For Comics Week, The A.V. Club invited three comic-book professionals to discuss the value of fashion design: Kris Anka (artist on Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men, character designer for Marvel), Sophie Campbell (artist on IDW’s Jem And The Holograms, creator of Oni’s Wet Moon), and Ming Doyle (artist of Vertigo’s The Kitchen, co-writer of DC’s Constantine: The Hellblazer).
Oliver Sava: A person’s wardrobe says a lot about their personality, and as a visual medium, comic books have a lot to gain from smart, varied costume design. Artists have limitless possibilities when it comes to creating a strong personal style for their characters, and while there has been some significant industry growth in this regard, there are still plenty of artists who don’t take advantage of the power of fashion. It’s not hard to guess why: Creating a full wardrobe for a cast of characters takes a lot of time, and it’s easier to default to basic ensembles rather than coming up with an assortment of looks that each function as an extension of an individual.
But times are changing. Thanks to the internet, it’s less difficult for artists to research and find inspiration for costume designs, and as younger creators start to incorporate a wider array of ensembles into their character’s wardrobes, established comic artists have stepped up their game to stay current in a shifting landscape. As a result, characters are becoming a lot more fashionable, or at least more in tune with their own distinct personal style.
This focus on style to inform character has a big impact on civilian clothes, but it’s also becoming a bigger priority with superhero costume design. Jamie McKelvie’s redesign for Captain Marvel took inspiration from Air Force flight suits for a costume that was much more functional than Carol Danvers’ previous “one-piece swimsuit with a sash” look, giving her an appearance that emphasized her military background rather than the curves of her body. Cameron Stewart and Robbi Rodriguez’s designs for Batgirl and Spider-Gwen, respectively, are hip, highly cosplay-able ensembles that highlight the youthful, scrappy perspective of the two heroines.
Kris Anka, Sophie Campbell, and Ming Doyle are three creators doing exceptional work with superhero and civilian costume design in comics: Anka has given a number of Marvel superheroes dramatic costume redesigns; Campbell’s work on Jem And The Holograms channels ’80s flair while maintaining a modern edge; and Doyle’s evocative costumes for The Kitchen are a key element in realizing that book’s 1970s Hell’s Kitchen setting. Whether drawing superheroes, pop stars, or mobsters, these three artists all bring remarkable specificity to their costume designs, which makes their characters considerably more engaging on the page.
Kris, as somebody that works primarily in superhero comics, what do you view as the major distinctions between designing civilian clothes for a character versus designing a superhero costume? Is there anything you wish more artists considered when designing characters and their wardrobes?
Kris Anka: For me, I feel the major distinction between superhero costumes and civilian clothes is the theater of it. Something that I’ve always gravitated to superhero comics for, and something I feel it does well, is the outlandishness. This is a place where clothes can light on fire, and stretch, and be bulletproof spandex. There is a sense of levity with these elements that I feel good superhero designs take advantage of, and something I feel both Ming and Sophie are incredible at.
The great shift in costume design I’m seeing is that designers are able to take this notion, but apply the character to it. A design doesn’t just work for every character even if it’s a good design. The character must come first and that establishes the parameters of where the design is going to go. I feel it’s a missed opportunity if a superhero design goes full practical (even in films). It’s visually boring and it removes the element of what superhero comics excel at: the over-the-top theater. Jack Kirby’s designs are classic and iconic not because they work in our world, but because they are incredible to look at.
Working on predominately X-Men, I’ve almost entirely been focused on the theater of the design, rather than any level of practicality. But this presents the problem of trying not to go overboard. By throwing out the practicality of a design out the window, it can be very easy to just slip into the descent of a costume going overboard and looking hideous.
Something I find with these new designs that are really resonating (Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen) is that the focus isn’t really on how they work, it’s the visual captivation of the costume. I still don’t know how Gwen gets into that suit, but it doesn’t matter because of how striking it is. We know immediately who that character is and that should be the design’s first goal (it’s also easy to draw, which doesn’t hurt). What do you think Ming and Sophie, coming from a more grounded-fashion books?
Sophie Campbell: I don’t really differentiate between costumes and regular clothes in my work; I feel like they’re the same thing. Granted, I haven’t worked on any DC or Marvel comics where the characters usually have a specific singular design—the closest things I’ve worked on are Glory and Shadoweyes, both of which are kind of off the beaten path. The costumed characters in both of those change costumes throughout the story, so even though the costumes are more fantastical or sillier than regular civilian clothes, I still think of them as outfits that change from day to day.
Part of that is that I get bored with one design, so in my head I have Glory decide to put on a different costume that day, or in Shadoweyes, her main costume gets progressively ripped and shredded throughout the story so it’s always changing and I never get bored of it. All the costumed characters I’ve worked on have multiple costumes—even when I worked on Ninja Turtles, I changed all their gear and ninja bandages. Maybe boredom is a bad way to approach superhero design, I don’t know.
