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Reading my report on the press preview of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” (see “Comics in Context” #224: “My Cinco de Mayo”), you doubtless realized that the emphasis of the show is not on superhero costumes, but on how creations by leading contemporary fashion designers parallel the costume designs used in comics. So you might expect that when the Metropolitan devoted one of its “Sunday at the Met” symposiums of lectures and panels to this exhibition on June 22, the emphasis would likewise be on the show’s sponsor Giorgio Armani, Alexander McQueen, Jean-Paul Gaultier and other leading fashion designers whose work is represented in the exhibit.

But you would be wrong.

If comic books got their figurative feet through the doors of the Metropolitan through providing background for this fashion exhibit, they took center stage in the symposium, which was entirely about superhero costume design, whether in comics or in the movies. That’s because the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute entrusted the task of organizing the symposium (within a mere six weeks) to Dr. Peter Coogan, who should be a familiar name to regular readers of this column. Dr. Coogan wrote the landmark book, Superhero: The Secret Origins of a Genre, which defines both the superhero concept and the genre, and which I critiqued at great length over five weeks last year (See “Comics in Context” #162: “The Superhero Defined”, #163: “Are They on the List?”, #164: “Super Slayer”, #165: “The Supervillain Defined”, and #166: “Megahero vs. Megavillain”). Coogan is also co-founder and co-chairman of the Comic Arts Conference, which is held every year at the San Diego Con (Go see him there this month!), and has just founded the Institute for Comics Studies.

Introduced at the symposium by the exhibition’s curator, Andrew Bolton, Coogan set the stage for the day’s panels by delivering a talk entitled “E Pluribus Unitard: Notes toward a Theory of Superhero Costuming.”

He began by projecting onscreen an image of the cover of Action Comics #1, the comic that introduced Superman, the first true superhero, complete with colorful costume. Coogan told the audience that publisher Harry Donenfeld thought the cover looked so “ridiculous” that he banned Superman from appearing on the cover for the next five issues. Of course, Superman and Action #1 actually turned out to be enormous, revolutionary successes. But Donenfeld’s reaction suggests how new the idea of an action hero in costume was in 1938, so startlingly different that the close-minded thought it laughable. (Many people still have this knee-jerk reaction to the idea of heroes in costume today.) But Coogan declared that “superheroes wear costumes” and that the costume is a “central element” of the genre.

The costume, Coogan continued, projects a sense of authority. He described an experiment in which people proved more likely to obey individuals wearing gray uniforms reminiscent of policemen’s than they would obey people wearing casual street clothes.

Different colors convey different meanings. A light-colored uniform, Coogan said, seems “a bit weak,” whereas a black one conveys “power” and “strength.” The color blue, he said, projected “comfort” and “security.”

Coogan showed us a photograph of two police officers (a man and a woman, if I recall correctly), whose uniforms included blue shirts, thereby conveying the sense of security, and dark pants, projecting power, this achieving an appropriate balance.

Superman, Coogan went on, wears blue, the color of security, and also red, sa color that he said conveys “excitement,” “speed” and “action.”

Next up on screen was the original Captain Marvel, a character who is ignored in the exhibition. The Captain wears primarily red, the color of excitement. But he also wears the colors white and yellow, which Coogan contended, are “a little weak.” The result, he asserted, is that Captain Marvel is appropriate for “lighter” kinds of stories than Superman, even more “comedic” ones. The yellow in the Captain’s uniform, Coogan went on, is more properly identified as gold, which has “upper class connotations.”

The color black, Coogan stated, is appropriate for a “more aggressive” kind of hero. Hence, he said, Batman wears “dark colors” which convey “dominance.” Coogan pointed out that it was Batman’s original writer, Bill Finger, who suggested that Batman wear dark colors; Bob Kane, who first drew Batman, wanted to put him in a bright red shirt. Coogan explained that the Batman creators achieved “balance” by adding the sidekick Robin, who wore bright colors instead.

(Reflecting on Coogan’s lecture, I found myself thinking that he had made it clearer why Spider-Man’s notorious black costume was wrong for the character, who traditionally wears red–representing excitement and action–and blue, conveying his goal of protecting ordinary people.)

Showing Captain Marvel’s enemy Black Adam on screen. Coogan noted that Black Adam wears black, but also gold, denoting “royalty” and “privilege.”

