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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:
 
:iconpugiron:
Pugiron Featured By Owner 14 minutes ago
This is total bullshit.  The reason Superman, Batman and many other first generation super heroes wore trunks over tights was because before super heroes the heroes were wrestlers, circus strong men and acrobats.  They were wearing trunks over tights since the 1800's.  When you wanted a man to look like a heroic strong man, you dressed them like a heroic strong man icon.
Reply
:icon96pamdawolf:
96PamdaWolf Featured By Owner 1 day ago  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Really interesting
Reply
:iconsoul-daemon:
Soul-Daemon Featured By Owner 3 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
1 question it no, never... make jokes about it... yes... put my underwear on outside my jeans and run around with a red tea towel for a cape yes. 

2 I will have to self impose a few of those restrictions and see how it goes.

3 comics never get enough time in the lime light

4 I feel like a regular Übermensch now

5 He ducked because he was american! he wouldn't want to damage a shiny new gun! 
Reply
:icontomskaisbest:
TomskaIsBest Featured By Owner 5 days ago  Hobbyist General Artist
Why did superman duck? Because, if you assume x= 5 and y=6, and the gun travelled at a constant speed of Pi miles per hour, the gun being made of Metal that would react with the man of "Steel", and you then turn superman upside down and place a triangle in every position possible, we can assume that Superman ducked because a gun to the head would freakin' hurt, especially in a context containing the Illuminati.
Reply
:iconswanofwar:
SwanofWar Featured By Owner 5 days ago  Professional Writer
The biggest question of my entire life has been answered, thank you XDDDDDD
Reply
:iconzexyz:
Zexyz Featured By Owner 6 days ago
Used to say "uniform" and then after thinking about it too much...

In 7th grade I took swimming class, and quickly learned that "swim trunks" weren't made for speed. Despite the social stigma, I got a set of "swimming briefs". Eventually I decided that Flying and Swimming must be similar, so of course Superman would wear "support".

Robin was the one that weirded me out..
Reply
:iconscpart:
SCPArt Featured By Owner 6 days ago   Digital Artist
Great read
Reply
:iconmichaelmynatt:
michaelmynatt Featured By Owner Aug 27, 2015  Professional Digital Artist
I was told by an old timer at at Wizard World in Chicago that the idea originally came from strong men on circus posters being depicted wearing tights with shorts on the outside...the guy was bending steel but wearing ballet tights and this masculinized his image and separated him from the dancers and aerialists...and probably kept the printing problems to a minimum too...early circus posters were as poorly printed as comic books.
Reply
:iconmomotsukinezumi:
MomotsukiNezumi Featured By Owner Aug 26, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
In all honesty, I always figured it was like how Mermaid Man said it: "The power's all in the costume. Why else would we run around in coloured undies?"
Reply
:iconegwest65:
egwest65 Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2015  New Deviant Hobbyist Photographer
His costume was in part based on the strongman from the 1930's. His undies add you so put it, were actually based on strongman shorts. If you look at the Superman comics from that time period, you will see that his costume more closely resembles a strongman costume then the superhero costume we know today.
Reply
:iconscorpyonul13:
scorpyonul13 Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2015  Hobbyist Photographer
Spiderman doesn't know this feel
Reply
:icongrandadsclothes:
grandadsclothes Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2015  New Deviant Student
I always thought he wore underwear on the outside because he can.
Reply
:iconcuteboolove:
cuteboolove Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2015  New Deviant
Can everyone watch me
Reply
:iconredwingsdragon:
RedWingsDragon Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2015
It breaks up the blue and draws you away from his crotch.
Reply
:iconwandamiximof:
Wandamiximof Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2015  New Deviant
He ducks when they throw the guns at him because they are KRYPTONITE GUNS!!!! (That shoot bog standard lead bullets).

well, that's my answer all least :)
Reply
:icongraysight:
graysight Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2015  Professional General Artist
the actual reason for the underwear outside, was because the tighs marked much the buttocks and the bulge, and for reasons of decency they needed to put the underwear so the nakedness was not evident. People now doesnt have the same sense towar nudity, but a person in tighs as now, would have looked naked at those times.
Reply
:iconsanchara:
sanchara Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2015
This is really cool! 