If there had to be a difference between them in my work, I tend to design regular clothes with “I would wear this/I wish I was hot enough to wear this” in mind, while being costumes I’d never wear, period (Glory’s magical knight armor aside). If I ever do a Marvel book I wonder if they’d let me give Marrow eight different costumes. If I worked on Hulk, I’d give him 10 different pairs of pants. On the other hand, if I had the design sense that Kris has, maybe I’d settle on more singular looks. Do you guys ever get bored of your own designs like I do and feel compelled to change them up so you can stay interested and keep it fun for yourself?
Ming Doyle: I also haven’t had a ton of opportunities to draw traditional superhero costumes, and I’ve only redesigned or tweaked them for my own personal gratification. I did participate in several contests held by Project: Rooftop when I first started getting into comics though, and while my submissions there are all years old now and I’d probably do everything differently, it was very freeing to focus on the visual “captivation” of a familiar costume, as Kris said.
When I thought about how my version of the Super-family might look, for example, I knew I wanted to emphasize what I thought was most cool about them, which was their almost dynastic regality, as well as their alien roots. That meant turning the iconic “S” symbol of the House Of El into a more graphic, overtly design element. I reduced it to parallel bars of gold, basically, and then carried that angular, delineated approach over into the rest of their costumes. Piping, side-vents, and bold, architectural seams.
Likewise, with Wonder Woman I thought the focus should be on the coolest aspects of her character, namely that she’s a semi-divine Grecian ultimate fighting princess, essentially. I’m a huge sucker for Greek mythology and I really wanted to see her with some good old-fashioned heroic garb, so I turned her bracelets into vambraces and gave her bits of leather armor and wrappings to match. I also threw in some softer blue-dyed material, thinking maybe that could be a touch from the Themysciran royal family. But ultimately, if she shrugged the armor, robes, and regalia off, what she’d be left with would be a black leotard and some shit-kicking boots, perfect for more low-key missions.
So my take on superhero designs is that the costume should a) look cool, b) be recognizably a reflection of that character’s background and what they stand for, and c) be fun and easy enough to draw over and over forever and ever… until the next redesign.
Now something like The Kitchen, which is set in our world and is completely period-dependent, was just a dream. I was dealing with normal people, fashionable street-level women in ’70s New York City, and by far what I loved most about working on a book like that was being able to have the women change “costumes” completely from scene to scene. I got to imagine what each character’s complete wardrobe would look like, and then mentally shop it whenever I wanted. Sequined blouses, wrap dresses, and the most high-waisted of wide-legged trousers. For these women, it didn’t matter so much what they were wearing—the clothing is more scene-dressing than focal point. Regular people have the luxury of not being public symbols of much of anything, for the most part, so they don’t have to dress to so obviously match their insides.
OS: As a reader, seeing that kind of variety in costuming definitely keeps me more engaged, and I think that’s because of the connection between character and wardrobe. Style is so personal, so the more specificity I see in a character’s costume design, the more real they become. The cast of Brian Michael Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men really came to life when Kris drew them in street clothes for a “girls’ night out” issue, and I wish every superhero comic devoted that kind of attention to the characters’ civilian wardrobes. The original Jem And The Holograms cartoon was so strongly rooted in the fashion of the time that I expected no less from Sophie’s work on the new series, and the costuming has been essential for modernizing those characters while maintaining their established personalities.
An original story like The Kitchen can benefit greatly from smart fashion design, and Ming’s work with the costumes in that book does a lot of the legwork when it comes to quickly establishing the characters and settings. Architecture, vehicles, and interior décor definitely play a part in immersing the reader in the ’70s setting, but none of those are quite as valuable as the costuming. Characters can be standing in a completely empty room, but if they’re wearing era-specific attire, the time period can be roughly estimated.
And fashion extends beyond just the clothing. All three of you do really great work with hair, which is another quick visual indicator of a character’s personality. Long, flowing hair creates a different impression than a bob or a pixie cut, and understanding hair styling is a valuable skill for an artist to have. Kris, based on the preview art, it looks like Carol Danvers will finally be committing to short hair for your upcoming run on Captain Marvel with writers Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas. Was there any big reasoning behind that decision or was it done mostly because it looks good? One of my only issues with Carol’s time as Captain Marvel is that her hair was constantly changing length depending on the artist.
And while talking about Carol, I wanted to bring up the big costume-related controversy of this year, which involved Image co-founder and Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen criticizing the recent redesigns for Captain Marvel, Spider-Woman, Batgirl, and Ms. Marvel on Twitter. His major complaint was that they are “bulky and clumsy and unattractive,” which is silly because the first thing I think about when I see those character designs is how sleek, functional, and flattering they are to those characters without being exploitative in any way. Women have been gratuitously over-sexualized in superhero comics for decades, largely by putting them in superhero costumes that were either skin-tight catsuits or variations on a swimsuit. As superhero publishers try to become more inviting to a larger audience, they’re realizing that women and girls want to see female characters that aren’t a reflection of male desire, which has led to a refreshing new perspective on female superhero costume design.
