Super Fashion: Metropolitan Museum's Day of Heroes

To coincide with its exhibition, Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, on through September 1, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered a day of free public programming last month on various subjects relating to comics culture. The panels, which focused largely on costuming but also looked at other aspects of design and storytelling, featured speakers such as John Cassaday, Alex Ross, Adi Granov, DC Comics Publisher Paul Levitz, author and former Marvel editor Danny Fingeroth, and "The Dark Knight" Executive Producer Michael Uslan. CBR News was on hand for several of the panels, which ranged from informal chats to introductory lectures.

Comics critic Richard Reynolds moderated a writers' panel with Paul Levitz and Danny Fingeroth. Reynolds began by quoting from Fingeroth's latest book, "Disguised as Clark Kent," in which the author argues that many early superheroes served as metaphors for the Jewish immigrant experience. Fingeroth indicated there was in the very first Superman stories an aspect of integration and choosing one's identity. Of the Man of Steel's various personas, "Who's the secret identity?" he asked. "Is Kent the real one? Is Superman the real one? I think it's Kal-El."

Fingeroth later suggested that a hero putting on a costume involves "as much choice as we all make when we choose our clothes for the day." "Believe it or not, I don't always wear a Spider-Man tie--given the subject of today's panels, I felt it was appropriate," he said. He went on to talk about how people required to wear business attire to work often dress casual on the weekend, as if to say "the guy in the suit, that's just what I go to work as," and that those who dress informally during the week may like to dress up in their time off. For superheroes, though, Fingeroth said it is not always clear "which is the job and which is the free part of themselves."

Levitz discussed the early concept of Batman, noting that even though the character's design had changed through the years, he retained "the ultimate iconography, a giant living bat ... scaring the daylights out of us." The publisher also mentioned the character of Bruce Wayne was interesting, too, in that when he was introduced "being a playboy was as much a fantasy as superhero."

Reynolds then directed the conversation toward Batman on the screen, tracking the progression from actors Adam West through Michael Keaton and Christian Bale. Levitz said that in casting director Tim Burton's 1989 film, there was a sense that someone more athletic than Keaton would be required to play Batman, but that the sculpted suit allowed them to go with someone who had "acting power, that fire in their eyes," and that ultimately "the audience really responded to that." Bale's suit, though, is designed to look more like an armor produced by modern science, since "we can now see around the curve to how this might be possible."

Commenting on the cloth vs. armor Bat-costumes, Fingeroth quipped, "If you were a billionaire and you were going to be Batman, why wouldn't you wear armor?"

The panelists also talked about story aspects of costuming, such as a "doppelganger" cover of an old "Captain Marvel" comic in which the hero, dressed as a hobo, looks at a billboard of himself. Fingeroth said the cover was effective in raising questions that makes him want to read the issue. "Why is he not Billy Batson? Why is he walking around as Captain Marvel? He's clearly not trying very hard to disguise who he is -- his hobo shirt is open, showing the lightning bolt on his chest."

Reynolds then showed a Wonder Woman cover upon which Diana Prince was having her portrait painted, but the artist was painting her as the Amazon warrior and not her civilian guise. The moderator noted that visitors to the Met have to pass through the Greek and Roman galleries to reach the Superheroes exhibition, and that a statue of an unknown Hellenic warrior another of a wounded Amazon could easily be seen to represent Wonder Woman and her ties to mythology. Levitz then pointed out the fact that Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, who were not created by Jewish immigrants, were both "heavily influenced in Greco-Roman mythology," suggesting that writers who were already integrated into society tended to look to classical times for inspiration.

Continuing their discussion of the "Wonder Woman" cover, Fingeroth described the portrait artist as wearing a costume himself. "He's got the artist costume," Fingeroth said, "he's wearing a beret, which every artist must wear; the goatee, which every artist must have." He said, further, that this depiction of the artist could be seen as a costume for the issue's illustrator--who, after all, was an artist but probably did not look like this.

From there the panel moved on to Iron Man, whom Reynolds described as the "first technological hero." Levitz praised the early "improvisational feeling" of costume design, noting that Tony Stark changed the armor several times in the first few years with only the barest explanations as to why. He also found it interesting that the recent movie finally explained after forty years of character history why exactly Iron Man has a circle on his chest.

