Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - Simplifying the DC NEW 52

Agent of S.T.Y.L.E.: The DCnU Simplified

Normally, as frequent readers know, this column deals with choosing a character (or occasionally a group of characters) and discussing the evolution of their style and design of the years. We talk about whether a costume change was done simply because tastes had changed and a new, more modern design was desired. Or if it was a special design to reflect the nature of a story arc. Or if there was twist on the character, changing things like powers, origin, personality, secret identity.

This time around, we're going to look at a select few costumes of DC Comics' "New 52." For those of you folks who don't know, DC Comics decided to revamp the majority of its superhero universe a little over five months back. Many titles were rebooted from scratch; some were presented as jumping on points for new readers featuring the characters as now younger, less experienced heroes with streamlined back-stories. And just about everyone got a new costume. All of this has been featured in 52 new titles (along with a few mini-series here and there).

After the relaunch was announced, I did a two-part piece looking at some of the designs that were shown in preview images. There was only so much we could say about the looks at the time, as it was uncertain how many characters would be getting a change in personality and the atmosphere of their stories, along with altered origins and back stories. Now, we've had some time to get used to it and really think about what works and what doesn't. In the New 52 books, many familiar costumes have been made to appear "more realistic," with visible seams and padding, and some characters are wearing body armor rather than cloth. This can work sometimes and sometimes it just gives a cluttered appearance. Seams and padding are unavoidable, and sometimes visually desired, when making such outfits for a live-action film or TV show. But this is comics, where colorful sleek suits tend to look better. In comics, every visible seam can be an extra black line that distracts the eyes.

So we're trying an experiment this week. I've selected four characters with new designs that I think are just a little bit cluttered. And with some help from the magic of computers, I present simplified versions of the same outfits to prove my point, despite my not being an expert with Photoshop.

 

RED ROBIN

In the previous continuity, Tim Drake was a young man about to enter (or already entering) his 20s. After having operated as the third hero called Robin for years (since he was 14, in fact), he adopted a hooded costume and took on the name of Red Robin, an identity originally used by a hero of a parallel universe. Tim's Red Robin suit was pretty good and utilitarian for the vigilante detective. The biggest problem with it was that it closely resembled the outfit of the hero called Dr. Mid-Nite. And some fans felt that Tim didn't look great with a hooded cowl, and that he should've stuck with a domino mask.

In the New 52, Tim has been de-aged a bit. His career as the third Robin was shorter in this new universe and he's only 17 when he decides to adopt the new identity of Red Robin. After wearing the hooded, Dr. Mid-Nite-esque look for a while, he hung up that costume and got himself a new look. This new suit has actual wings and is equipped to let him soar through the air. He's gone back to a domino mask and he's added several belts and padding to his outfit.

 

As can be seen in the image on the left, Tim no longer looks like Dr. Mid-Nite and he has distinguished himself visually from being confused with the new Robin that serves at Batman's side, all of which is a good thing. Since he's younger, the domino mask helps emphasize that, as we can now see his youthful face and hair.

But the rest of it is a little too busy. So I offer here an alternate take on the right. Remove the extra belts around the stomach that seem to have no real purpose. The harness around the chest I can accept as part of the wings, securing them. The belts on the arms I can also accept as they seem similar to one of Batman's old utility belt designs and could indeed be carrying extra survival gear and weaponry. But the padding on the trousers and the gloves just adds a little too much design. It starts to make Tim look weighed down, which acts against his acrobatic skills and the fact that he can now launch through the air. Remove them, and it's amazing how you truly see Tim now rather than the many decorations of his suit.

THE FLASH

 

Since the 1950s, the Flash has had one of the most iconic costumes in superhero comics. Many writers, artists and fans love the design that Barry Allen wore when he made his debut as the Scarlet Speedster of Central City. It's simple yet so effective. The red is a strong color and provides a sharp contrast with the buildings and scenery that blur in the background as he races past the speed of sound. The lightning bolt trim and emblem not only provide a great visual that indicates the character's speed, but they call back to the source of his power, an accident where lightning, chemicals and fate collided to give Barry his abilities. It's a primal symbol on his chest, familiar to many shamans of the past. The wings on the cowl recall the original Flash of the Golden Age of comics and the god Mercury.

