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I love ya but I’m embarrassed by you

2012 November 16

With due acknowledgement to Brian Cronin’s “I Love Ya But You’re Strange” series.

This is probably not going to be a particularly deep thinking post, even if it may at points resemble one. But, I couldn’t help mentally starting on a kind of design interpretation of the significances of this image upon seeing it the other day over at Robot 6:


ah, rendering software

Despite being the creator of a fifteen-seconds-of-internet-famous Superman-related information graphic, I’m not a particular Superman fan and never have been. That said, I certainly appreciate the significance of the character within American comics as well as broader American, and even world, culture over the past several decades. In the linked blog post, director Zack Snyder suggests that “Superman is like the Rosetta Stone of all superheroes,” and I think that’s one good way of putting it.

What interested me much more, however, were some of Snyder’s other comments and their juxtaposition with the above image.

It’s a more serious version of Superman. It’s not like a heart attack. [I don’t know what this phrase meant.] We took the mythology seriously. We take him as a character seriously. […] He’s this amazing ambassador for all superheroes. […] I wanted to be sure the movie treated it respectfully.

I think he wants to emphasize the fact that his movie is going to be serious.

And that’s interesting, given the promotional graphic above. And how it contrasts with the traditional version of same:

Traditional Superman shield

When did this stop being good enough?

Boy, where to begin? Perhaps the most obvious difference is color, or rather the near-eradication of color from the “serious” version. The traditional Superman color scheme was blue with red and yellow accents. The “serious” version is basically black, with metallic gray and a kind of rusty or dried blood dark-red, and a little bit of golden highlighting. Serious is the new black—or maybe it’s the other way around.

Either way, we might also conclude that liberal use of computer-rendered 3D texture effects is the new black (or the new serious) as well. The background has a rough, distressed texture that looks industrial and, y’know, serious as all get-out. The distressed effect is also carried over into the S-shield itself, which is also modified toward increased abstraction and an almost alien look, even a faintly Aliens look perhaps.* (Plus a touch of corporate-sponsored athleticism, perhaps, with a fairly faithful Nike “swoosh” not-quite-hidden in the upper-left.)

What are we to make of all this? Again, where to begin. This isn’t exactly new, of course. Arguably, this approach can be traced at least as far back as the 1989 Batman movie. I don’t think there was much CGI in there, but whether it was done with software or with models, the title-sequence tour of the channels of a monumental, engraved stone Batman logo pushed most of the same buttons as does the “serious” Superman logo (depth, physical mass and texture, dramatic lighting) about as hard as the technology permitted. Michael Keaton’s bulky black rubber costume, with its own embossed bat emblem followed the same cues. And all of this was probably motivated by much the same goal that Snyder keeps repeating almost obsessively in the above quote: seriousness.

And the reason for pursuing seriousness, visually, by this means is no more difficult to guess, given how by 1989 it was solidly established that a simpler and more direct adaptation of superhero costumes such as Batman’s from the comic book to live-action film produced results like this:

Adam West as Batman

Feel free to insert your own faux-dramatic catchphrase from the TV series, here

I think we can largely take it as given that this kind of thing does not look very serious, to most adults. But, briefly, the reasons for that probably have to do with the fact that culturally, most of us associate tights and capes and masks with games and festivals and contexts clearly distinct from the “serious” world of “real life” in which this kind of costume looks completely out of place. “Normal” people don’t dress like this in any kind of “normal” situation, so the image of a real person dressed this way, particularly when that person appears in otherwise-normal scenes of ordinary people dressed normally, seems silly. So I think it’s safe to say that the 1989 Batman movie’s style was definitely an attempt to counteract this (and the above-pictured example of it, specifically), and that the same motivation lies behind the similar use of mass and texture and lighting which has prevailed in live action superhero productions since, up to and including Zack Snyder’s upcoming “serious” Superman film.

That all seems straightforward enough. What I feel less immediately certain about are the two questions which this seems to raise:

  1. Why are the costumes which appear so immediately ludicrous in real life taken more seriously in comics (if they are)?
  2. Why does the addition of texture and seams and embossing and such-like allow those costumes to be taken more seriously (if it does)?

