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Secrets of Superman's Underwear

Fri May 9, 2014, 5:52 PM














Of all the questions that have long vexed my mind, and made for so many sleepless nights, has always been the Big One: Why the shorts on the outside of the leotard? At long last, it is with great pleasure that I present intrepid cub reporter and talented new writer, Ariel Williams, who has finally succeeded in getting to the bottom of “Superman’s Underwear.” Please join me in welcoming Ariel to the depthRADIUS family.











Written by Ariel Williams








Ihave always been a fan of comic books. I grew up in mostly small towns in the 80’s and 90’s and often had to entertain myself with only one or two television stations and no cable TV. Books were always a source of escape from the real world and from my own rather boring life. Art was also a way for me to express my own ideas and flesh out the images I saw in my mind’s eye when reading. From there comic books were a natural draw for me as they had both amazing tales like the books and creative visuals. The more I read comics the more I tried to learn everything I could about this unique art form. When it comes to comics, I’m the geek who usually has the 411…






A common question I get, especially from those that don’t read comics, is...





“Why do superheroes run around in those strange outfits?”



“Why does Superman wear his underwear on the outside?”





It really does seem strange when you think about it. Superman is apparently wearing tights with underwear over them and no clothes other than the spandex and his cape. This sartorial style is echoed in many comic book heroes with their origins in the earliest days of comic books in the 1930's and 1940's onward. The reason for the unusual superhero undies is a strange mixture of economics, printing technology and artistic talents trying to find a middle ground between the two.












— Aeschylus, in Prometheus Bound (c. 478 BC)












In the early 1930's and 40's, the printing of comics came in two forms, black and white and 4 color. (This is also where we get the term “4 color hero.”) In general, comic books were intended to be as cheap as possible so the lowest grades of paper were often used and the fastest and cheapest printing methods.








i
Capt. America, 1954 – Atlas Comics






Comics and comic books were not considered a serious art form. They were a cheap diversion or something for children. The color printing was initially only reserved for the cover page of a comic because it was a costly process that required the ink to be applied in 4 separate stages, one for each color. The problem became that when doing this the machines had to run at a very high rate of speed to produce enough comics and they would eventually become misaligned and need constant adjustment. This is why we see comics from this era onward with the colors bleeding outside of the lines. This is especially true when color was later applied to entire comics.






Due to these minor imperfections in the process itself the comics were produced with sharp clean edges defined by hard black and often the layouts would be done so that objects could be painted a single color. These restrictions and a lack of a proper gray constrained the art style to fit within the technology of the day. The methods they used to overcome this came in using either a style much like pointillism (halftone) as the image above or hard solid colors, hatching and crosshatching as below.


Keeping your colors simple was the best way to do this but it restricted character design and forced them to create an inventive way to make the character stand out.






i
Daredevil Comics #25, 1944 – High magnification scans of comic book details













— E. B. White, in "The Old and the New," in The New Yorker (19 June 1937)












Working within the limitations I have just described, comic book artists took great strides to make powerful and lasting impressions. Right or wrong and consciously or not, this led to emphasizing hyper masculine or hyper feminine character traits to make the characters seem larger than life on such a simple format. We often see color changes or divisions at the head, chest, waist, hands groin and feet. This allows the characters to have certain "attributes" stand out.






Which one looks more "heroic"?










Left: original, Center: "no undies", Right: groin accent






The center option almost seems to have neutered Superman with its lack of definition. While option three might be acceptable in this panel, in some poses or in very small panels in the comics his legs might overlap the groin area and the entire pose might loose definition. You literally might not be able to tell his leg from his a-hole. Also, inadvertently defining his "package" would have scandalized 1940's sensibilities.




Even characters that wore only a single color often had detail lines outlining the pelvis from the rest of the body so their features could easily be made out on small panels.


Here we can see what looks like "undies" even on the Human Torch and Mr. Fantastic.


















— William Shakespeare, King Lear (1608), Act III, Scene 2












Modern comics are starting to move away from this trend a little as better printing technology has allowed smooth gradients and shading to compensate for the issues of the past and opened up a whole new range of possibilities. Even so, the iconic images of superheroes in comics are so strong that little has changed from those early days.






“Look ma no undies!”






(To be honest, even here a fine line is observed to make sure there is definition between pelvis and legs, but at least it doesn't look like underwear.) Even here we can see the issue of not segmenting the body by contrasting colors. In the pose to the bottom-left, Superman’s leg and groin area seem to blend together a bit too much for my likes but the shading makes it acceptable and the red belt provides a visual queue for his midline.








i
The New 52 Superman – Art by: Jesus Merino, Lettering by: Carlos M. Mangual, Colored by: Brian Buccellato






i
Fantastic Four #49 (1966) – A comparison between a scan from the original to the present-day reprint.

















