In the world of superhero comics, artists and writers are (more often than not) dealt the task of handling characters that they had no hand in creating, characters that have often existed for decades. Being able to put a fresh spin on concepts that have been around for so long is no easy task, and the history of mainstream comics isn’t short on botched reboots and the like.
In the current wake of DC Comic’s largely unimaginative (or in some cases, downright offensive) “reboot,” I thought we should take a look back at some better examples. The criteria include:
- Theme: the design tells us important things about the character
- Form: a cohesive and appealing appearance
- Function: the outfit should be practical in the context of what the character does
10. Starman - James Robinson & Tony Harris
A 90s version of the obscure Golden Age DC character, this Starman has all the right things going for him. Since his stories often deal with the occult and the morally gray areas of superherodom, it’s very fitting that he has no real costume besides the essentials (his Star Rod and goggles for flying). Street clothes make sense for a Vertigo character like this, too, and Starman’s a rare example of the 90s design philosophy of “dressing down” actually working. While other artists of this time were simply putting jackets over spandex, Starman here actually has a thematically appropriate outfit.
9. Daredevil - Wally Wood
People often forget that when he was first created, Daredevil wore a pretty intense yellow and black outfit for a while before cartooning legend Wally Wood took the helm. Wood pointed out that it’s a bit odd for the Man Without Fear to wear yellow, the color of fear, and changed it to the deep, dark reds that have dominated his design ever since. Daredevil is a simple, direct kind of crimefighter, and the pared down aesthetic of Wood’s design really communicates that about his persona. This is one of only a few instances where another artist has supplanted a Jack Kirby design as the iconic image for a Marvel character.
8. Aquaman - Peter David & Jim Calafiore
Aquaman has generally been a lackluster character and, due to his extremely specific superpower, a constantly inexplicable member of the Justice League. Peter David’s incarnation of the King of Atlantis in the 90s, however, was a breath of fresh air. He grew a big hobo beard and his hand was eaten by piranas, only to be replaced by a big harpoon. His outfit otherwise wasn’t terribly inspired, but the hook and beard worked. Overall his portrayal was just one that was more desperate and threatening, which I think better fits the notion of an ocean monarch. It may tread a little bit into Namor territory, but that’s not a bad thing.
This may be a controversial call, and DC has since reverted Aquaman back to a clean cut dude with two hands who looks like everyone else, but I stand by it. My general rule: whatever appearances the Bruce Timm series decided to go with are usually the better ones, since they have to distinctively encapsulate what’s important about the character. Crazy bearded harpoon-handed Aquaman is just more interesting.
7. Batman - Frank Miller
It’s easy to make fun of Frank Miller these days since pretty much everything he’s done for the past 20 years is a childish mess, but we should never take for granted what he did for revamping Batman. While The Dark Knight Returns was never part of any continuing canon, Miller’s grim, noir portrayal of Bats has since become the gold standard for the character. Strategic use of shadow, the broad build, functional utility pouches and an emphasis on silhouette were all pretty groundbreaking at the time.
While my personal favorite Batman interpretation comes from Mike Mignola, he’d never have gotten there without the work of Frank Miller 10 years prior.
6. Mr. Freeze - Mike Mignola
While this is technically an animated redesign, it’s worth mentioning. Before his portrayal on Batman: the Animated Series, Mr. Freeze was basically a goofy 3rd string mad scientist. Along with a new tragic backstory, Freeze got a wonderful, sleek art deco-style look. With muted blues, a domed helment and long, segmented limbs, he almost looks like a robot straight out of a Fleischer Superman short. Unfortunately, while later comic writers did adapt the more complex and compelling backstory and behavior, no artist outside the cartoons really adopted this appearance, which is such a shame.
5. Captain America - Bryan Hitch
Marvel’s Ultimates comics have some great designs in general, but one that’s always stuck out for me was the re-imagining of Captain America. Cap’s classic outfit is a good one, but I always felt it was a bit too “costumey” for a guy who’s supposed to be a soldier. Bryan Hitch’s redesign is very strong without massively reworking the iconic getup: his boots and gloves are more functional, his body armor is more visible and his “mask” is actually a proper helmet (at least in Ultimates Vol. 2). It’s a very good balancing act between Cap’s two roles: patriotic symbol and practical soldier. If you go too far in one direction, you lose what the character’s all about.
