Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Supermonth: Supertropes I Hate: Jammies of Steel

Most of these "Supertropes I Hate" posts come from my long history of reading Superman comics. Things build up over time, starting as niggling little annoyances and building up to grating on my every nerve after seeing them used and overused for twenty years.

Not this one. This one has bothered me since the very first time I read about it, at least as far as I can remember: Superman's Indestructible Costume. Why the hell would Superman need an indestructible costume?

Roll it back a bit, since this might come as a surprise to some people. Back in the Silver Age, Superman's parents had the foresight to wrap him in multicolored blankets when they sent him off in his rocket. Space is cold, don'cha know. When the Superbaby got to Earth, wrapped in swaddling blanets, both he and his bedclothes were indestructible. The classic demonstration panel of this has Pa Kent shooting Superbaby's blankets with a shotgun while they're hanging on a clothesline (incidentally, I couldn't find that image, or related ones, through Google; still, I know that there's at least one Silver Age comic that recaps the whole costume origin on a page or two. Anyone able to track it down would be entered into my awesome book).

Ma Kent, who is apparently a miracle-worker with a sewing machine, made baby Clark's clothes out of those blankets (a blue t-shirt and red shorts, as I recall). "But Tom," you may ask, "how in the world could she do that if the fabric couldn't be cut?" Why, it's simple really: Clark separated the fabric into thread with his heat vision (and presumably made the appropriate pattern cuts as well). Now, put it all together: as a toddler, Clark Kent used precision heat vision to make his indestructible blankets into workable material for clothes.

Let's pause there for a moment: why would baby Clark need indestructible clothes? I know that the Kent Farm is traditionally in a perpetual state of financial trouble, but were they so cheap that they couldn't buy cotton fabric someplace? Does this mean that little Clark had only one outfit? Does being indestructible also mean that it never stained or got smelly? Did they make Clark's diapers out of the blankets as well? These kinds of questions kept me from playing sports as a kid.

As Clark grew, skinflint Martha Kent continually altered his clothes to fit his changing frame. Eventually, Smallville must have gotten a Kohl's or something, and Clark's blanket-descended wardrobe was relegated to his work-wear--namely, his Superboy costume. Those poor, abused, oft-altered fabrics were somehow transformed into an indestructible skintight uniform with a cape, complete with boots. The belt, as I recall, was cannibalized from Clark's spaceship. Clark continued to wear this costume, which I recall was merely stretchy enough that it grew with him, into his adult years as Superman.

Somewhere in all that, my childhood B.S. detector went off. I could accept super-dogs and shrunken cities, I could accept translight flight and Matter-Eater Lad, but as a kid reading those old Superman comics, I could never get over the indestructible costume. Why would someone who's indestructible need a costume that was also indestructible? Isn't that totally redundant? Couldn't Superman do just as well by giving the fabric to the army or the Metropolis police station or Batman or someone who actually might have a use for bulletproof fabric?

Not that it would do much good, it seems. If the fabric is so stretchy that it's skintight over Superman's muscles (and may have even simply stretched to fit him as he grew from Super-boy into Super-man), then its bulletproof nature would be kind of useless even to someone who wasn't indestructible. Let's say Batman tries on Superman's costume and goes out to fight some criminals. They take a shot at him, and he figures the bullets will bounce right off, right? Wrong. They're going to plow into the costume just like they'd plow into Plastic Man or Mr. Fantastic. The fabric isn't rigid, it's stretchy, and it's going to stretch right into Batman's squishy chest as if he had been wearing a T-shirt. Depending on how stretchy it is, it might slow the bullet down a bit, or snap back and throw the bullet out (again, a la Plastic Man), but it's not going to make the bullet bounce off Batman's chest like it does off Superman's. Superman's chest is rigid, so the stretchy fabric doesn't give, and the bullets ricochet harmlessly away. Now, held right, the cape might provide some protection, but in the Silver Age Superman's cape was long if it reached his calves. The kind of flowy, Batman-esque cape you'd need to deflect bullets with that fabric simply wasn't possible with Superman's Silver Age outfit.

And then there's the problem of alteration: how much blanket fabric was there? Are there still teeny toddler tank-armor outfits in the Kent attic? Or, as I thought was suggested, were Kal-El's baby clothes reused in making the Superboy/Superman uniform? How does that even work? Is the cape simply meant to cover up the place on Superman's back where his toddler t-shirt has been re-stitched into the larger fabric sample? If the artists were using their noggins, they would have colored Clark's baby outfits mostly in yellow. Then the readers could reasonably assume that the reason there's so little yellow in Superman's costume, despite the blankets being presumably of the same size, is because all the yellow fabric was used in his since-outgrown toddler clothes.

Thankfully, for years, I didn't have to deal with this crap. John Byrne, about whom my feelings are generally fairly negative, gave us some great innovations with the 1986 Superman revamp. Among them was the decision to give Superman's costume a purely Earthly origin. Superman had several costumes, designed by the Kents, all made from conventional fabrics. And it was good.

