Agent of S.T.Y.L.E.: The Many Costume Changes of SUPERMAN



He is an alien immigrant with a midwestern upbringing. Kal-El of Krypton, whose name translates to "star-child," was placed in a rocketship by his parents Jor-El and Lara and then launched into space just moments before his entire world erupted into radioactive debris. He landed on Earth and was raised in Smallville, Kansas by two farmers, Jonathan and Martha Kent.

As he grew older and exhibited strange abilities far beyond those of mortal human beings, the Kents taught him the value of using his power to help others. Embracing what he saw as the ideals of the American Way, Kal-El grew up and decided to dedicate his life to protecting the world that had adopted him. Now he fights for truth as crusading journalist Clark Kent and, when the law is not enough or Earth is threatened by something truly otherworldly, he enforces justice as the costumed champion called Superman.

Superman has been part of our pop culture for over seven decades now. And recently, there's been a lot of buzz this week about his wardrobe. Many are talking about how he'll be depicted in the new live-action film Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen) and starring Henry Cavill (Immortals). And there's also been quite a lot of chatter about the Last Son of Krypton's upcoming wardrobe change in the pages of DC Comics, as the publisher is relaunching his books (along with the rest of their fictional universe) in September.

But the Man of Tomorrow is no stranger to costume changes. Over the years, he's had many different looks and even his original suit was not the classic design familiar around the world. So in this special Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., let's take a look at the visual evolution of Superman.



The version of Superman that debuted in Action Comics #1 (1938), was both bizarre and simple. A dark-haired athletic man wearing what was essentially a contemporary circus strongman outfit. The cape gave him a sense of motion and of authority, as if he were some regal military leader of another culture. Adding to this was the symbol on his chest.

The original "S-shield" was just that: a shield with an S stamped on it. It was not an alien symbol or derived from a family crest. Superman had simply chosen to monogram his shirt with the initial of his alias. But again, there was a sense of authority that came with it, as the original S-Shield seemed similar in shape to a policeman's badge. Within the actual pages of Action Comics #1, however, the symbol was different. A simple yellow triangle bordering a yellow letter S. This was how Superman appeared for his first few adventures, though occasionally the S would be depicted as red.

Another major difference the original Superman look has with the classic design that came later is that he seems to have red sandals instead of boots. Often, the interior pages would have the sandals and their laces be the same color blue as Superman's trousers, so they were hard to even notice.


Beginning in Superman #6, the Man of Tomorrow gained a pair of red boots. For the next few years, his symbol was inconsistent. It began to become a red S on a regular basis. Then the yellow triangle border became red as well, starting in Action Comics #19. Then, artists began to experiment with the shape, turning it into a diamond. There was also a brief period where the S had a black background, similar to the famous cartoon serials done by Max Fleischer.

The S on his cape also had a few variations, depending on the issue. It could be red over yellow or blue over yellow. Eventually it just became yellow over yellow.

As the shield border became more of a diamond, artists made it yellow again and also increased the symbol's size. Around the same time, the S began to take on a more stylized form, curving along the sides of the border. Eventually, the border was made red once more, giving us something very similar to what would become the classic S-shield.



1945 was the year when the classic depiction of Superman truly came into form. The S-shield was now a large, proudly stylized monogram that curved with its border and merged with it. This version of the Superman symbol (which many people credit to artist Wayne Boring) and his suit are what audiences became familiar with in the live action movie serials starring Kirk Alyn, the television show starring George Reeves, the feature films starring Christopher Reeve, and beyond.

Over the decades, many artists have put their own spin on things. They might make the shield larger or smaller. They may make the boots look heavier. They may alter the exact shade of red and blue that is used in the uniform. But even with these tweaks, the classic Superman design is instantly recognizable to many. It has been emulated and parodied all over pop culture and many consider it the standard style against which romantic, high-flying superheroes are judged.

I personally wish he had stopped wearing the red trunks once the 1950s were coming to a close and we began entering the Silver Age of superhero comics, but that's because I generally don't like the trunks-over-trousers look. It made sense in 1938 when you're emulating a circus performer. By the 1960s, it just comes off as a very odd and dated fashion choice, even for a superhero.

Starting in the 1940s, comics implied that Superman's costume was meant to emulate a general style of clothing worn by the people of Krypton. As for the the S-shield, this was still said to have just been a design that Clark and/or his foster parents had designed. But in the film Superman: The Movie (released in 1978), director Richard Donner depicted it as a family crest of the House of El. Though the comic books didn't adopt this idea, it did appear again and again in the many live-action series and cartoon shows that followed over the next few decades.

