Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
The comic-book panel and the runway have more in common these days than you might think. While once, between saving the world in bright spandex, your favorite heroes could be found lounging in jeans, T-shirts, and an astonishing amount of trench coats, these days artists are raiding from spring collections as much as Jack Kirby’s repertoire.
A quick flip through many best-selling series these days — or just a glance at their covers — shows evidence of a major, and recent, shift in visual priority. Image Comics’ bestselling series The Wicked + The Divine features gods clothed in couture, much of it influenced by contemporary designers like Zuhair Murad. The sci-fi racing series Motor Crush (also published by Image) was ahead of the curve on the motocross trend, which was popping up on the landing pages of mass fashion retailers and in Soho windows as recently as last month. At Marvel and DC Comics, Captain Marvel, Scarlet Witch, Batgirl, and other major costumed characters have all seen fashionable updates to their fighting gear in recent years, while new heroes like Spider-Gwen have been given sharp, streetwear-ready looks right out of the gate.
The works above have one thing in common: They’re the products of a new wave of young creators changing the way popular comics characters dress. The expanded roster of artists isn’t just about new blood: It includes more women, POC, and members of the LGBTQ community than ever before. These artists have injected comic book fashion with a much-needed dose of freshness, at the same time that entrepreneurs and fans from those same groups — long marginalized in the comics industry — have made it more acceptable, even desirable, for the wider comics mainstream to notice and care about fashion.
As comics artist Jen Bartel, a popular cover illustrator for DC, Marvel, Image, and IDW, puts it: “A lot of comic artists don’t prioritize keeping up with modern trends, and their character designs tend to look dated because of it.” While individual artists have had an inclination toward exploring fashion over the years, the vision of comics as a certain kind of (white, straight) boys’ club has exerted toxic pressures both inside and outside the industry. Current fashion, seen as the providence of the effeminate and frivolous, was a hard sell to comics creators who sought to maintain a masculine aura, and who wanted their work to escape an association with children and campiness.
But to Bartel, clothes are another way to connect with readers. “Is she a teenage girl living in 2018? Then she should dress the way a teenage girl would in 2018,” she says, a view that is not only bringing comics up to speed with the catwalk, but also securing a new readership. Comics are more in the public eye than ever, with the massive success of multi-movie franchises like those set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominating the box office. The tricky part for publishers has been securing new readers who may have felt left out by old-school comics culture. “Readers today want to be able to identify with their favorite characters, they want to see themselves on the page, and busty women wearing painted on body suits just aren’t cutting it anymore,” Bartel says, attributing the recent sea change in costume design approaches to the growing diversity of fans, and female fans in particular.
But it’s not all about relatability; the focus has shifted when it comes to the fantastic, too. “Most of my interest in [fashion] comes from what I wish I could wear, and what I would wear in real life,” says Jem and the Holograms artist Sophie Campbell, whose distinctive, high glam-rock design sensibilities can be found all over her work. The comic featured a host of characters with gravity-defying, multihued hairdos; enormous astro-shaped earrings; and neon dresses full of cutouts. The desire for inspiration is shared by fans who are reading not just for reflections of themselves, but for all the fantasies of adventure, heroism, and power that have always been a part of comics.
Starting with the popularity of Kevin Wada’s “fashionized” classic heroes in the early 2010s, the desire to look at superhero and villain costumes in a new light has gained traction. Wada has also provided interiors for The Wicked + The Divine No. 23, a fashion magazine-like standalone issue, and has taken his watercolor brushes to the historically underserved in decent costumes, like Scarlet Witch. Babs Tarr and team’s 2014 overhaul of Batgirl, complete with purple motorcycle jacket, yellow decals, and matching Docs, caused a sensation among cosplayers, and attracted a hip, teen-heavy readership to the character (the same team went on to create Motor Crush). Kris Anka carried the baton passed by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Jamie McKelvie when, in 2012, they unforgettably transformed the former Ms. Marvel into Captain Marvel. Like Wada, Anka is known for his modern updates of classic costumes, and brought his eye for fashion to X-Force, Spider-Woman, and others.
