For better or worse, depending on whom you ask, the popularity of “geek culture” has reached an all-time high and shows no signs of slowing down. In the past ten years, nearly every area of interest has seemingly been a part of a rising tide to bring all of our best-kept secrets mainstream attention. From comic books and craft beers to vinyl-only album releases, virtually every specialty market has seen growing acclaim and interest across the board.
While sneakers have enjoyed the limelight ever since agent Michael Jordan laced up his first-ever Nike pro model in 1985, lines on new release days have never been longer, and the secondary market is booming more than ever before.
Just as movies and television have long taken cues from the world of capes and cowls, designers in the footwear industry have given their own subtle and overt nods to comic book heroes and villains over the years. Take a walk in our shoes as we look at the best comic book tributes from the sneaker world’s “big two,” as well as a few others.
Nike Air Huarache Trainer “Green Hornet”
When Nike equipped Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald with the Zoom Huarache Trainer silhouette, they looked to three notable names for their “Superhero pack.” Given Fitzgerald’s ability to soar over opponents, the first comic-inspired colorway took cues from the Man of Steel himself. The player’s speed was honored with the release of a second DC Comics colorway. However, it was the third sneaker that was the real standout of the pack. While there was certainly controversy around the continuity of this final colorway referencing another “Brand Jordan,” Nike actually likened Fitzgerald’s ability to rid his defender at the line to the expert hand-to-hand combat skills of pulp hero, The Green Hornet. Many sneaker aficionados (including this one, dear reader) will argue that this is still the best makeup the shoe has ever been released in to date.
adidas Hellboy II Forum Mid
Dark Horse’s relationship with adidas actually began in 2006, when the Oregon-based publisher was tapped to collaborate on the brand’s “AdiColor” project, which yielded a collaborative track jacket and a pair of Century lows. The pack paid tribute to the publisher’s 20th anniversary, featuring the number “20” in prominent Japanese kanji designed by Yoshitaka Amano. The German footwear giant returned to working with Dark Horse and Universal on a pack to pay tribute to the movie and comic book versions of the beloved “Beast of the Apocalypse” in 2008. The comic book version utilized Mike Mignola’s artwork and the Stan Smith mid as the base. While beautifully designed by Dark Horse’s Cary Grazzini, adidas chose to utilize a patent leather upper, which felt a bit out of sync with Mignola’s iconic heavy-handed art style. In the end, the true standout of the pack was the “Golden Army” version, leveraging the 1980s basketball classic, the Forum Mid. The pair featured an upper comprised of black, red, and gold, with the movie logo on both the strap and tongue, and director Guillermo del Toro’s Golden Army emblem above the heel counter. While arguably just as flashy as it’s comic counterpart, this pair seemed to carry the appropriate level of flare for the designs of the film itself. Not to mention, prior to the pair’s release, the Forum mid had been grossly overlooked in a boom of other retro silhouettes.
Nike SB Low “Silver Surfer”
The skateboarding arm of the Beaverton, OR footwear giant’s designers have been paying homage to cultural icons since its inception. The Nike SB Dunk Low “Silver Surfer” hit the market in a time when the company’s releases were becoming more sought after by collectors than the core athletes. Released in 2004, this “Radd” interpretation of the classic low top sneaker makes the list not only for the character reference, but being perhaps the most wearable shoe on this entire list.
Nike SB Dunk “Iron Man”
The older brother of the Dunk low, this high top silhouette is the gold standard of classic Nike basketball sneakers. The Nike SB Dunk Hi “Iron Man” is perhaps one of the best sneakers the brand has ever released. From the rich color palette, premium materials and aforementioned wearability, this shoe is nearly perfect. So, why does it fall further down this list? Every Merry Marvel Society member and sneakerhead alike would enjoy “marching” in these that much more with an Arc Reactor emblazoned on the tongue.
Nike “Sabretooth” Air Max 95
The Tinker Hatfield designed Air Max 95 has earned a place in history as one of the brand’s all-time high points. When Nike released the “X-Men: Origins” pack to capitalize on the success of the 2009 film, Wolverine was laced in the “Big Nike” silhouette, complete with claw marks and garish colors, while style wins again in a supervillainous Air Max. Featuring understated fall colors, a claw marked “95” on the tongue, and spots of faux fur between lace stays, this shoe balances subtlety and style with dealmaker moments of authenticity that we can all acknowledge.
