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Capes & Spandex: What Costumes Mean to the Superhero Role-Playing Genre

Storn Cook
May 23, 2000

Storn Cook started working for Iron Crown Enterprises (makers of the Middle Earth and Role Master role-playing games) right after acceptance into Columbus College of Art and Design (which did not suck as an art school.) He worked for ICE and Hero Games through the 3 1/2 years of his education. Now Storn is a full time freelance artist. His client list includes Hero Games, Iron Crown Enterprises, Wizards of the Coast / TSR, FASA, West End Games and many smaller outfits. He loves tennis, role-playing games, and illustrating.

My introduction to comics came at a very early age - when I was four. My mother taught me how to read with Sgt. Rock and the Howling Commandos that I bought at the corner store with my allowance. It was the 60s and late night parties would find me rummaging around for comics. It was San Francisco, so before I got to Batman or Spiderman, I was confronted with Herman Head, the Freak Brothers and Zap Comix. Must say I didn't quite get those tidbits!

When I did find the Fantastic Four, Superman and numerous others, I must say I was sucked in immediately. By the time I was eight I had a collection of 150 very well used comics. Then I gave up comics; they didn't interest me anymore. It wasn't until I was 15 that I saw Paul Smith's rendition of the New X-Men #163 that jumpstarted my interest once again. Paul Smith had a clean, crisp line that breathed new life into some costumes that I actually thought were pretty stupid.

The origin of the skintight costume is rooted in a very practical matter; artists had to meet "tight" deadlines. Daily strips or 22 page monthly comics demand an incredible amount of time from these overworked and unsung storytellers of yesteryear. The skintight costume eliminated the time AND difficulty of drawing folds and textures of clothes.

Of course if you were built like Tarzan why not show your manly physique off? And as for Tarzan's female counterpart, Sheena, what red-blooded jungle explorer could resist her shapely form barely hidden by a smattering of leopard fur? Super hero comics have always idealized anatomy to heroic proportions. They are godlings of form who tower over others and to the fight the fights no one else could. Super, Para, it means beyond, above. Skin tights showed these heroic attributes to the Tee.

But what does the Super Hero costume mean to role-playing gamers? After all, most Super Hero campaigns don't get published. So, attention to costume may or may not be a priority. And it seems to me that emphasis on visuals can really vary from campaign to campaign. Often it depends on whether there is somebody of artistic bent in the group. Of course, if you are playing Marvel Super Heroes or DC Universe costumes are already part of the source material.

My opinion is this: A costume can create volumes of information about the character. Traditionally, the costume supports the "feel" of the Hero. Superman wears red, white, blue and yellow (the yellow is an accent, leaving a color scheme identical to the United States' flag). Superman is very much rooted in being a midwest American and his costume reflects this. Batman, on the other hand, wears black and blue - colors of the nighttime streets. These colors are useful for staying hidden and striking fear into his opponents. If you look carefully, you will notice that Batman's horns have always moved up and down depending on the artist. Artists Simon Bisely and Dick Giordano brought the horns to demonic heights.

Then there is Spiderman who sewed his own costume and entered a wrestling match to make money, all in the very first issue. But spiders aren't generally red & blue! Black Widow, on the other hand, has a costume closer to the spider of the same name. But Spiderman's costume is very important; it looks like what a teenager might come up with. It has no cape allowing for the acrobatic ballet that only Spiderman is capable of. The eyes are extremely expressive allowing for Peter Parker's frequent vulnerability to come through. Or alarm. Or shock. Or anger... you get the picture.

To Cape or not to Cape?

Now you want to create your own costume for your own heroes and villains. What tips can I give you? Well, understand this comes filtered through my own likes and dislikes about costume design. Let me state up front I'm not much of a lover of Golden or Silver Age costume design. I like some of the more modern costume designs, especially the inclusion of pockets and zippers!

However, Batman, Spiderman, Jay Garrick Flash, Wonder Woman are great costume designs that still hold up today. So like all art, this is about a series of judgement calls.

Capes were a great way for an artist to show movement. When Superman flies, the cape can billow softly during a gliding landing or zoom straight back as Supes pours on the speed. However, capes are getting less prolific. Why? I think there is a trend towards more militaristic costume designs. After all, these characters go into combat almost every month. And that is a Supra fashion trend I approve, capes in military uniforms went out somewhere in the late 1800s.

