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2007-03-09 - COVER TO COVER by Mark Engblom: Extreme Makeovers


Extreme Makeovers
Superhero Fashion Disasters

As part of their never-ending battle to sustain reader interest (and sales figures), comic-book publishers often resort to their standard bag of tricks to give their titles a jolt. Some of these stunts include retelling a superhero's origin, the "shocking" return of an old enemy, killing off a supporting cast member, or that old standby...a new costume.

It goes without saying that many "costume upgrades" were very successful, as an invigorating new look replaced a poorly designed or boring original costume.


However, not every costume upgrade has worked out for the better. In fact, many of them are so astonishingly bad, pop culturally tone-deaf and unintentionally silly, I just had to go all "Joan Rivers" on a few of them.

Horrible new costumes certainly aren't a recent phenomenon. In fact, some of the earliest superheroes felt the humiliation of needless, nonsensical alteration of otherwise cool costume designs.

For example, imagine the trauma Dr. Fate experienced as he was forced to give up his awesomely eerie original helmet for a shockingly goofy half helmet!

"More Fun Comics"? For Dr. Fate? No, sir... they weren't.


Another one of the Golden Age's supremely cool costumes bit the dust when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby got their hands on The Sandman. Transforming the moody pulp feature into one of their trademark quirky circuses, Wesley Dodd's original spooky look was replaced with a generic, absolutely forgettable purple and yellow costume ... along with a coordinating kid sidekick named Sandy!


The original kid sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, later became known as Robin (the Adult Wonder?) of an other-dimensional Earth-2 in JUSTICE LEAGUE #55 (1967). Wearing a bizarre amalgamation of his boyhood duds and the costume of his mentor Batman, the Earth-2 Robin was truly the "Clown Prince of Crimefighting."


You'd think the stylish World War II aviators of The Blackhawk Squadron would be safe from the Fascists of Fashion...but you'd be wrong! After literally begging readers "Don't Quit On Us!" on the previous issue's cover, BLACKHAWK #230 (1967) continued the spectacular desperation campaign with new (and knee-slappingly lame) superhero identities for each member of the Squadron. Scripted by the reliably loopy Bob Haney, the boys were subjected to untold levels of nuttiness for a full twelve issues before mercifully being allowed to return to their traditional uniforms.


Critics who never tire of slamming Superman's old school "trunks on the outside" look should direct their attention to the cover of ACTION COMICS #236 (1958), and realize it could be worse.

Much, much worse.


From those more innocent days we leapfrog three decades into the future, as the darkening mood of late 80's comic books brought a new mandate for superhero costumes. No longer enough just to be considered "cool," costumes increasingly needed to look "extreme" or... more accurately..."X-TREEEME!!!!!".

Thor received a temporary upgrade of X-TREME armor for situations requiring ultimate battle-hardened...ness.


The spirit of change stemming from DC's "Crisis on Infinite Earths" event inspired Aquaman to dump his traditional orange and green motif for form-fitting Lycra, suggesting a startling new direction for the King of the Seven Seas. Like Olympic Speed Skating.


The post-Crisis landscape also brought some X-TREME changes for Black Canary. Bye-Bye run-proof fishnet stockings...hello turtleneck!


Another aftershock of the Crisis was the revocation of Power Girl's Kryptonian heritage, replaced by an endless parade of revised origins and increasingly lame costumes.


However, even Power Girl's skyrocketing levels of lameness couldn't compare to what would be inflicted upon us in the 1990's...otherwise known as the Dark Years of Costume Design.

Unsatisfied with the levels of X-TREME introduced by Marvel and DC Comics, a band of popular comic book artists formed IMAGE COMICS, combining their collective awesomeness (and piles of cash) to push the levels of X-TREME to extreme new extremities.