Although he could just be wearing shorts over his tights because with all that muscle his tights get a bit see through. Equestrian Vaulters have this problem. 
Reply
:iconthyprez:
ThyPrez Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2015  New Deviant
Maybe he is wearing his underwear as he is fighting crime.
Or his clothes turn into his suit, as we never see Superman enter and exit a phone booth with his daily outfit in hand.
Who knows?
Reply
:iconskullofmyenemies:
skullofmyenemies Featured By Owner Aug 22, 2015
There's something a bit disturbing in this.
This is a long long post, dedicated specifically about someone else's underwear!
(whenever if they're real or not doesn't make this any less true!)
Reply
:iconsablephoenix:
SablePhoenix Featured By Owner Aug 21, 2015
I imagine the original inspiration for this particular design element was probably even simpler.  The prototypical strongman of the day wore a subligar and boots identical to the one Superman wore when introduced to the world.  Add tights and a cape and voila, instant superhero.
Reply
:iconredwingsdragon:
RedWingsDragon Featured By Owner Aug 24, 2015
... You have a point thar
Reply
:iconskycommand:
Skycommand Featured By Owner Aug 20, 2015
1. I never though they were undies. If I looked, I'd see them as a colored part of the full-body suite. But I was never into Superman literature. I could always have identified Superman if I saw him on poster or someplace else but I never read its comic books. Until very recently, I didn't know what a Kryptonite is. I have only watched one full-length Superman film, a cartoon of some sort. (It started with Krypton's cataclysm and ended Brianiac taking over an alien vessel.)
2. I don't know.
3. I don't know exactly how much they are educated right now; I can't say about more.
4. I already am in possession of practical computer knowledge that everyone needs; and I am trying hard not to feel superior. That said, I never cherished having indiscriminate pieces of data. If I am to write about something on a topic, I try to write an article, not a trivia section for Wikia.
5. Hehe! Ask Joey Tribbiani.
Reply
:iconbanenascent:
BaneNascent Featured By Owner Aug 20, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Superman is wearing athletic gear for his time. Superman was made in the twenties. Nobody wears gear like they did in old school Basketball. But his shorts in the twenties were the standard for athletes. Movies like Hoosiers show a time when athletic gear was more restrictive/exposing. But are you really going to sell a hero to  people with his leotard tightly gripping his genitals or are people going to give him some modesty and put a pair of 1920's undies/shorts on him? Superman's undies even today are proper attire even for this day an age. Using a solid plain of color with seams vs the gymnast approach only works on a generation who doesn't acknowledge the need to move in the costume. There is a reason Gymnasts don't wear wear thick bulging seamed gear while trying to preform. Freedom of movement for any athlete is important.

Heroes are based on function, same way female heroes wear classic gymnast attire as well. Visually the newer costumes lack the artistic shapes of the past. Batgirl for example now looks like she works at the home depot and the artistic element, the beauty of movement and shapes are lost in work boots and hard tubed seamed edges. Hero costumes in their entirety actually sit beyond the confines of time and urban trends. They are a fashion class all their own from the years of continuity within genre. Lately that has been sacrificed for the sake of media integration.
Reply
:iconyoungkinderhook:
youngkinderhook Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2015  Student Digital Artist
Interesting! I never really questioned it because I was just so used to seeing Superman with his shorts on the outside (although I'm pretty sure they're supposed to be trunk shorts like in wrestling, not underwear). It definitely makes sense though. I can imagine it must have been pretty difficult to design eye-catching characters with older production methods.
Reply
:iconkristal5544:
kristal5544 Featured By Owner Aug 19, 2015  Hobbyist Artist
so cool superman got guses to be a big man most people cant walk out in there underwear man that cool
Reply
:iconangelalex242:
Angelalex242 Featured By Owner Aug 18, 2015
The real reason this all happened?

Chuck Norris and Superman once fought each other on a bet. The loser had to start wearing his underwear on the outside of his pants.

