Thursday, June 23, 2016

Superpants.

You are probably not aware of this, but a lot of pixels are being spilled on the question of Superman's pants. Specifically, briefs or no briefs?

Really, this is kind of a big deal. For about sixty years, Superman was always seen with those little red tights outside his pants, as rendered in this early Joe Shuster drawing. 


But in the more recent comics, as in the recent films, you'll be more likely to see him sans briefs.
Sometimes with a turtleneck, too.

It may be stupid, but it's almost an unsolvable conundrum for the folks at DC. Comics are full of these kinds of things now.

On the one hand, it's fun to change the look of a well-known character, to help keep it fresh. On the other hand, it's a well-known, trademarked character. You can't dump on success.

Various sources, including this pretty good article on Medium.com, explain that the whole tights-outside-pants thing, nearly universal in comics' Golden Age; that in the Victorian era, acrobats and the like wore tights like that, to show that the hero was athletic.

Courtesy of Pinterest's stupid site.
And thus for generations American boys put their tighty whities over their pants and were instantly transformed into heroes!

Why did the circus athletes wear those tights? It's a good question, since they often don't anymore, preferring long spandex pants. Circopedia (of course there's a Circopedia) tells us that the one-piece leotard was invented by Jules LĂ©otard, a French trapeze acrobat who obviously would have found the form-fitting outfit useful for not getting tangled up and dying while flying about. (Instead he died of infection at 32.)

The non-tight tights would preserve some modesty. 
So Superman's throwback pants were a reference to athletes who don't dress like that anymore, but everyone expects him to have the pants. Now what?


Beats me. Comic books have other problems. The main ones are continuity and the passage of time. In the sixties, when DC rebooted a lot of its heroes (only a few like Bats and Supes had been chugging along), it was resolved that the old heroes from the 1940s had been on a parallel Earth. That worked great until the 1980s, when the obvious passage of time began to be an issue again; I recall that Superboy stories were suddenly set in the early 1960s, even though that same Superman (not the Earth-2 Superman---if you aren't familiar with this, don't even think about it) had clearly been around since then. Since then repeated attempts have been made to reboot everything all over again, so we'd now have Batman meeting Superman and the Joker and everybody for the first time, except that that has its own problems---for example, they wanted to keep Dick Grayson as a grown-up called Nightwing, but if Batman was a new hero again, how could this be? And yet they didn't want to reprise Grayson's Robin years. (Not when there were other Robins, whose stories fans loved and didn't want to see just disappear down the continuity hole.)

When I tell you the latest mishegoss centers around Kid Flash... let's just walk away slowly.

These things don't tend to be a problem with other heroes like the Scarlet Pimpernel or Hopalong Cassidy, whose adventures are tied to a very specific era in the past, or Hercules, whose adventures took place in a sort of timeless, pre-technological era. And none of them, not even Herc, have racked up the history that someone like Green Lantern has. (Don't ask which Green Lantern.) (Please.)

There are other problems with comics today, but let's leave that for another time. Suffice it to say, Superman's pants are not that big a deal in the scheme of things. I suspect, though, that even if DC manages to get us to forget about the briefs, advertisements and sitcoms will continue to show underwear on the outside as part of a kid's superhero outfit for decades to come. Although they have to have the cape and maybe a mask too. Otherwise it's just exhibitionism.
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