Marketing Madness: Costume changes

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Welcome back to Marketing Madness, the column that looks at some of the inventive, unscrupulous or downright crazy techniques that publishers use to persuade readers to part with their hard-earned money. Inspired by the recent reveal of new costumes for the DC Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, this column is going to focus on costume changes and alterations over the years. As everyone who has watched The Incredibles will know, a super hero has to put a lot of thought and care into getting the right look. Unfortunately, as some of the following examples show, the publishers’ best intentions have not always resulted in sartorial style for our favourite characters.

As a primarily visual medium, the importance of costumes to a character can’t be overstated. Long running heroes such as Spider-Man and Superman may have changed their costumes on several occasions, but there’s a reason why the majority of changes are cosmetic and more drastic changes are invariably reset. Brand recognition is a powerful thing and for heroes that adorn everything from wall hangings to pyjamas, consistency is an important thing. It’s even more striking to reflect how integral the symbols associated with such characters have become; the Superman ‘S’, the Batman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man logos, even the pattern on Charlie Brown’s t-shirt – all these symbols are instantly recognisable, immediately summoning to mind the character associated with them.

Despite this, comic publishers often find it hard to resist tampering with costumes for characters. While this is occasionally an organic story-driven device, more often than not it’s an intentional attention grabbing tactic to increase sales. Marvel comics took this trend to its logical extreme in 1998 with its Identity Crisis storyline, where Spider-Man adopted four new costumed identities, all of which were later spun off into their own team book.

It is, of course, all subjective, but for ease of discussion I’ve grouped costume changes into four main categories: ‘successes’, ‘failures’, ‘close but no cigar’ and ‘what the ?!#* were they thinking?’

Successes

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Spider-Man’s black costume – The first major alteration to Spider-Man’s costume, Marvel was so worried about a backlash from fans that they had to bring in a new writer to script the issue (Tom DeFalco) and there was editorial pressure to return the old costume tout suite. The fears were unfounded. The costume’s first appearance became a sought after issue, fan reaction was enthusiastic and toy merchandisers rejoiced that they could now sell the same figure in two different colour schemes. The costume, of course, lives on through Venom, Spider-Man’s symbiote foe.

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Daredevil’s red costume – Dardevil’s original yellow costume has a certain charm, but the elegant simplicity of his familiar red costume is what has become familiar to readers. Barring an ill advised flirtation with armour in the 1990s, this is the costume that Daredevil has used ever since. Bonus style points for red=Devil.

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The Batman yellow oval – Strange as it may seen to modern readers, in the early 1960s the Bat titles were in poor shape, with cancellation no longer an outlandish suggestion. As part of a revamp of the titles the yellow oval was added to the Bat costume. Instantly recognisable, this has been used on so much merchandise over the years that it has permeated the national consciousness, with some movie posters for the Tim Burton Batman films featuring only a close up shot of this logo. Classy and timeless. Bring it back DC!

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The Silver age Flash – When DC revamped their Flash character in the late 1950s, among the alterations was a brand new costume. Striking and sleek yet simple and functional, it avoided excess baggage and clutter that would hinder a man in perpetual motion. Sadly, it meant losing Jay Garrick’s funky hat, but sacrifices must always be made in the name of fashion.

Failures

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Electric Superman – Oh dear. The cover proclaims “ready for the next century” but in reality the short-lived Electric Superman phase was only ready for the bargain bin.

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Hawkeye’s skirt – I bow to no-one in my adoration of Clint Barton. He is to purple what Gambit is to pink and his traditional costume (before the movie inspired revamp – pah!) is a thing of beauty. This, however…. My God, Clint, what were you thinking? Displaying more flesh than a 90s Image comic and wearing a skirt for some baffling reason, this is not your finest hour. “The garments be new and strange” – Thor, you truly are the master of understatement.

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The New Wonder Woman – This costume isn’t too bad in itself and was a clear attempt by DC to match the mood of the times. Where I think it suffers is in taking Wonder Woman too far away from her recognisable look. If no part of a costume reflects any of what’s gone before, I think that’s a big miss. Imagine this cover minus the text and illustrations of the old Wonder Woman outfits. How many people would be able to guess that this is Wonder Woman?

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Day-glo Ghost Rider – Because every dark avenger of the night should be dressed in bright orange and red. Seriously Ghosty, what the heck? You look less like a Midnight Son and more like you’re an escapee from Lazy Town.

Close but no cigar

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Iron Man’s nose – If any character has the perfect excuse for numerous costume changes, it’s Iron Man. Constantly updating his armour or coming up with armour for specific situations, he’s a toy manufacturer’s ideal superhero. There is one of Tony’s innovations that, sadly, didn’t catch on – the much maligned ‘Iron nose’. Attracting amusement and disdain in equal measure, the nose was mocked within the comic’s own pages and was quickly removed from the armour. Rather unfair, I feel. Poor Tony’s nose must be red raw from being pressed against that mask all day, why shouldn’t he relieve the pressure? You just know that in the Marvel Universe celebrity gossip magazines have mistakenly linked Tony’s long-suffering nose with a terrible cocaine habit, blind to the suffering he’s enduring. Bring back the nose! The campaign starts here.

What the ?!#* were they thinking

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Wolverine’s ‘Patch’ persona – Oh Wolverine, I don’t want to mock you but you make it so easy. With the X-Men thought dead to the world you start spending time in Mardipoor. Despite having the world’s most recognisable hairstyle and the rather distinctive trait of CLAWS THAT EXTEND FROM BOTH YOUR HANDS you believe that a thin piece of gauze across your eyes (or, in your civilian ID, an eye patch) will stop anyone from realising who you are. Oh dear…

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The Bat Bunny – It’s perhaps unfair to mock this based on two images and no context, but it’s so hard to resist. The kind of mechanical suit that went out of fashion in the 80s, coupled with Bunny ears. Bonus points for the smoking gun suggesting that this is one Bunny who’ll use the stick, not the carrot. It’s grim, it’s gritty, it’s utterly ridiculous, and… I’m actually kind of intrigued.

Well played, DC, well played.

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