But capes can serve a purpose. They are wonderful for invoking grandeur and royalty. My favorite example would be Dr. Strange's cape. It serves a practical purpose for the mystic master, being a cloak of levitation. It also lends mystery and nobility to the good ol' Doc. So if you have a mystic character capes are pretty common and a great way to hide all those material casting focuses. Mystic capes should have some crazy sigils and squiggles. Capes can also serve the mysterious Hero of the Night. The classic is Batman, but others include Spawn (with his living cape), Spectre, the Phantom Stranger, and Moonknight.

Finally, capes work great on Villains. Dr. Doom looks silly without a cape, but with it he looks menacing and dictatorial. Most Villain masterminds seem to have capes. Villain capes should be long, regal and usually they are holding it one hand while they rant with the other.

The Mask Revealed:

If you want your character to have a Secret Identity you better consider a mask. Clark Kent's glasses don't really cut it with modern audiences; we accept it because of the weight of tradition in the Superman mythos. The classic mask is the domino, worn by those like Green Arrow, Green Lantern (not Kyle Rainer), the Phantom (the purple guy of dailies) and Robin. Even the domino mask stretches credibility, but hey, its superheroes!

Also common is the half facemask. Examples are Batman, Wolverine, Capt. America, Daredevil and maybe you could call Galactus's helmet thingee a 1/2 mask. You would also have to include almost every Ninja inspired outfit drawn. The full mask is not as common, partly because artists like having some facial features with which to work. Classics include Spiderman, Moonknight, Deathstalker the Terminator (of Titans fame) and Dr. Fate.

Consider some other accouterment that can take the place of masks for your Hero or Villain. The Shadow's hat and scarf is a great non-mask. The ol' motorcycle helmet (or variation) works too! Armored characters tend to have helmets with faceplates that conceal their civilian features, just ask Shell Head of the Avengers.

These Boots (and Gloves) were made for flying...

Marvel characters from the 1960s seem to have the buccaneer boots as seen on Capt. America. I've never particularly liked them, as they seem fairly impractical to me. But, if your character is an older hero, or trying to emulate the older generation, you can't dismiss the buccaneer boot.

Gloves of late seem to be running towards cyberpunk, fingerless, holes over the knuckles kind of look. Billy Idol would be so proud. Anyway, I've always had a fondness for racing and biking gloves, because the closest I ever got to be a super hero was being a bike messenger in NYC.

Flying characters tend to have sleeker gloves and boots than their landbased brethren. Martial Arts characters tend to be sleek as well, although the Brawler type tends to have studs and lots of leather. In the era of Image comics, gauntlets and vambraces (arm protection), often with spikes, deluged the comic costume designs. And in my opinion, it reached a ridiculous level. I did like one thing the Image artists brought to costume design - pockets and belts.

Where do I put my keys?

If there is one defining item between today's costumes and yesteryears, I would have to point out to the lowly pocket. Characters finally started to break the skintight mold and had a place to put a driver's license. In today's modern superhero campaigns, if a character doesn't have a cell phone, I would be very surprised. And if you've got a cell phone, you want a pocket (or nifty, masculine ammo pouches) to put said cell phone in.

Now, not all characters need pockets. Superman certainly doesn't. Batman certainly does. You have to decided if pockets are important design consideration for your Hero.


Superman's "S" is cool. What a wonderful bit of design work! And it was the very first! Many Heroes and Villains have icons. Geez, anyone remember the Legion of Super Heroes, where 30 or so icons would be up on the mission board? Icon design is tough, no way of getting around it. If you are beginning try modifying already existing icons. Manta Ray could have a logo very similar to Batman's with just a bit of elongation and stretching. The truth is, when trying to pare something down to something so simple and immediate, it takes tons and tons of reiteration and minor changes until you get it right.

Schemes within schemes

Color is probably the #1 important design consideration for today's hip Hero. There is a reason they call it 4 color. When we are young, bright colors are easier for our eyes to see. Young boys especially gravitate towards bright, bombastic color. This coincides nicely with the early comic book market because bright inks were about the only thing that would hold up on the crappy paper that most comics were printed on.