  1. Did you ever question why Superman wore his shorts outside his leotard? Or did you simply accept this as being the standard super-hero uniform? Can you think of other odd quirks we accepted in our comics heroes that were necessitated by technical/political/economic/social considerations more than by artists’ choices?
  2. If you are an aspiring comics artist, do you think you would have enjoyed the challenge of trying to solve the restrictions of primitive print production, or are you very grateful to be using today’s technology?
  3. Do you think more should be done to educate arts students in the creative innovations that were invented to keep comics alive in their earliest days? Should the comics narrative storytelling form get more of the respect regularly lavished upon early cinema?
  4. After reading an article like this one about Superman’s underwear, does this special knowledge make you feel just a little bit superior to everyone else not in the know?
  5. Funniest answer possible please: Youtubing the opening credits of the weekly 1952-58 Superman TV show, the bad guys shoot Superman in the chest. He stands there as a motionless target, smiling, hands on hips. The bullets all bounce off his big “S” insignia. Out of bullets, the bad guys toss their empty revolvers at Superman’s head. He ducks. Why?







Ihave always been a fan of comic books. I grew up in mostly small towns in the 80’s and 90’s and often had to entertain myself with only one or two television stations and no cable TV. Books were always a source of escape from the real world and from my own rather boring life. Art was also a way for me to express my own ideas and flesh out the images I saw in my mind’s eye when reading. From there comic books were a natural draw for me as they had both amazing tales like the books and creative visuals. The more I read comics the more I tried to learn everything I could about this unique art form. When it comes to comics, I’m the geek who usually has the 411…

Writers: FromAriel, techgnotic 
Designers: marioluevanos 
Credit: to John Hilgart @ 4CP | Four Color Process


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Add a Comment:
 
:iconbro335:
bro335 Featured By Owner 50 minutes ago  New Deviant
They where those strange outfits to look cool and different. Super man needs to keep his tights up.
Reply
:iconphantom-preet:
Phantom-Preet Featured By Owner 1 hour ago  New Deviant Hobbyist Digital Artist
Women know this. Its because when you wear tights they sometimes fall down. Hence to keep it up you where pants or shorts.
Reply
:icongeneralbluecornmoon:
GeneralBlueCornMoon Featured By Owner 5 hours ago  New Deviant Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I have always asked my DC-mastermind sister about this and she never knew why heroes and villains looked like that. I can't wait to tell her! thnx
Reply
:iconmellehh:
MellehH Featured By Owner 7 hours ago  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
The first thing that came to my mind was that he ducked because he wouldn't risk to destroy his hairdo.
Reply
:iconleonnnnidas:
Leonnnnidas Featured By Owner 9 hours ago  New Deviant
That ugly drawing of superman. Fat and ugly drawing.
Reply
:icondeathbychocolatedp:
deathbychocolatedp Featured By Owner 9 hours ago  New Deviant Hobbyist Digital Artist
This is awesome on so many levels!
Reply
:iconilovemustaches028:
Ilovemustaches028 Featured By Owner 10 hours ago  New Deviant
I think it's where his power comes from? XD
Reply
:iconrilazygirl:
rilazygirl Featured By Owner 10 hours ago  New Deviant
Because that's the comic artist of superman wants to!
Reply
:iconkohlsen:
kohlsen Featured By Owner 13 hours ago
............................. ,............yes,"one world under suprematism". ., __ :target::deviantart::bulletblack: :snowflake:-° ,..... . :) . ....... ,----- --- - -
Reply
:iconturk-49:
turk-49 Featured By Owner 18 hours ago
Superhero costumes need to allow freedom of motion. If you look at pictures of strong men, acrobats, or boxers and wrestlers it was fairly common for them to be in a leotard and/or wearing trunks. 
"Underwear on the outside" is a witty observation, but the costume appears much more like the gym shorts we used to have to wear for PE, than the boxers or briefs ( which would probably get you a zero hour )
Of course, instead of being inspired by athletes it is at least as likely the comic book superhero hero look was copied from the news-strip costumed heroes.
The Phantom had been around a couple of years before Action Comics #1. His skin tight uniform was purple, while his trucks were blue with diagonal black stripes. Add a black mask and blue boots and you have a model superhero attire that has persisted for 80 years. All Phantom lacked was a cape.
Capes are great to help illustrate motion through the air when flying, but Superman was wearing a cape before flying was added to his repertoire
A year after Superman we had Batman. Most likely his cape was inspired by Zorro more than Superman. 