Then, 2003 rolled around, and Mark Waid (about whom my feelings are generally fairly positive) gave us "Superman: Birthright," a lame unvamp of Superman's origin that restored, among other stupid things, the indestructible costume made from baby blankets. And I wept tears of consternation, since I'd thought that idiocy consigned to the same dusty limbo as Beppo the Super-Monkey. Mercifully, I don't think anyone's actually mentioned this since those early Birthright issues; even Mark Waid apparently forgot, since toward the end of the series, Superman's indestructible costume got largely destructed. The post-hoc rationalization, as I recall, was that Supes had several costumes, but only one was made of the original indestructible material (which leads us to ask...why?).

And why is the question of the day. Specifically, why would the costume be indestructible in the first place? Okay, in the Silver Age, it seems like everything from Krypton, with the possible exception of Kryptonite, was indestructible--the people, the fabric, the plants, the glass and metal in Superman's rocket, etc. But they hadn't really put a whole lot of thought into how the powers worked; gravity and the yellow sun were involved, and that was about it.

Nowadays, that excuse doesn't fly. Granted, the mechanisms of Superman's powers are two parts technobabble and one part handwaving, but there are some things that we understand pretty well. As I discussed in the red sun post, Superman's cells collect and store solar energy, and that energy powers Superman's abilities, including his indestructibility.

So, why would a fabric exhibit the same indestructibility? If it's synthetic, there's no real excuse (unless it's just indestructible as a product of advanced Kryptonian science, but then there's no reason for the common sub-tropes that it's rendered normal by Kryptonite or red sunlight).

If it's natural--made from Kryptonian plant or animal material, like cotton or silk on Earth, then there's some possibility. Kryptonians' solar-absorption might be a trait that goes back as far as the common ancestor of Kryptonian humanoids and the local vegetation (or insects, or whatever the fabric comes from). But if it's dead matter, why would it continue exhibiting the indestructibility?

The possible answer to that lies in the Post-Crisis explanation of Superman's invulnerability--that it at least partially results from a passive skintight telekinetic aura that surrounds Superman's body; the aura kept fabric close to Superman's skin from getting damaged or dirty (except, of course, in situations extreme enough to push back or break through the field). When Superman died, the residual energy stored in his cells kept the aura up and strong enough to keep Cadmus scientists from conducting an autopsy (and cloning experiments). So, dead Kryptonian organisms can keep up the indestructibility. However, as was implied with Superman (though never really stated outright, but it's because of this remaining stored energy that they were able to bring him back to life), this effect is temporary and only lasts as long as the residual energy lasts (and since there's no usage for strength, vision, or other more energy-intensive powers in this case, that could be quite some time). There's no indication that the body continues to absorb new solar energy once dead, though, and to do so wouldn't make sense.

So here's the rub with that understanding: the fabric would never have absorbed yellow sunlight in the first place, having died under Krypton's red sun. Which means it still makes no sense to have an indestructible costume.

And all that can be negated if Superman's costume is alive. And that way lies madness.

Of course, the bigger "why" question is the meta-one: why would anyone think that Superman needs an indestructible costume? The only answer I can think of is that if the costume's indestructible, then the artists don't have to worry about keeping track of damage done to it from panel to panel. That might have been a decent reason in the Silver Age, but it sounds like artistic laziness today. It's also unnecessary; Byrne's solution was the best of both worlds, allowing the costume to stay intact most of the time, but also allowing for costume rippage when it would look dynamic. Any time the "indestructible" costume gets ripped, it makes you wonder why they ever made it "indestructible" in the first place.

No, in order for me to accept an indestructible costume, you'd have to provide some indestructible suspenders so I can hold up my disbelief.


SallyP said...

Maybe he's shy?

Sea-of-Green said...

Now I'm thinking of all the times Supes should have had his costume burned off, blown up, shot up, ripped up, ripped off ...

Egad ...! Time for a cold shower!

Diamondrock said...

You have touched on something here that's always made me crazy. I've always hated the indestructible costume, and you've put forth pretty much all the reasons why here in this post. Kudos.

Anonymous said...

I've never much had a problem with using his baby blankets to create the Super-suit - in fact, it's kinda sweet - but the idea that anything that comes from Krypton has suddenly become invulnerable is where it falls apart for me.


David C said...

"the idea that anything that comes from Krypton has suddenly become invulnerable is where it falls apart for me."

And that *idea* falls apart too, as Kal-El's spaceship, in fact, *did* get quite a bit destructed, which in fact provided still *more* stupid Supertropes - the round bits of broken windshield that made Clark's heat-vision-proof glasses, and the needle that Ma used to sew the indestructible costume with....

Countryboylife said...

I like the indestructible costume
I hate the fact his cape get ripped up all the time

I like the cape when it was used to protect humans against extreme heat and cold for example.
WHY have a cape that's going to get torn ALL the time. that is ridiculous. that is BS

OK the baby blankets notion is cute but dated.
(BTW the crashing space ship is DONNER, Siegal Shuster drew it parked neatly, and not trashed.)
That said the best answer for the costume would be that it is the Kyrptonian standard outfit - the same suit as his dad wore, and being a product of very advanced tech, is effectively indestructible one size fits all from baby to adult and repels all dirt, smells, stains etc.
if that sounds like magic remember as Arthur C Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."