What did you all think of Larsen’s comments? Do you think there’s any legitimacy to his concerns regarding changes in superhero design? It’s interesting that he only criticizes the redesigns of women and doesn’t go after any men.
KA: So yeah, cutting Carol’s hair was a very deliberate decision, and definitely a large part was the problem you mentioned. No one knew what Carol’s actual haircut was supposed to be. Pick any three random books with her in it and you will get wildly different interpretations. Getting the look of Carol locked down was one of the very first things Sana [Amanat, Captain Marvel editor] and I talked about, even before I took the actually gig. So we knew we had to create the definitive hairstyle for Carol, but going with the short cut was due to a few different factors.
The first and simplest was this was a cut I really liked for Carol. Ever since I saw that first cover Ed Mcguinness drew of Captain Marvel where she had the short butch cut, I loved it. The second factor was the fact that the story we were going to tell in the book was going to take Carol into a new chapter in her life, one where she had more authority. We wanted to bring a “new-ness” to her. Show that this is almost a fresh new status quo, and for most people, an easy way to feel that freshness is a change of hair style. Sana, Tara, Michele, and myself actually went through about seven different hair cuts at that certain length to get what we wanted; a balance of cleanliness, a military vibe, as well as unmistakably feminine.
As for the comments about the recent redesigns, I find there is zero legitimacy in them. We have entered a new age with these designs where the looks of characters are now being approached with respect so that the characterization is what is the focus, as opposed to the sex appeal. A majority of designs for female characters are being done now by designers with a variety of styles, so it’s unavoidable that not everyone will love all the designs out there. This is natural and just the risk of working on any product that has an audience, let alone a product that involves characters that people have a deep connection to.
Not liking a design is one thing, but it’s fine to admit that a design isn’t targeted at you as the audience. It’s entirely different to state the design is ugly as a matter of fact, because this is all subjective. We don’t see a lot of men complaining about the designs of male characters because a majority of them were designed by guys as an empowerment fantasy, not for sexual objectification, but now they don’t like their sexual objects being taken away by other people and turned into their own empowerment fantasy.
SC: I don’t think it’s legit at all, no. I agree that it’s telling that people only go after the women’s costumes. There are ridiculous guidelines heaped on female characters, especially superheroes, to be hyper-exaggerated, silly, sexed-up all the time, that when a character shows up who isn’t that, it’s jarring to these types of fans and they don’t know what to make of it. On one hand, it’s different strokes for different folks, but again it’s telling that a lot of male fans only go after Batgirl and Captain Marvel or whatever.
They’re coming from a standpoint like, “This character isn’t presented in a way that I find physically appealing, and I don’t like it”—at the risk of me sounding mean. And they don’t like that the characters they see as being made for them are being targeted at someone else. And I don’t mean to say you can’t criticize character designs, but the sort of criticism Larsen and these sorts of readers have is just plain old sexist—you can’t explain your way around it. I guess it’s kind of an old guard thing; they haven’t adjusted yet and they don’t like seeing how things are changing. Personally I get kind of a smug thrill seeing guys complain like this.
MD: Yeah, I can really only agree with Kris and Sophie’s comments. If you’re going to complain about redesigns, I don’t think you can focus your critique exclusively on one gender without appearing to have a biased viewpoint. Granted, redesigns of male characters might on the whole be slightly fewer than female characters, but that also points to the imbalanced emphasis on appearance even superwomen are burdened with.
I was actually thinking about this while watching The Death Of “Superman Lives.” My memory may be off here, but the only woman I can recall appearing in the documentary was costume designer Colleen Atwood. She had a lot of interesting things to share from a technical standpoint about her version of the redesigned costume, but what ultimately stayed with me was all the commentary from the male interviewees about how terrible Superman’s original costume was. They all wanted to “take him out of the undies” or “get him out of that ballet outfit.”
It just all struck me as rather homophobic and misogynist. None of these men gave any insight as to what they would consider a better design, they just didn’t like Superman’s uniform because it highlights his crotch, essentially. Personally, I think that removing the red shorts draws even more attention to the area. The red actually serves to break up that expanse of expressionless blue, it defines his form and gives him an iconic look. But I also don’t think there’s anything distasteful about the traditionally ideal male physique. I like the circus strongman and traditional boxer look.
For these women characters to be redesigned, I can actually see how some people might object to that as being too concerned with updating appearances. If Batman gets to wear his outfit for 70 years, how come Captain Marvel has to go through these iterations? But in a lot of cases, yeah, the redesigns are affording a level of thoughtfulness and I’d say even dignity to a lot of these characters.