I'm more curious as to why superheroes wear boots and superheroines wear high heels. 
Reply
:iconcmwolf:
CMWolf Featured By Owner 19 hours ago
I think I speak for many a person when I say...DILLIGAF.
Reply
:iconruxi99:
ruxi99 Featured By Owner 1 day ago
I find this article really informative about a subject that people didn't think much about! [-o<[-o<:-)
Reply
:iconleonnnnidas:
Leonnnnidas Featured By Owner 1 day ago  New Deviant
FAT and bad drawing of superman. Ugly drawing.
Reply
:iconsilverlady7:
SilverLady7 Featured By Owner 1 day ago
Great article, and finally a good explanation! :clap:

The best explanation I could find was that the superheroes uniforms were initially inspired on the leotards that circus artists wore, but it didn't satisfy me completely  (didn't make any sense to characters like Silver Surfer).  
Reply
:iconanatttfa:
anatttfa Featured By Owner 1 day ago
1. I accepted it. 'Nuff said.
2. I'm not an artist.
3. Yes. The more you know, the better.
4. Yes. Now when my friends ask I can be like: "I know why, bruh. You don't need to search any further because I know, bruh!" and so on...
5. Ummm, because HE CAN, and because he would be like:
Superman: *ducks to avoid the guns and when stands straight again does a fab hair whip*
Bad guys: *dies of fabulousnes*
Reply
:iconradioactiverat1237:
radioactiverat1237 Featured By Owner 1 day ago  New Deviant Student Artist
He probably ducked because it was still loaded and didn't want it to fire on civilians(also note he is bullet proof but not impervious to everything)
Reply
:icononthemountaintop:
OnTheMountainTop Featured By Owner 1 day ago  Student Digital Artist
5. Superman is bulletproof, but if a gun struck his sheer awesomeness, the gun would probably fire and hit some random person. Therefore, he's not ducking for himself. The ducking is altruistic and heroic. To save lives. By not making the gun go off. Yeah. (Does anyone else believe this? No? Yeah, I don't either.)
Reply
:iconmashirt:
MASHIRT Featured By Owner 1 day ago  New Deviant Hobbyist General Artist
He looks fabyoolus in em so why not have underwear 
Reply
:iconem11104:
em11104 Featured By Owner 1 day ago
I'm not much of a comics artist but I do like to draw in that style, so I think I would have loved to solve the problem with printing machines. While I was reading the first part I already had thought of ways to improve the design, before you even mentioned them. 😋
Reply
:iconspitfire-panda:
spitfire-panda Featured By Owner 1 day ago  Professional Writer
1. I kinda just accepted the whole underwear thing. It was strange, but it never bothered me. I think the fact that (almost) every hero has a tragic backstory that directly leads them to become a hero is a bit strange, too. That said, it's still a great writing tool and the majority of backstories are pretty interesting.

2. Not an artist.

3. Yes to both. You can't go wrong with teaching history. The actions, choices, and desires of people, past or present, are the best forms of inspiration imo.

4.  The more you know... but no, I don't feel more 'special'.  If it comes up in a future conversation, it's either because I said something without realizing no one else cared, or I said something and everyone else is like "That's cool."  Then the conversation changes topic like it always does.

5.  Have you seen what PC/PR comic characters can do?  The Police were able to arrest Thanos, Silver Surfer got knocked out by some low level drug dealers, and Darkseid got MUGGED!  Superman likely thought the gun throwing was action a punch.  Coming from a no-name character along the lines of those listed above, even the Man of Steel would be afraid.
Reply
:iconfabiokeiner:
FabioKeiner Featured By Owner 1 day ago  Hobbyist General Artist
it's because superman is a castrate - ever was.

poor world, where teenies got no more problems in their empty brains than the arousing question 'why does superman wear his panties on his 'leotard'?' :))))

maybe, 'cause he needs pampers as well, always shitting in his pants otherwise.