The panel ended with discussion of costumes in the evolving fashion of the present and also the speculative far future. Looking at an image of the X-Men's Storm from her "mohawk and leather" phase, Levitz and Fingeroth laughed embarrassedly. "As the writer of 'Dazzler' when disco was already dead, I can tell you it's dangerous when comic book writers try to capture cutting edge fashion." By contrast, Levitz said that when he was writing "Legion of Super Heroes," he enjoyed playing with the idea that "everything can be costume."

After lunch and some schedule shuffling due to Adi Granov's delayed flight, Alex Ross and John Cassaday took the stage for an artists' panel moderated by Stanford Carpenter, an assistant professor of Visual Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ross began by discussing his thought process in designing the "Kingdom Come" Superman. He said he wanted to "hearken back to the 1930s version of Superman with that Charles Atlas ideal of physical dynamic." Ross also indicated the black "S" was inspired by the Max Fleisher cartoons of the early 1940s.

Carpenter asked the panelists how they felt about the "Electric Blue" Superman from the 1990s. Ross said that publishers "should always be encouraged to try something experimental," with the understanding that it wouldn't be permanent. "It was a fine design," Ross said, "but it wasn't Superman." Later, in discussing his own redesign of Captain America, Ross described it as an opportunity to play with the design but that in the final account, the Joe Simon version of Cap must return.

Cassaday chimed in by mocking the idea of drastic, allegedly permanent changes to major characters. "You know that thing that's worked for sixty years? Yeah, suddenly that doesn't work anymore. It'll be this from now on. Get used to it!" he joked.

Both artists agreed the version of a character a creator grew up with exerts a significant influence upon his or her vision. But, Cassaday said, for him it wasn't always so clear-cut. "My aunt bought me a book of Batman from the 1930s to the '60s, and that was what I read growing up. So I didn't have a clear version of Batman." Eventually, though, he found a solution. "I just went with Adam West and it came out alright."

Ross said the reason his present-day Superman looks nearly identical to his "Kingdom Come" Superman is that he believes the Man of Steel really should be a bit older than he's normally portrayed. "I don't buy that he's in his late twenties," the artist said. "I see him as the patriarchal hero of all comic books--giving him the weight of age feels appropriate."

On the subject of the X-Men, Carpenter noted the team's progression from wearing school uniforms to superhero costumes, back to a sort of uniform in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's "New X-Men," and then back to costumes. Cassaday reasoned that his designs in "Astonishing X-Men" are still largely uniforms, making use of certain color schemes and design elements but adapting these to the specific needs of each character. This, he said, was in stark contrast to costume designs in the '90s, which was "a period where everybody wears everything."

"Cyclops is a guy who shoots a powerful energy blast from his eyes--that's what he does. But [in the '90s] he wore more utility belts than Batman, and he wore them everywhere," Cassaday said. "I want to know, what's in those pockets?" Cyclops's costume, according to Cassaday, should be "all about the visor." He also noted that "Beast would never wear boots; he uses his feet as much as his hands." In response to a reader question late in the panel about skimpy costumes for female characters, Cassaday reminded the fan that "Kitty Pryde is completely covered," but that Emma Frost's character should be a bit sexier. Still, he laughed, in comparison to her "New X-Men" look, "we covered her up, threw a cape on her."

After discussing designs for several other characters, including Ross's "Project Superpowers" costumes and Cassaday's interpretation of the Lone Ranger, the panelists talked about cross-pollination of movies and comics. Despite the popular perception that the "black leather" X-Men costumes were heavily inspired by "The Matrix," Cassaday suggested that the exchange worked both ways. "'Matrix' is as much comics-inspired as comics are by the 'Matrix,'" he said. He also stated that the X-Men redesign was likely already in process or had been completed before "The Matrix" hit theaters.

Ross mentioned the "Watchmen" movie, for which Cassaday helped design the costumes, would be one of the first superhero films with "individual colors," meaning the various heroes would not sport a unified design. Cassaday added the upcoming "Avengers" film would follow this pattern, as well. "The X-Men and the Fantastic Four fight as teams first" and so it made sense for them to have similar costumes on screen, he said, "but the Avengers are themselves first, and also fight as a team."

