HeroMachine is all about making cool looking characters in even cooler looking costumes, so I thought it would be appropriate for us to talk about which iconic characters do the duds the best:
Deciding who should be on this list was tough. I felt like the character had to have achieved a certain level of awareness in the general cultural consciousness. A devastatingly awesome costume worn by a one-off character in a third-tier comic isn't going to make the grade to be considered one of the greats.
Second, I felt like the costume should say something about who the character is, or what their powers are, or what they stand for, or something about the general universe and publishing house they inhabit, or even all of the above. As someone who put together a similar list a few years ago said, you ought to be able to hand someone who knows virtually nothing about comics a list of character names and a list of pictures, and they should be able to put them together.
Finally, and this is much more nebulous, they have to look good.
And with that, we're off!
Batman: Clearly Batman's costume is instantly identifiable with the character -- there's a big ol' bat on his chest. But the costume says a lot more about him than just his name. From the blue (or black in some cases) and gray color scheme we know he's used to working in the shadows, or at night. From the scalloped cape we get a hint of Gothic horror, indicating he relies on fear and mystique to some degree. And from the bewildering array of gadgets in his belt we know he's innovative. I also love the way the very simple elements can be combined by a talented artist in bewildering varieties, from just the eerie white eye slits to the shape of the cowl silhouetted against a moon to the brilliant shapes caused by the cape, it's a costume that can dominate a scene all on its own. And that's darned impressive.
Captain America: I've chosen the Ultimate Cap as the representative here, because I love everything Hitch did to it, from the seams to the scale-mail versus chain-mail look to the WWII style belt pouches. And I know it's controversial, but I love that those stupid head wings aren't on there. Seriously, with those I don't think I put the costume on the list.
Namor wings aside, Cap's costume is the iconic "patriotic" American outfit. I love the way the stripes are only halfway down the torso, and how the one big star becomes a logo. The red, white, and blue color scheme of course is vital. I also like that part of his costume is armor, which reinforces the idea that he's not a Superman style bulletproof hero, but just a (very powerful) soldier.
Looking at this design, you'd know that this is a character who stands for America, that he's someone who's about shielding more than shooting, and that he's a bold leader. I mean come on, anyone not bold would never leave the house with a giant "A" painted on his forehead!
Captain Marvel: Captain Marvel has had the same costume with virtually no changes to it since his inception. There aren't a whole lot of things from 1940 you can say that about, which I think is a testament to its strong and striking design. Red, white, and gold make for a powerful combination, especially the vast swathe of red the Big Red Cheese commands. The big, bold lightning bolt streaking down his chest suggests the magical strike that transforms him into Captain Marvel, and the dashing half-cape with braid and gold ornamentation combines with the saucy sash to hint at the non-American pantheon giving him his powers.
I also love how his cape is always slung over one shoulder instead of being precisely hemmed to hang symmetrically. He's a bit of an off-kilter kind of character in the first place, and this simple device really helps reinforce that. The gold arm bands and boots just seal the deal, giving him a flair and flippancy that again really tells you something about the kind of guy he is.
Flash (Silver Age): One of my all-time favorite costumes and characters. How can you look at this guy and NOT get that he runs really, really fast?! From the sleek, form-fitting racing tights to the vaguely hood-ornamental gold head wings to the lightning bolts at wrists and waist to the insignia to the boot wings to the subtle little jiggedy-jag in his mask, this guy is all about speed. I love the way Carmine Infantino used to draw the lightning bolts streaking out behind him as he ran, too. His whole look is a wonderful blend of Art Deco and sleek science. They really boiled Flash down to his bare essence, with nothing extraneous or insipid in the design at all.
Flash (Golden Age): Unlike his later update, Jay Garrick's Flash has a loose sweatshirt, big ol' dish-like helmet, floppy boots, and what must be some variety of blue jean. And yet, it still totally works. Instead of several lightning bolts adorning the outfit, we have just the one huge Captain Marvel like symbol streaking up his chest. I love that it starts from the belt and cuts across diagonally. I also love the red, blue, and gold color scheme, adding a little variety that the Silver Age Flash did away with; I think it adds some visual interest.
The clincher for me, though, has always been that helmet, one of my all-time favorite costuming elements. It's so stylish! The color, the wings, the Hermes-like shape, it all just combines the best of Greek mythology with classic 1940s doughboy style. I'm willing to overlook the question of how it stays on his head at supersonic speeds without a strap, and that alone should tell you how cool it looks.
Green Lantern: Another all-time favorite of mine. I like the striking shapes this costume makes by scooping in and out of the shoulders and hips, taking what is essentially just a body stocking and turning into something both martial and stylish at the same time. The shade of green they chose goes so well with the black, and combined with the startling white of the gloves always gives your eye something to fasten on. The chest insignia is a marvel of simplicity. You can't look at him and not think "Green Lantern".
I also like the symbolism of the costume, bringing in the black of space with the green of life and the white of light. The mask seals the deal. I love that shape.
Invincible: While not the commercial or cultural success of some of the other entrants, Invincible nonetheless anchors one of the most successful independent comics in the world. What I like most about his costume (besides the yellow, blue, and black color scheme) is how they've incorporated the insignia into the costume itself. It's not shunted into a circle or square, but is part of the design itself, completely integrated with the flow of line and shape. I also appreciate how Kirkman treats the costume in the series itself, always willing to tweak and change it while never losing the essence of the character.
The only drawback is that I don't know that it quite says anything about the character other than "snazzy dresser".
Iron Man: I've chosen the classic red and gold combination here, which for my money is "The" comics Iron Man armor. I actually like the movie version better, but since we're not talking about anything but comics here that's out of consideration.
Again, the designers managed to boil the character down to his pure essence in this costume. Clearly it's a human in a powered armor suit, but there's nothing clunky or clumsy about it. He looks agile and lithe while still unquestionably strong. I love the banded armor on the shins, loins, and gloves; they make a great contrast with the smooth, shiny metal of the legs and arms. Then you've got the more heavily armored chest with the simple round unibeam. He has no logo or insignia, and yet that one circle clearly strikes your eye first.
My favorite part of this armor is the helmet. Those rectangular eyes and mouth are twisted into showing so much emotion and character it's unreal. The human face and head are stripped of all ornamentation and presented as starkly as possible. An intimidating, distinctive, and powerful approach.
Phoenix: I'll be up front, and admit that this isn't my favorite costume ever. But it is nifty looking, and in person (as I can attest from several Dragon*Cons) it's simply devastating. Plus you have to admire anyone who can pull off green and gold without looking like a Mardi Gras float.
Spawn: Again, not a personal favorite, but I think he was arguably the best of the Image Nineties designs. On any other character, the chains and the cloak and the hoo and the haaa would be way, way too much. But you have to remember this is a guy from Hell. Like Batman's costume, Spawn's reaches out and commands the environment, and that's key to the demonic, frenzied, all-out helter skelter vibe that makes him so distinctive. So this is sort of a placeholder for all those wild and crazy Nineties costumes I usually make fun of -- at least with this one, all the over-the-top hype has a purpose.
Spider-Man: Again, any costume that can survive five decades is pretty remarkable. Yes, he's gone through many (many!) changes, from the Black Spidey days to Tony Stark's Civil War remake, but you always have to come back to the red and blue tights. A great blend of creepy and awesome, from the webs to the awesome spider insignia to the best part of all -- the mask. The way the webs start at the bridge of the nose and wrap around the head, setting off those awesome bug eyes, is just classic.
Superman: You can't have a list of super-hero costumes and not include Superman. He literally set the standard for the genre in ways that continue to echo down to this very day. The colored briefs, the tights, the flaring cape, the big chest insignia, the high colorful boots, the primary color scheme -- all of these are hallmarks of the Superman design.
And yet, having said that, the costume itself is, honestly, kind of dull. Yes, it's the granddaddy of all super-hero costumes and absolutely iconic, but I think the basics it introduced were improved on and perfected in the ensuing years. Still a great outfit, but just based purely on the design, I don't think I could call it the greatest ever.
This is a tough choice; all of these are classic, beloved, and awesome outfits. The gut instinct is to go for Superman because, as I said, he started it all, but I can't get away from thinking it's basically a little on the boring side. Spider-Man is a little too creepy for me, Cap sometimes looks like an ambulatory circus, and Invincible just isn't well known enough.
Both of the Flashes, I think, nail the essence of the character better than anyone else, and both costumes are just straight-up fun to look at.
The others all have good arguments to be made on their behalf, but I think ultimately I would have to go with Batman. Like the character himself, the costume is infinitely flexible, capable of going from the insane camp of the TV series to the grim and gruesome Frank Miller Dark Knight era to the sleek and martial Jim Aparo era, all without losing the core of the character. The bat insignia is instantly recognizable, easy to draw, and beautifully designed. The cowl and the cape complete the outfit, and as I said make the whole character a blast to draw in all kinds of settings.
But by all means, please chime in below with people I left out and shouldn't have, or people I included and shouldn't have, or why one of the other nominees would be a clearly better choice. I look forward to hearing from you!