Secrets of Superman's Underwear

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techgnotic's avatar

Of all the questions that have long vexed my mind, and made for so many sleepless nights, has always been the Big One: Why the shorts on the outside of the leotard? At long last, it is with great pleasure that I present intrepid cub reporter and talented new writer, Ariel Williams, who has finally succeeded in getting to the bottom of “Superman’s Underwear.” Please join me in welcoming Ariel to the depthRADIUS family.

Written by Ariel Williams

Ihave always been a fan of comic books. I grew up in mostly small towns in the 80’s and 90’s and often had to entertain myself with only one or two television stations and no cable TV. Books were always a source of escape from the real world and from my own rather boring life. Art was also a way for me to express my own ideas and flesh out the images I saw in my mind’s eye when reading. From there comic books were a natural draw for me as they had both amazing tales like the books and creative visuals. The more I read comics the more I tried to learn everything I could about this unique art form. When it comes to comics, I’m the geek who usually has the 411…

A common question I get, especially from those that don’t read comics, is...

“Why do superheroes run around in those strange outfits?”

“Why does Superman wear his underwear on the outside?”

It really does seem strange when you think about it. Superman is apparently wearing tights with underwear over them and no clothes other than the spandex and his cape. This sartorial style is echoed in many comic book heroes with their origins in the earliest days of comic books in the 1930's and 1940's onward. The reason for the unusual superhero undies is a strange mixture of economics, printing technology and artistic talents trying to find a middle ground between the two.

— Aeschylus, in Prometheus Bound (c. 478 BC)

In the early 1930's and 40's, the printing of comics came in two forms, black and white and 4 color. (This is also where we get the term “4 color hero.”) In general, comic books were intended to be as cheap as possible so the lowest grades of paper were often used and the fastest and cheapest printing methods.

Capt. America, 1954 – Atlas Comics

Comics and comic books were not considered a serious art form. They were a cheap diversion or something for children. The color printing was initially only reserved for the cover page of a comic because it was a costly process that required the ink to be applied in 4 separate stages, one for each color. The problem became that when doing this the machines had to run at a very high rate of speed to produce enough comics and they would eventually become misaligned and need constant adjustment. This is why we see comics from this era onward with the colors bleeding outside of the lines. This is especially true when color was later applied to entire comics.

Due to these minor imperfections in the process itself the comics were produced with sharp clean edges defined by hard black and often the layouts would be done so that objects could be painted a single color. These restrictions and a lack of a proper gray constrained the art style to fit within the technology of the day. The methods they used to overcome this came in using either a style much like pointillism (halftone) as the image above or hard solid colors, hatching and crosshatching as below.

Keeping your colors simple was the best way to do this but it restricted character design and forced them to create an inventive way to make the character stand out.

Daredevil Comics #25, 1944 – High magnification scans of comic book details

— E. B. White, in "The Old and the New," in The New Yorker (19 June 1937)

Working within the limitations I have just described, comic book artists took great strides to make powerful and lasting impressions. Right or wrong and consciously or not, this led to emphasizing hyper masculine or hyper feminine character traits to make the characters seem larger than life on such a simple format. We often see color changes or divisions at the head, chest, waist, hands groin and feet. This allows the characters to have certain "attributes" stand out.

Which one looks more "heroic"?

Left: original, Center: "no undies", Right: groin accent

The center option almost seems to have neutered Superman with its lack of definition. While option three might be acceptable in this panel, in some poses or in very small panels in the comics his legs might overlap the groin area and the entire pose might loose definition. You literally might not be able to tell his leg from his a-hole. Also, inadvertently defining his "package" would have scandalized 1940's sensibilities.

Even characters that wore only a single color often had detail lines outlining the pelvis from the rest of the body so their features could easily be made out on small panels.

Here we can see what looks like "undies" even on the Human Torch and Mr. Fantastic.

— William Shakespeare, King Lear (1608), Act III, Scene 2

Modern comics are starting to move away from this trend a little as better printing technology has allowed smooth gradients and shading to compensate for the issues of the past and opened up a whole new range of possibilities. Even so, the iconic images of superheroes in comics are so strong that little has changed from those early days.

