‘Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy’ Report – The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art set aside Sunday, June 22, for a day of panel discussions about superheroes, the people who create them, and what they wear.
In promoting the event on their website, the Museum took the unusual step of admonishing visitors as follows: "Please note that visitors in costume will not be admitted to the Museum."
They don’t tell that to people who attend lectures on the Egyptian collection.
ComicMix was able to attend two of the afternoon programs. The first, "Designing Superhero Costumes," was a conversation with Alex Ross and John Cassaday. It was moderated by Stanford W. Carpenter, assistant professor at the University of Chicago. He divided the talk into three sections: 1) Designing for characters with an established history; 2) Designing for referential characters; and 3) Captain America, a character for whom both artists have designed.
Ross described his process as photorealistic, working from live models. "I draw better when I’m looking at something," he said. To provide a sense of realism to how clothing would look on a body, he had a Superman costume built for his model. He now has a collection of several costumes.
Cassaday described how his aunt had given him a book on Batman from the 1930s to the 1970s when he was four years old. As a result, he became a fan of several different eras of Bat costumes. He used this affection in a Planetary story, one that paid special homage to Adam West.
A character like Superman, with a 60-year history, is not usually redesigned, but Ross played with the costume a bit in Kingdom Come, with a black "S"-shield and gray temples.
"People should be encouraged to try something visually dynamic and experimental," he said of his alterations to the Man of Steel’s well-known costume.
For his part, Cassaday discussed his X-Men outfits, describing them as a combination of the old uniforms, from the original designs of the team when they were all students at the Xavier Academy, and the more costume-like outfits they wore in later issues. He said the X-Men were the opposite of Superman when it came to clothing, changing all the time.
Referential characters included Ross’ work on the Project Superpowers books and Cassaday’s Planetary. In both cases, they take a look with which people are familiar, such as Dracula (Planetary) or Black Terror (Project Superpowers) and use common motifs to evoke a time period or mood.
For Captain America, the two artists had different jobs. Cassaday’s run came after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and he wanted to give the book a more realistic feel. He described his work as a "reforming" of what Kirby did when he created the character with Joe Simon. His Captain America looked like "a gladiator" with armor. The chain mail, he felt, gave the character weight. After the strike on the World Trade Center, he wanted the stories to feel more real, with a military air instead of fantastic superheroes.
Alex Ross designed the costume for the most recent version of the character. He showed the evolution of his design, including versions of the logo that Marvel didn’t like. He, too, wanted to keep the feel of the original character design, but to show that a new person was wearing the armor. To do this, he lengthened the shield on the torso, and added a black bodysuit.
Michael Uslan opened his panel, "Superheroes: God of Greece, Rome and Egypt," by noting that the Louvre had its first exhibit of comic art 41 years ago, and it has taken America this long to recognize the form. He described his attempts to get a comic book course accredited at Indiana University when he was a student there. Despite the dean’s objections, he was able to run the course by pointing out the similarities between the story of Superman and the story of Moses.
Uslan described the major influences on costumes in the comics world — first by circus costumes, with the strong man being the obvious inspiration for Superman. Some heroes (The Spirit, the Green Hornet, the Sandman) simply wore a mask along with a business suit. Others took inspiration from animals (Batman, Catwoman), colors (Green Lantern, Green Arrow) and the military (Captain Marvel). He showed an N. C. Wyeth illustration of Robin Hood that was clearly an influence on Robin, the Boy Wonder. Wonder Woman’s original outfit was inspired by a swimdress, but the skirt was changed to shorts because they were easier to draw.
We had a chance to talk to Alex Ross before the panels began, and we asked him what he thought of the exhibit. "I thought it was a stretch," he said, referring to the costume aspects, "a stretch I can respect. Just getting comics in here is amazing."