Today issue #1000 of Action Comics was released. Reaching 1000 issues of the Superman featured comic is amazing but what perhaps will stand out most as comic readers look at the various covers is that DC has chosen to put Superman’s red underwear back on the outside of his costume again. I can’t help but ask… why? Is there more to it than just some DC editors’ and fans’ preferences for the look?

Trunks, underwear, underpants, call them what you will, superheroes wearing their underwear over their pants has a long established history, but it has also become a joke. So when DC finally made the change to have this small but obvious update done to Superman’s look back at the launch of the New 52 it just seemed overdue. One can only see why this change was an obvious choice by looking at Brandon Routh’s Superman costume in Superman Returns versus Henry Cavill’s Superman costume in Man of Steel. There are a number of differences but the most obvious is that the ridiculousness of a man wearing little red underwear on the outside is only more obvious when brought into real life.

Two Perspectives

It’s Classic / Nostalgic / Iconic
When the change back to Superman’s trunks was first announced I was confused. Leaving them off seemed so obvious to me and them finally getting rid of them had seemed so overdue that I was flabbergasted at DC putting them back. So I took a poll on the nerd forums I frequent online. To my surprise not only were most people happy to see them back, but it was an overwhelming majority. Of course the survey was just from a small number of people and from a select type of people, those who are nerdy enough to join a forum for comic fans, but nonetheless they loved the red trunks!

I’ve thought about why that is a lot (hey, I’m a guy who writes for a comic website, don’t act surprised that I’m this much of a nerd). The response from many on the forum included calling the trunks “classic”. Nostalgia obviously plays a huge part in our entertainment these days. It’s hard to find a major movie release that’s not based on a previous intellectual property of some sort. Movie studios have all locked in nearly every toy or cartoon brand from the ’80s that I can think of. So a part of it is certainly people just thinking back to how they’ve always known Superman to look in the comics and just being happy to see that look be back.

It’s hard to argue with that. After all, there’s a number of comic characters that have been retconned into the comics trying to play off of the iconic imagery of Superman (The Sentry and Blue Marvel being 2 of Marvel’s more prominent and obvious attempts), so why not keep Superman as Superman. He’s been around for 80 years so maybe he shouldn’t be messed with. Keep him timeless. 
But…

It’s outdated. Can’t anything in comics progress?
The fact though is that Superman has already been updated, many many times. The symbol on his chest has gone through various iterations and his powers have changed over and over as the years passed (most famously he started with only being able to jump very high and progressed to flight). Even the much lauded Crisis on Infinity Earths changed Superman, by changing his very history to essentially get rid of all the bizarre and campy stories the character had been given in the previous decades. 
Still, comics are famous for not letting their characters progress. Characters’ ages are frozen forever so that different generations of fans can all enjoy their favourite hero. And one might argue that it’s just as ridiculous for someone to wear a cape nowadays as it is to wear their underwear on the outside. But the difference is that the cape has become an iconic piece of imagery connected with superheroes in the best way (joke from The Incredibles aside) whereas the underwear on the outside is connected with comics and superheroes nowadays only in mocking them. Little boys tie blankets around their necks as capes when they want to be Superman, they don’t put underwear on over their pants.

Character’s looks should be updated for the sake of the times. Who would be buying Iron Man comics these days if his armour had never been allowed to change from how it looked in the 70’s? Yes nostalgia can be great and some timelessness is needed for comics story telling, but too much just holds the characters back. One infamously awful example of this is One More Day. Marvel’s EIC Joe Quesada wanted Spider-Man locked in the past so desperately that he erased his marriage and many fans have still never forgiven that storyline. Just let some things go.

Beyond that comic studios always say they’re trying to do things to reach new readers and I can’t help but think seeing Superman with his underpants on the outside on comic covers will get a laugh before anything else, especially as such non-comic readers have now become used to seeing him without that look in the films.

