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.
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.