“Fully Clothed” ≠ “Well-Designed”

From November, when it was announced, until now right around its release the news outlets have been reporting on the new Ms. Marvel, particularly due to its protagonist being a Pakistani Muslim teenage girl [FYI it is also good]. With all this attention it’s inevitable that every facet of the character would be scrutinized, including what she’s wearing.

Over at the Washington Post an article titled “MS. MARVEL: Marvel Comics’ new focus on women ‘characters and creators’ aims to defy the ‘scantily clad’ cliche”. While the article strangely refrains from addressing what Kamala Khan’s actual costume looks like, the sentiment is clear: comic books used to be a boys’ club and they’re seeking to change that. Marvel EIC Axel Alonso states that the female heroes headlining their new books-

“are not the big-breasted, scantily clad women that perhaps have become the comic-book cliché. They are women with rich interior lives, interesting careers and complicated families who are defined by many things—least of all their looks.”

It’s difficult to run from your past, any lion cub exiled from Pride Rock will tell you that. The main issue is that while Alonso [and I really do like the guy] uses the word “perhaps” the fact is that there are still costumes out there that would bar their wearers from entering the Vatican. Never fear, though, because this is the internet and on the internet someone always has a solution.

“Check Out These Fully Clothed Superheroine Redesigns”

That’s the title of The Mary Sue article that showcases Michael Lee Lunsford’s redesigns of various superheroine costumes. It’s the first of many that lauded his work and were bouncing around the internet during that time, and it’s unfortunate that since then the artist’s tumblr hosting said images has been deactivated. Before I start showing these images The Beat has the following statement from Lunsford regarding why he chose to undertake this creative endeavour:

“Point of this: An exercise in character design, attempting to clothe the heroines nearly all the way and not making them painted-on, while still keeping the look of their original costumes in some way. Hopefully keeping them looking as iconic as the originally were. Just showing what can be done with a costume breaking outside the barrier of the norm. NOT the point of this: some moral code I’m trying to push on you.”

And now for a few of the redesigns themselves.

The four characters I chose are, from left to right: Zatanna, Black Canary, Wonder Woman, and Power Girl. For those of you who may not be as familiar with comics and are wondering what the main difference is from the original costumes, it’s that all of these women are wearing pants. Both Zatanna and Black Canary often wear fishnets, while WW and PG don’t wear any. Power Girl in particular utilized a “boob window” which you can see referenced in her revamped costume.

I also specifically chose these redesigns because, and all due respect to Lunsford, they are as ugly as sin. That’s highly subjective of course, and I could debate the merits of an Amazon/demigod wearing khakis, but I quickly want to turn to yet another artist who [and I'll get to why] completely misses the point-

In late April of last year Kelly Thompson wrote “6 Sublime Superheroine Redesigns” over at her column She Has No Head! for Comic Book Resources. It featured six characters who had gotten spectacular makeovers that downplayed or outright eliminated the cheesecakeyness of their old threads, and as a costume redesign buff I was super into it. Valkyrie, shown above, was definitely due for a new wardrobe.

Then, a month later, Thompson followed it up with another SHNH! installment titled “6 Stupid Superheroine Designs That Need Redesign, Stat!”. In it eight female comic book characters [there are two extra, and some of them are villains] were redesigned specially for the article, with four of them by artist Meredith McClaren. I’m only going to go into detail with one in particular.

On the right is Power Girl in all of her boob-windowed glory. While she actually had a different “fully clothed” [I'm going to get back to that later as well] costume at the beginning of DC’s reboot she soon reverted back to what most fans are familiar with.

It is . . . pretty problematic for a number of reasons. As much as I’m not a fan of Aaron Diaz’s redesigns [with enough creative changes at some point they stop being the characters you sought out to revitalize] he created a very relevant post explaining why cleavage and superheroics is a bad idea.

Enter McClaren, who brought the character down a couple of bust sizes [not something I have a problem with, really], and describes her further process by stating “Last time I redesigned Power Girl in the context of a wrestler/weightlifter. This time I thought of her as a boxer. And then I just had fun.” You can see her design there on the left.

Look, if the assignment were to depict what vigilantes might wear during their downtime, then yeah, McClaren nails it one thousand percent. The problem is that these are supposed to be superheroine costumes. They’re meant to have style and substance, flash and iconicity. This doesn’t communicate the great deal of strength [more scrapper than brawler] that Power Girl has, nor her otherworldliness [she's a Kryptonian like Superman].

To cap this off with just one more to pound my point home, below is an image featuring her take on Cheshire, a lethal martial artist and mercenary.

cheshires

From left to right: Cheshire’s original, New 52, and McClaren costumes.

For McClaren [no offence intended, as I've seen her other work and it is lovely] being “fully clothed” translated to “wearing clothes”. Full stop. That’s not to say that Thompson’s followup article was an absolute bust, though, because she made absolutely the right call by bringing in the incredible Kris Anka.

Kris Anka Explains It All

I enjoy Kristafer Anka’s work a great deal, and his redesigns contrast with McClaren’s [and Lunsford's] for a number of reasons. Below is his Harley Quinn for reference-

harleys

From left to right; Harley Quinn’s original, New 52, and Anka costumes.