and, btw: superman should undergo a cosmetic treatment - bleaching his asshole!
highly reciommended, folks!
:)))
Reply
:iconthe-steamer:
THE-STEAMER Featured By Owner 1 day ago  Professional Artist
*coughs*
Manga
*runs away*
Reply
:iconmikalover139:
mikalover139 Featured By Owner 1 day ago
Comics rock!
Reply
:iconlord-of-illusion:
Lord-of-Illusion Featured By Owner 1 day ago  New Deviant
Little Known Fact: Most of Superman's girlfriends died from having their heads blown off during sex...
Reply
:iconmikalover139:
mikalover139 Featured By Owner 1 day ago
Gross. 😛
Reply
:iconduffmanstudios:
DuffmanStudios Featured By Owner 1 day ago  New Deviant Student General Artist
Little known fact: Superman had an intense, irrational fear of concussions back in the 50s.
Reply
:iconjalim17:
jalim17 Featured By Owner 1 day ago  New Deviant Hobbyist General Artist
AHHH !! Superman :D :la:
Reply
:iconkohlsen:
kohlsen Featured By Owner 2 days ago
............................................... :b0x0rz: :b0x0rz: :b0x0rz: ,,,, ..:butterfly: ...,,, ....... ,. ......... ............... :sun: ...... ,, .....------ ---- ---- - -
Reply
:icongamearts640:
GameArts640 Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Hobbyist Artist
Superman Sucks!
Reply
:icontheblackswordswoman:
TheBlackSwordswoman Featured By Owner 2 days ago  New Deviant Hobbyist General Artist
Is saying that the only reason you came to this page?
Reply
:iconask-the-fnafcrew:
Ask-The-FNAFCrew Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Ok....
Reply
:iconbiggrin87:
BigGrin87 Featured By Owner 2 days ago  New Deviant
Heroes and villains* (fucking iPhone)
Reply
:iconbiggrin87:
BigGrin87 Featured By Owner 2 days ago  New Deviant
Only reason comic book characters had to wear the underpants was due to the Comics Code that most of the publishers agreed to. Simple fact is that no hearties or villains were originally designed to have their unmentionables on the outside HAHA!
Reply
:iconduffmanstudios:
DuffmanStudios Featured By Owner 1 day ago  New Deviant Student General Artist
Umm...I don't know where you're getting your information from. The Comics Code was formed in 1954. Superman debuted with his red briefs in 1938. Sure, there were other heroes that followed this tradition. Batman had either black or blue briefs over his gray tights. Hawkman and Hawkgirl wore red shorts over their green tights. Wolverine often wore briefs over his tights. Et cetera, et cetera.

However, no one was obligated to put underwear outside of their hero's costumes. See Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, The Flash, Green Lantern, etc. 
Reply
:iconregistraiter:
RegisTraiter Featured By Owner 2 days ago
Never questioned it, but only because I knew the canon explanation: Supes based his outfit on that of a circus strongman of the time.

It is very cool to learn the artistic/technological background behind the super-pants (quite different from the super-trousers, mind you). Thanks very much!
Reply
:iconthemostunkawaiigirl:
TheMostUnkawaiiGirl Featured By Owner 2 days ago
All I can think of is no vpl
Reply
:iconhannahelizabethh:
hannahelizabethh Featured By Owner Edited 2 days ago  Student General Artist
why no news topics this week DA admins??? :'(
i love reading those. 
Reply
:iconwiz-dan:
Wiz-Dan Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Student Digital Artist
After reading an article like this one about Superman’s underwear, does this special knowledge make you feel just a little bit superior to everyone else not in the know?
LOL totally. I had that question about Superman's underwear for a long time. I found the answear to be very amusing!!!!

As for why he dodge the bullets ahmm well maybe because his chest has muscles and his head ...no? #fail 

Great article!
Reply
:iconthewoodenboy:
thewoodenboy Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Professional Digital Artist
Underoos, inventor of, Clark Kent.
Reply
:iconfrenchfriar:
frenchfriar Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
  1. Did you ever question why Superman wore his shorts outside his leotard? Or did you simply accept this as being the standard super-hero uniform? Can you think of other odd quirks we accepted in our comics heroes that were necessitated by technical/political/economic/social considerations more than by artists’ choices?
  2. If you are an aspiring comics artist, do you think you would have enjoyed the challenge of trying to solve the restrictions of primitive print production, or are you very grateful to be using today’s technology?
  3. Do you think more should be done to educate arts students in the creative innovations that were invented to keep comics alive in their earliest days? Should the comics narrative storytelling form get more of the respect regularly lavished upon early cinema?
  4. After reading an article like this one about Superman’s underwear, does this special knowledge make you feel just a little bit superior to everyone else not in the know?
  5. Funniest answer possible please: Youtubing the opening credits of the weekly 1952-58 Superman TV show, the bad guys shoot Superman in the chest. He stands there as a motionless target, smiling, hands on hips. The bullets all bounce off his big “S” insignia. Out of bullets, the bad guys toss their empty revolvers at Superman’s head. He ducks. Why?
     1.  I always accepted superheroes' costumes as mainly design choices they themselves had made based on the type of influences around them, thus the early heroes wore baggy woolen tights with "silk" shorts outside because that's what strongmen of the time wore; as time went on the tights became spandex and fit better, and you had more secondary colors instead of primary ones; these were obviously also tied to the printing technology of the day.

