In a recent interview, “Man of Steel” director Zack Snyder discussed the design of Superman’s costume for the film, emphasizing his desire to keep it as close to the iconic version as possible, but making some changes along the way.
The debate will certainly rage in fan circles as to whether the changes made for the movie were the right ones, but it’s worth keeping in mind that even in the comics, Superman hasn’t always settled on just one look.
This week in Hollywood Justice, we’re going to take a look at Superman’s changing styles over his more than 70 years of comic book history.
The Golden Age
When Superman first debuted in “Action Comics” #1, he had a much simpler design than the one audiences have come to know today. Inspired by the colorful, skintight outfits of circus strongmen, Superman even then bore the blue tights, red trunks, and red cape he made famous. However, foreshadowing the changes to come, there are several inconsistencies in this first issue alone. The cover displays him with red boots, and a stylized yellow shield emblem on his chest with a red “S” in the center. Within the comic, however, the “S” is primarily shown as a yellow outline on a triangular yellow background, and his footwear is as blue as his tights, suggesting a leotard. Over the subsequent years as Superman’s popularity soared, artists continued to tinker with his look, most notably the design of the “S” emblem. It’s worth noting that the Earth-2 Superman, who is meant to represent the character in his Golden Age roots, bears a costume that mostly resembles the classic incarnation, except that his “S” is slightly more fluid and even a little lopsided, in keeping with the portrayal of Superman in the latter part of the Golden Age, circa the mid-1940s.
This is the incarnation that most think of when Superman come to mind, and the one that endured for the longest, starting the late ’40s, and enduring mostly unbroken until 2011. Note the crisply stylized “S” contained with the diamond border. Artist John Byrne, who reinterpreted Superman in the wake of 1985’s “Crisis On Infinite Earths”, chose to keep this iconic look, and has described his approach to drawing the shield as drawing the “negative space” first, the yellow background upon which the red “S” sits, saying he visualizes those pieces of yellow as little fish. This look was also retained for the Christopher Reeve “Superman” movies, further ingraining it in the public consciousness.
Although not the Superman of our world, the Superman of the world of “Kingdom Come” plays an important role in DC continuity nonetheless, and his costume matches the dark tone of his tale. In a world where the public turns away from the idealism of the heroes of Superman’s generation, and towards darker, more violent anti-heroes, tragedy is inevitable. When tragedy does strike, as a result of the reckless and dangerous actions of these anti-heroes, Superman and the rest of the Justice League return from their self-imposed retirement to set the world right, by any means necessary. Reflecting this more troubled reality, the Superman of “Kingdom Come” returns wearing a new costume, courtesy of artist Alex Ross, with a darker shade of blue, the yellow replaced with black, and an “S” symbol that consists of harshly angular bars rather than the whimsical stylization of the classic incarnation. This Superman eventually found his way to the mainstream DC Universe in “Thy Kingdom Come”, a 2007 storyline played out in the pages of” Justice Society of America”. Having seen the dark future potentially in store for Earth, this Superman provided a stark contrast to ours in more than just costume.
Probably the most radical of all of Superman’s costume changes, this incarnation came about as a result of change in Superman’s basic physiological make-up. An encounter with alien wizard, combined with the sudden loss of his powers during 1996’s “Final Night” event, led to Superman transforming into a being of electrical energy who needed a containment suit to survive. This incarnation attracted enough attention and controversy that even “Saturday Night Live” alum Norm MacDonald took his turn at sending it up, in his role as anchor of “Weekend Update”. Fortunately for all concerned, Superman eventually regained his normal powers, and with them, his classic costume.
In 2011, DC Comics revamped its entire line of superheroes, giving them new histories, new status quos, and in many cases, new costumes. Superman was no exception, and designed by Jim Lee, his new costume has several notable changes. Gone are the red trunks. Superman now bears a high collar, and his “S” shield has been modified both in shape, and in the fact that it now stands as a raised emblem rather than being flatly imprinted upon his chest. Perhaps the most radical change is that Superman’s traditional tights now bear a greater resemblance to armor, with many interlocking pieces. At the time this design was first revealed, it generated many cries of protest from fans asking why Superman, the Man of Steel, would need armor. Lee has since explained that it is ceremonial Kryptonian armor, worn originally by Kryptonians who did not possess Superman’s powers on their home planet.
Whether this new look for Superman will endure, be replaced by something new, or even eventually return to his classic incarnation, only time will tell. But it is clear that the film is heading away from some of the classic design elements, as filmmakers have indicated that they often find it difficult to translate Superman’s costume to live action for modern audiences in a compelling way. That fact alone will likely ensure that Superman’s look will continue to grow and evolve as the people behind the movies and the comics try to find a level of synergy across media.
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