But as I said, on my nerd forums the majority of people were very happy to see the trunks return, so maybe I’m in the wrong here. After all the question the editors at DC need to care about isn’t whether I want Superman to have his old look or not, or even whether most people want him to have his old look or not, just whether the people that buy comics want it. I’m glad the fans that want the old look are getting it, but as for me, DC just lowered their chances of selling any more Superman comics. It just looks too campy.

About The Author

Bill Janzen

Bill Janzen started collecting comics at about seven years old. He stopped collecting comics during the '90s, but was drawn back in when his wife Beth, thinking his childhood hobby was cute (and not knowing what she was starting), suggested he should pick a comic book and try to collect it from start to finish. Years and thousands of comic issues later, Bill still loves superheroes. He lives in South-Western Ontario, Canada and when he's not writing reviews for Comics Bulletin or stopping bullets with his mind he is also the pastor of a Baptist church.

2 Responses

  1. Johnny Kaiju

    Bill, I’ll say this about my feelings towards the underpants, but chiefly about your second point regarding stagnation; maybe it will help shed some light on what the polls displayed. Keep in mind this is all my subjective thought process, but it is one I feel a good number of people share.

    When I pick up a book on my favorite hero, in this case Superman, I’m not necessarily looking for something that is on the bleeding edge- I’m mostly looking to read about a character that I know and love. After 80 years of existence and 1000 issues of Action Comics, Superman has firmly cemented himself, his message, and his supporting cast (can’t have a Superman without a Lois) in the hearts and minds of people worldwide, from all walks of life. In that respect, he transcends his status as a comic book character and becomes more of a legendary figure- an archetype. Now, I’m not saying that there is no room for innovation or creativity when dealing with Superman, far from it. The fact that he is an archetype means that he is far more open to reinterpretation and reconstruction than his younger, less established superhero peers- see All Star Superman, Superman: Red Son, Injustice, etc.- he is elastic because he always has a stable form to spring back to. However, these decons/recons/mutations are very different than when DC does something like New 52 in an attempt to “shake things up.” The former are (usually) respectful love letters, or even hate mail, to the beating heart of the character, they feel fresh and new because they are providing a new spin on something we all know. But things like the New 52 feels more like reinventing the wheel. It’s an attempt to force modernization of a character that history has proven time and time again deeply resists such arbitrary changes. DC editorial was putting a blanket over at that point 70 years of history and asking us all to pretend it wasn’t there. To me, Superman is eternal not because he can change with the times, but because he doesn’t need to.

    Now on to the underwear: They’re just a victim of these futile attempts to change something that fundamentally does not need to change. This cycle of quote-unquote “updates,” resistance, and reversion has happened before, too- See Superman Red and Blue and Kryptonite Nevermore, both equally arbitrary attempts to bring Superman into a new era, and both resented by fans and eventually recounted and forgotten about. And before someone (maybe) chimes in with talk about declining sales and a need for new readers I say this: comic sales are declining because they are a print media in a digital world, newspapers and magazines are in a similar boat. Today’s blockbuster movies have introduced the most people to comics since the Golden Age of the 1930s. And in my experience, when someone says they want to read about Superman, they aren’t talking about some sad emo-haired punk in armor- they are talking about the Man of Tomorrow, underwear and all.

    TL:DR: It’s all basically DC tryin’ to fix what ain’t broke.

    Edit: You are probably aware of this, but it’s still worth pointing out that Superman’s… esoteric use of undergarments was based on the traditional outfit of the circus strongman ( https://www.pinterest.com/pin/54184001741726188/ ) who often sported a similar belt/trunks combo.

  2. infamouscrimes

    He looks weird without them. After all this time Superman is too iconic to change. The new 52 costume was terrible for a variety of reasons. The collar made him look like a businessman and all of the unnecessary Spider-Man lines made him look like a cyborg. At least DC listened to their fans, something that Marvel refuses to do.