The design has been tweaked now and then, but mainly has been left alone. The wings on the cowl have become more angular. The wings on the boots were removed for a long time. For a time, eye lenses were added to give a blank Batman-like look. The belt has been changed from being a lightning bolt straight across to two lightning bolts that meet in the center. And in the cartoons (and later in the comics), Wally West (the third Flash) added a gold circle around the emblem and made it a simpler bolt design than the one his mentor Barry traditionally uses.

 

In the DC New 52, the Flash's costume is no longer a suit of specialized fabric that is composed largely of trousers and a shirt with a cowl attached. Now, the outfit is in several pieces that fuse together when the hero needs to suit up, fused by the Speed Force energies that empower him. As such, the costume now has several seams to indicate where the different pieces fit, seams that are designed to look like lightning bolts. So we have the lightning of the belt, the glove trim, and the emblem and now lots of thin lightning bolts all over the place as well. And that's just a bit too much.

The new design is not a deal-breaker. Francis Manapul has been drawing the Flash title both before and after the New 52. He gave us a great Flash beforehand and he gives us a great Flash now. I just think we don't need all these extra lines. The idea is that the seams light up with energy when the Flash is in motion, but when he's standing around they just seem unnecessary. It's not something that breaks the costume. The Flash still looks good. But I think he looks more streamlined without those seams, as displayed in the altered image on the right. Giving him a sleeker appearance is effective when dealing with a character that's supposed to symbolize speed and freedom.

 

We can see here, on the left, a drawing Manapul did before the New 52 and, on the right, the new Flash he's been drawing recently. While the seams do look better when they're lit up, I still think they make this costume a bit too busy. The Flash's speed energy now seems a bit too erratic and distracting to me rather than something powerful and focused. Lightning may strike at random, but the Flash doesn't. He's a cool, collected crime lab scientist who moonlights as a superhero with precise strategy and goal.

I will say, however, that the new boots are very cool. The wings aren't really needed there and the seams work well, emphasizing that this is specialized running gear. Likewise, the kneepads are okay since if anyone needs to protect his knees from sudden impact that may result from losing his footing, it's the hero who can outrun a bullet. And the symbol now being raised and having a gold border works as well. Its presence implies that this suit is made of a special material that can resist the friction of high speeds rather than something that can be confused with normal cloth.

WONDER WOMAN

 

Princess Diana of Paradise Island AKA Wonder Woman is a character that is constantly altering and tweaking her costume. She first appeared with culottes, though at times it appeared to be a skirt. Then she got shorts. Then she traded her boots in for sandals. Later on, the eagle on her chest was altered to more closely resemble a W. Later still, the costume went from looking like cloth to having a couple of seams added to imply the thickness of something similar to leather. And so on. There have also been various stories where Diana has sported alternate versions, some involving a true skirt or a cape, and in some adventures she's worn full on battle armor that reminds us this is a warrior from a society of Amazons that still embrace the styles of Ancient Greece.

 

Wonder Woman's new design is a different case than the others we've talked about. For the most part, I've come to enjoy this new costume. I personally prefer Diana in gold rather than silver, but I can live with silver. The way Cliff Chiang draws the Amazon warrior princess in the series Wonder Woman is great. The eagle-W is truly a chest guard, providing some protection with its size, higher placement and implied weight. The bracelets have truly been replaced by bracers; something that immediately tells us this lady is ready for combat. I'm not sure if I prefer blue to the near black of the shorts and boots now, but it's a change I can live with since the dark color is not the dominant element of Diana's suit.

 

I wonder though if taking away most of the seams might still be a good idea. The thing with this costume is that its impression can really alter depending on the artist. Cliff Chiang draws the top in such a way that I believe it's a leather shirt of some kind. In the pages of Justice League, Jim Lee draws Wonder Woman well but by having so many extra seams, the top now seems more akin to a decorative bustier. And with heavy crosshatching and/or shadows, the seams get a little distracting and can cause the stars to be lost in all the noise. I also think the seams on the shorts don't need to be there at all.

By simplifying the suit, it could make it easier for different artists to be on the same basic page about how Diana appears and whether this should look like something fashionable or something meant for protection. The images on the right show how taking away the extra seams also helps the stars stand out. There are other differences that are dependent on the artist, of course. The size of the eagle-W changes with Lee and he has Diana wear a thin, W-shaped tiara whereas Chiang draws one that looks like it has enough weight to be a weapon and can protect her forehead effectively from blunt attacks. Such details are really up to individual taste and are sometimes unavoidable since artist, naturally, like to put their own spin on characters they draw.