Today, this isn't quite the case. Most comics are now colored with computer software programs. Paper stock is light-years better. Both allow for a much greater range of chroma. Dusky and 1/2 or 3/4 chromatics, grays, and twilight colors now can be used for both Hero and Villain. In your own campaign you don't have to worry about paper and ink, your characters can have the full spectrum of color. However, there is definitely some psychology involved with picking color for your Superhero (or for your den, for that matter). An Ice generating character probably shouldn't be decked out in crimson and black. OK, maybe if he was called Black Ice, carried a flamethrower, shot oil slicks...oh, never mind! Cooler colors are for cool characters. Black, blue, blue-purples, blue-green are great colors for those mysterious, rooftop lurking types. Warm colors favor the bold, the graphic and the powerful. Yellow, orange, red, red-purple, and yellow-green make the eye go right to them. The Hulk is much more impressive as a yellow-green than a gray, even if they are identical in size - that's because your eye moves faster to catch the vibrations of the warm. I use racing stripes for lean, sleek characters going up or down the body and blocky, wide chunks of color for your ever luvin' brick character. These can be a lighter or darker variation of the main color, or they can be a different color. Try many bright colors for the whimsical, trickster Hero or Villain and a bow tie can't hurt either.

Consider an overall team color, such as the Fantastic Four, who've seemed to stay fairly close to blue all of these years. There is quite a bit of room to individualize each member with different articles of the uniform. The Thing just wears blue briefs. Johnny Storm tends to burst into flame when trouble rears its head. A leather jacket or beret can augment, yet individualize the team player. My favorite color scheme for a villain is crimson red and black. That is one powerful color combo! Regal, dangerous, smacks of blood, menacing... what more would you want in a Villain?


Art has many rules of thumb. Often it is good to follow those rules, but sometimes you got to break them. The only way to know when to break them is to do it. If you want to design cool super hero costumes, nothing beats trying. If that drives you nuts, and you hate what you've designed, I do take commissions. Some of my artwork, and a few costumes, can be seen at: http://www.solaria.net/stornc

-Storn A. Cook

Editor, Tomas Skucas


What do you think?

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Hero for a Day
 Topics Author  Date Latest Reply
 Superman & Why Costumes (1) new Zoran Bekric  06-22-2000 03:56  06-22-2000 03:56 new
 Superman? (4) new Rico  06-18-2000 11:08  06-19-2000 14:59 new
 thorough (2) new wolflaughing  06-17-2000 05:11  06-17-2000 20:43 new
 Gripes and answers (1) new Bill  04-05-2000 06:19  04-05-2000 06:19 new
 Off topic - Signature Link? (2) new Unnamed Soldier  04-04-2000 09:55  04-04-2000 09:57 new
 Brave New Arse (4) new unnamed brave soldier  04-04-2000 08:47  04-05-2000 23:45 new
 One word: Licensing. (2) new Mark 'Kamikaze' Hughes  04-04-2000 01:50  06-20-2000 10:28 new
 Interesting! (3) new Deirdre_Ruth  04-04-2000 00:12  06-16-2000 16:11 new
 Snarl..Gnash... (3) new Pete Darby  04-03-2000 07:51  04-04-2000 04:10 new
 Brave New Setting (7) new Joe G Kushner  04-02-2000 19:10  06-20-2000 10:19 new
 MC, etc. (2) new T L  04-01-2000 08:53  04-03-2000 10:37 new
 BNW vs DC (1) new Mike Dukes  04-01-2000 03:02  04-01-2000 03:02 new
 point? (6) new wolflaughing  03-31-2000 18:41  04-05-2000 04:39 new
 Is Matt The King of the World or What? (5) new John Wick  03-31-2000 17:58  04-04-2000 01:38 new
 mechanics and setting (3) new Marion Poliquin  03-31-2000 15:26  06-20-2000 09:52 new
 Point conversion question (1) new kevin schultz  03-31-2000 14:57  03-31-2000 14:57 new
 Like the system too ! (3) new Andy Guest  03-31-2000 14:00  04-01-2000 05:24 new
 Agree with Matt (4) new Matthew  03-31-2000 12:58  06-20-2000 09:33 new
 Will there ever be another Char Creation system? (2) new Corey  03-31-2000 12:14  04-03-2000 10:45 new
 Balancing Act (2) new Caeman  03-31-2000 11:45  03-31-2000 12:22 new

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