4. Mahr Vehl - Steve McNiven & Warren Ellis
Another Ultimate Marvel recreation, Captain Marvel retains most of his origin story (alien defects to Earth because he grows to like humans), but the way they go about it is pretty different. Instead of giving him vague superpowers, Captain Marvel here is more like a high-tech alien Iron Man, where his superior abilities are an extension of simply being more advanced.
It’s also not just the outfit itself, but how it works that impresses me. Almost like a living suit, it wraps around Mahr Vehl in a way that’s totally alien. In general Warren Ellis does a great job in his stories of making aliens seem plausible, and the reptiloid-alien-getting-cosmetic-surgery-to-look-human-and-gets-a-living-suit-of-armor version of Mahr Vehl is an updated, compelling alternative to the relatively obscure original Captain Marvel.
3. X-Men - Frank Quitely & Grant Morrison
The X-Men have been reinterpreted by many artists and writers over the years, but my personal favorite take was New X-Men by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. I think the X-Men are most compelling when they’re acting less as superheroes and more as mutants, and Quitely does a good job of making them look a bit weird and alien.
The removal of the spandex outfits was just the first step: giving them uniforms without looking too conspicuous gives them a team unity without making them look like any other superhero team (though those jackets still have kevlar). The characters also simply look a lot weirder: the feline Beast and the addition of Xorn are just two examples. Quitely does a great job of making each character visually distinct without relying on what they’re wearing so much, something most superhero artists simply never attempt. Cyclops is gangly, Jean Grey is narrow and Wolverine is squat and thankfully lacking that giant hair he usually has. These are people with personalities, not costumes.
The overall effect is a group of strange characters who don’t quite fit in the world around them, perfect for the X-Men.
2. Catwoman - Darwin Cooke
Cooke’s take on Catwoman from the early 2000’s is, in my opinion, the first really solid visual interpretation of the character. Catwoman’s been around for a long time, but with few exceptions, I’ve always felt she was overly gimmicky, and it was only when writers and artists started taking the “cat burglar” part more seriously that she began to take shape.
Too often have her outfits been oversexed or skimpy, with little thought placed on practicality. The most notable historical problem (besides the need for a sports bra) are the high heels, which really are silly on any superhero or villain. Cooke removes all those frivolities and gives her gear that fit with the cat aesthetic while still being useful. Similar to Captain America, Catwoman’s a balancing act, this time between a practical adventurer (as Batman’s foil) and her sexuality (as Batman’s seducer).
1. Thor - Chris Samnee
As I’ve mentioned before, Thor is one of my favorite superheroes and one of my favorite superhero designs. In my opinion, nobody’s seriously challenged Jack Kirby’s original work until now, with Chris Samnee’s rendition from the critically acclaimed Thor: the Mighty Avenger. The brilliance of Kirby’s initial design (ie: the balance of mythical with science fiction) isn’t lost here, but there’s also an added layer of practicality and humanity. Without throwing out the old design entirely, Samnee has made Thor’s appearance seem more appropriate for a space god while holding on to the essential humanity of the character.
Marvel’s Thor, at his core, is a man of two worlds. He’s not just a mythic hero fighting Frost Giants, but also a person who’s fallen in love with mortals while not always understanding their world. Samnee’s interpretation makes Thor seem a bit less intimidating with a younger face (his hair falling in the way at times) and a more clothed body to make him seem less intimidating. The cape has become less Superman-esque and more of a traveler’s cloak (complete with hood), which makes him seem more like a transient. The helmet wings, are less ostentatious and royal, and gone are the pointed shoulders to emphasize his enormous build.
This Thor has traded a bit of the Kirby invincibility for some human vulnerability, and his costume reflects that. He is now covered with mail (likely taken from Olivier Coipel’s design), and even his chest piece has gone from a cloth tunic to an actual armored vest with buckles. His belt is also incorporated into the chest design, and now comes with a useful strap to hold his trademark hammer. Even the straps of his boots are more uneven, hailing from an older time. Another, albeit minor, change is his hair. While still sporting long golden locks, Thor has dropped the classic bangs and now has a neat little braid, which makes him seem ever so slightly more of a Viking, which I appreciate.
Overall, I think Samnee’s version of Thor is much more human without sacrificing the mythic qualities, which is perfect for the series’ story of a character who is basically pulled out of time.
And there you have it, some of my thoughts on superhero redesigns from here and there. See? Redesigns don’t always have to be bad, if you put a little work into it.
**P.S. For a whole blog about superhero redesigns, check out Project Rooftop!**