The time has come to propose, or confront, a fundamental truth: like the being who wears it, the superhero costume is, by definition, an impossible object. It cannot be.
The superhero costume as drawn disdains the customary relationship in the fashion world between sketch and garment. It makes no suggestion. It has no agenda. Above all it is not waiting to find fulfilment as cloth draped on a body. This illusionary quality of the drawn costume can be readily seen if we attempt to delimit the elements of the superhero wardrobe, to inventory its minimum or requisite elements.
We can start by throwing away our masks. Superman, arguably the first and the greatest of all costumed heroes, has never bothered with one, nor have Captain Marvel, the Human Torch, Wonder Woman, the Mighty Thor, Storm or Supergirl. These individuals go around bareheaded, which suggests we can also safely dispense with our gauntlets (whether finned, rolled, or worn with a jaunty slash at the cuff).
Capes have been an object of scorn among discerning superheroes at least since 1974, when, having abandoned his old career as an act of protest over Vietnam and Watergate, Captain America briefly took on the nom de guerre Nomad, dressed himself in a piratical ensemble of midnight blue and gold, and brought his first exploit as a stateless hero to an inglorious end by tripping over his own flowing coat.
So let’s lose the cape. As for the boots – we are not married to the boots. After all, Iron Fist sports a pair of kung-fu slippers, the Spirit wears black brogues, Zatanna works her magic in stiletto heels, and the Beast, Ka-Zar, and Mantis wear no shoes at all. Perhaps, though, we had better hold on to our unitards, crafted of some nameless but readily available fabric that, like a thin matte layer, at once coats and divulges the splendour of our musculature. Assemble the collective, all-time memberships of the Justice League (and Society) of America, the Avengers, the Defenders, the Invaders, the X-Men, and the Legion of Superheroes (let us not forget the Legion of Substitute Heroes), and you will probably find that almost all of them, from Nighthawk to the Chlorophyll Kid, arrive wearing some version of the classic leotard-tights ensemble. And yet – not everyone. Not Wonder Woman, in her star spangled hot pants and WPA bustier; not the Incredible Hulk or Martian Manhunter or the Sub-Mariner.
Consideration of the last-named leads us to cast a critical eye, finally, on our little swim trunks, worn typically with a belt, pioneered by Kit Walker, the Phantom of the old newspaper strip, and popularised by the super trendsetter of Metropolis. The Sub-Mariner wears nothing but a Eurotrashy green Speedo, suggesting that, at least by the decency standards of the old Comics Code, this minimal garment marks the zero degree of superheroic attire. And yet, of course, The Flash, Green Lantern and many others make do without trunks over their tights; the eschewal of trunks in favour of a continuous flow of fabric from legs to torso is frequently employed to lend a suggestion of speed, sleekness, a kind of unadorned modernism. And the Hulk never goes around in anything but those tattered purple trousers.
So we are left with, literally, nothing at all: the human form, unadorned, smooth, muscled, and ready, let’s say, to sail the starry ocean of the cosmos on the deck of a gleaming surfboard. A naked spacefarer, sheathed in a silvery pseudoskin that affords all the protection one needs from radiation and cosmic dust while meeting Code standards by neatly neutering the wearer, the shining void between the legs serving to signify that one is not (as one often appears to be when seen from behind) naked as an interstellar jaybird.
Here is a central paradox of superhero attire: from panther black to lantern green, from the faintly Hapsburg pomp of the 1950s-era Legion of Superheroes costumes to the Mad Max space grunge of Lobo, from sexy fishnet to adamantium, the superhero costume ultimately takes its deepest meaning and serves its primary function in the depiction of the naked human form, unfettered, perfect and free. The superheroic wardrobe resembles a wildly permutated alphabet of ideograms conceived only to express the eloquent power of silence.
A public amnesia, an avowed lack of history, is the standard pretence of the costumed superhero. From the point of view of the man or woman or child in the street, looking up gape-mouthed at the sky and skyscrapers, the appearance of a new hero over metropolis or New York or Astro City is always a matter of perfect astonishment. There have been no portents or warnings, and afterward one never learns anything new or gains any explanations.
The story of a superhero’s origin must be kept secret, occulted as rigorously from public knowledge as the alter ego, as if it were a source of shame. Superman conceals, archived in the Fortress of Solitude and unvisited by any but him, not only his own history – the facts and tokens of his birth and arrival on Earth, of his Smallville childhood, of his exploits and adventures – but the history of his Kryptonite family and indeed of his entire race. Batman similarly hides his own story and its proofs in the trophy chambers of the Batcave.
In theory, the costume – as different from the dull garb of our former existence as we have become from those abandoned selves – forms a part of the strategy of concealment. But, in fact, the superhero’s costume often functions as a kind of magic screen on to which the repressed narrative may be projected. No matter how well he or she hides its traces, the secret narrative of transformation, of rebirth from the confines of the ordinary, is given up by the costume. Often the secret narrative is hinted at with a kind of enigmatic, dreamlike obviousness right on the hero’s chest or belt buckle, in the form of the requisite insignia. Superman’s “S” shield, we have been told, only coincidentally stands for Superman: In fact the emblem is the coat of arms of the ancient Kryptonian House of El from which he descends. A stylized bat alludes to the animal whose chance flight through an open window sealed Bruce Wayne’s fate; a lightning bolt encapsulates the secret history of Captain Marvel; an eight-legged glyph immortalises the bug whose bite doomed Peter Parker to his glorious and woebegone career.
We say secret “identity” and adopt a series of cloaking strategies to preserve it; but what we are actually trying to conceal is a narrative; not who we are, but the story of how we got that way – and by implication, of all that we lacked, and all that we were not, before the spider bit us. And yet at the same time, as I have suggested, our costume conceals nothing, reveals everything: it is our secret skin, exposed and exposing for all the world to see. Superheroism is a kind of transvestisism; our superdrag serves at once to obscure the exterior self that no longer defines us while betraying, with half unconscious panache, the truth of the story we carry in our hearts, the story of our transformation, of our story’s recommencement, of our rebirth into the world of adventure, of the story itself.
© 2008 by Michael Chabon. Excerpted from the introduction to ‘Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy’, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press. Michael Chabon is the author of ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’, a novel about a comic book superhero. ‘Superheroes’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from May 7-September 1, www.metmuseum.org