05 March 2008

A Guy Who Really Knows Where His Towel Is

The day after Oz and Ends's weekly Robin segment entered upon the tough question of superhero garments, the 10 March issue of The New Yorker appeared, bearing novelist Michael Chabon's reflections on the same topic. He even makes one of the same points I did: "Robin’s gaudy uniform hints at the murder of his circus-acrobat parents." So I can't resist the urge to assert some primacy by commenting on Chabon's remarks.

He begins by recalling a difficult moment in his religious-school lessons in "Jewish Ethics":

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that he tied a red towel around his neck, climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been such a boy, Mr. Spector informed us--at least one verifiable boy, so enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.
This story made a brief appearance in Frederic Wertham's influential 1954 anti-comic book manifesto, Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham summarized (without identifying details) an article that Time had run on 22 Jan 1951: "I Almost Did Fly." According to the news magazine, however, the caped hero who tempted six-year-old Dickie Bonham to his doom was not Superman but Mighty Mouse. That mouse had appeared in animated cartoons before entering comic books, but neither the magazine nor the doctor dared to suggest to Americans that movies were inherently harmful.

Chabon's main point is:
like the being who wears it, the superhero costume is, by definition, an impossible object. It cannot exist.
Exhibit A in his argument is folks who attend comic-book conventions in cosplay mode. Even fans who dress up successfully can't replicate the eye-popping perfection of illustrations, and it's best to stay away from the other end of the cosplay spectrum. (What did I just tell you?)

But Chabon stumbles when, seeking to arrive at the skin-tight unitard or even the naked muscular form as the essence of superhero costuming, he tries to dismiss the cape by dropping one anomalous, self-parodying example:
Capes have been an object of scorn among discerning superheroes at least since 1974, when Captain America, having abandoned his old career in protest over Watergate, briefly took on the nom de guerre Nomad, dressed himself in a piratical ensemble of midnight blue and gold, and brought his first exploit as a stateless hero to an inglorious end by tripping over his own flowing cloak.
Captain America had no experience dealing with a cape, of course. If Chabon wanted a fair consideration of what "discerning superheroes" think of capes, he should have asked one who wears the garment what the essence of a hero's costume is.

In fact, even though not all superheroes wear capes, the garment is so closely associated with them that in much of the superhero universe cops and cynics use "capes" as a term for all costumed heroes. In our world, Dickie Bonham certainly understood where superpowers could be found. Even Chabon's final anecdote involves a towel tied around the neck at one end.

The very fact that capes make no sense is why they (along with muscle-displaying tights or bare skin, to be sure) are the essence of superhero costuming. FDR aside, they were past fashionable when Superman showed up in one in 1938--ensuring that he had a special, out-of-this-world look. They're highly impractical, as The Incredibles discussed. Even when comic-book creators try to provide a reason for a cape, as in Batman's cheiropterous disguise, we all know the real reason for one is simply that a cape looks cool in the artwork. Real capes never drape or flutter the same way, alas. But a superhero costume is symbolic from the start; "it cannot exist," as Chabon says, but it's not really supposed to.


Anonymous said...

Gotta remember that the cape is there because superman is dressed as a circus/carnival strongman. Shorts, tights, boots and a cape for decency. Same with trapeze artists. You cover up your indecent skin tight outfit until you go into action, at which point the cape comes off. Ah, the good old days, a hundred years ago, when I was a kid. I guess Kal-el leaves his on cause who knows where he's going to end up.

J. L. Bell said...

The images I have of strong men, such as Louis Cyr, don't usually include capes. I therefore associate Superman's cape with his ability to jump/fly long distances rather than with his strength.

I agree that circus flyers often wear capes as they first appear, then throw them off as they perform.

I hadn't considered the decency issue before, if only because most of the images we have of circus performers show them in action—in tights without capes. Who would be excited by a glimpse of someone standing around in a cape?

Anonymous said...

People started leaving the capes off sometime in the 40s. I guess skin tight outfits were no longer considered as indecent. It lasted longer with the women and, yeah, with the flyers it's still part of the pizzazz. But in the 30s and earlier, the strongmen, the trapeze artists, the acrobats, the bareback riders and pretty much everybody who wore tights wrapped up in a cape for their entrances and exits. The carnie hoochy coochy dancers still wear them the last time I saw and I think the robes that boxers wear not only serve a functional purpose of cool down moderation but are still a remnant of bare bods being indecent.

MotherReader said...

Love the Hitchhiker reference. That's all I'll say about that.

Tetsuya said...

Thanks for dissing my costume it was a work in progress. Well i guess you have journalistic integrity. If you bothered to look thru my gallery there were better instances of my costume.