“Costume expresses character,” Coogan summed up. It also provides “credibility,” indicating “expertise” and denoting that the wearer is worthy of “trust.” Coogan referred us to a sequence in which Dick Grayson, in between abandoning his role as Robin and becoming the superhero Nightwing, realized that he needs a costume in order to be taken seriously as a superheroic crimefighter. The costume is the outward sign that the wearer is a competent, trustworthy superhero.

Then Coogan drew our attention to the superhero’s traditional chest insignia, which Coogan calls his “chevron.” Superman’s “S,” he said, stands for “Superman,” itself, a name that indicates the “best we can be.” Batman’s bat chevron refers to “his biography,” specifically the moment “when the bat flew through his window”: a part of his origin that the public does not know. So the chevron, too, expresses something important about the hero’s character.

In contrast, Coogan then showed us Doctor Occult, an early character devised by Superman’s co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. this image was from a storyline in which Doctor Occult, a detective who investigates the supernatural, abandoned his ordinary street clothes and donned a costume, including shorts and a cape. But, Coogan pointed out, this “costume doesn’t convey anything.” Indeed, it lacks a chevron; it’s a generic outfit with no specific reference to Doctor Occult’s mission, biography or character.

Returning to Batman, Coogan noted that the character is primarily devoted to “vengeance” on criminals, not “saving” innocents,’ and that Batman’s dark costume and bat chevron “reinforce” that idea. (I suggest that it’s not quite that simple. Certainly the contemporary tendency is to put Batman in very dark colors, and in the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan Batman movies, he’s all in black. But for much of his history Batman’s costume was colored light gray or even light purple, with his cape, cowl, boots and gloves in ordinary blue, the color of security and “saving.” This color scheme was more appropriate to the Batman of the 1950s and 1960s, including the 1960s TV show, when Batman was portrayed as neither grim nor gritty, and he was not written as if he were compulsively driven by a need for vengeance on all criminals. Indeed, the Batman of this period would exchange wisecracks with Robin in combat.)

Showing us a picture of the Golden Age Flash, Coogan pointed to his combination of red, for “power, speed and action, and blue, communicating trustworthiness. (So what does it mean that the Silver Age Flash is dressed almost entirely in red with no blue at all? That the Silver Age series put more of an emphasis in his unearthly speed, as indeed it did? That its focus was on Flash battling super-villains rather than rescuing ordinary people?)

Captain America, of course, wears the colors of the American flag, representing, in Coogan’s words, “the best of America.” But Coogan reminded us that in the 1970s, when writer Steve Englehart reacted to the Watergate scandals by having the Captain become disillusioned with the government, he temporarily adopted the persona and “dark costume” of Nomad, the man without a country.

As for super-villains, Coogan noted that they “tend to lack chevrons” inasmuch as they “don’t need to establish credibility” for trustworthiness. A super-villain’s “whole costume” or “whole body” is what “expresses character.” (The Green Goblin would be a good example, I think, or the face of the Joker.) Super-villains with chevrons, Coogan continued, include “doppelganger villains” like Black Adam and Venom. (They wear the chevrons of the heroes of whom they are the opposites.)

Coogan also pointed out that DC uses chevrons more than Marvel does, that “Jack Kirby created the Marvel costume tradition,” and that the Hulk’s entire body expresses his character: that he is a monster. Coogan may be overstating the difference between Marvel and DC. When the Fantastic Four acquired their costumes, they had “4″ chevrons, indicating the individuals’ primary role as being members of this team of four. Of course, Spider-Man has his spider chevron; Daredevil has his “DD” insignia, reinforcing his name; the original X-Men had their “X” belt buckles indicating their team membership, their allegiance to Professor X, and their “x-tra” mutant powers; and Thor had a hammer symbol, shaped like a “T,” the first letter of his name, on his belt buckle. Even Doctor Strange’s Eye of Agamotto amulet doubles as a chevron. But yes, with Marvel’s emphasis on heroes who were “different,” Kirby co-created heroes who were identifiable from their unusual shapes and physical appearances, like the Hulk, the Beast, the Angel, Iceman, and the Thing. This continues a tradition that goes back at Marvel to the original Human Torch back in 1939.