One of the Image creators, Rob Liefeld, was particularly adept at wielding the POWER X-TREME as he took nonsensical costume design to levels undreamt of by mortal man. In his creator-owned title YOUNGBLOOD (1992), Liefeld attached a staggering array of armbands, metallic accents, shoulder pads and belt pouches to his characters, creating a crazy quilt of colors, hardware, hairstyles and scowling faces.


Like a creeping virus, this fetish for doohickeys and gewgaws soon "infected" the Big Two publishers, who were so impressed by the initial success of Liefeld and his fellow rock stars, they began importing elements of the "Image style" into their own titles.

An early victim of "The Image Virus" was Batman, or more accurately, his temporary replacement Jean-Paul Valley. After Bruce Wayne was crippled by the monstrous Bane in 1993, Valley crafted his own suit of bat-armor, complete with a Liefeldian thigh belt.


It wasn't long before other heroes were sporting X-TREME armor versions of their costumes, such as Booster Gold's clownishly bulky model on the cover of JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL #80 (1993).


Who can forget the "All-New, All-Daring" Spider-Armor of 1993? Answer: I can.


WaaaHooo! A hilariously hardcore Captain America leaps into action wearing a new armored exoskeleton, designed to help him overcome the rapid deterioration of both his body and his title's sales figures.


Following the Bat-Armor upgrade, DC continued ill-advised makeovers of their iconic heroes with Wonder Woman, pictured here looking like a refugee from an '80s music video.


The icon demolition campaign continued with Aquaman's "Nick Nolte with a Fishhook Hand" phase, replacing the genial underwater hero with a scowling, half mad curmudgeon wearing what appeared to be a metallic arm sling.


After suffering through a profoundly embarrassing mullet hairstyle for a number of years, Superman was stuck into a new, very blue bodysuit in 1997. The problem with the old costume? To quote comedian Norm MacDonald covering the story on a classic SNL Weekend Update: "Not gay enough."


As wretched as those '90s costumes were, none of them can quite surpass the cover of FANTASTIC FOUR #375 (1993), an embodiment of all that was wrong with 1990s comic books.

Irritating "prismatic foil" cover? Check.

Cartoonishly large guns? Check.

Groan-inducing costume design? Oh, absolutely.


Reed Richards is mostly off the hook, since he's only wearing that era's ubiquitous pocket-covered leather jacket. The Thing, however, gets big points off for the goofy helmet, but he's nowhere near as out of bounds as the two remaining members.

Johnny Storm, otherwise known as The Human Torch, is also wearing a leather jacket! Did you get that? A guy who can burst into flame is wearing a jacket! he chilly? Nonsensical accessorizing to the Nth degree.

Finally, the normally fashion-savvy Sue Richards appears to have completely lost her mind (and modesty) with this outrageously stupid "adventure dominatrix" ensemble, most likely worn during one of Sue's many "assertive" phases. At this point it becomes painfully more obvious that superhero comic books are largely created BY males and FOR males, since only within the alternate reality of the male psyche can "assertive" or "empowered" translate into "gun-toting tart with a peek-a-boo chest logo." Mercifully, "Susie Stockings" was soon replaced by a more levelheaded Sue Richards a few issues later, resuming her role as the sensible Soccer Mom of the Marvel Universe.

Following the disastrous 90s, the superhero fashion scene seems to be on the upswing. Is a new generation of design-conscious artists responsible for that? Are TV shows like What Not To Wear or Project Runway sparking a new fashion consciousness? A global-warming induced appreciation for All Things Fabulous?

Well, whatever the reason, it's important that we maintain our newfound vigilance against superhero fashion disasters.

Because bad costume design (and THE POWER X-TREME) can strike at any time.


ONSLAUGHT REBORN #2 (2006), cover art by Rob Liefeld.

Mark Engblom is a professional cartoonist and life-long comics fan living in St. Paul, MN. Mark is also the proprietor of Secret Identity: Geek Gear & Gifts, featuring cool stuff inspired by classic superhero comics. Mark's also got a new blog named Comic Coverage. Because, you know...the world needed another comic book blog.