“Look ma no undies!”

(To be honest, even here a fine line is observed to make sure there is definition between pelvis and legs, but at least it doesn't look like underwear.) Even here we can see the issue of not segmenting the body by contrasting colors. In the pose to the bottom-left, Superman’s leg and groin area seem to blend together a bit too much for my likes but the shading makes it acceptable and the red belt provides a visual queue for his midline.

The New 52 Superman – Art by: Jesus Merino, Lettering by: Carlos M. Mangual, Colored by: Brian Buccellato

Fantastic Four #49 (1966) – A comparison between a scan from the original to the present-day reprint.

  1. Did you ever question why Superman wore his shorts outside his leotard? Or did you simply accept this as being the standard super-hero uniform? Can you think of other odd quirks we accepted in our comics heroes that were necessitated by technical/political/economic/social considerations more than by artists’ choices?
  2. If you are an aspiring comics artist, do you think you would have enjoyed the challenge of trying to solve the restrictions of primitive print production, or are you very grateful to be using today’s technology?
  3. Do you think more should be done to educate arts students in the creative innovations that were invented to keep comics alive in their earliest days? Should the comics narrative storytelling form get more of the respect regularly lavished upon early cinema?
  4. After reading an article like this one about Superman’s underwear, does this special knowledge make you feel just a little bit superior to everyone else not in the know?
  5. Funniest answer possible please: Youtubing the opening credits of the weekly 1952-58 Superman TV show, the bad guys shoot Superman in the chest. He stands there as a motionless target, smiling, hands on hips. The bullets all bounce off his big “S” insignia. Out of bullets, the bad guys toss their empty revolvers at Superman’s head. He ducks. Why?

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Strongmen would usually just wear a brief and a belt in circus acts. That gave the idea. The blue in Superman's costume and spandex in general is mostly an artistic choice and an attempt at decency. It's a trick publishers use to show muscled form without crossing into indecency.
I am definitely abnormal. I never saw Superman as wearing underwear over his pants. I always thought the pants were two-toned, and the legs were a different colour than the rest.
Luspear-Soram's avatar
That is interesting. I didn't know superman had underwear due to printing issues. Superheros due have a distinctive outfit. I can understand why they appeal to you. It is exciting fantasy. I am into exciting fantasy, even though superheros aren't really my thing. No offense.

Pokemon is more my style. I read your Pokemon is Forever journal earlier today. It was really good, and it still is on my mind. I did mention in my comment that I really like the creature design. I do know a piece of trivia. The Pokemon designs were affected by the graphics capabilities of the gaming equipment. The first two generations of Pokemon generally had simpler designs than the later ones. When they were released, the gaming equipment was very inferior, compared to today. The memory was lower. The graphics were much cruder. The makers of Pokemon were limited to simple designs. If things got too complicated, they would be too messy and hard to read. Over time Nintendo was able to upgrade the gaming equipment. With the better capabilities, the designers had the freedom to make more complex and elaborate designs. It really shows when comparing generations. Personally I like the older look better (I also like gen 6 though). They don't look too "over-designed". Genwunners would agree with me.
mamagenit's avatar
superman without underwear just look like wear a pijama.
GoldenPaww's avatar
PeterSFay's avatar
I always believed the red undies were part of the uniform. In the Superman/Batman story of Public Enemies, We see Superman recouperating in the Batcave after his previous battle with Metallo while Alfred mended Superman's "shirt and cape". Meanwhile, Batman was trying to figure out why Luthor sent Metallo after them. 
pheonixhorns's avatar
I assumed that superman's underwear was a reference to roman gladiator attire, to make a reference to his strength and power.
kittenluv1000's avatar
I never considered economic reasons, I always figured it was to break up the colour , I do like it even if it's just the best. The whole suit looks a bit off to me. Well at least on the outside they won't have to deal with panty lines.
CapnDeek373's avatar
If you ask me, the red trunks on the outside make Supes look a bit trimmer.
They help define the waist and hips lines. Without them, the legs just seem to go straight into his body with no hips.
lifeislifeislife's avatar
Well, because his clothes aren't gonna get destroyed (apparently) but he probably spends way too much time doing that fancy-pants hair of his, so, his thought process probably went a little like this:

Haha you can't kill me, bulletproof clothes over here, dumbass, oh wait, damn, their guns are gonna mess up my perfect hair because of all the gel I put in it- better duck! 
ArynChris's avatar
The bullets were standard, but the guns were kryptonite, of course!

Or maybe he's trained himself not to flinch at bullets, but never broke the habit of dodging ordinary objects like Ordinary Red-Blooded Americans.

Or maybe he's trolling them.  "Bullets don't work on me, duh.  Oh snap!  You're throwing something even more useless!  I BETTER DUCK SO I DON'T GET HURT OH WAIT."

Real answer, I presume:  Even the super-limited special effects of the day could brush in "bouncing bullets" off a perfectly motionless super-man (like brushing out perfectly-motionless "teleporting" Star Trek crewmen or brushing in "phaser beams" to perfectly-motionless scifi guns), but doing that with a gun shape would have taken waaaaaaay too much time and art budget.
Saulhab's avatar
Great article! I love the old school Superman costume. Without the underwear he just looks "naked" to me. Superman should be loud and proud! He doesn't need to make excuses for his strange fashion sense...
shadesofkin's avatar
It was in part due to the look of "strong men" of the time. Many wrestlers and athletes wore "Trunks" as part of their uniforms. Superman was literally the Ultimate Strong Man. 
TheHylden's avatar
Exactly. They were wearing trunks, or pants, not underwear. It's easy to see why, if anyone has ever seen someone in just tights down there. I mean, it shows off a little too much...
syahirsama89's avatar
This might be due to the "bodybuilding" influence going around here... instead just making him wore only that Speedo (on that classic of bodybuilding, they wore "speedo-looked" instead of posing suit like nowadays) and flying around with cape and boots will make him look crazy and ridiculous... so to "make sence-ism"... he had gave a full body spandex to covered the ridiculousness and poof!!!!.. Accepted by Superman's fans..


Well... as older generation (89's)... I preferred Classic Superman bcoz he looks stronger.... BUT... I'm also preferred the Modern Superman bcoz he looks cooler!!! Welll.... hipsters influence I guess...Chel Sarcastic Thinking Icon 
JUANCAQUE's Avatar Request Superman 
Funniest answer possible please: Youtubing the opening credits of the weekly 1952-58 Superman TV show, the bad guys shoot Superman in the chest. He stands there as a motionless target, smiling, hands on hips. The bullets all bounce off his big “S” insignia. Out of bullets, the bad guys toss their empty revolvers at Superman’s head. He ducks. Why?

Pretty simple: George Reeves didn't want to mess up that pretty face of his. Bullets aimed at his chest could bounce off easily without a mark, but a gun thrown at his head would easily leave a nice mark.

How ironic that years later G.R. would end up pointing a gun at his own head.
ahhrk's avatar
I actually never felt he was wearing his underwear outside. The "cloth" is so tight it looks to me like he painted his skin mostly blue, is almost naked, and wearing his underwear normally. Especially in lowly detailed pics where the costume has no volume.

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaay : p
over the years, superman wearing shorts outside seems to be undoubtedly..
malft's avatar
Superman was overheard telling Lois, "I've always worn them outside.  That's how they did it on Krypton, that's the way Dad did it.  It worked for them, it worked for him and it will work for me.  Besides my Ma made the suit, and that's how I got it."
ArynChris's avatar
You know it was that latter that was the real reason.  He didn't really have to justify it with the culture of a place he's never known... except to cover up that he's a total mama's boy!
malft's avatar
Good one.  TMMB!
geneturnbow's avatar
Superman has trunks - with a belt - because circus performers of the 1930's and 40's dressed this way. That's the actual reason. The author has come up with some interesting theories, but the real reason is because of all the fashion variances in the 1930's, belted trunks (swim suits were made this way too) were what men of action wore. That's pretty much it. The artists wanted to portray Superman as a man of action, so he got trunks over his circus tights.
ArynChris's avatar
This explains a lot.  After all, it was Action Comics, and didn't he not get named Superman until later..?
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