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The War on Superman’s Underpants

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There might not be a real War on Christmas, but I'm pretty sure there's a real War on Superman's Underpants. It might not be sexy enough to get all that sweet Fox News coverage, but the traditional red underpants that the comics Superman has worn outside of his blue tights for most of the last century are now missing in both the upcoming Superman movie Man of Steel and in the comics - as well as the outer-underwear worn by many other heroes and villains . And I, for one, can no longer sit idly by while this venerable tradition is attacked.

Let us go back to 1933, when Superman co-creators Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster decided to put Superman's underwear on the outside in the first place - and why so many superheroes afterwards followed suit. Why did they make this choice? It wasn't because wearing your underwear outside your pants was a hot fashion trend of the ‘30s. Indeed, giving Superman outer-briefs probably looked as weird - if not moreso - as it does today.
In Super Gods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, Grant Morrison writes:

"Underpants on tights were signifiers of extra-masculine strength and endurance in 1938. The cape, showman-like boots, belt and skintight spandex were all derived from circus outfits and helped to emphasize the performative, even freak-show-esque, aspect of Superman's adventures. Lifting bridges, stopping trains with his bare hands, wrestling elephants: these were superstrongman feats that benefited from the carnival flair implied by skintight spandex. [Artist Joe] Shuster had dressed the first superhero as his culture's most prominent exemplar of the strongman ideal, unwittingly setting him up as the butt of ten thousand jokes."


When creating - and outfitting - the first superhero, