What's in a superhero costume? Well, beyond muscle and 100% justice, of course (50% justice, 50% alcohol in Iron Man's case). If you're novelist and occasional fanboy Michael Chabon, the answer apparently has a lot more to do with semiotics and cultural identity than even Peter Parker was aware of, according to his article in this week's New Yorker.
Taking his role of "Official Intellectual Who Makes It Okay to Think About Comics" very seriously, Chabon's essay "Secret Skin" strips Superman and friends of their clothes piece by piece to consider just what's so powerful about the image of people in tights fighting crime:
So let's lose the cape. As for the boots—we are not married to the boots. After all, Iron Fist sports a pair of kung-fu slippers, the Spirit wears brown brogues, Zatanna works her magic in stiletto heels, and Beast, Ka-Zar, and Mantis wear no shoes at all. Perhaps, though, we had better hold on to our unitards, crafted of some nameless but readily available fabric that, like a thin matte layer, at once coats and divulges the splendor of our musculature. Assemble the collective, all-time memberships of the Justice League of America, the Justice Society of America, the Avengers, the Defenders, the Invaders, the X-Men, and the Legion of Super-Heroes (and let us not forget the Legion of Substitute Heroes), and you will probably find that almost all of them, from Nighthawk to the Chlorophyll Kid, arrive wearing some version of the classic leotard-tights ensemble. And yet—not everyone. Not Wonder Woman, in her star-spangled hot pants and eagle bustier; not the Incredible Hulk or Martian Manhunter or the Sub-Mariner.
Consideration of the last named leads us to cast a critical eye, finally, on our little swim trunks, typically worn with a belt, pioneered by Kit Walker (for the Ghost Who Walks), the Phantom of the old newspaper strip, and popularized by the super-trendsetter of Metropolis. The Sub-Mariner wears nothing but a Eurotrashy green Speedo, suggesting that, at least by the decency standards of the old Comics Code, this minimal garment marks the zero degree of superheroic attire. And yet, of course, the Flash, Green Lantern, and many others make do without trunks over their tights; the forgoing of trunks in favor of a continuous flow of fabric from legs to torso is frequently employed to lend a suggestion of speed, sleekness, a kind of uncluttered modernism. And the Hulk never goes around in anything but those tattered purple trousers.
Oy vey - Such overthinking when it's obvious that, sometimes, tights without trunks just feels so freeing. Where's Paul Gambi when you need him?
Second Skin [New Yorker]