SUPERMAN

 

Kal-El, the last survivor of Krypton, who was sent to Earth and raised as Clark Kent, growing up to become the first true comic book superhero. Superman's costume went through a few changes in his early years, but by the mid-1940s it had achieve what we now consider the classic look. A blue bodysuit with red trunks and boots decorated by an M-shaped trim. Open collar where his cape could be tucked in. A stylized S-shield bordered by a shape similar to a diamond, the hardest substance on Earth. It's possibly the most recognized superhero costume out there and inspired the initial wave of superheroes to emerge afterward, as well as many that have followed in the decades since. It's so recognized it's almost considered the generic superhero design by some people today. So changing it is not something to take lightly.

In the pages of Action Comics, reader have seen that Superman's initial look is really just a t-shirt and jeans with a cape. It works as a proto-costume, showing that Clark Kent, as the first public superhero of Earth, has no model to base his design on and so his first attempt is a minimalist approach. Eventually though, Clark adopts a suit of what appears to be Kryptonian armor and it is this suit that he currently wears in the other series, simply entitled Superman.

 

Many fans have been against this design, citing first that Superman, as one of the most powerful people on Earth, does not need armor. Personally, I'm more concerned with the fact that armor can often imply "military" and Clark is not a military figure nor does he see himself as a warrior or an authority. He's here to help and his bright, primary colors symbolize the optimism that guides him and the fact that he's deliberately not hiding in the shadows, knowing people already have enough reason to fear someone like him.

However, whether it's military or not, the suit is apparently from Krypton and I can understand Clark wanting to connect to some part of his heritage. And perhaps there's a more practical reason for the armor that we haven't learned yet. So let's just put that aside for now. Looking at the suit, there are some aspects I like. The collar on Superman seemed strange at first, but I've come to like it. Superman is a natural leader, an inspirational force that the other heroes tend to follow during times of crisis. Now he looks a little more the part. Yes, some people make the comparison to the Star Trek uniforms but let's face it, you can compare any collared look to Star Trek or the military, so it's not even worth mentioning at this point. I also very much like the deeper saturation of the colors. Many artists, particularly in the last few years it seems, have given Superman's costume a sky blue or baby blue shade. I prefer him in a deep blue. It makes him seem bolder, more powerful. The raised S-shield I also have no problem with. Other artists have done it in the past and it can work.

 

But all those seams. They're just distracting. It might be realistic for human armor to have visible seams, but if this suit is the product of Kryptonian technology, then I can accept that it’s made of some wonderfully seamless material that defies what we expect from fabric. If it's alien, it doesn't have to obey any rules of cloth we know. So we can get rid of all those distracting lines, leaving us with the image on the right. Now the suit seems bolder, less constrictive.

Another problem with implying "armor" too strongly is that Superman's most visually alluring power, and the one that he is most renowned for, is flight. He fell to Earth from the sky and he launches back into it on a regular basis. He's an angel who came from the stars to save us. Don't let him look heavy and weighted down for the sake of seeming more formidable. The coolness (and, in a way, scariness) of Superman is that he doesn't need weapons or a lot of aid to be powerful and deliver damage. He IS the weapon. Let him convey that with his actions and face, you don't need knee pads and visible padding. This is the one redesign I feel most strongly about. Get rid of those seams and man, that is a sharper looking suit.

 

And that's currently all we're looking at from the DC Universe New 52. If you enjoyed these, perhaps we can do some more in the future. Let us know your thoughts. Also, I'd like to say that I will be looking at cosplay costumes now and will occasionally feature really well done interpretations of certain characters. Feel free to send your cosplay photos to SizzlerKistler@gmail.com. Please note, this is for cosplay. If you just have a design sketch for a character redesign, we are not looking for those.

That wraps us up for now. This last image has nothing to do with anything, it's just a fun crossover image I did on Photoshop because it's something I would love to see. Enjoy it for what it is. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.

Related Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. columns:

Alan Sizzler Kistler is an actor and freelance writer living in New York City. His work can be found on various websites and he has been recognized by publishers and news media outlets as a comic book historian and Doctor Who historian. He is the author of the Unofficial Game of Thrones Cook Book (coming out in May) and a contributor to the book Star Trek and History, coming soon. He knows entirely too much about superheroes, time travel stories, Muppets, and vampires. His website is AlanKistler.com and his twitter feed is @SizzlerKistler.

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