In 2003, Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu revised the Man of Steel's origin in the pages of Superman: Birthright. In this story, Waid said that the S-shield was indeed a Kryptonian glyph, as the films and TV programs had all been saying for years, but it wasn't just a family crest. It was also an ancient symbol which meant "hope." So Superman wasn't just wearing his monogram on his shirt. The S-shield was both his heritage and a declaration of what he was ultimately fighting for.



Now, let's talk a bit about what's missing from this design. Superman lacks two things that many other costumed superheroes have: a mask and gloves.

When Superman first appeared, his lack of a mask wasn't really that big a deal. In 1938, there were no security cameras, no TV shows dedicated to celebrity gossip, no cell phone cameras, no web-sites constantly updating with full-color photos of TV stars doing something as ordinary as walking their dog. So even if Superman had been photographed, all you'd see was a black and white photo or a powerful looking figure whom you probably wouldn't connect with the bespectacled reporter in a cheap suit walking down the street. Superman also acted much more clandestinely during his early adventures. He directly encountered Lois Lane, yes, and he spoke to certain police officers and criminals that he met. But he didn't stick around for photo opportunities, didn't speak at public press conferences. For the first several issues, many people believed the stories of Superman were merely exaggerated stories or complete fabrications.

Furthermore, in the comic books, Superman didn't merely slick back his hair and put on glasses when he became Clark Kent. Several stories mentioned that the Man of Tomorrow was able to shift his vocal chords due to his incredible muscle control (the same control that allowed him to shake hands with a normal human being despite being strong enough to bend steel), giving his two identities completely different voices. Later writers added that Superman made sure to stoop as Clark Kent, use different body language and wear clothes that were a little too big, thus giving the illusion that the reporter was a bit shorter and less physically fit than the costumed hero. Some comics also said that Clark's glasses were slightly tinted, giving his eyes a different shade while the large frames also gave his face the impression of his face having a slightly different shape.

Of course, later the Man of Steel did become more of a celebrity superhero, showing up on TV interviews and even publicly speaking before the UN. So you might ask, "why didn't they just put a mask on him later?" Well, part of it was because Superman had a pop culture icon after a while. By the mid-1950s, even people who had never read a comic book knew what the Man of Steel looked like and that he did not wear a mask. Another reason was that writers actually decided it was out of character. Clark knew just how dangerous he must seem to some people and governments and that many would easily and instinctively paint him as an alien invader with a hidden agenda. So to alleviate this fear, he deliberately dressed in bright colors that announced his presence and displayed he had no reason to hide behind a mask. What's more, by not wearing a mask, Superman implies he has no secret identity and so it's not a mystery many people try to solve.

The lack of a mask also became symbolic of the Kryptonian hero's dual identity being very different from most other superheroes. The radio show and cartoon serials referred to Clark Kent as Superman's "disguise" and starting with Action Comics #1 that had been the case. It wasn't like Batman who acted like an insensitive and mentally lazy playboy as Bruce Wayne, an anti-thesis to his true nature. Clark Kent, like his costumed counterpart, went into dangerous situations, was concerned with justice for the common man and wanted to see criminals punished. But Clark was a censored version of the hero, a clumsier and seemingly less confident person. At the same time, this was a way for Kal-El to relax. As Superman, people looked up to him and many, including other superheroes, expected him to have all the answers. As Clark, he was treated like one of the guys, could talk about sports rather than the state of chaos in the world, and was allowed to say "I don't know." So it was a disguise, but an honest one.

In many stories of the past few decades, the Man of Steel has also been able to have both of his identities appear together at the same time. Sometimes he's used Superman robots and sometimes he's had superhero friends disguise themselves as Clark Kent. Thanks to these efforts, crowds of people have seen and even filmed the famous hero and the crusading journalist standing side-by-side on multiple occasions, leading to the general belief that they are acquaintances who resemble each other. Pretty clever, that Superman.

But what about the lack of gloves? Well, visually it looks fine considering he doesn't have a mask either. Of course, you might wonder why he isn't afraid of being fingerprinted. Well, a lot of Superman's battles aren't situations where you'd be dusting for fingerprints afterward. And one idea presented in the comics is that the Man of Steel is quick enough that he regularly uses subtle bursts of his famous heat-vision to eliminate any oils left by his fingerprints without actually damaging the objects he's touched in a room. Again, he's not just powerful, he's smart.



Imaginary Stories. Mind control. Changing superpowers. Loss of superpowers.

All of these and more led to Superman sporting different looks for either specific story reasons or because the writers decided, "Hey, wouldn't it be funny to do a story out of continuity where Superman basically splits into two people, one of whom is all dressed in red and one of whom is all dressed in blue? And we can call them Superman-Red and Superman-Blue? That'd be classic!"

