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May 9
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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.

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.

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.

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

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?

Road to Comic-Con

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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PotatoOni Featured By Owner Oct 2, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist

Why should I've ever questioned that? Without his red shorts (wich could also not actually be shorts at all but just a colored area of his pants) the costume just looks horrible. They broke up the costumes color palette nicely and without them it's just way too blue and looks embarissingly ridiculous. DC should fix that as soon as possible. They don't even need to bring back the shorts just color the hipbone/groin area red and turn the useless yellow belt into a pattern.

The only other choice made due to social/political considerations I can think of is making the character white and male but that was standart for the vast majority of fiction back then.

I would say today's tech gives an artist much more freedom for designs without technical restrictions so I'm happy that it exists.

Finding a creative way to make your work more interesting is important for artists so I would say yes.

Well, when it comes to early superhero comics I would say their narrative wasn't that different from the movies of this time anyways. So sure, why not?

How could it? I mean, many other people read that article aswell so I can hardly call myself superior to them. Besides it's just a random bit of trivia. Just knowing that wouldn't make me superior anyways.

Because he fears that the revolver bounces back at him... yeah, I'm not very funny.

lizardlover15 Featured By Owner Jun 23, 2014
I know I know! I once read in a volume of Superman Chronicles an entire anthology and collection of every known issue and comic that was Action Comics Superman and Superman comics also some World's Finest and the world's fair issues everything that had Superman was included... Including some written Text Superman stories. and inside one issue tells the inspiration for Superman's costume. Simply is that the look at the time the 1930's was Circus strongmen and the shorts on the outside was apparently apart of the strongmans' looks? Wearing the tights with the shorts on the outside. A funny theory is that while indeed it seems heroes wearing nothing under the costume is the factor; the outer wear shorts could serve as a sort of "athletic wear" that constricts and supports like a jock strap or a sports'. anyway the first explanation was what I learned from the minds of Creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who was hard of seeing so they hired artists and illustrators do do dictations while Joe read... Or was it Jerry? anywho think of The apostle Paul reading to Timothy what he's writing in the Bible? Jerry or Joe was enlisted to the WW1 army so they needed the extra hands anyways. anywho um I am getting off track that is all. Why don't you tell me your theory if you've got a real or even better one?
my-immortals Featured By Owner Edited Jun 14, 2014  Professional General Artist
#5: 'Cause guns don't kill people, throwing guns kills people...
HumbleMarty Featured By Owner May 28, 2014   General Artist
I thought Superman wearing his underpants on the outside of his pants was just part of the costume, like it was some one size fits all supersuit you just throw in the washing machine and call it quits for the work day. Another comic book character trend I found kind of pointed out was the effeminate looks of Batman's sidekick Dick Grayson. At least in one of the 1940's dailies Robin ended up actually dressing up like a girl for one undercover stint as Marie Antoinette and those guys at the party thought "she" was quite the babe, much too Robin's chagrin and even Batman's amusement (to which Robin haughtily gives the famous Bat Glare but fails at it since how can anyone take a guy seriously in a poofy dress?). Those comics were extremely detailed and had to convey a huge range of emotions and storytelling in four panels or less not mentioning the fact that it was a newspaper comic so it had even less colors to deal with if it was painted in black and white. It's too bad the only way to read these stories was to get this as an enormous "gift book" because the writing and art actually brought me to tears a few times. This is the one thing that proves to me old comics can still teach aspiring cartoonists like me new tricks. As for Superman ducking a thrown gun after smiling in the face of flying bullets . . . Either the actor was trying to duck or Superman's inner Clark Kent squirmed out from under the veneer. He spent nearly maybe a decade and a half thinking he was human. So maybe he still nerds out a little.
CoryKent7 Featured By Owner May 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
The thing is most people say why is his underwear on the outside. Just because there is a color there on his costume does not mean it's underwear. Seriously right, can I make a costume and put a different color in that region? Of course I can. It's just people's personal idea that this is underwear on the outside. So I say stop making fun of it. It's not underwear, and you who think it is are wrong. No one seems to look at Wonder Woman and say she's wearing her panties on the outside. No one says it about Batman. Or at least, it's not such a joke, and it's not such big deal that people are changing the arguably most iconic costume in comic history.
Philluppus Featured By Owner May 25, 2014   General Artist
just tuck it, i think
gbollard Featured By Owner May 25, 2014
Sorry for being crass but I just wonder what happens when superman farts. Maybe the outer pair of underwear serves a special "containment" purpose.  After all, if he has freeze breath, what kind of farts does he have?
CoryKent7 Featured By Owner May 26, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
I can tell by the way you asked, that you have a lot of class. Very impressed, and a fact for sure. All we can possibly say is that no one's every really talked about his digestion, but if you watch All-Star Superman, it's probably as amazing as ever, and flatulence isn't a part of it. I mean he doesn't get sick at all, under normal conditions, so why have a side-effect of improper digestion? Just my thoughts. Anyhow, kudos to you in every way. No one could have put that any better.
Dyscalculie Featured By Owner May 25, 2014  Professional Traditional Artist
In Saoudi Arabia or New Guinea, they don't make Superhero comics: they have their own art.
Superheroes were born in England in the 19th century: the ancestor of all of them was a British hero from a series of very exciting novels: he was called the Scarlet Pimpernel. He was the first adventurer who saved people from danger using a secret identity which was one of an inoffensive and helpless, underestimated alter ego, a very vain and silly dandyish Lord. He was able to change, but not by supernatural forces but by his talent of disguise. Great series. 
His "successor" was of course Zorro: transplanted to the lawless former Spanish colony which is now the region around Los Angeles, where the poor were bullied by the military leaders, a vain and too well-dressed Don Diego de la Vega, whom nobody took seriously, changed into the mysterious masked hero Zorro, the champion of the poor.
Superman was the third. In the very first drawings he looked a lot like Tarzan, but dressed in a sf-costume which showed just as much of his anatomy as the little fur loincloth of the Lord of the Jungle. The cape is a reminiscent of Zorro. Litlle boys as well as women like to watch that, I'm told...
After him came a tsunami of other superheroes, encouraged by his success.

In Europe, apart from the Scarlet Pimpernel, there were never any "superheroes". And even Sir Percy Blakeney was just a man of flesh and blood. So, I'm guessing in other civilisations, they won't do it either. It's a typical American thing.
Edgod Featured By Owner May 25, 2014
Like Marshall MacLuhan said, The Medium is the Message. In other words the medium determines the content e.g.high pitch  singers used to burst the valves on the old radios, so crooners like Bing Crosby became popular as they got all the air time. They had to invent the transistor before other types of singers became popular.
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