     2.  I may not be a comic artist, but I do often think of the limitations of four-color printing processes in designing some of my artworks, but relish the fact that designing things that way is much easier using todays technology.

     3.  I definitely think that aspiring art students should be at least exposed to the different limitations and qualities that can be achieved using different methods of production, silk screen as opposed to lino print, letterpress as opposed to rotogravure or offset printing, for instance, and the way artwork must be prepared differently for these mediums.

     4.  I suppose that the accumulation of the vast amounts of various trivia I have acquired over time sometimes gives me great satisfaction, but I would not call that a feeling of superiority as such.

     5.  Well, it's obvious the wimpy little bullets lose all their energy in hitting Supes' chest, whereas the guns if they hit his face are liable to bounce off with incredible force and perhaps hurt an innocent bystander.  That, or in spending his lifetime mimicking "mere humans" to blend in as Clark Kent, Kal-El ingrained his "human"reflexes so that exposed flesh = Clark Kent = (supposed to be) vulnerable, so he ducks the guns because they will hit his exposed skin. Besides, even for us puny humans, something hitting your chest hurts a LOT less than something hitting your face! One other thought: perhaps he can already smell the bluing used on the guns (or the spent gunpowder), and hates the smell. Supes reacted a lot to bad smells in the comics!

This was a beautifully done article, and a lot of fun, thanks for a very enjoyable read!
Reply
:iconlightning-powered:
Lightning-Powered Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Professional General Artist
I've honestly never questioned it. But it IS funny. And what's funnier is the fact that his costume really looks terrible WITHOUT the undies! Something about it NOT being there forces your eyes to focus on the entire area instead of the scene he's in. This was one of the biggest problems with the Man of Steel movie, which I suspect is why the film's colors were so muted, as a form of damage control. Which they could have fixed by doing what BRUCE TIMM did by creating a BLACK costume.
Reply
:iconevohunter7:
Evohunter7 Featured By Owner 2 days ago
Great and informative read.
Reply
:iconask-fangthevampire:
Ask-Fangthevampire Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
I remember when the original powerpuff girls was airing on cartoon network, and they made a joke about this
Reply
:iconastheartdictates:
AstheArtDictates Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Spongebob Squarepants made a joke about it too: that the powers stemmed from the costumes.
Reply
:iconask-fangthevampire:
Ask-Fangthevampire Featured By Owner 2 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Oh yeah, back when the show hadn't hit the shitter
Reply
:iconastheartdictates:
AstheArtDictates Featured By Owner 1 day ago  Hobbyist General Artist
I think that happened sometime around the release of the Spongebob Squarepants movie.
Reply
:iconask-fangthevampire:
Ask-Fangthevampire Featured By Owner 1 day ago  Hobbyist General Artist
the original creator of Spongebob said the show was going to end after the first movie came out, but Nickelodeon wanted the show to keep going, and hired a new guy to keep the show running
Reply
:iconastheartdictates:
AstheArtDictates Featured By Owner 16 hours ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Then...well, shoot.
Reply
:iconwwatson1970:
wwatson1970 Featured By Owner 2 days ago
Good article.  Looking at the three examples, I can see why he wore underwear.  Without it his muscles seem smaller, and less heroic.
Regarding questions:
1.  I always assumed his costume was an alien uniform and capes were a way for artists to avoid drawing the human figures.  After all, Bob Kane the creator of Batman had trouble drawing feet.
2.  Some artists excelled despite the restrictions.  Hal Foster's Prince Valiant and Winsor McCay's Little Nemo are good examples.  Restrictions are inherit in any technology.  Sadly, I think the technologies in film and other mediums have hurt the comic book industry. 
3.  Artists should be taught to adapt to different tools.  Learning history teaches appreciation, but what made those early works successful should be studied.
4.  This question needs to be rethought.  I don't picture someone who has superior knowledge of Superman as someone who can talk to girls easily.  Acting superior is rude, and does nothing but exposes insecurity.  Being generous has better results.
5.  Nerd answer:  Superman is showing the bad guys he can't be hurt by dodging the gun.  Lookout badguys! Superman is bringing it.
Real answer:  George Reeve knew the actors were using blanks, but the props dept. was too cheap to make plastic guns.  So a real loaded gun was thrown, and George thought to himself, "I'm not getting injured for this #$%."  He ducked.  The director, wanting to go home and nurse a hangover, assume comic book readers were too degenerate to notice, and didn't reshoot.
Reply
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