Jul 29, 2013

Back Issue Ben: Costume Week

It's Costume Week for us here at the Cube, where we each write something about costumes. Back Issue Ben kicks it off.

As determined by me
Ben Smith

A superhero costume is a powerful thing. It should ideally have some connection to the identity of the character and their powers, while also, to put it simply, be interesting to look at. A great costume could put an average character over the top, while a bad costume can make a great character impossible to read. What follows is what I consider to be the 10 best superhero costumes ever made.

I am not a fashion designer, a graphic designer, an art major, or even a very good dresser, but my extreme under-qualification doesn’t mean I am not 100% correct on the following list. Feel free to disagree at your leisure.


While an argument can be made for the pre-New 52 look, that’s all outweighed by what is truly a horrendous redesign during DC’s Sep 2011 relaunch. Unnecessary lines, a disco collar, and an eye-straining amount of unbroken blue on the costume makes for an extremely hideous look. It’s so bad that you almost long for the oft-mocked red underwear simply to break up all that blue dominating the costume. He does have the best logo in comics though, I’ll give him that.

THE ONE SUPERMAN COMIC YOU MUST READ: Superman Annual #11 (the classic “For the Man Who Has Everything.”)


Cyclops’ younger, much less annoying brother, Havok had one of the coolest costumes originally, before Marvel decided to mess with it over the span of 30 years. It consists of nothing more than a simple black outline, with concentric circles emanating from his chest, and offset by an admittedly goofy headdress. It’s a clean and sleek look, that Marvel decided to unnecessarily complicate more and more over the years. Creator credit for Havok goes to Don Heck and Neal Adams, but I’m going to go ahead and give the credit for this design to Adams.

 Thankfully, the recent Uncanny Avengers book has returned him to an acceptable approximation of this original design by John Cassaday, but nothing will match that original all-black look.

THE ONE HAVOK COMIC YOU MUST READ: X-Men: Kingbreaker #3 (Havok escapes from a Shi’ar prison to take on his crazed brother Vulcan.)


I’m going to cheat and give you tie right off the bat, and we haven’t even started yet. Both of these costumes were designed by the legendary Dave Cockrum, and I’m placing them in a tie because they both utilize those wonderful sashes around the waistline. Phoenix uses the green bodysuit underneath the yellow thigh-high boots, while the former Ms. Marvel (now Captain Marvel) opts for a black bathing suit with the same type of thigh-high boots.

I can understand the desire to change Ms. Marvel’s costume to something more appropriate for an actual human female to wear outside, but I’m of the opinion that comic book costumes don’t need to reflect any kind of “reality” any more than the people flying around punching each other do. I think if you start to tug at the thread of “reality” in comic books, you’re going to unravel the whole thing. But again, I can also understand the inherent sexism in female characters running around in bathing suits.

THE ONE MS. MARVEL COMIC YOU MUST READ: Ms Marvel #47 – Swing Date (Ms. Marvel goes out on a date with the Amazing Spider-Man.)

THE ONE PHOENIX COMIC YOU MUST READ: Uncanny X-Men #137 (The Dark Phoenix Saga ends with a heart-wrenching sacrifice.)


Iron Fist is a case where the design of the character works great on the page, but wouldn’t necessarily look great in real life. A green bodysuit, with yellow slippers, disco collar, and mask looks great (to me) when drawn by talented artists, but would probably look godawful on the street. I love the half-mask with the Spider-Man style eyelets, and, of course, the dragon tattoo on the chest. The recent tweaks made to the design in modern comics have only served to enhance the look even more. Gil Kane is credited as the co-creator for the character and probably designed the look.

THE ONE IRON FIST COMIC YOU MUST READ: Marvel Premiere #15 (the origin of Iron Fist.)

8. STORM (with Mohawk)

The only time I ever cared even a little bit about Storm, was when she was rocking the punk rock Mohawk look. That’s not to say she isn’t a great character, just that I had no great love (or hate, just ambivalence) for her except when she had a little bit of edge to her in the ‘80s. Having taken control of the Morlocks in a fight to the death against Callisto, Storm found herself feeling differently than she ever had before, and changed her style accordingly. (From what I understand, this whole design started as a sketch done as a joke by a Marvel artist.) Not long after, she would lose her weather manipulation powers, but still lead the X-Men anyway. She’s never been more interesting since. (The current revival of the Mohawk look for Storm has her dressed a little too glam for me, but still a great call-back.)

