Costume Critique: Superman's New Look Reviewed

Last week, we got a look at the suit Superman will be wearing in the comics until they get a little restless and redesign him again. Because I’m a professional designer who loves superheroes (and this one in particular), I thought this deserved an obsessive critical review from someone trained by vocation and avocation for the task.

The new design comes from Jim Lee, like the previous much-maligned design. He’s a dynamic comics artist with a signature style, but that’s not the same as being a good designer. Sadly, he’s just not nearly as good at that latter set of skills. False modesty is no better than vanity, I’ll say that conversely I’m no great drafter, but I’m a very good designer. I went to a very good design school with several folks like Lee, who could draw like demons but didn’t really understand that design has structure and principles beyond even those of artistic aesthetics because design is by definition applied to something.


So here’s my overly exhaustive design nerd review:

- The previous high collar is almost inherently sinister, at least to our contemporary values, because it’s structured and covering. This return to a boatneck is open and comparatively casual. This classic design-line with cape anchored into it is key to the character: it frames his head like a classical bust, and like the ungloved hands indicates a certain openness even as it subtly admits that Superman doesn’t need clothes for protection.

- Which is part of why those weird, angled sci-fi/princess cuffs are no good. Superman is straight ahead and to the point: he’s not fussy. His outfit should reflect that.


- The shield is a good size, filling his chest. This is one area that I think could really use some updating, but didn’t get it: there have been at least 2 modernized logos that work really well. Using the one from the ‘50's is unnecessarily stodgy. My personal take on the idea of this logo as the El family crest is that Kryptonian isn’t written in lines, but in shapes, which can transfer much more data and nuance. Therefore, the “S” shape is a meaningless accident- it’s just the negative space created by the composition of shapes that say “House of El” in yellow.

I like the omission of yellow on Benoist’s Supergirl suit, and my ideal would be midway between the updated classic of Routh’s (without the overdone 3D depth) and the extreme abstraction of the Kingdom Come shield:


- A whole lot of us love the red shorts, and they serve a design purpose in breaking up the unitard. But they are too silly to live. I like the idea of red slash accents, doing essentially what the textured waist on Cavill’s suit does, but they look really static in this execution. Maybe a better artist will bring them some life. The diamond is just a leftover belt buckle that’s better off omitted entirely: the shape and color come out of nowhere and bring the whole look down.


- Either give him blue footsie pants for a sleek unified look, or give him red boots. This is the worst of all worlds. Especially without trunks, I prefer the red boots because they punctuate the end of the design. That’s important for a bold character who spends a lot of the time hovering. He’s not Doctor Fate- you don’t want him trailing off at the bottom.

- I like the scalloping of the cape, but it’s a bit overstated here. This is certainly a shape they could employ subtly in live action to ensure a sense of movement, but on the page that can and should be done by the artist.


- Since I’m sure my other choice is black, I suppose I’ll have to live with a Navy Blue Boy Scout. Superman could still wear a deep, rich Royal Blue without looking like either a shadow or a periwinkle blossom. But I know he won’t under current management.

All in all, I’ll take this over Jim Lee’s previous effort to establish that the entire JLA goes to exactly the same tailor, but I’m not thrilled. Though it could use a little more detail, at least it doesn’t have a thousand style-lines evoking armor.



Just to show how they could update with smaller moves that are more meaningful to stay classic and classy, my own quick pass at Lee’s new design:


The kind of thing I’d really like to see more of is what I did with the shield on the cape: paring down bits that seem thoughtless so they gain more impact rather than just being there because we expect them to be.

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