J. L. Bell said...

Tetsuya, the photo you just shared was taken a month after I posted this essay, so I couldn’t have found it then by looking through your gallery. Also, if you tag that photo and others you like with “Robin,” fans will be more like to find it.

My main point in this article wasn’t about individual costumes, but about superhero bodies and clothing (and ’most everything else) being so unrealistic that trying to replicate them in the real world is a Sisyphean task. But maybe that challenge is part of what makes cosplay fun for folks who enjoy it.

Tetsuya said...

Dude do you realize the amount of money and time going into a costume at least grab the best representation and ask individuals if you may use there picture for your blog. It takes over 6 months and hundreds of dollars for materials used in a cosplay. I mean dissing it for the sake of your own writing is just kinda opurtunistic. Seriously its stuff like this that discourages cosplayers from doing there craft is some blogger like yourself stating what is and should be.


J. L. Bell said...

Are you complaining because I linked to a photo posted on a public website? That’s how this World Wide Web thing works.

“Using” someone else’s work means reproducing it, excerpting it, adapting it. It doesn’t mean seeing it in a public forum and expressing thoughts about it.

As for the time and money put into cosplay to get the results we see, well, that was my point. Or Chabon’s. Obviously, I’m not claiming to be a fan of the hobby. You can simply dismiss me as not knowing how fulfilling it can be.

Tetsuya said...

What ever your kind of a hack.

The public library has free material yet people reference those books.

The news is free online and in the library, you still need to credit.

Hotlinking to some ones cosplay not knowing the state its in or where there in on the process, and using to fulfill your personal needs is disrespectful to the cosplayer.

You blatantly disrespect my hobby of 8 yrs a hobby i put thousands of thousand of hrs into and hundreds of hundreds of money into is low class.

Thank you for your lack of understanding it really shows in the quality of your work.

It would be like if i linked to your article and called it crap and dont read it. It will have an affect on you.

What goes around comes around. It would be a completely different story had you decided to reach out and contact me on i am going to feature your work, what do you feel about it any iformation you care to share about it. Instead you blindly select doing a very minimal flickr search and use it for your own profit. This is completely in bad taste.

J. L. Bell said...

Again, if you don’t want people to see particular photos, you’d be better off not posting them on a public webpage which says, “Anyone can see this photo.”

If you want to make sure people understand that particular photos shows a work in progress, you’d be better off labeling them that way. Otherwise, you’re asking people to read your mind.

And I don’t think a hobby that depends on recreating trademarked characters is a good starting-point for arguing that other people should observe exceptionally strict intellectual property rules for your benefit.

You’re welcome to link to this article or others. You’re even welcome to quote pieces while linking. You’re welcome to criticize what I say or how I say it (which, in fact, you already have). That’s called “fair use,” and it’s how public discourse works.

Tetsuya said...

Your a hack that will never get it. The reason why cosplayers post works in progress so others can see how far it came where it was a record you actually put work and effort in it.

Fair use hardly you took a picture from my account used it for gain. Simple as that you inconsiderate hack.

As for using trademarked material to base cosplay off of. I talked to artists, authors, and creators. They love the fact I honor them with it. I do not sell, I do not expect profit. I give them free advertising for doing something i love. If I was profiting off there trademark it would be a completely different story.

Your continual disregard to my love and joy is a sign you are truly a hack. If you have any integrity you would at least did proper research and crediting before publishing.

J. L. Bell said...

The fact that cosplay is your “love and joy” and not mine doesn’t show that I’m a “hack.” It shows that we have different tastes.

It also shows that what’s really bothering you isn’t a matter of intellectual property claims, but the fact that I didn’t say wonderful things about cosplay in general or your outfit in particular. If I had, I’m quite certain that you never would have objected to the link to your publicly posted photograph.

Since you apparently don’t want people to see a “work in progress,” even though you posted it on the web with no labels to that effect, I’ve replaced the original link with one showing your finished outfit. They work equally well from my perspective.

Tetsuya said...

But you had to go and denigrate my costume or if it was someone else's i would of known. The fact is the cosplay community is a tight knit community.

You had to just use a picture for your gain make someone feel lame for your gain and to prove a non existent point.

You really need to evaluate your journalistic integrity. You act like you know but you have no idea.

If you don't cosplay don't knock someones costume.

This is my final piece of advice you worthless hack. Don't screw with something you have no clue over otherwise something will happen.

J. L. Bell said...

I didn’t denigrate your costume, Tetsuya. I said that the whole enterprise of superhero cosplay is a struggle to achieve the impossible, and sometimes that’s more obvious than others.

No matter how detailed your Robin mask or logo or utility belt might be, it doesn’t produce the look of a highly muscled, dramatically posed, foreshortened teen-aged athlete when one must work with a real world where gravity rules and with middle-aged bodies like ours.