Airwalk x DC Comics x Masterpiece “Superman”
Airwalk first gained prominence in the 1980s skateboard scene with their loud graphics and color schemes as well as endorsements from the likes of Tony Hawk. The brand peaked in popularity in the 1990s as the Beastie Boys and the rest of the post-Nirvana MTV generation took skateboarding off of the streets and into the malls. Today, the once powerful shoe company has little presence in the states, but continues to endure overseas. A perfect example of this comes in the 2011 collaboration with Harajuku (Tokyo)-based retailers Bounty Hunter and Masterpiece. A four sneaker pack featured both DC’s Man of Steel and Dark Knight respectively, with Masterpiece calling upon the 1980’s “Pterodactyl” high top. Both pairs were fantastically executed, but in this matchup, justice dawned upon the son of Krypton, whose iteration featured both Airwalk’s legendary “lace saver” as well as the character’s classic Golden Age logo on the outsole.
Nike Air Foamposite Pro “Dr. Doom”
Released as part of Nike’s 2006 “Fantastic Four” pack, the Nike Foamposite Pro was a stand out, despite a black and white color scheme. Vicfor Von Doom was the only villain feataured in the pack, but also the rarest of the five releases. One could argue that from a sheer accuracy standpoint, this offering featured none of the character’s prominent attributes, with not trace of the green hood or metallic mask for which he’s known. However, the sneaker’s foam upper recalls the folds of the character’s cape, and a universally wearable colorway for day-to-day villainy.
adidas x Star Wars X-Wing and Hoth “Luke Skywalker”
Okay, okay. Those of you who follow footwear as closely as floppies may take issue with these two turning up on this list. Sure, the galaxy far, far away certainly did not start in comics, and Luke Skywalker is certainly not a comic book character in the same sense as the rest of those mentioned on this list. However, Marvel did begin publishing the comic series in the same year “Episode IV” hit theaters, and the series only saw five years off comic stands in a near 40-year legacy. The adidas x Star Wars collection launched in 2010, and featured some of the brand’s most thoughtful and thought through pop culture tributes to date. However, it was the two iterations of the 1979 Top Ten hi that gave sneakerheads “A New Hope” for what the brand was capable of. The first of the two pays tribute to the Rebel Fighter pilot’s iconic orange jumpsuit, while the second called upon Luke’s Hoth snowsuit from the opening scenes of “The Empire Strikes Back.” As if the execution of the details of the sneakers weren’t enough, both came packaged in custom blister packs as opposed to customary shoe boxes. From concept to execution, these two standouts serve as some of the best Star Wars licensed products to date.
Vans x Marvel pack “Spider-Man” Sk8 Hi
The Van Doren Rubber Company began in California 1966, and while other brands in skateboarding have seen peaks and valleys in popularity, Vans remains equally relevant to hardcore skateboarders and avid collectors alike. With many of the brand’s iconic styles coated in canvas, Vans has long paid tribute to pop culture with printed graphics ranging from Mickey Mouse to Bad Brains. In 2013, they paid tribute to Marvel Comics with a range of brightly colored footwear, which included both the low top Era and Sk8 Hi silhouettes, featuring the most prominent characters from the Avengers line up, as well Spider-Man. While there was not a misstep to be found in the entire pack, it was the Spider-Man Sk8 hi that stole the show. From webbed toe box outfitted in lush red suede to the screened side panels, these remain true both classic sneaker design and timeless comic book appeal.
Converse Joker vs Batman 1989
The top spot on this list goes to the two-part pack that started it all. In recent years, DC and Converse have collaborated on a number of versions of the brand’s timeless “All-Star” sneakers, which many would call a “true American icon” akin to the Levis 501, or Coca-Cola. However, it was back in 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s first Batman film, that the two brands set the standard for what comic book sneakers should be. Both featured “all-over print” uppers, one with the Batman logo, and the other employing the Joker’s sinister smile and token “Ha” lettering. While later collaborations featured far more art heavy uppers, it was perhaps the simplicity of this first outing that made this dynamic duo so perfect. In 2013, a limited edition reissue was offered which quickly sold out, leaving these and specifically The Joker version perhaps the most celebrated comic book sneaker of all time, and can still be seen in photos from my own family’s photo album.
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