Skip to content

Wonder Woman and Visual Icons

2010 June 30

This week’s introduction of a new costume for Wonder Woman has, unsurprisingly, resulted in not only major press coverage but also a largely-tedious “new hat” frenzy of reaction and counterreaction, all of which must be satisfying to DC and its parent companies.

Wonder Woman: at left, the traditional costume, at right, the 2010 redesign

Wonder Woman costumes, old and new

I should point out that, as Brian Cronin has observed, there is actually nothing new about a redesigned Wonder Woman costume, or even the general appearance of this new design. Beyond that, I have little desire to wade into the merits of one Wonder Woman costume vs another, let alone the decades-old issue of how feminist empowerment does or does not fit with a goddess-bodied woman running around in star-spangled panties.

I would, however, like to use this occasion as a springboard to considering visual iconography in a general sense.

That Wonder Woman is an icon, there can be little doubt. Comic fans have generally assumed, for decades, that DC earns little if any profit from publishing a monthly Wonder Woman comic book series, but will never discontinue it because the character sells enormous amounts of licensed merchandise. And presumably no one wants to take the chance that a “retired” Wonder Woman might hold less appeal, even though many of the people buying Wonder Woman lunchboxes, apparel, etc., have very likely never even read a single issue of the comic book.

One feels safe in assuming that more than a few of the people piping up with opinions about Wonder Woman’s costume, this week, aren’t reading the comic either. I suspect that at least some of them have probably never purchased a Wonder Woman comic, perhaps never purchased a Wonder Woman anything.

Yet people care, have strong reactions, all the same. And it isn’t just a feminism issue; I remember plenty of people declaring things like “I think it sucks” when Superman had a costume change some years ago. And again, I’m sure that more than just the Superman comic’s readership were among those with strong opinions.

Superman costumes: traditional and electric blue

Traditional Superman costume and 1990s 'leccy version

Yet this phenomenon is by no means universal. The third member of DC’s “trinity,” Batman, has had various costume alterations over the years, rather more lasting than those of Superman or, I feel safe in predicting, Wonder Woman. And pretty much all of Marvel’s characters can change their appearance without the same uproar. I had barely begun elementary school when Spider-Man swapped his trademarked blue and red long johns for the “black costume,” so maybe it got news coverage too, but I would be surprised if it was quite the same. I don’t think changes to Captain America’s costume have ever really received the same attention as Superman or Wonder Woman. It may be that I’m relying on intuition, here, but all in all I don’t really see any of Marvel’s characters having the same iconic visual design status.

So what makes a costume design, or any design, iconic? Time and consistency probably have a lot to do with it. Superman and Wonder Woman have been around longer than all but very old old-timers by this stage. While there’s been tinkering, they’ve had a generally consistent appearance for several decades. And the same actually goes for Batman, I submit; as a creature of the night usually found lurking in shadows, and often draped in a long dark cape, the details of Batman’s costume are rather less relevant, and for practical purposes he’s largely a silhouette. Blue, black, it makes little difference; that pointy-eared silhouette with two glaring, white eyes has not changed. If it did, there would probably be a kerfuffle about that, too.

Marvel’s characters, by contrast, mostly got started later. Spider-Man had been around for scarcely a single generation when the “black costume” was introduced. Characters like the X-Men have been changing costumes almost constantly. Captain America got his start 70 years ago, but he was somewhat dormant for more than a decade; when he came back it was, what, a mere dozen years before his red, white and blue costume was replaced for the first time.

Omnipresence is probably important, too; despite being around nearly as long as Superman and Batman, Captain America has never really had anything to compare with the two DC characters’ radio serials, TV shows, feature films, newspaper strips, games, toys, etc., etc., etc.

The same could be said of Wonder Woman, too, though. There was the 1970s TV show, which does seem to have made a lasting impression on quite a few people, but I don’t think that alone explains the Amazon princess’ iconic status. I suspect that she also represents something, some meaning, for a lot of people. The visual design of Wonder Woman, in costume, is a kind of symbol for them. I’m not entirely certain what it represents, and maybe there is no one answer. Certainly the idea of the powerful woman.

Likewise, Superman’s design is a visual symbol for the superhero in general, and even the super-man; my brother has a tattoo of Superman’s S-shield even though he has never followed the character devotedly in any media. I suppose that there are different levels of iconic status as well as different factors that contribute to it; in the sense of an iconic design attached to some iconic concept, it might be that not even Batman really has the same status. Superman and Wonder Woman might actually be alone at the top among comic book superheroes.

There are, of course, more iconic visuals in the world than just comic book hero costumes. The visual icons of my beloved ISU Cyclones, and those of loathed rival the Iowa Hawkeyes, may offer another interesting area of study…

I tell you what; I’m hungry, so how about I come back to this tomorrow? (Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!)