Meditations on a superhero’s unitard

Author Michael Chabon, who knows a thing or two about comic books and superheroes, has penned an essay for the New Yorker regarding the attire of superheroes.

It’s an interesting read, if you’re a big dork like me. In it, Chabon makes the case that the costume could be reduced to nothing more than a simple unitard. No boots, no gauntlets, no capes, no masks. But then he goes on to say that the costume is necessary for it conveys the story of the superhero themselves. He gets a bit convuleted in his logic, often times he contridicts himself, but still, a great read.

The story of a superhero?s origin must be kept secret, occulted as rigorously from public knowledge as the alter ego, as if it were a source of shame. Superman conceals, archived in the Fortress of Solitude and accessible only to him, not only his own history?the facts and tokens of his birth and arrival on Earth, of his Smallville childhood, of his exploits and adventures?but the history of his Kryptonian family and, indeed, of his entire race. Batman similarly hides his story and its proofs in the trophy chambers of the Batcave.

In theory, the costume forms part of the strategy of concealment. But in fact the superhero?s costume often functions as a kind of magic screen onto which the repressed narrative may be projected. No matter how well he or she hides its traces, the secret narrative of transformation, of rebirth, is given up by the costume. Sometimes this secret is betrayed through the allusion of style or form: Robin?s gaudy uniform hints at the murder of his circus-acrobat parents, Iron Man?s at the flawed heart that requires a life-support device, which is the primary function of his armor.

Chabon, however, uses the essay, to hint at something greater and far more interesting. The notion that superheroes and comics in general are necessary components for children’s story telling and play. That to tie a beach towel around your neck is not just an act of foolish whimsy, but is something deeper, something more real. It is an act of each child’s truest nature.


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