If it's on Chuck Norris facts, it must be true ;)
Reply
:iconanantarockwell2012:
anantarockwell2012 Featured By Owner Aug 18, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
What can i say its a clasic design..
Reply
:iconc6m3:
C6M3 Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2015  Hobbyist Photographer
nice article!
Reply
:icontrueskinlove:
trueskinlove Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Cool!
Reply
:iconsaintfighteraqua:
saintfighteraqua Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I guess I never thought of them as even being underwear, except for Quailman, of course.
Reply
:iconzumbotron:
Zumbotron Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2015
Those Superman pictures are totally badass
Reply
:icondinobatfan:
dinobatfan Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2015
This is a very great, much needed article. I have had friends and fellow comic book fans mention this problem, and I have never known how to answer. Now, I can not only answer them, but point them to this article! I myself, for most of my life never really thought about it. I just thought it looked cool, and still do. I know it may seem silly, but I still think Batman and Superman look better with the short pants (underwear) on the outside than without. The circus strongman reason makes a lot of sense too for why this is done with the superheroes.
Reply
:icon4evermagic24601:
4everMagic24601 Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2015  Student Writer
I agree with you that Batman and Superman look better with the underwear on the outside but I think that is more to do with it being the design we are used to.
Reply
:iconrush-:
Rush- Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2015
5. Supe's inner thoughts: "Oh sh!t - that's a gun they threw at me..."
Reply
:icontaiyung:
TaiYung Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
I found this really interesting.  I've questioned why his outfit was designed the way it was, but I always just assumed it had to do with making it less bland.  

The last question's funny.  It's probably more heroic looking to get
Reply
:icontaiyung:
TaiYung Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Hit by a bullet in the chest than it is to get hit in the head with a gun. xD
Reply
:icononewa7:
Onewa7 Featured By Owner Aug 14, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
1. I did wonder why he was always dressed like that. I just assumed it was because no one had this idea before, and the artists needed something to stand out, so they said "what about wearing underwear on the outside?"

2. I'm very grateful for today's technology. Look at all those sweet colors and shading we can do today. But back in the day, I would've probably tried the challenge anyway.

3. Yeah, it'd be interesting and useful for any art student to know such stuff.

4. I guess I am indeed feeling quite superior now. Thanks for those little details. It's such things that make comic books even more enjoyable, when you know how they were designed exactly.

5. Maybe he got tired of being a target and is gonna tell the bad guys to go practice somewhere else.
Reply
:iconunderdell:
Underdell Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2015  Student General Artist
I thought it was because strong men of that era wore clothes in such a fashion. This was purely due to the era, and what was viewed as a powerful individual 
Reply
:iconeeveeppg:
EeveePPG Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2015  New Deviant Hobbyist Digital Artist
I just thought is was so they could add more color to his overall outfit.
Reply
:iconhalloween-reject:
Halloween-reject Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist

1.Mostly I just accepted the superhero as they were. I guess one odd quirk I noticed was the original version of Bucky Barnes, the kid one, was why out of all the outfits they could put him in was it shorts, red tights underneath and a jacket that seemed a little out of century.


2. I'm not really an aspiring comic artist but if I was I would definitely enjoy the modern stuff. In truth most my art is Japanese comic inspired which to tell the truth has always been the style I went for before I even started reading actual Manga


3. Totally, I mean looking at that and modern day comics. The restrictions were probably greater and one has to keep in mind they were more for keeping the sensible conservative type consumers cause right after 1940's was the 50's and they thought Elvis was very unorthodox with the hip movements.

4. No, not really cause most my friends have gutter minds and don't care for logical reasoning answers

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?

To avoid having a dent.

Reply
:iconvegtheradish:
vegtheradish Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2015
It would be easier to use the toilet if the pants could "open " !
Even superheroes must answer the call of nature at some point!
Reply
:iconklemensduffe99:
Klemensduffe99 Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2015  New Deviant
´wait, so it isnt normal to wear your underwear over your pants? fuck
Reply
:iconloki666b:
loki666b Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2015
Superman and Chuck Norris once bet on an arm wrestling match. The loser had to wear his underwear on the outside of his clothes.
Reply
:iconbluerosekelly:
BlueRoseKelly Featured By Owner Aug 10, 2015
I thought that that was just how his pants were. Like they were just one piece.
Reply
:iconmik5bklyn:
mik5bklyn Featured By Owner Aug 10, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Its to protect his Super junk, wow dont half the superhero wear there underoos over there tights,
Reply
:iconnckdevoted4life:
NCKDEVOTED4LIFE Featured By Owner Aug 10, 2015  New Deviant Hobbyist Artist
Well before as I remember their chonies were short...
As we now call them breaves lol go figured
Reply
:iconartmaxartmax:
ArtMaxArtMax Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2015
great question! yes, I've wondered that many times!
Reply
:iconhelob:
Helob Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2015
They're not underwear. They're trunks, like circus performers and wrestlers used to wear (and maybe still do).
Reply
:iconunderdell:
Underdell Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2015  Student General Artist
Yeah, this
Reply
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