't look that different. But still, the desire to speak to current sensibilities will have to go head to head with our desire for icons with a sustained, iconic appearance, even if it is anachronistic. And we do seem to be okay with certain anachronisms. As I wrote about in another post, having a house's front door above ground level was originally a means to avoid the piles of horse manure that lined most streets. We're not a horse drawn society anymore, but still have plenty of houses built like that. The English language teems with expressions alluding to outmoded conditions. A "cupboard" used to literally be a board on which cups were kept. To "make the bed" meant to gather whatever hay or clothes you could find and arrange them on a spare bit of floor into something you could sleep on. "Rule of Thumb" referred to the maximum appropriate thickness for an implement with which to beat one's wife (read Bill Bryson's book At Home for a thousand more nuggets like those). We seldom question some of the most basic things around us. We accept what was already there. Including the notion that superheroes costume themselves in tights, boots, capes, masks and visible underwear and don't get laughed at when out in public.
Ah, but Superman's new attitude, his increased vulnerability, his reduced powers, making him less godlike - these are the important factors. Our world is changing. The confidence and straight-forwardness of modernity, steeped into people's blood and bones in 1938, is getting harder to swallow. In his book The Enneagram Movie and Video Guide, Thomas Condon describes an earlier era when movies told the stories of "uncomplicated virtuous characters." He goes on: "Thirty to forty years ago people like Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck (both real-life Ones) played moral stalwarts in role after role. Heston played biblical roles - Moses, for instance - while Peck played principled crusaders or slightly stiff leading men. Actor Sidney Poitier played similar roles.
"Heroic movie Ones used to be priests, military leaders, social reformers and representatives of the establishment. Over the decades, though, such characters became more ambiguous, partly because public perception changed about the institutions that movie Ones stood for (imagine in the 1990s a biblical epic about a moral figure who is sure he knows the absolute truth). Also, heroes and heroines who are solely virtuous are dull."
Many iconic figures of comic book mythology are changing to stay relevant. In Marvel's Ultimate Universe, Peter Parker just died. The new Spiderman - Miles Morales - is half black, half Latino. He might even be gay. Batman's a bad-ass again the hands of director Christopher Nolan. He's darker than the movies have ever portrayed him and more realistic: The Dark Knight explores the law's ambivalence with an anonymous vigilante, and ends with Batman making himself a villainized fugitive, with the deaths of multiple police officers placed on him. And he doesn't wear tights - he's in armour (a very sensible choice for an unarmed crime-fighter). In the movie Captain America: The First Avenger, the titular main character's confident patriotic attitude was placed in its proper context: the 1940s. In the comics the present day Cap is actually Cap's old partner Bucky, haunted by a murky past, and ill at ease with the public and his role as a symbol of patriotic purity. In a recent story arc he fights the Tea Party Movement.
Superman (possibly an Enneagram Type One, incidentally)(moral, altruistic, holding himself up to the strictest standards) has proved invulnerable to any kind of harm, including that inflicted by people who make cracks about his outfit. But there's finally a foe he can't resist and it's genuinely threatening him, forcing him to evolve and adapt if doesn't want to die of irrelevance: the mean green kryptonite of postmodernity, with its doubt, relativism, multiple interpretations, and problems with no clear solution. (Check out Br. Phipps's article on Superman for more on this)
Not everyone's pleased with this change. Playwright Brad Fraser sees it as cynical. But I like it. Superman has never been that interesting to me as a character. In my adolescence I wasn't attracted to his purity, incorruptibility and public adulation (within his world), so I never bought his comics. I read and cared about the X-Men - mutants, not always in control of their own abilities, or even comfortable having them, feared and despised by the world they secretly strove to protect, often infighting, confused, struggling to keep together and do the right thing. The X-Men, at least from the 80s on, were very postmodern (see Br. Dierkes' article about the movie X-Men: First Class for more on that subject). And readers responded to this, making the book the top selling title of the 90s, spawning too many spin-offs and knock-offs to count.
So now Superman's mutating to survive. And my interest is peaked. I wouldn't mind seeing him battle the cruel spectre of doubt. Or the forces that create the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. Or to at least have a few of these things as a backdrop as he pulls off dramatic rescues and fights a bald corporatist megalomaniac.