Coogan next turned to Zatanna, who in the 1960s and today wears a classically sexy variation on a stage magician’s traditional top hat and formal wear. Indeed, Zatanna is a professional stage magician who also knows real magic, which she employs when acting as a superheroine. Then he showed us the cover of Justice League of America #161, in which, in perhaps DC Comics’s greatest fashion faux pas in its history, Zatanna switched to what seems a more generic sort of costume. Coogan noted that Zatanna now seemed more like a “sorceress” or “witch,” but not a “stage magician.” In other words, her costume “didn’t express character,” since show biz is essential to Zatanna’s character. So there’s one reason why it was a relief when DC put Zatanna back in her original costume. (Her long legs in her trademark net stockings were a good reason, too, but Dr. Coogan didn’t mention them.)

Concluding his talk, Dr Coogan showed the audience a costume design that he and his brother had created based on that real life iconic figure, Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D. F. A.. As “Americon,” Dr. Colbert was garbed in the patriotic colors of the American flag, since, as Coogan noted, Colbert has been pictured literally wrapped in the flag on his television show. The credit sequences of The Colbert Report prominently feature an American eagle, which Dr. Colbert has clearly adopted as a symbol of himself; Dr. Coogan reminded us about “Stephen Jr.,” the baby eagle named after Colbert. And so there’s an eagle chevron on Americon’s costume. Americon also wears cowboy boots, since Dr. Colbert advocates “cowboy politics.” And, of course, Americon wears prominent bracelets, reminiscent of the real Stephen Colbert’s celebrated “wriststrong bracelet.” Now here is a costume that truly expresses character, mission and biography!

My one quarrel with Americon’s costume is that he doesn’t wear glasses, which seem to me to be Colbert’s foremost iconic visual trademark: even his science fiction avatar, Tek Jansen, wears glasses. Dr. Coogan told me that Americon as Colbert’s secret identity, so he wouldn’t want to be recognized. But it seems to me that Stephen Colbert, in his TV persona, always wants to be recognized. So Dr. Coogan and I have agreed to disagree. Dr. Colbert, if you somehow find and read this, only you can resolve our dispute.

Next came the writers’ panel, moderated by British scholar Richard Reynolds, whose pioneering book, Superheroes: A Modern Mythology, I acquired and first read many years ago: it was a pleasure to meet him at last. The panelists were Paul Levitz, president and publisher of DC Comics, and Danny Fingeroth, whose books Superman on the Couch and Disguised as Clark Kent I have reviewed in this column (see “Comics in Context” #41, 200, 201, 202, 203, 204). Both Levitz and Fingeroth have also been superhero comics writers and editors, Paul for DC, and Danny at Marvel.

On the auditorium screen. Reynolds displayed images from Action #1. Referring to Disguised as Clark Kent, Reynolds noted that Fingeroth regards Superman’s adoption of his Clark Kent identity as as “metaphor for the assimilation of the immigrant.” Before answering, Fingeroth drew our attention to Joe Shuster’s strikingly drawn panel in which Superman, having just rescued Lois Lane for the first time, tells her she “needn’t be afraid of me.” As Danny pointed out, though Superman is smiling and trying to be reassuring, he is also leaning into her. She looks terrified, and why not? Superman is definitely sending mixed messages. I suddenly realized that Siegel and Shuster may be more sophisticated in their writing and art than I had credited them for.

Then Fingeroth referred to Quentin Tarantino’s screenplay for Kill Bill, Part 2, in which he raises the question of whether Superman or Clark Kent is the “real one.” “The real one is Kal-El,” Fingeroth declared, referring to Superman by his Kryptonian name. As for Superman and Clark Kent, “both are assumed identities.” (This is actually still more complex. In the Golden Age continuity and in John Byrne’s revamped Superman continuity, Superman/Clark did not learn he had been born on Krypton–and had been Kal-El–until after he became an adult.) As he does in one of his books, Fingeroth referred to film director Sam Fuller’s observation that each of us has three faces: the one we show to the world, the one we show to family and friends, and the face we see in the mirror. Presumably in Fingeroth’s view, Kal-El is this third face.

Fingeroth said he was also now accepting the idea of the superhero costume as a “full-body mask”: he means that it is an extension of the mask, helping to create the alternate persona as the mask itself does.

