Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. - SUPERMAN's 21st Century Redesigns


Superman was the first true idea of what we now consider to be a “superhero.” Introduced in 1938 in Action Comics #1 and created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, he has been reinterpreted quite often both in the mainstream comics where he mainly lives and in other media. Kal-El, last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to Earth as a baby and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent to believe in truth and justice, growing up to become Clark Kent AKA Superman.

Superman’s suit has become iconic. Originally, it was simply a costume based loosely on that of a circus strongman of the same era, a suit to emphasize the character’s strength and resiliency, with a cape that added dramatic motion when he leapt and flew. The S-shield was just that, a symbol with his monogram. Later on, the suit was said to be made of indestructible Kryptonian fabrics, constructed from fabrics placed in the rocket that brought baby Kal-El from Krypton to Earth. It was also shown that the Superman costume design was inspired by similar fashion on Krypton, so Superman was basically paying tribute to his heritage. The live-action film, Superman: The Movie, introduced the idea that the S-shield was an alien glyph, a seal of the House of El and Clark’s family legacy. In the wonderful story Superman: Birthright, writer Mark Waid added another layer by saying that the S-shield was also an ancient Kryptonian symbol that meant “hope.”

Despite his longevity, Superman (like any longtime character) has had to evolve to appeal to new audiences and times. Many times in the past decade, people have also applied this to his uniform, seeking to update it for the 21st century. So without further ado, let’s examine the past few years of modern takes on Superman’s classic suit and where they came from.



In 2010, DC published a graphic novel that was marketed as a new take on the Man of Tomorrow that would dismiss all previous continuity and exist in its own separate world (the new Earth One), providing a more grounded and relatable version of Superman for a new generation of readers. Many compared this to the Ultimate Marvel Comics line, which began in 2000 and was separate from the mainstream Marvel Universe, depicting many classic heroes as younger characters who were just starting their careers and whose origins were more grounded in 21st century politics and science.

Superman: Earth One was written by J. Michael Straczynski and drawn by Shane Davis. JMS wanted to bring in a more somber, introverted take on Clark Kent, displaying a 21-year-old who felt aimless as an outsider. This story showed Clark using his abilities to get job offers from major sports teams and scientific research firms, but feeling no real drive to apply himself, convinced he would always be an outsider. Shane Davis’s artwork reflected that, placing Clark in multiple layers of clothing. The idea was for him to look like someone who simply blended in with others in a city such as Metropolis, but he appeared to be hiding as much as blending, which fit the character.


In the world of Earth One, Clark’s adopted father Jonathan believes he should be a hero to the world, a positive force of inspiration and change. His wife, Martha Kent, makes their adopted son a uniform from the indestructible fabrics found in the baby’s rocket. Jonathan and Martha also create the S-shield, which is Jonathan’s idea, because he thinks a brand and a symbol will get across the idea of his identity. Martha feels the “S” stands for Clark being a “son” of two worlds (and of two families), whereas Jonathan says it symbolizes the fact that he is not just a man but is something better, a Superman. Initially, Clark does not want this role, because if he accepts it he will never fully fit in, and he wishes to simply be happy and have a normal life rather then be seen as extraordinary. But circumstances lead to him having to act to save others and he eventually becomes Superman.

Looking at the suit, it is basically the classic design but with a gold border around the S-shield. Not a major change, but not a bad one at all either. I can go either way with having a thin gold border around the symbol or not. Along with this, we have differently-shaped boots, a more realistic design perhaps, and they definitely look heavier than Superman’s boots traditionally appear.


The suit now has seams that add a sense of realism and remind us that someone actually sewed this outfit. They’re a nice touch, and the seams by themselves are not distracting. What is a little distracting is that the seams now border panels on the trousers and shirt that are a darker color for no particular reason. The muted red and near metal-gray tone of the suit have altered this from the bright, primary colored champion who first truly inspired the superhero genre. This is instantly a darker, more somber character, one that doesn’t live in a bright world nor represent one. For this story, it works. But for me personally, it’s not quite Superman. The design is fine, but the colors make it seem a little sad rather than inspirational.

Superman: Earth One – Book Two will be out soon, so be on the lookout at your local comic shops.



Before the Earth One story, the first real attempt to bring the classic Superman costume into the 21st century was on the TV series Smallville. Originally intended to showcase Clark Kent as a teenager in Smallville, dealing with his newly emerging powers, the creators decided on a basic rule: “no tights, no flights.” This was to be a young Clark Kent, not Superboy. Clark could use his powers, but costumed super-villains were not going to be running around Kansas, and Clark wasn’t quite powerful enough to truly be Superman, not yet.

To imply his future status as the primary-colored superhero, the creators often put Clark Kent in red and blue outfits. A red shirt with a blue jacket, or a blue shirt with a red jacket were often used. When Clark was in situations where he had to wear a shirt and tie, the combination again was blue and red.


The show went on longer than anyone had guessed it would, and the people behind the cameras changed. Fully-costumed heroes and villains were now appearing on the TV series and the setting changed from Smallville to the city of Metropolis, now that Clark was older and out of high school. Now he began to truly become a superhero but he still couldn’t fly and he didn’t don the classic threads. Instead, he first wore a dark shirt and trousers along with a trench coat. The only design element here is that he placed his family crest on his shirt, otherwise he looks like he’s just walked out of The Matrix.


Eventually, Clark changed it up yet again and wore a new version of his old blue-shirt-and-red-jacket look, this time with a custom-made jacket decorated by the S-shield. Exactly who made this custom jacket for Clark was never revealed.

