The Case for Fashion in Comics

I love comics. Frequently, it doesn’t feel like they love me back–but I, like most fans, can take it. I can weather the bloated crossover events, the gimmicky romances, the deaths that you know won’t last before the bullet even leaves the gun. I can take artists who only draw three faces and X-TREME BLOODSHED and a million animal sidekicks.

But god almighty, I am so tired of crappy fashion in superhero comics.

Call it a non-issue. Call it a frivolous concern. I call it a massive missed opportunity and offer the critic an insouciant flip of my hair. When Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim, Lost at Sea) tweeted this a while back, I nearly stood up and cheered: “A cool thing about comics is FASHION = CHARACTER. you can convey personality through clothing. Why do 90% of western artists ignore this.” He gets it–and unsurprisingly, Scott Pilgrim is one of the only Western comics I can think of that uses fashion to effectively convey characterization. Through a character’s clothes, the reader gleans insight into their insecurities, ambitions, social status and more–y’know, the basics of subtle characterization. The titular Scott is a slacker geek dude in reference-happy t-shirts and jeans. Flighty, jaded Ramona is a mercurial hipster pixie with ever-changing hair. Wry Wallace Wells dons monogrammed polos and boxer briefs. Knives Chau starts out a meek schoolgirl in kilts and an overgrown ponytail, then graduates to a slightly-less-innovative version of Ramona’s wardrobe and a big red streak in her hair when trying to win back Scott’s affections. The cast of background characters actually look like the Vertigo-reading, concert-going, Banksy-coffee-table-book owning chic geek set of today and the story is more emotionally resonant because of this immersive realism. THIS MATTERS, YOU GUYS.


But year after year after year, the comics industry ignores it. Male characters are dressed as blandly as possible, or come clad in weird, baggy approximations of early 2000s fashion. Female characters exist in a world where–surprise!–most clothes are tight and sexy, albeit oddly out of date and in clashing colors. Their civilian lives seem more flat and unreal as a result, their emotional entanglements more eyeroll-inducing because honestly, they look like the cast of an old daytime soap. Fashion impacts our lives every day, at every turn–we judge people based on what they wear, where they wear it, and where they bought it, even if we aren’t consciously doing it. When I say I want more thoughtful fashion in comics, I don’t mean that I need every character looking like they stepped off a runway–I mean that I want comic creators to think about who their characters are, what they would be most likely to wear, where they would buy it, their relationship to their body, and how they want the world to see them. I want them to think about their characters on a deeper level. I want them to make good comics.

brave-and-the-bold-33-page-021Good examples of fashion in comics are so rare that I remember them by individual issue, and one such example comes to mind now. Cliff Chiang is a fantastic artist in general, and as I discovered at San Diego Comic-Con 2013, a pretty stylish dude himself. His current work on Wonder Woman features a lot of mindful clothes, but it’s a comic he illustrated in 2010 that really comes to mind. Brave and the Bold #33 featured a melancholy story about Zatanna foreseeing Barbara Gordon’s wheelchair-bound future, thus inspiring her to take Babs and Wonder Woman out for a ladies night of dancing and drinking.

It’s a lovely issue for a lot of reasons, but I found myself truly impressed by the way he dresses the three women for their night on the town. They each wear cocktail dresses that actual real life women would wear today, but moreover, each dress fits each woman. Barbara, pretty young thing that she is, sports a hot pink bandage dress. Zatanna’s look is, appropriately, a little more witchy and avant-garde. Diana wears a draped piece that incorporates more structured, Grecian elements without screaming IT’S WONDER WOMAN SHE’S A GREEK AMAZON, GET IT?! It captures who they are, how they see themselves, and the world they live in simply and succinctly and the issue shines because of it.

Fashion matters. Clothes matter. They inform our social lives, our self image, our class consciousness and our goals. Comic creators owe it to their art to care about this more–there’s a reason other entertainment industries devote entire departments of people to this task. For now, we wait–cringing at a world where every female character owns thirty midriff tops, every little girl has pigtails and puffed sleeves and men can only be the Everyman Hero in jeans or the Billionaire Hero in a generic business suit.

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  1. Again – you’ve given me a new perspective on comics. Something I previously looked for in fashion/costume design was the placement in the world and how it works in reference to exterior elements, especially climate, functionality, and general “what-were-folks-wearing-then”. While I understand why, it still bugs me to see a costumed adventurer who normally works out of a temperate climate suddenly on some mission that takes them into snowy tundras or scorching deserts with no discernable update to their wardrobe. It’s just…impractical (though probably not the most efficient place to begin the impracticality in comic character costume design fight).

    You mentioned Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman – which for me, is a standout with fashion design in current DC/Marvel comics – mostly because it has this fantastic clash of Greek Gods vs. modern no-nonsense necessity. There’s even a fantastic section when it appears Chiang nods to the rapidly abandoned redesign for Diana in 2010 with full pants and short leather jacket. More than anything – I found the slow updates on Hera’s dresses to match where she is to be a fantastic touch.

    Secondly, I’d like to mention the Amanda Conner drawn/Darwyn Cooke written prequel book Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre – all about Laurie’s transformation into the second Silk Spectre. It’s a complex story written and drawn very well by two of the most talented folks in the business – but where it shines is how easily it describes the worlds of the 60s and 70s visually. Early issues read like high-school-crush-laden Archie comics with brutal, emotion-driven beatdowns – complete with pink polos, white headbands and smart belts. Later, this transitions to young 20s discovery, living in a new city and donning bell-bottoms, flower-print, and experimental sex on drugs. These adaptations to the world she is inhabiting and what is represented with what she is wearing all lead up to her donning the Silk Spectre costume – and not for the better, but if you’ve read Watchmen, you knew that was coming.

    I’m sure I can think of more, but they’re aren’t enough. These amazing characters deserve better.

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