Fingeroth also took an approach making the point that for a superhero to adopt a costume is not all that different from what all of us do in everyday life. Earlier that day, I had asked Danny if he had seen the statement on the Met’s website regarding the “Superheroes” symposium that no one in costume would be allowed admission to the museum. I wondered if the Museum staff really thought there was a danger of fans in costume showing up, as at a comic con. Danny replied, quite correctly, that all of us are in costume, meaning that anything we choose to wear is, in a sense, a costume.

Indeed, it was amusing to see how some of the symposium’s panelists defied the ban on costumes in minor ways; Danny wore a tie with Spider-Man images, another speaker, Scott Bukatman, wore a shirt covered with reproductions of comics panels, and even the characteristically properly attired Paul Levitz wore a black necktie with a Batsignal on it.

Now on stage, Fingeroth made the same point: “We all make choices what to wear.” He assured us, “I don’t wear a Spider-Man tie every day.” But his unspoken point was that he wore it today in his role as comics expert and veteran Spider-Man writer and editor.

Fingeroth observed that “people wear a suit and tie to work” but then “dress casually on weekends,” as if to say, “that’s the real me.” In contrast, he went on, “people who work with their hands,” such as construction workers, “will often dress up on weekends,” as if to say “this is the real me.” Thus the character who dresses in a superhero costume is raising the question of which side of a person represents his job, and “which is the free part of ourselves.”

I’d go further by saying that the superhero persona and the civilian identity both represent real sides of the character’s personality. Neither the “suit and tie” nor the “casual dress” by itself represents a person’s “real” character. Rather, each represents a different side of the same person’s character. But what Fingeroth insightfully pointed out seems to indicate that people have a need to believe that they can alter their identities, that they are not defined by the humdrum duties of life, and that they each have a “real” personality that manifests itself outside the world of daily drudgery. Obviously, this is part of the psychological appeal of superheroes: the costumed superhero represents that liberated inner self who doesn’t have to wear the uniform society imposes on him in his job.

Displaying images of Batman over the decades, Reynolds described a shot of Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo in the 1960s as “playful, easy on the eyes” and not scary.” In contrast, he showed the battlesuit worn by Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film. which Reynolds described as “more technological, more like armor.” The later, more serious Batman is clearly more formidable and intimidating, and lives in a more dangerous and sinister world than the paternal, protective, but somewhat ludicrous Caped Crusader of the 1960s television series. Reynolds then showed a picture of the Batman costume from the current film series, which he described as “even more technological” in appearance. The 1960s TV Batman now seems to live in a very innocent world indeed, where he needs no more bodily protection than his cloth costume affords, and his principal weapons are his fists, not anything technological.

Next Reynolds showed the classic Captain America costume on screen. Probably thinking back to Peter Coogan’s discourse on costume colors, Paul Levitz observed that ‘like most comics artists,” Jack Kirby was “not very analytical.” Levitz said that such artists would say that if the hero wore blue and red, then “the villain must be green,” implying that these artists would not have thought about what each color signified psychologically. However, Levitz praised “Kirby’s instinct” in creating enduring superhero costumes. I believe that a number if the great comics creators of the past, including Kirby and Stan Lee, to a large extent worked from instinct, devising characters and stories with depths and subtexts that they may not have consciously been aware of.

The original Captain Marvel was followed in the auditorium screen by Jack Cole’s Plastic Man. Reynolds likened the stretching Plastic Man to “the mutant body,” the term that Andrew Bolton applies in the exhibition to the unusual bodies of various X-Men characters. Paul Levitz proposed that “Jack Cole’s work descends more from animation than other comics of the time,” and that Cole “saw the character in motion.”

Moving to Wonder Woman, Reynolds commented on how a Greek statue of an Amazon, complete with a “short skirt, even” (clearly alluding to Wonder Woman’s costume) stands on the way to the Met’s “Superheroes” exhibit. Paul Levitz noted that Wonder Woman and the original Captain Marvel were the major characters in the “1940s pantheon” of superheroes who were not created by Jewish immigrants. Both Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman are explicitly “influenced by classical mythology,” and Levitz speculated that their creators were “perhaps more likely to be exposed to that on a formal level.”