Don't even get me started on the yellow costume Superman wore, complete with diving helmet, when he needed to make up for a seeming loss of power.


After a storyline in the mid-1980s called Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman (and many characters in DC Comics) had his continuity and history relaunched. But certain things that have happened before seem to happen again, and sure enough, Superman continued finding himself in strange adventures where he'd have to work as a circus strong man or he needed armor during a time when he had no powers (wait, how often has this actually happened?), or he had just come back from the dead and decided to grow his hair long and wear all black for a few issues because hey, man, it's the '90s.

None of these lasted nor were they meant to. But one alternative design wound up having a lot of impact and influence. In the out-of-continuity story called Kingdom Come, creators Mark Waid and Alex Ross presented an older Superman in a possible future who had become darkened by tragic experiences. After coming out of retirement, this aged Superman wore a variation of this classic suit, one that had a black belt and a black symbol where the S was far more subtle.


There was one costume change that became very notorious and actually lasted for a full year. When a magic spell directed against him backfired, Superman found himself becoming an energy-based life form. To stabilize his body, he needed to wear a new containment suit. As a result, we suddenly had a new capeless Superman with an entirely different set of powers based on the absorption and manipulation of electricity and other forms of energy.

This new take on the nickname "the Man of Tomorrow" was meant to give fans a new twist on Superman. For years now, he's been a pretty competent and confident hero and now he suddenly had to learn how to walk again, instinctively trying to use old powers he no longer had and needing to change his strategies based on new abilities.

This eventually branched off into a new story where Superman's energy form divided into two beings, one red and one blue. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. In any event, the two Supermen wound up saving the world together by discharging their energy reserves. The result of the massive release of power was that Superman wound up shifting back into his original, Kryptonian form, to the relief of many fans who missed their classic hero.


Of course, changes didn't stop there. After the events of September 11 (which eerily coincided with a major storyline in the Superman comics involving a sudden attack on Kansas and war breaking out across the world), the Last Son of Krypton spent some time wearing a black and red version of the S-shield in order to recognize those who had fallen. Likewise, the yellow shield on his cape was now black.

Even after Kal-El went back to the traditional look, there were, as always, stories where for one reason or another he was required to change his look. In one adventure, he wore a very different black, silver and red suit while he temporarily lived in the Bottle City of Kandor. In another story, he and Batman decided to hunt down and collect all of Earth's samples of Kryptonite. To protect himself from the radioactive ore that had often played havoc with his biology and threatened his life, Superman wore a special lead-lined suit of armor. Some might ask why he didn't wear this suit all the time, but Clark found the armor a little confining and it certainly couldn't put up with as much damage as a super-powered person from Krypton can handle on their own. So the Man of Steel was happy to put it away and go back to his classic threads when the story was done. Besides, as mentioned above, Clark's never liked wearing something that hides his face.



Beginning in September, DC Comics is relaunching its entire comic book universe. A couple of characters, such as Batman and Green Lantern, are being left alone for the most part. But some folks are getting new back stories, new origins, and being de-aged a little bit so that we're seeing them at an earlier stage in their career. And nearly everyone is getting a new costume.

In the new status quo, Superman will be the first publicly known superhero of Earth and, as far as the present-day comics are concerned, he has been in operation for about five years. His early days will be featured in the new Action Comics series, where Grant Morrison and Rags Morales will showcase a young Clark Kent as he begins evolving his superhero identity "five years ago." As there has never been any public costumed protectors before in this new continuity, Clark has no model to follow when it comes to how he should look and so his first attempt will be an off-the-rack look. Rather than emulate a 1930s circus strongman, Clark's modernized proto-costume is jeans, a stylized T-shirt he has custom-made with the S-shield, and the blanket he was wrapped in by his biological parents, a sheet of indestructible Kryptonian cloth that he decides to use as a cape.

In the new Superman series, Clark's present day adventures will be presented by George Perez and Jesus Merino. Now an experienced and famous hero, Superman wears not jeans and a T-shirt but rather an armored suit. How he acquires this armor and what its exact origins are will be revealed in the comics. But whatever the case, this is quite a different look for our Man of Steel and the fact that it's meant to be the new standard has divided many fans.

Of course, the Man of Tomorrow has had a few other looks in other media and we've also met various versions of himself and his progeny from parallel worlds and possible futures. But those characters can be looked at in another column at another time. We hope you enjoyed this look at the visual evolution of Superman. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!

Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!

Related Stories

Twitter activity