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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?

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:
ClarkyBoingo Featured By Owner 21 hours ago   Traditional Artist
1-Never. This questionning about the so-called "trunks is indeed questionning me. Finding necessity in everything is not an answer I'm willing to use.
2- It all depends of the context. I suppose I would not like it, and I wouldn't take it as a creative challenge to overcome a technical difficulty. I suppose, if I wanted to keep my job, I would be trying to find strategies. But I don't exactly call that "creativity".
3- I'm not sure how art students should be educate, except by entertaining them and supporting them to truly think out-of-the-box. And about the narratives ? Yes, I think, cinema shouldn't dictate comics how to show something, they are different medias, different art forms, different languages.
4- Not at all. And I tend to disagree with the content.
5- Thug's sweat-smelling gun. He had to avoid it. Super perfume is not one of the asset of the Man of Steel!
Black-Knight-4090 Featured By Owner Feb 4, 2016  Hobbyist Writer
I never thought about that most because I always looked at these characters and saw heroes as just that.
oscarortizdotcom Featured By Owner Feb 3, 2016  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
No undies. Far more cleaner and elegant.
billmorrison Featured By Owner Jan 31, 2016  Professional Filmographer
Actually, the circus performer explanation is correct. Superman's costume was based on that of circus aerialists/strongman. It's also why he has a cape. Circus aerialists wore capes when they came out to perform, then took them off to do their stunts. Also, Lee Falk's The Phantom predates Superman and he also wore trunks over tights. The character was very popular in newspapers and had to have been an inspiration for Joe Shuster when he was designing Superman.
Kaeus-Kun Featured By Owner Jan 31, 2016
Great post. Thank you very much!
cauldronofevil Featured By Owner Jan 28, 2016  New Deviant
Superman wears his underwear on the outside of his clothes because his mother made his costume for him and that's the way she made it. 
Maturesilvaze Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2016
Well I am no Super Man fan! (I don't like Super Man but it's my opinion okay)
Tuubla Featured By Owner Jan 13, 2016  New Deviant
For #5, my guess is that his hair gel isn't as strong as that chest.
QuarterLessTwain Featured By Owner Edited Jan 13, 2016  New Deviant
I don't really know about the other questions, but the reason for #5 is that the guns were obviously made of Kryptonite. Duh.
mynamewastakenalso Featured By Owner Jan 9, 2016
Ok, so There is the possibility that I am just reiterating what someone else has said before, and if so I apologize in advance. 

I never really cared that superman wore his undies on the outside, it was just a minor detail that i really didn't spend to much time on. That was until I got into high school and had to begin to occasionally wear pantyhose. Now for those of you who have been through the exasperating experience that is pantyhose, you understand one important thing. THEY SLIDE DOWN. No matter how much wiggling or adjusting, they manage to always slip down in the groin area. But as human nature, we must adapt. How do you adapt to slippery stretchy plastic fibers bunching up around your groin area? You wear another set of underwear over them. It works like a charm. Feels weird at first, but it's a far better alternative to chaffing your thighs. Now with this knowledge in mind, I can begin to understand why superman dresses how he does. It's not very superhero like to have to adjust your suit all the time, and it can get really annoying really fast. 
Just my two cents. Hope you have a good day
triflingtricycle Featured By Owner Jan 30, 2016  New Deviant
yes, exactly this!
smashy-bone Featured By Owner Jan 8, 2016
Even though printing technology no longer requires Superman to wear trunks, he still should. The new design sans undies looks AWFUL to me. No appeal. Flat colour. It at least needs the yellow belt again. Those colours break up the flow of the design for some reason making it appealing to the eye. 

The other reason he should wear undies: Think how obscene male ballet dancers look in their tights. All the little kids giggle when they watch The Nutcracker.

There's a weird mentality right now to question why a man would dress that way, instead of looking at comics for what they are. Graphic, pictoral, fantastical designs. If you're going to question underpants outside of clothes, then you have to question EVERYTHING. Why tights at all? How can this guy be so strong? How come no one recognizes who Clark Kent really is? How do these stories make any sense? They are wrecking some of the movies with that logic too. Trying to make it "realistic" when it really can't be.