When he got to Iron Man, Reynolds pronounced him the “first completely technological superhero.” (Well, there’s the Golden Age Robotman, but I see Reynolds’ point.) Reynolds pointed out that from Iron Man’s first appearance in Tales of Suspense #39 to his next, he switched from gray armor to gold armor, and within less than a year to the more familiar, far less bulky red and gold armor. Paul Levitz then commented that it was Jack Kirby who drew the first cover with Iron Man (Though Levitz did not say so, it seems that Kirby designed the original armor) and Steve Ditko who designed the red and gold armor. Levitz called this an example of the “improvisational feeling” of the comics of this period: “We’re making this up as we go along.”

Levitz was struck by the fact that the new Iron Man movie “finally explains the circle on his chest.” (It is the power source that keeps his heart beating.) “forty-six years later” (after Iron Man’s creation) Levitz said, a “facet” of Iron Man’s costume “becomes a storytelling facet.” Fingeroth marveled that this circle. which he called an “insignia,” was “always just above his heart. . .always subtly there.” I’d say it was as if Kirby subconsciously connected the circle to the heart, and it took all these years for someone to consciously figure out that connection. (To nitpick, past Iron Man writers and artists, including Stan Lee, have used the circle on Iron Man’s chest as a device to project energy beams. But I agree that the movie came up with a better explanation which turns that circle into a chevron linked to Iron Man’s character and history: the outwardly invincible, armored warrior dependent on an injured heart within.)

Next on screen was the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #3 with the introduction of Doctor Octopus, whose body, with its four metal tentacles, serves as the equivalent of a costume. Reynolds observed that Doctor Octopus is a villain “mirroring” his nemesis Spider-Man, since Doctor Octopus actually has eight limbs, just as a real spider does.

Reynolds then moved from the Ditko Spider-Man to John Romita, Sr.’s work on the series. Romita made Peter Parker much handsomer and is justly known for his glamorous depictions of female leads Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson. Reynolds remarked that Romita captured the “swinging ’60s” in his portrayal of the supporting cast. Paul Levitz commented that “Many great artists clearly didn’t look at people in the streets,” perhaps because a comics artist would be “locked in a room by yourself” working long hours. But Romita, Levitz asserted, was an exception, who not only paid attention to “fashion” but also the “physicality of motion” and “acting” in portraying his characters.

Then up on the screen came the cover of The Incredible Hulk #195, showing those two current movie stars, the Hulk and the Abomination, grappling with one another (see “Comics in Context” #226″ “Half a Decade with the Hulk”). The Hulk’s green skin serves the identifying function of a costume, and as Danny Fingeroth explained, so too the Abomination’s grotesquely reptilian hide became “an identifying covering for the character.” Fingeroth also pointed out that the Abomination was a “darker, more powerful, crazy house mirror version of the Hulk.”

On showing of the cover of X-Men (first series) #100, by the late Dave Cockrum, Reynolds said that Levitz had told him that Cockrum loved creating costumes. Levitz remarked that typically, an artist will do one costume sketch for a character, but that Cockrum was different: “he’d do a dozen different costumes” (see “Comics in Context” #172).

Then Reynolds showed the cover to Captain America and the Falcon #176, in which the original Captain, Steve Rogers, instead wore the Nomad costume that Peter Coogan had mentioned earlier, rather than submit to government control. Reynolds segued from this tale inspired by Watergate, to a story that Paul Levitz had written regarding masks and costumes, inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s political witch hunts of alleged Communists in the 1950s. In Levitz’s “The Defeat of the Justice Society” in Adventure Comics #466, Senator McCarthy demands that the Justice Society, the leading superhero team of the 1940s, unmask and reveal their true identities if they are truly law-abiding citizens. Rather than comply, the Justice Society disbands and the individual members retire from their superhero careers (see “Comics in Context” #217: “The Next Frontier”). Of course, in real life it was during the McCarthy era that most Golden Age superhero series came to their end. Levitz explained on the panel that the “1950s witch hunts” provided him with a “good metaphor to explain the “absence of the heroes,” adding that their position was that “Our faces–our names–our lives are our own business.”

Reynolds then suggested that Levitz’s McCarthy story had “opened” the way for the political themes later on in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Levitz shrugged and said, “I don’t think this story has linkage to Dark Knight” or Watchmen, but noted that as a comics writer “you’re working on the shoulders of others,” and comics writers “are conscious of stories that have gone before.”