Each of these creators is using fashion to spread the appeal of characters old and new. And with this wave of fashionable new fans comes the need for eye-catching ways to show off their geek pride.
That’s great news for Ashley Eckstein, founder of Her Universe, a fashion and lifestyle brand for female sci-fi fans, whose licenses include Star Wars, Marvel, Doctor Who, Star Trek, and others. The company was acquired by Hot Topic in October 2016, with Eckstein continuing her roles as founder and GMM. Eckstein, who is known as the voice of Ahsoka Tano on TV’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels, is no stranger to the overlapping worlds of comics and cartoons. As a woman who is both fan and artist in a traditionally male, and fashion-deficit, atmosphere, she saw the need for both geeky apparel specifically for women and options that go beyond the usual logo T-shirts and Halloween knock-offs.
“It wasn’t until five years ago that we began to take a fashion approach to these beloved franchises,” Eckstein says. “We became inspired by the characters and costumes, and it has become very popular to design and create our own interpretation of our favorite characters or moments rather than copy them exactly.”
Being able to express one’s interests through signifiers like merchandise has always been an important part of geek culture. As Eckstein puts it, “Having a physical product that [fans] can wear… creates more of an emotional connection with the story or characters.” Now, more chic clothes like those from Her Universe have helped a changing fanbase feel like they belong.
“Before I knew of Her Universe, I would browse the boys’ section in search of a cool shirt to show off my love for Star Wars and superheroes, but I never felt ‘cute’ in it,” says Wendy Lee, a geeky fashion blogger and Her Universe customer, adding, “It gives me a confidence boost when I wear Her Universe designs, because I know I’m stepping into the world completely embracing my love for geekdom, and not sacrificing my personal style.”
The influence of comics fashion goes beyond branded clothes. Artists like Bartel are more aware than ever of the relationship to merchandise, cosplay, and other expressions of fandom, and release “cosplay cheat sheets” of redesigns. This winter, the US Olympic team uniforms are clones of Captain Marvel’s (the suits are the product of an official collaboration between Marvel and team supplier Spyder). Dressing like one’s favorite heroes has continued to beget trends in cutting-edge sportswear, easy to see in collections like Fenty Puma x Rihanna. It’s cool to look like superheroes, and the feedback loop of runway-comic-runway is showing serious staying power.
Not everyone is on board with the high-style makeover. Because of its perceived link to diversity hiring within comics, as well as the diversification of heroes themselves, the fashionization of famous characters has received some pushback. These traditionalist critics have faced off against supporters, who feel it’s about time that the famously imposing world of comics opened its doors to new faces and new ideas. It’s important to remember that, despite some strides, mainstream comics publishers have been slower to change than the indie market when it comes to marginalized representation. Marvel Comics, for instance, has come under fire several times this calendar year for failing to see which way the wind is blowing.
With all that’s at stake, it’s almost a miracle that fashion in comics, a mere symptom of necessary industry changes, has been able to gain so much sales clout. Uncanny X-Force, for example, previously tended to hover in the low 40,000s for units sold, but with the new team, it sold 86,187 units of Issue No. 1 in January 2013, thanks to a burst of reader interest encouraged by the revised character design.
By adding their artistic voices into the mix, new creators have helped raise the industry’s profile at the same time that the success of expanded movie universes are roping in potential new readers. All the while, the visibility of diverse artists has risen with the visibility of their work.
Central in all of this are the fans themselves, who want more than ever to read about characters that they can relate to, not just root for. “The demand for them to still feel like real people with believable stories is higher than ever,” says Bartel. “Fashion plays a really big role in that.” Modern comics still have a ways to go, but the new standard-bearers are making a play for increased reliability and representation. And, of course, they’re doing it with style.