I suppose that I have at least four questions here, actually. I’ll start with what seems like a relatively easy matter, then: how traditional superhero “long johns” appear different in comic form than in live-action film. I think part of the answer probably has to do with the nature of comics, or cartooning, itself. In a typical comic, everyone looks somewhat cartoonish for the reason that everyone is a cartoon; artist’s rendering styles span an enormous range of realism or abstraction, but ultimately an illustrated story does not have any real people in it. Thus, the distance between a figure in “civilian” dress and a superhero in colorful tights is automatically reduced, somewhat. I think we can also consider the fact that, in general, superhero costumes don’t “wear” the same in comics as they do in real life. In real life, even on a well-toned person, tights end up “simplifying” the form—thus making it more “cartoonish”—as with Adam West, above. This contrasts with the average person whose clothing probably incorporates more folds, seams, pockets, and other elements creating complexity.** In comics, however, this difference is usually reduced by the fact that most artists draw musculature with a chiseled definition which, in real life, tights conceal and smooth out even on the few bodybuilders who might otherwise come close to matching it; as is generally acknowledged, the typical comic book artist isn’t really depicting a costumed form at all, so much as a (very toned) nude form plus a few lines and colors to simulate clothing.

This, however, leads to the second half of question one: does the comic’s visual differences from real life really add up to an appearance that is any more “serious?”After all, in most modern cultures, walking around practically nude (with or without body paint that might be the closest real-world approximation of a comic book superhero’s appearance) is not really any more normal than walking around in a set of colorful tights. Here, I think the answer is mixed. In part, comics’ reduction of the distance between “serious” figures and silly costumed figures via the fact that they’re all still cartoons does make superheroes look somewhat more “serious,” if only relatively. Beyond that, the explanation of superheroes’ apparent “seriousness” vanishing upon their translation from comics to live action is probably just a matter of convention. In comics, superheroes in costume are normal, in a way. At any rate out of all the pages of anglophone comics produced in, say, the past 50 years, costumed heroes show up far far more often than even vaguely similar figures do in the real world, and indeed so often that I think one can indeed consider them “normal” by the standards of that comic world.

Of course, the superheroes’ comic book world exists as a separate world within the “real world,” just like movies do. And I suppose that if superheroes dominated filmmaking the way that they have comics, their appearance might seem more normal and “serious” just like it does in comics, regardless of how that appearance was or was not fancied-up with texture and lighting, etc. But they don’t. Cinema, at any rate big-budget blockbuster cinema, is a different, much larger and more “general” audience medium than comic books. Most of the potential audience, even for a superhero movie, does not regularly read comics and therefore does not have the comic fan’s exposure to a world in which costumed heroes are everyday figures.

Which brings us to question two: why, exactly, is any of this fussy rendering detail supposed to make the superhero seem any more “serious” to movie audiences?

After all, isn’t the result still just as abnormal, outré and silly-looking? I think that the answer is once again complicated, but I’m starting to see it.

First, there are the aspects of the superhero costume which, visually, just plain work differently in real life than in the traditional superhero comic book. Man in tights, in real life, not only looks out-of-the-ordinary but, as noted, cartoonish. Simplified. Toy-like. Adding in complexity probably reduces this effect to an extent. Meanwhile, solid bright primary colors as on Superman’s costume also look more unusual in the real world than in comics, or at least in the traditional limited-palette world of four-color printing before computer coloring came in. They also look childish, like Duplo bricks or gumdrops or crayons, in contrast to the more muted and complex visual world of most adults.

And this at last, I think, gets close to the real heart of the matter: why does anyone feel convinced that these details really make an impact on the overall seriousness or unseriousness of the costumed superhero, when he or she still stands out absurdly from real-world normality? To this question, I think the answer is two-fold.