Reynolds’ array of images included not only costumes being worn by heroes, but also empty costumes that proved strangely affecting. The cover for Avengers #230, in which Yellowjacket (Henry Pym) is expelled from the Avengers for betraying them, shows his teammates looking down at an empty Yellowjacket uniform. Danny Fingeroth said that the artist, Al Milgrom, “conveyed a sense of shame in the empty costume,” so much so that “you want to look away.”

A little later, Reynolds showed John Romita, Sr.’s classic “Spider-Man No More” cover from Amazing Spider-Man #60. This iconic image, which director Sam Raimi recreated in his Spider-Man 2 movie, shows Peter Parker walking away from his empty costume, which he has consigned to a trash can. Danny Fingeroth pointed out how the figure of Peter Parker was “framed by rain clouds,” and how the abandoned “costume has a life of its own,” with the glove lying on the ground looking “forlorn.” Fingeroth also noted “what you can do with the eyes of Spider-Man’s mask, as in this picture,” to convey emotion, despite the fact that the eyes are blank.

Reynolds also showed the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #252, which introduced Spider-Man’s black costume, which eventually became the costume for Venom, a character who better suited the costume’s color scheme. Fingeroth, a former Marvel editor, explained that the black costume was originally “tied in with he promotional series Secret Wars” and “was a thing we were going to do for a few months,” but it “was popular,” so it “went on and in.” I remember that at the time Marvel gave the impression to the public that Spider-Man’s costume change was permanent, or at least for the foreseeable future. (I was working at Marvel, and that’s the impression even I got!) So it was gratifying to hear Danny admit that the black costume was always meant to be a short-term gimmick.

Images from Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen showed lovers Nite Owl and Silk Spectre both in costumes and completely nude; Paul Levitz confirmed that next year’s Watchmen movie “will be R-rated.”

When Todd McFarlane’s Spawn came onto the screen. Reynolds commented that he was an example of “heroes who look like villains,” with his red and black color scheme for his costume, and his “complete head mask” completely concealing his face. (Then again, Spider-Man also wears a full face mask, and his costume was originally colored more as red and black, with blue highlights. Surely it’s the angular, even pointed design elements of Spawn’s costume, masking the natural, rounded shape of the human body, that makes it seem more sinister than Spider-Man’s costume.)

Moving further towards the present, Reynolds unexpectedly showed the concluding sequence from Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, set in the “Planet Krypton” theme restaurant. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman turn up in everyday “civilian” clothing, but the waiters and waitresses are all garbed as members of the Justice League. Reynolds confessed that he found this role reversal “very disconcerting.” I personally am not disturbed by this, but I’m aware if another, metafictional level of reversal that perhaps Reynolds is not: Alex Ross depicted some of the people in this scene as lookalikes for real life comics professionals.

Next came a group portrait from Alan Moore’s Top Ten series, which Reynolds described as “Hill Street Blues with superheroes.” Reynolds drew our attention to the way that this series combines characters in superhero costumes with characters who look like they’re from horror movies, and characters dressed to suit other genres as well.

Then there were two sequences from Marvel’s The Ultimates, which presents the Avengers of an alternate continuity. The first sequence paralleled the one from Kingdom Come: Captain America, Iron Man and Thor were in everyday dress at a restaurant, though they chose not to go to a theme restaurant. Danny Fingeroth pointed out how each character retained a distinctive look, even out if costume. You couldn’t say that Captain America was in his civilian identity: as Steve Rogers, he wore a military uniform. Tony Stark (Iron Man) was described as wearing a “royal” collar, suggesting his status as a member of America’s wealthy elite. So even their everyday clothing expressed their characters.

The other segment spotlighted the Ultimate universe’s version of the Defenders, whose tacky outfits reflected their status as incompetent superhero wannabes. Reynolds pointed to what he termed a “peekaboo” shot of Valkyrie in a thong and suggested that her costuming indicated her real motives for trying to become a superhero.

Then came a sequence in which the Justice League meet with Lex Luthor, when he was President in DC’s continuity, in the Oval Office. Reynolds said he found this image “disconcerting” and tried, but failed, to draw comments from his wary fellow panelists on the subject of a super-villain as U. S. president. Danny Fingeroth joked, “But a lot of old Jewish people in Florida voted for Lex Luthor,” a reference to the confusion about the “butterfly ballots” in the 2000 election.