"The Dark Knight" Executive Producer Michael Uslan followed the artists panel with a speech about superheroes as modern mythology. He began with an anecdote about trying to pitch a course on superheroes to the Indiana University Department of Folklore and Mythology while he was a graduate student there. After being flatly rejected by the dean, Uslan asked him to describe the story of Moses, then asked him to describe the story of Superman. Seeing the similarities, Uslan said, the dean "stared at me for what I swear was an eternity, and said, 'Your course is accredited.'"

Uslan went on to note that Joe Shuster's first known drawing of Superman, which shows the hero dressed in a sleeveless t-shirt and pants like a circus performer, had explicitly compared the Man of Steel to Hercules, and that the original Flash still wears Mercury's helmet. Also mirroring mythology, Uslan talked about the various totemic character aspects, such as winged creatures (Batman, Hawkman), animals (Wildcat, Catman), and colors (Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Green Hornet, Robin). He likened Green Lantern to Aladdin and. perhaps less obviously, Robin to Robin Hood by way of shared costume elements like the flaired vest below the belt and pointy boots.

On Wonder Woman, whose ties to Greek mythology are explicit, Uslan mentioned the American mythology imbued in the character. Her costume from the beginning had featured an American flag design, but during the Vietnam era the suit was "out of touch with modern readers," leading to Diana Prince instead wearing "a new Mod look in every issue." Later, in the 1990s, Wonder Woman again chucked her traditional look for misguided black leather, which Uslan suggested was influenced by the film oeuvre of Demi Moore.

Closing out the day, costume designers Gordon Smith (the "X-Men" movie trilogy), Phil Saunders, and Adi Granov ("Iron Man") joined moderator Geoff Klock for a session on creating superhero garb on the big screen. Klock began by addressing what he called the "zero point" of superhero costuming, which is the naked body. Characters such as Silver Surfer and Mystique use something near to this, in that their costumes are essentially "the colored human form." Iron Man, by contrast, is "completely external," Klock said.

Granov said his discussions with Warren Ellis while working on the "Iron Man" comics informed his take on the character, noting that "Ellis is obsessed by technology -- and mobile phones. There were a lot of mobile phones in that book!" For the movie, Granov said that Marvel gave him "free range to let me do what I wanted" with the character design, and that his concept was that Tony Stark is "the pilot of a human-sized aeroplane." He did say, though, that some of his concept drawing involved bits intended to make the producers happy, such as "elongated" legs, extra flaps and weapons emerging from the suit, and a smaller head for the armor. Granov wanted the helmet to be large enough for a full-sized human head to fit inside, but there was a sense that this would look outsized on an otherwise human-shaped character. Granov said he was eventually able to get his way in most details through a gradual process of revision.

Saunders, who worked with Granov on the designs, said that Avi Arad had at one point asked him, "So where's my underwater suit?" Saunders tried to explain that Iron Man does not go under water in the film but, because toys and other merchandise are a part of the moviemaking package, "Ultimately, I did design an underwater suit."

Looking at Granov's early designs, Saunders pointed out that "you never see the crotch; one leg is always folded over." "I was waiting for you to design it!" Granov replied. "Joel Schumacher ruined it for everybody," Saunders sighed, referring to the Bat-codpiece seen in "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin." The two then discussed their complimentary approaches to costume design. Saunders, who has worked as an automotive designer for Nissan, said, "Adi Granov is an illustrator with an innate sense for industrial design; I'm an industrial designer with an innate illustrative sense."

Smith provided unexpected, deadpan humor nearly every time he opened his mouth, beginning with his description of Mytique's costume in comics evolving into what Rebeca Romijn wore in the films. "A blue person with red hair didn't really translate as anything abnormal," he said. Another factor, Smith claimed, was a succession of meetings with director Bryan Singer at which Singer reportedly "was pounding his fist on the table and saying, 'I want her nude, I want her nude, I want her nude!'"

The "X-Men" designer also talked about the materials applied to Romijn's body to form the costume. He said that care was taken to place the strips of plastic such that they would not bend or distort as the actress moved about. Smith also revealed that, while most of the prosthetics were flat strips that were then stretched to fit the curves of Romijn's body, "we did have to make a cast of her chest, which is very three-dimensional."

When Smith said later that Singer had also wanted Nightcrawler (played by Alan Cummings) to be nude but that the hand, foot, and tail prosthetics made this unworkable. Saunders asked, "Were Wolverine and Cyclops also meant to be nude?"

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