After ten seasons, Smallville ended, with Clark finally adopting what appeared to be the classic Superman suit, which was apparently a Kryptonian uniform completely made and ready for him (as had been implied by the film), rather than Kryptonian fabric altered by Martha Kent. Now, a new comic series has begun that acts as the show’s “season 11,” continuing the continuity of this version of the Man of Steel. Written by Brian Q. Miller and illustrated by Pere Perez, Smallville Season 11 reveals that Clark is now sporting a new take on the Superman outfit. At first glance it is similar to the Earth One design, but has simply removed the shorts-outside-the-trousers element.



DC rebooted the majority of their mainstream superhero universe in 2011. Similar to what we saw with the Earth One graphic novel, Superman was now to start over and be reimagined for a new generation of readers. The new, rebooted comic book titles were collectively referred to as the “New 52.” We’ve covered this before, but there’s no reason we can’t have a quick overview, since it fits into this idea of modernizing a character that’s been around for over 74 years.

In the pages of the rebooted Action Comics series, writer Grant Morrison and artist Rags Morales showed us Clark in his early twenties. He was not quite as powerful as the classic idea of Superman yet. Furthermore, he didn’t begin his career in a serious costume. Since the mid-1980s, the official DC continuity said that Superman was not the first superhero of Earth. We saw the same idea used in the cartons of the 1990s and in the TV series Smallville. So when he did become a hero, it made some sense that he would copy the basic model used by costumed adventurers before him.


But the new continuity, Superman has returned to his original role as the first true, public superhero of Earth. As such, he has no costumed role models to follow and so his superhero identity design is drawn up completely from scratch. While it made some sense for him to emulate the design of a circus strongman in 1938, this modern take has him go for something simpler: a few custom T-shirts with the S-shield printed on them, a decent pair of jeans and boots. A banner of the House of El was placed in his rocket ship and young adult Clark uses the indestructible fabric as an extra layer of protection (especially against sneak attacks from behind).

I love this look as Superman’s proto-costume. We still know exactly who he is but it also tells us he’s just starting out. What’s more, it gives a nice nod to Superman’s original status as a working-class hero. As opposed to costumed vigilantes created before him (Zorro, the Green Hornet, the Spider, the Shadow, and the Phantom), he is not a wealthy guy with a fortune and a personal staff. He’s on his own, he has a boss as Clark Kent, and he’s as concerned about fighting corrupt businessmen and gangsters as he is about evil space aliens and shape-shifting mutations.

Some might criticize the outfit seeming too “off-the-rack,” but I think that fits with this era of Superman’s life. He’s young, he’s still figuring things out, still acting impulsively at times. The design displays his youth and rough edges.


Eventually, Superman runs into a situation where he’s faced with enemies who actually have enough raw power to seriously hurt him. But, as luck would have it, he comes across a suit of “Kryptonian bio-tech,” an indestructible uniform that alters its colors and designs based on his thoughts. With this suit acting as an extra layer of armor, Superman became more formidable and got a true uniform at the same time.

This is a fun new take on Superman’s suit being made of Kryptonian materials. If Krypton was so advanced in science, as it is usually shown to be across media, I like the idea that their clothing could be a scientific wonder itself rather than simply fabric that Martha Kent would later be able to stitch and alter with Earthly technology.


Having the suit respond to Clark’s thoughts is also a cool way of simplifying the costume change. Even when it was said that Clark wore his uniform beneath his civilian garb, readers would occasionally wonder just where did his boots go and such. Now, Clark’s suit basically powers down as a t-shirt he wears beneath his shirt. When he presses the S-shield, the full uniform then grows around him, replacing his civilian clothes, rather than the classic explanation of “he hides his suit somewhere” or “he folds up all his clothes into a special pocket inside his cape.” I’m not making up that last explanation either, that was indeed said in several stories.

In general, I’m good with this design. I think the collar is a little high on the neck and I would like a gold belt buckle, but I can live with that. The main misgivings I have are the seams. There are so many seams that it’s distracting and it gives a cluttered look depending on the artist and the angle. I also don’t think we need the suit to look like armor to understand that, like the classic suit, it’s supposed to be indestructible. Superman is tough and he engages in combat pretty frequently, but he’s not a militaristic character and armor implies that.


Earth One’s seams worked because Martha Kent sewed it. If this suit responds to thoughts and grows around a person, why does it need seams? I think it would be more effective to have it look sleek and maybe like liquid metal, emphasizing that it’s made of a fabric not of this world. You could even play with having star fields revealed in the shadows of the folds of the cape.

This outfit may be more realistic for a movie, but this isn’t a movie. It’s a comic book where reality is exaggerated and fabric will do what we tell it to do.

Just my thoughts.

NEW 52 – Earth 2

So Superman’s first serious reboot was in the late 1950s, as the “Silver Age of Comics” began. Later on, readers discovered that most of the Superman stories that were published beforehand were now said to have taken place on a parallel Earth called Earth-2, where Superman (and other heroes) had been born much earlier and had led similar, but not identical, lives.


Recently, DC has brought back this idea, bringing readers a brand-new version of Earth 2, as presented in the new comic series written by James Robinson and with art by Nicola Scott. The new version of Earth 2 Superman looks pretty cool, actually. Some elements are similar to the New 52 mainstream Superman, but he has a streamlined look. What’s more, his S-shield is larger, connecting the cape to the suit, and his neck is exposed just like the classic Superman design, which gives a stronger impression of his muscle-man status.

Really nice design. I’d still prefer a yellow belt buckle, but otherwise this looks really good. It also shows, I think, that you can have a streamlined “costume” instead of “armor” on Superman and still make him seem modern and strong. Some of these elements should definitely work their way into the mainstream.

Also, Nicola Scott’s Earth 2 Wonder Woman looks AMAZING. But that’s a discussion for another time. Hope you enjoyed this look at the past decade’s reimaginings of the Superman suit. Until next time, this is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off.

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