All this applies to Batman too!!
ScottMan2th Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
a very fun read:D (Big Grin) enjoyed this very muchClap 
c55m Featured By Owner Jan 2, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
The-Last-Phantom Featured By Owner Dec 18, 2015  Professional Digital Artist

Bunny Emoji-09 (Heart) [V1]

Thank you soooo much!!!!
Gun-Cougar Featured By Owner Dec 15, 2015

 “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.” 

Perhaps this statement is true in the afterthought of the comic world after the character was created, but in reality it’s much simpler.  Allow me to explain:

First off, it was never, ever underwear.  Non-sports people often make this mistake.  In fact, the trunks were specifically designed OUTERWEAR for those of us who had to wear them.  That’s why they were deliberately cut high, wide, and thick.  And why was it worn on the outside?  Simple: to make a smooth, clean masculine line on the outfit. 

Outside of printing, Superman’s costume is based on the standard wrestling uniform at the time---a leotard worn over tights to keep the tights up, and trunks worn over the leotard.  (I was in school wrestling in 1988 and we still wore the same thing.  This style is also mentioned in the film “The Breakfast Club”.)   Anyway, from the 30’s to the 90’s, one of the most common non-ballet/non-gymnastics sports leos for men had a 2-button closure at the crotch, and the trunks over them covered the buttons.  Not only that, it was wider than the cut of the leo, so it also covered the waistband line of the tights; and at the same time it covered the leg-hole opening lines of the leo.   Instead of seeing all the outlines of the support cup, tights, and trunks under the leo, the trunks on the outside covered ALL lines giving the outfit a nice, clean look.   Thus the artists drawing Superman (or any other Gold/Silver Age hero) were simply emulating the real-life tight fitting sportswear designs common for men at the time; which apparently also happened to be a good looking aesthetic within the confines of comic design.

bucky-starkiller Featured By Owner Jan 18, 2016
Thankfully I read far enough down to find Gun-Cougar's comment.  I was going to say the same thing, and Gun-Cougar said it better.
Antonio-Rocha Featured By Owner Dec 30, 2015
There's some good points raised in the article, but what you wrote is pretty much THE answer.
jvenegas Featured By Owner Edited Dec 15, 2015  Student General Artist
superhero underwear is like sports-wear- it protects the sensitive parts, works with any physical transformations [were-animal, hulk], and is also completely indestructible, in case of a catastrophic costume failure/disintegration. :P
rambideunt Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2015
or, to hide unnecessary boner :D
jvenegas Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2015  Student General Artist
Interwoven with lead, so it's x-ray resistant!
Blue-Angel12 Featured By Owner Dec 14, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
I actually never thought about that. I just thought that his underwear on his leotard was part of the costume.XD Great collection, and very interesting article. 
RedFox1304 Featured By Owner Dec 12, 2015
5: Well ... as mentioned above, a broad chest is a significantly male attribute, isn't it? Being able to let bullets bounce off it makes one very heroic and male-looking. But letting somebody throw things at your face is quite another thing. Just think about the effect of being struck in the face. It's not about the pain but more about hurting the pride of a person. A hero cannot let his pride getting hurt.
TrulyParanormal Featured By Owner Dec 12, 2015
• i actually thought he did that to hide groin areas or it was some type of fashion.
• i dont know what could inspire young art students, there should be more respect. 
• i feel a tiny bit superior
• "Not the nose!" Superman yelled, ducking as guns flew at him. He had a date tonight, and he would rather not have Batman shouting: 'NOSEMAN! Or SUPER-BROKEN-NOSE', at him through the window as he tries to enjoy some pasta. 