THE ONE STORM COMIC YOU MUST READ: Uncanny X-Men #201 (A one-on-one battle with Cyclops for leadership of the X-Men, only Storm no longer has her powers.)


I had to have a Hank Pym costume on this list, or else my wife would probably divorce me. Fortunately, the Ant-Man costume is such a wonderful design by the great Jack Kirby, with probably the best helmet ever created for comics. It’s got that shiny, metallic look, while still being able to see the eyes and bottom half of the face. The gas canisters on the belt are a nice touch that makes it interesting to look at as well.

Equally as great is the Yellowjacket costume. The black and gold color scheme is appealing and memorable. The black cowl with antenna on the side evokes the look of Batman (so much so that we once had to have an artist write “Yellowjacket, not Batman!” on a Yellowjacket sketch he did in Mrs. Back Issue Ben’s sketchbook). I really like the yellowjacket logo on the chest too.

I think all of Pym’s costumes have been really strong. From Giant-Man to Goliath to the Wasp.

THE ONE HANK PYM COMIC YOU MUST READ: Tales to Astonish #27 – “The Man in the Ant-Hill”


Iron Man is a bit of a cheat since he has so many different looks, but that is one of the advantages of the character. He’s certainly had his more hideous armor designs over the years (I’m looking at you, Silver Centurion armor and original tin can armor), but for the most part his designs have been pretty solid. Most probably don’t know that his original slim red and gold look was designed by none other than the legendary Steve Ditko. I personally have a preference for the modern Adi Granov–designed armor that was appropriated for the live-action films. (One of the greatest advantages Iron Man has in live-action, other than Robert Downey Jr., is that his armor is the easiest to make look good in real life. It just looks the best. I don’t think this can be underestimated in terms of an audience being able to lose themselves in the world created on-screen. No amount of red leather will make me think Ben Affleck was Daredevil.)

THE ONE IRON MAN COMIC YOU MUST READ: Iron Man #128 – “The Demon in the Bottle”


A simple red costume with yellow accessories and one of the best logos in superhero comics, the Flash has undeniably one of the best costumes ever made. The red and the yellow colors really seem to accentuate each other well. I’m going to assume the costume was designed by the co-creator of the Barry Allen version of the Flash, Carmine Infantino (which is not something I realized, that Infantino was the co-creator, you learn something new every day). One of the best examples of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” as during the DC New 52 relaunch, this simple design was muddied up with unnecessary lines and a chin strap. The supremely capable Francis Manapul makes it work, but I suspect he’s one of the few that can.

THE ONE FLASH COMIC YOU MUST READ: Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 – “The Death of the Flash”


There isn’t much about this design that screams “cat,” other than the shiny black leather catsuit and fur, but it’s still a great visual. Let’s face it, the character is geared and designed to be sexy, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. The problem I can see is when every single female character is running around with their boobs hanging out. Some characters it’s appropriate for, and some it isn’t. In this case, I think it fits the character, so it works (especially when rendered by a master like Terry Dodson). A lot of people like to claim the Black Cat ripped off Catwoman’s look, but she was actually rocking it long before Catwoman ever did in the comics. Keith Pollard is given credit as the co-creator of the character, but I believe the character was actually designed by Cockrum (there is that name again).

THE ONE BLACK CAT COMIC YOU MUST READ: Amazing Spider-Man #226 ("She’s Back," by Roger Stern.)


The former Robin finally graduated to his own identity and costume as a member of the Teen Titans. The original design by George Perez was (thankfully) streamlined into the more prevalent version used today. If you haven’t noticed by now, I tend to gravitate to the more sleek, and simple costume designs, and this one is a perfect example of that. An all-black costume highlighted by a blue (and now red) logo across the chest. The domino mask, while completely ridiculous in terms of real life effectiveness, works well with the overall look of the costume. A fantastic look for a fantastic character.

THE ONE NIGHTWING COMIC YOU MUST READ: Nightwing #25 – “The Boys” (a night out with Tim Drake and Dick Grayson.)