Whereas the Justice Leaguers in this scene are in full costume, Luthor wears an ordinary black business suit. But Paul Levitz perceptively pointed out that “In a sense the Oval Office is an analogue to the costumes.” Not only is the Oval Office itself an iconic image, but it incorporates symbolic imagery”: as Levitz said, “even the presidential seal in the carpet,” thus creating what he termed “a ceremonial space.”

Then Reynolds showed the cover from Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier Vol. 1 paperback, in which Cooke both recreates traditional superhero costumes of classic characters as they looked in past decades but also, in Reynolds’ word, manages to “refresh” their look. Levitz hailed Cooke’s work as an example of the “power of the individual artist to interpret” tradition and to utilize a “personal style” to make “a new statement with characters that are as much as “seventy years old.”

Towards the end of his PowerPoint presentation, Reynolds showed the audience a picture of costumed superheroes from comics in India, telling us that this “way of storytelling”–the use of that American creation, costumed superheroes–has spread outside the United States, across the world.

However, later that day, after the end of the symposium, the participants headed to an Upper East Side bar, where Richard Reynolds and I discussed just why as Reynolds contended, attempts to create British superheroes never quite worked. What is it that is specifically American about the superhero concept, and that is alien to British culture, even if so many Brits read superhero comics and even write and draw American superhero comics?

But that was still hours off. I’ve only covered the first two panels in this day-long landmark Metropolitan Museum symposium on superheroes, and I will return to my account of the day in the near future.


You can find the following books by participants in the “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” symposium at the following locations on Amazon.com:

Andrew Bolton, Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy

Peter Coogan, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre

Danny Fingeroth, Superman on the Couch

Danny Fingeroth, Disguised as Clark Kent

Richard Reynolds, Superheroes: A Modern Mythology

Paul Levitz’s “The Defeat of the Justice Society” from Adventure Comics #466 is reprinted in the paperback Justice Society Vol. 2.


Two of my own books are being sold at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in connection with “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.” They too are available on Amazon: The Marvel Vault, which Roy Thomas and I wrote, and The Official Marvel Travel Guide to New York City.

-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson


2 Responses to “Comics in Context #227: Sunday Morning at the Met”

  1. Guido Rosas Says:

    My guess would be that superheroes work mostly as an american product because, at their essence, they are the ultimate sublimation of american values, as perceived by the immigrants that shaped the country: The dichotomy of the need to belong versus the value of individuality expressed in the secret identity is a trait found almost exclusively in the superhero genre. Most of the classic european heroes don’t have one (King Arthur and Robin Hood, for example) The closest analogue to superheroes we have here in Mexico are the masked wrestlers. The most popular ones have starred in their own action movies (however bad they are) and comic books. They basically function as superheroes, fighting monsters, evil scientists and criminals, with the designs of their masks working as their chevron. The really big difference with superheros (other than the fact that the wrestlers don’t have superpowers -though their physical prowess clearly sets them apart from the ‘regular people’ in their adventures) is that they don’t have a dual identity. Though there’s obviously a face under the mask, thay never switch identities, and we are led to assume that they never remove their masks. It’s almost as if they had transcended whatever previous identity they had to become something superior, therefore rendering their ‘real’ identity unimportant. Of course I’m talking about the role of the wrsetler in fantastic fiction, in real life, the loss of their mask in “combat”, it’s supposed to be the most shameful thing that could happen to them (I know the fights aren’t real by any stretch of the imagination)

  2. Rick B Says:

    In regard to the strong reaction against Superman’s costume in 1938, it’s worth noting that Superman was not the first costumed character in comics, just in comic books. That distintion I believe went to Lee Falk’s Phantom, debuting in 1936. (And if, as in your discussion of Zatanna, a stage magician’s attire counts as a costume, then Falk’s Mandrake was an even earlier costumed hero, and one with powers of a sort.)

    It was interesting to me that in all three Spider-Man films, and to a lesser degree in the new Iron Man movie, the filmmakers all felt the need to show the hero in costume without facial mask, as if the audience needed to be reminded there was a human face beneath a fairly featureless visage. As a longtime comics reader, I found these images disconcerting, and likely for the same reasons you describe - the mask is a key part of the identity of that character as a hero. It’s not of course that the mask makes them a hero, but it is an integral part of that character’s choice to become that particular hero.

    As always, many thanks for your coverage and thoughts -
    Rick B.

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