First, it occurs to me that “normal, real-world” dress is not exactly a simple monolithic thing. And that, once you start adding in the seams and the texture and the dramatic lighting and what-all, the costumed superhero moves from a position well outside of any “serious” real-world figures to somewhere fairly close to and possibly overlapping with a lot of other real-life celebrities and heroes. Look at athletes, or pop musicians. Look at what some of them parade around in. Most of us don’t necessarily wear like outfits in public, but at the same time, even for those outside the world of traditional comic fandom, advertising and television have placed people in tight-fitting, attention-getting dress all around us, all the time. Even the bizarre is not really so bizarre, a decade or so after fetish-wear left dark corners to be incorporated into fashions intended for relatively public and brightly-lit places on a fairly regular basis. (The fact that video games have become increasingly mainstream and their visuals have become increasingly realistic, even as their content has kept as much fantasy and science-fiction as in the days of pixellated cartoonishness, may also play a part.)

So, in a sense, I guess that it does work, i.e. that these changes to the superhero costume from Batman through Man of Steel have, in combination with changes to the larger culture’s expectations of and perspectives on clothing, led to the superhero and the regular person’s idea of what is familiar moving closer and closer together.

Still, I use the word familiar because it isn’t quite the same as “normal,” and definitely not the same as “serious.” The concepts are related, but one doesn’t automatically follow from the other. And that’s why there’s a second part to my answer. I feel like the first part is that yes, as a theory, this effort seems sound, and that dressing up superheroes in this way does bring their appearance closer to what is now familiar even if it isn’t exactly normal. As to whether that makes them more serious, however… well, one last time, I’m probably going to have to split up my answer. (Sorry, this is a blog post; I have literally been working all of this out as I’ve been writing it.)

  1. I think we, at least we in the Anglophone rich-country world, have a culture where serious and frivolous are increasingly becoming blurred. The aforementioned and sometimes garishly costumed celebrities and athletes get at least as much attention, and often a lot more money, than do people engaged in more “serious” pursuits as judged by making a material difference in people’s lives or by, say, how much they expand the boundaries of our understanding of the world.
  2. I don’t think we’re entirely comfortable with this, yet. For the moment, we’ve solved a lot of “serious” problems for a lot of people, but need still exists. And, beyond that, we still have cultural legacies from older patterns of society, one good example being the persistent fixation on having lots of people employed in “making things” even though there may not be any real economic necessity argument to support it.
  3. Thus, I think, there is a tension between a growing number of adults’ desire for and economic ability to indulge in play—in fantasy and games and things that within their own lifetimes were considered much more exclusively for children and definitely not serious—and a lingering worry that it’s still just play and still “for kids” and still not serious at all and that if they’re going to spend time on it as a grown-up then it really should be more “serious.” The result is an ongoing effort to have one’s cake and eat it, too, i.e. to enjoy superhero adventure stories but to somehow make them seem “adult” and “serious” so that large numbers of adults can feel okay with the fact that they’re enjoying the product themselves (and not simply escorting a child).

Going back to the Snyder quote which began all of this, I think this tension is evident in the fact that in amongst the repeated declarations of an intent to be serious, he also emphasizes that his film “is also an amazing adventure story.” He’s simultaneously trying as hard as he can to assure adults that “yes, I assure you, this is serious,” but also afraid of actually convincing them that it’s really serious and not fun.

Thus, in the end (this time I mean it) I suspect that one can see the “serious” Superman graphic as an expression of that unresolved tension. People desperately want Superman, desperately want the magic hero from more starry-eyed days of childhood. But as adults they aren’t fully comfortable with just embracing something from the starry-eyed days of childhood, so they try to make it more “serious.” Yet they don’t actually want it to be serious, really; they want it to be childish fun. So the “seriousness” largely takes the form of surface embellishments which don’t really change the core quality of a magic adventure hero. Which however leaves the tension unresolved, so you’re left with people trying harder to make each new superhero movie more convincingly “serious,” but at the same time not really trying to make them serious…

As a result of which, the surface embellishments just keep piling up, layered on more and more heavily, and we get something as ludicrous as that Man of Steel graphic. The latest desperate attempt by people to persuade themselves of something that in their hearts, they don’t really want to believe.

* Yes, Superman technically is an alien, but in terms of practical effect he has always been much more a superpowered everday just-like-you-and-me person. Aliens don’t grow up on a farm in Smallville, Kansas, and blend in seamlessly with the rest of the population without even employing disguise.

** Capes have plenty of folds in real life, but they also tend to just hang there like ordinary fabric, while in comics they flow and billow even when a character is standing still, as though gravity did not exist.

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