maybe his face is his weak point, even acne would make him cry. 
Diamondec Featured By Owner Dec 10, 2015
Superman ducked because he was worried about the gun messing up his hair. Lets face it hair gel isn't cheep and the amount superman must use and the hours it took him to get his hair like that. I would have ducked too.
alec7971 Featured By Owner Dec 8, 2015  New Deviant
really like the collection,thanks
danielmchavez Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2015   Digital Artist
Thank you so much for the feature!
niqbee Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
5. The more mundane the attack, the more it smarts?
Pearl Emote 31 
lligthning Featured By Owner Edited Dec 6, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
because : BATMAN
IronArmy Featured By Owner Dec 19, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Varjokani Featured By Owner Dec 4, 2015  Student Digital Artist
Never even noticed that, but now when mentioned, he does look stupid with out undies. :-D
Great-Lord-Dread Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2015  Professional Writer
I always read that the undies were intended to mimic the look of a circus strongman. This is an image that was, at the time of Superman's conception, deeply embedded in the American consciousness as representative of inhuman strength.
PrincessofDaggers Featured By Owner Dec 2, 2015
This was neat.  I had never really put much thought into that, instead just chose to accept it.  I love learning the 'why' behind things.
daphne3631 Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2015  Student General Artist
A very nice read
Eremitik Featured By Owner Nov 28, 2015
I read once that the reason the underwear was over the suit was a type of homage to the wrestlers, or "strongmen" of that era. In those days, wrestlers wore little other than underwear to show off their physique. The comic artists designed the suits that way so people would associate Superheroes and wrestlers, who were thought to be the perfect male specimens of health and strength.
WingDiamond Featured By Owner Nov 21, 2015
A joke I read in one of them "Dirty Joke Books"

How do we know Superman is (insert target ethnicity or locality)?
Who else would wear their jockey shorts over their leotards?
E2-Class Featured By Owner Nov 20, 2015  New Deviant Hobbyist General Artist
answers to those five questions:

1. Yeah, i used to question why he wore undies outside that jumpsuit, but i never thought it was for economic reasons. Mickey mouse also has four fingers because it saved money too.
2. I'm proud of today's modern technology, but I wouldn't mind using technology of old.
3. Maybe so, I do enjoy a good classic.
4. Most of my friends don't know this, so I guess this means I have bragging rights.
5. Because those guns had villain DNA, and superman is secretly germaphobic. (that's the best I could think of) Superman 
RexdeDino Featured By Owner Nov 19, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
I don't have answers to 1-4 questions, BUT I have one for nr. 5

It's because his mother made the suit, and his head isn't covered by the suit.
The suit is bulletproof, because as we know from Harry Potter, motherly love is an indestructuble barrier.
Well, maybe if a giant rock monster punches you in the gut, BUTTHAT'SDIFFERENT!
daphne3631 Featured By Owner Nov 29, 2015  Student General Artist
Good one
coolcat378 Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
The insight! *-* I must get my mother to use all her motherly love to make me a cloak of indestructible power and greatness!!!!!!!!SupaGirl 
MissyTD Featured By Owner Nov 17, 2015  Hobbyist Artist
So it's not ok for me to wear my underwear on the outside since I'm not a superhero...?
ashwhite3110 Featured By Owner Nov 16, 2015
nice job. i like your reasoning.
mylovelyart1 Featured By Owner Nov 16, 2015  Hobbyist Artist comment
Miarath Featured By Owner Nov 14, 2015   General Artist
Thanks for sharing such a great journal! :D
Well, I actually never thought about the why, although, sometimes
I wondered why many superheroes fight in bathing gear or nearly naked, which has to be really
uncomfortable for fighting.
Deepizzaguy Featured By Owner Nov 13, 2015  Student Writer
Thank you for sharing the history lesson of why Superman's costume has had so many changes.
SuperSparkplug Featured By Owner Edited Nov 10, 2015  Professional Digital Artist
It was also because wrestlers and some performers would wear their costumes like that, back in the old days, with underwear on the outside. This was probably more of an influence to his design than the technological issues outlined here. While they were certainly a factor, the culture of the time with performer outfits influenced Superman's design, which coincidentally helped them out when they had to deal with their printing limitations. While this does explain the comics of the time, what you're explaining here isn't entirely right with regards to Superman.
secondsign Featured By Owner Nov 21, 2015
There's a practical reason why wrestlers and others wear separate trunks over tights.  The tights usually come up to the waist but, regardless of the fabric used or how tight they are made, it's very hard to keep them in place and laying smooth.  The trunks, since they aren't pulled as much by leg movement do a better job of staying smooth and in place.
SuperSparkplug Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2015  Professional Digital Artist
Ah, cool! Good to know! :)
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