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Cleavage, In A Crimefighting Sense

15 September 2010 3,460 Views One Comment author: Matthew Kessen

ww-newIt was the announcement from a major comic book publisher that split the Internet in half. Or the one for that week, anyway. Actually, it was really the one for that month – the announcement was that big. We refer here, of course, to the announcement that they were radically changing Wonder Woman’s costume. The ever-shrinking strapless one-piece swimsuit that the Amazon princess had worn into battle for over half a century was to be a thing of the past. In its place, a red, striped shirt, a jacket, and a choker. And pants. Pants! To think that we had lived to see such times.

Many immediately hailed the decision as a bold new direction. Here we had a woman dressed like somebody you might see on the street. You might remark on how loud her shirt was, or point at the choker and make a joke about 15-year-old girls in 1993, but these would be quibbles. Whereas the old Wonder Woman outfit, stripped of its context and presented in the real world, would have been the day-to-day garb of a lunatic, and more than a little impractical besides. Of course, the same could be said of most superhero outfits. Until we see footage of our fighting men and women overseas or our cities’ constabulary clad in brightly colored, individualized tights1, we must accept that these are not reasonable outfits for persons expecting combat.

The apparent mandatory issuing of spandex to anybody caught in a radiation accident or born with the ability to turn bricks into chickens or whatever really does strain credulity. To offset the ridiculousness, superhero suits do come with their own justifications. These tend to fall into certain categories:

-        You (the superhero) are looking to produce an emotional effect. Batman dresses up like a bat in order to scare the crap out of his quarry, which seems maybe a little half-baked until you remember what a superstitious and cowardly lot those criminals really are. Captain America is a walking American flag, a one-man USO show. He’s a symbol for the troops, and when you’re a symbol of fighting, we might as well take a look at the musculature.

-        The suit is your power. Without his unusual garment, Iron Man is just some drunk. Venom is just some journalist who doesn’t think much of Peter Parker. The Rhino is just some beefy guy with no horn on his head whatsoever. Doctor Doom is just some random despot and sorcerer. And so on.

-        You wear the uniform with pride. For some reason, when a super-team decides to all dress alike – like the Fantastic Four, or the New Mutants, remember them? – there’s a tendency for them to dress in relatively simple clothing, tight but not impossibly so, like somebody from Star Trek. And looking like someone from Star Trek is weird, but really not as weird as wearing a one-piece so tight that it saves your x-ray technician a lot of trouble. 2

-        You are at least nominally a member of a profession that always dresses like this. A lot of martial-arts-themed characters just go around in their gis, which is, of course, just fine. Zatanna dresses like a cross between a stage magician and a stage magician’s assistant. And let’s not forget NFL Superpro. On second thought, let’s.

-        Your mother dresses you funny. Oh, you want this power ring that instantly creates a green-energy version of anything you can imagine? Terrific – put this on. Robin, if you want to punch suspected criminals all night with me, you’re wearing this cape and that’s final. Well, I’m sorry you don’t like the dashing white half-cape, Billy, but nobody’s forcing you to yell out my name.

Kate Beaton, of "Hark! A Vagrant," drew this. Though not for us. Check her out.

Kate Beaton, of "Hark! A Vagrant," drew this. Though not for us. Check her out.

-        You are from Crazyland. And there’s a lot of Crazyland in comics to hail from. Mars, Atlantis, Wakanda, Thanagar, the Negative Zone, Apokolips, the Savage Land, and so on and so forth. And it only stands to reason that made-up faraway lands would have their own made-up traditions and customs of attire. In Kill Bill Volume 2, Quentin Tarantino goes so far as to propose that Superman dresses as he does because he’s a space alien – a charming if somewhat improbable idea. And Wonder Woman is from Themyscira, where the ladies wear no pants.

And so the old Wonder Woman actually passes the justification test. But of course she roundly fails the functionality test. Shoulder-straps alone would help with this to an almost infinite degree, just to keep the damned thing on, for this woman who does athletic stuff all the time. Wearing the brightest colors imaginable mainly just makes one easier to target. And she has access to a lightweight, entirely bullet-repelling metal, and bracelets seemed like enough?

Of course, any of this functionality would be at the expense of skin, and that is – or was – out of the question. Nearly all major comic-book characters possess wildly idealized bodies, but it’s mainly just the women who must wear tiny outfits, and for whom idealization is precisely equivalent to pronounced sexual characteristics. Of all of the issues with Wonder Woman’s classic outfit, it is perhaps this one that is the least defensible.

Yet for every fanboy and fangirl hailing a new, less absurd Wonder Woman suit, there is at least one who despises it. This is the balance of things, the circle of life; for every hater there must be an equal and opposite hater, hating the hatred of hater number one.

For most of the defenders of the original suit, this is a simple matter of liking things the way they are, and not wanting to see things changed. Nostalgia, for good or ill, is an incalculably powerful factor in comic-book fandom. It is resistance to change that keeps characters from ever staying dead, or altering their world-views for very long, or even aging much at all. Some would lay the blame for this lack of real change at the feet of the publishers, accusing them of storytelling cowardice, of diluting the potential of their own characters in order to placate the worst demands of the fans. The companies would doubtless retort that they do as the market demands, that innovation is punished. Presumably, both views are correct, and what we have here is a snake devouring its own tail.

jimmyIncidentally, the very lack of real change in mainstream comics renders the entire debate that we here address just a little bit absurd. Wonder Woman’s old costume will be back, and back to stay. Oh, they may well be swearing up and down that it won’t, sure, but they’ve been doing that sort of thing for fifty years. In the Silver Age, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a cover in which Superman was saying something like “Oh no! Lois has changed into a centaur/licensed phrenologist/grilled cheese sandwich, and she can never be changed back!” Suffice it to say, she could. It’s all part of the salesmanship, the production of an air of gravitas which then collapses to dust if you look at it cross-eyed.

But we really mustn’t be too hard on the fans or the companies for this sort of inertia. Familiarity breeds comfort, and comfort is at the heart of the resonance of the heroic narrative; we need the idea of heroes to reassure us (or convince us in the first place) that human endeavor is not wasted, that good can triumph over evil, that there are people who can fix a broken world. It’s a perfectly reasonable sort of thing to desire.

Good comics are, of course, not only comforting, but exciting, imaginative – and this brings us to perhaps the most potent objection to the new costume. So Wonder Woman’s classic costume was not very realistic – fair enough. But then Wonder Woman is a person who can lift a car over her head, due in part to her personal association with the Olympian gods. Perhaps realism is not what we’re here for. What is thought of in these circumstances as ‘realism’ might also be called ‘lack of imagination’ – or at least of the sort of wild, broad, gonzo imagination that superhero comics exist to fulfill. How long can an idea like ‘superheroes’ survive when faced with a suspension of disbelief so narrow as to force Wonder Woman – Wonder Woman - to dress like a real person?

Edited by Tracy McCusker.

  1. With the women’s showing a lot of skin
  2. Of course, some artists cannot help but show us every inch of Mister Fantastic’s pointlessly excellent muscle toning; but these same artists generally can’t draw a housefly without throwing on some pecs.

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