One of the most, if not the most, iconic characters in comic books has an appropriately iconic costume. Designed by Bob Kane and (a criminally uncredited) Bill Finger, it’s an effective design that has remained mostly unchanged for over 70 years. I prefer the black and grey color scheme, minus the yellow oval on the chest. But the great thing about the costume, and speaks to its strength as a design, is that it’s just as good with the oval, and/or with the blue and grey colors. It’s distinctive, fits the character, and makes for a great silhouette.

One of the reasons I will never fully be able to accept or enjoy a live-action Batman movie is that they have decided to stick with the all-black armor look for the costume. This was originally used by Tim Burton to (I assume) compensate for the fact that Michael Keaton wasn’t exactly a physical specimen as an actor. Yet, Hollywood’s inability to break trend with anything that has happened before means the armor has lived on from iteration to iteration. Hopefully one day we’ll get a fully faithful version of Batman (in both look and action) that we can cheer for on the big screen.

THE ONE BATMAN COMIC YOU MUST READ: #251 – “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge”


Without a doubt, Spider-Man has the all-time greatest costume in comic book history. A truly great design by the legendary Steve Ditko that is recognizable from any angle, and is just as great as a logo as it is as a costume. I’ve heard it said that Ditko liked to design costumes that were identifiable no matter how little you saw of the actual character in the panel. If all you saw was a boot, glove, or the mask, you are able to instantly recognize that webbing pattern. The full-face mask completely hides the character’s face, and creates an extra level of creepiness. The eyelets add an extra level of style and recognizability to the mask. So much so, that no matter what variation of the costume has been created over the years, those eyelets on the full-face mask make it so that you instantly know that it’s Spider-Man. The blue and red color scheme and the lack of underwear on the outside like many DC characters put Spider-Man over the top.

Another thing Spider-Man has over Batman is that the costume translates wonderfully over to live-action. One of the many reasons I’m able to more readily accept Spider-Man as a character on the big screen (crying and strutting aside) is that it actually looks like him up there. It’s one of the roadblocks of movie adaptations of comic book characters for me. It has to look like the character, first and foremost. If it can’t even accomplish that, it’s an uphill climb for me the rest of the way. That’s one of the reasons the X-Men films have been increasingly more disappointing for me the longer time goes on, with Iron Man and Thor being realized so fully on-screen.

THE ONE SPIDER-MAN COMIC YOU MUST READ: Amazing Spider-Man #33 – The Final Chapter (trapped with a ton of machinery on his back and water flooding in, can Spider-Man save Aunt May?)


It’s little surprise that two of the most iconic characters in all of comic books, happen to have two of the most iconic (and best) costume designs. Comic books are a visual medium, and a character needs to be visually strong for them to have any sort of lasting impact on the reader. Sure, it helps to have great origins and great conceits as characters as well, but I don’t think you can undersell the impact of those designs. (Another thing that makes Batman and Spider-Man two of the strongest characters in comics, is that they both work equally well in any type, or any genre, of story. Comedy, action, horror, drama, or all-ages entertainment, it doesn’t matter, they work in anything. Something DC has seemed to forget in recent years when it comes to Batman.)

It’s little surprise that many of the characters on this list happen to represent some of my favorite characters in all of comic books. It’s really hard for me, as a reader, to get on board with a character if I don’t get excited about their look (it’s one of the reasons I’ll never be a big fan of the Beast). If I don’t want to sit down and try and draw that character, or buy artwork of that character, or a statue of that character, then it’s going to be really hard to grab me as a faithful fan. (Don’t get me wrong, the storytelling and writing has to be strong too. It all works in unison. That’s the great thing about comic books.)

Please feel free to let me know what you think I got horribly wrong, so that I can disagree with you. Personal insults will be flung, apologies made, and then we’ll all go have a beer. Where I’ll finally be able to convince you how wrong you are.

Next time….something else!


Reno said...

Hey! I like the Silver Centurion armor! I don't know why people are giving it so much grief. It veered away from the classic red and yellow look, but that's what made it memorable. There were a lot worse armors during the 90s, especially the one worn by kid Stark.

Like you, I'm partial to the sleeker looking costumes. The less busy the better. That said, I think Mar-Vell's red and blue costume belongs to this list.

Duy Tano said...

Kid Stark didn't have such a bad costume, did he? I guess the big giant gloves were pretty terrible.

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