First and foremost, you know that’s Harley Quinn; the recognizability is strong with this one. Secondly, it’s practical. The heavy duty boots and hardy look of the fabric make this out to be a sidekick/girlfriend to the Joker who can trade a few blows with the Caped Crusader. Finally, it looks great- the red/black harlequin motif blends seamlessly with the more utilitarian attire, and the hood complete with pompoms is inspired.

Now that we’re into the more positive section of this post, let me get to what I said I would get to. The problem with “fully clothed” as a defining factor is that it itself doesn’t seem like it has a firm definition. A woman in a swimsuit may not be fully clothed, but how about one wearing a tank top and jeans? Do bare arms, legs, or a midriff bar one from being “fully clothed”?

On top of that Lunsford and his “fully clothed” costumes very much miss a crucial point, which is that they prioritize covering up over everything else; Black Canary’s pants in particular look very baggy, and would be difficult for her to engage in the hand-to-hand combat she excels at. Wonder Woman’s pants ignore the fact that a skirt would not only look great and cover up some thigh, they would also fit her role as a Greek-influenced warrior [heck, there's a whole site dedicated to the look].

Thankfully this is all something that Anka wrote an entire post on his tumblr about, regarding modesty and sexuality in the many redesign he’s done professionally, the most important part of which is that:

“The CHARACTER must be first and foremost the inspiration and guideline for all the decisions made when trying to design the clothing. NOT what you want to see on a characters to get your rocks off. I find that frankly immature, and an insult to the character you are trying to do justice to.”

With that in mind, there are certainly characters who flaunt what they got for story reasons. Emma Frost, for one-

“Here is a character who prides herself on her looks. She is an incredibly confident character mentally, and likes to show off herself physically. Emma Frost flaunting it works because it works for HER. She likes control, she likes power, and one of the best tools for that is her body. She can turn heads with her body, she can command attention with it. She wouldn’t even need to use her telepathy to have someone lose focus. Emma Frost is incredibly intelligent, she knows what she is doing.”

Not to mention that she can turn her skin into diamond. On that note, the indestructible Namor likewise doesn’t require any covering up. Even beyond that-

having Namor show off skin actually helps to tell a lot about him as a character. It shows his confidence, it shows he isn’t afraid to be attacked, and it largely makes sense given he lives in water.”

And that’s how it should be done. There shouldn’t be any sort of agenda one way or the other towards covering up all flesh or letting it all hang out, what comic book characters wear should be dictated by who they are. Even in his Emma Frost design for Thompson’s article he gives story reasons as to why she would choose to conceal her assets-

emmafrostcoveredup

” I chose to make the full body covered, because as a character who prides herself on her confidence, and the confidence brought forth from her body, I’d imagine with this weakened state of mental resolve she wouldn’t be too keen on showing it off. But that doesn’t mean Emma won’t still be fashionable.”

There’s a reason that Marvel has continued to turn to the man to redesign such characters as high profile as Wolverine- he loves them and the lives they’ve been living. It’s because he understands them that he is both willing and able to do whatever it takes to make them as true to form as possible

So How About That New Ms. Marvel, Then?

msmarvelthreads

Designed by Jamie McKelvie [who's also responsible for the new Captain Marvel getup], Kamala Khan’s crime fighting attire is everything that Anka believes an artist make it be.

For one, it’s clearly inspired by actual Pakistani clothing, which is fitting as Kamala’s story is deeply intertwined with her cultural heritage. The amount of skin shown [neck to forehead, mid forearms to fingertips] is also appropriate for a sixteen-year-old girl who panically spits out the alcohol she accidentally sips at a party. Modesty is part of being a Muslim, and while free of a head covering [unlike fellow female Muslim superheroine Dust] there’s still attention paid to what is covered/uncovered.

In addition to all of that, this is obviously the costume of a superheroine. The lightning bolt motif is a clear callback to Carol Danver’s Ms. Marvel threads as is the scarf, though the starburst design on the latter is a reference to Danver’s current Captain Marvel alter-ego. It’s both iconic and stylish, and, most importantly, fits the character.  All in all, mission accomplished.

Ms. Marvel’s costume isn’t necessarily a success because it bucks a trend, it’s a success because it fits her character. Don’t get me wrong, I fully realize that the industry still has a way to go when it comes to how they dress their superheroines [Spider-Woman redesign, please!] as it can alienate many potential readers. That being said there’s more to it than just slapping pants and undershirts onto these women, because anything worth doing is worth doing well.

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One response to ““Fully Clothed” ≠ “Well-Designed”

  1. Your posts about comics are some of my favorites because you clearly know what you’re talking about. Also, as someone who is more of a novice when it comes to comics I always learn something. So, thanks.

    It seems to me that one of the biggest problems is that characters are often depicted in one of two extremes: either overly sexualized or nearly asexual. As you pointed out the more “modest” designs often border on impractical or just plain boring to look at. I think there is a good middle ground where you can respect a character and still have them be visually striking.

    I really enjoyed the bit about Emma Frost. I’ve read a fair amount of X-Men and I’ve always been a bit bothered by how much flesh she flaunts compared to the other female characters. But when informed by the character’s personality as Anka talked about Emma Frost’s looks make a lot more sense to me, and actually make me appreciate the character more.

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