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Why the Long Underwear?

 Robert M. Price

I remember the first time I learned that comic book professionals commonly refer to their super-protagonists as “long-underwear characters.” I was miffed. I thought it disrespectful, near blasphemous. Of course, I don’t anymore, but neither do I cultivate a sense of “oh-so-professional” disdain for the characters, as if I were trying to evade the onus of liking “kid stuff” that other, more mature adults, frown upon. I do not like it when fans refer to Superman as “Supes” or to Batman as “Bats.” I love the scene in “The Reign of the Supermen” when the Last Son of Krypton warns a cowed Guy Gardner, “And, Gardner, that’s ‘Superman,’ not ‘Supes.’” I respect the superheroes.

            But that question about the long underwear is still a good one: isn’t it a bit silly to picture these grown men and women parading around in such outfits? Like when Cyclops says to Wolverine in the first X-Men movie, “You’d prefer yellow spandex?” Remember, Stan Lee first intended the Fantastic Four to wear civilian clothes, and their predecessors, the Challengers of the Unknown weren’t really wearing costumes—just matching jump suits. The Challengers wore real uniforms (that is, clothes all on the same pattern, a “uniform” look), and Jack Kirby preserved as much of that look as he could with the FF by assigning them, too, matching suits of a sort. Even the Thing had a blue suit, not just trunks, at first.

            But fans, readers, wanted the variety of colorful costumes, and soon they got them. So our question is whether the device of colorful costumes is supposed to have verisimilitude within the story and for its characters or rather only for the reader.

            This issue, which we usually ignore, begins to surface in superhero movies and TV shows when we notice how difficult it seemed for costumers for a long time to get it right, for the costumed characters not to look silly now that they seemed to appear in more of a real world setting. The seventies and eighties Marvel TV movies just couldn’t pull off the trick. They gave up trying. The Hulk wore tatters anyway, but for hair they gave a him a cheap fright wig, as if they were trying to do something wrong just for good measure. Thor, reduced in stature to a motorcycle thug, just wore fur. Daredevil had a black scuba suit, or something that looked like one. The Punisher lacked any attempt at a costume. What did Stan think he was doing, prostituting his great creations to hacks like these?

            A similar, and no less important, issue in live-action superhero representations was the physique of superheroes. I loved Adam West as Batman, but he did look kind of puny. It was wise to equip Michael Keaton with a muscle suit so he would look the part. The costume equals the appearance. Clothes make the (Super or Bat)man.

            Alan Moore showed great insight into the costume question in Watchmen when he asked, implicitly, just what sort of individuals would wear masks? What kind of folks wear masks in real life? Well, let’s see: there are vigilantes who take the law into their own hands, whether their aims are noble or not. Thus Hooded Justice smacked of both the traditional executioner figure and the Ku Klux Klan member. And then, oh, there are  sexual perverts, hence the leather mask the Comedian wore (as well as one of DC’s half-baked Watchmen rip-offs, Major Force). Maybe a flamboyant homosexual might enjoy camping it up a superhero, hence Captain Metropolis. And so on. All in all, I thought it was a brilliant take on the possible reality of costume heroes. But not the only explanation.

            Individual heroes have different reasons for wearing their loud, tight costumes. Batman is the most obvious and the most explicit: he wants to look pretty much like Dracula to scare the bejesus out of stupid and superstitious thugs. Captain America is a human flag, embodying the colors and the values of the United States. The Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) is just wearing an alien police uniform.

            But some costumes are not so utilitarian. Let’s face it: the heroes wear them just for the reader’s sake. The super suits are eye-candy. But nonetheless, I think there remains a completely plausible intra-narrative rationale. The costumes are like priestly vestments, setting apart the heroes by virtue of their special servant role on behalf of the general population of civilians. I hope you don’t think it odd or silly when you spot a Catholic priest sporting all black with a tab collar, or a chef in all white with the mushroom hat.

            The name of a superhero has much the same function. It is really his title. I like it when, in X-2, Magneto asks the flame-mutant for his name, whereupon the kid answers, “John,” and Magneto says, “Your real name!” And he answers “Pyro!” Thus it always seems to me entirely fitting and not at all contrived, to hear the Justice League (or whomever) addressing one another by their official names, “Flash,” instead of “Wally,” for instance. Mundane names, secret identity names, would be okay if the heroes were gathered informally after a long day’s work saving the world (as when Oliver Queen was the only one with the social presence of mind to show up for JLA/JSA Thanksgiving dinner in civilian clothing).

I remember in an old issue of The Protectors (anybody remember them, the modernized Centaur Comics characters?), when they were first assembling their line-up, Mighty Man protests the admission of The Witch to the team, and Amazing Man rebukes him: “You’re way out of line, Mighty Man!” This struck me as paradigmatic and appropriate, as when Senators address each other as “Senator” during sessions of Congress, but by first names or nicknames in bars, brothels, or hashish dens. In costume, behind masks, the heroes are implicitly engaged in a kind of elaborate play or ritual, and they should use their totemic character names. If there were superheroes in real life, this is what they would do.


Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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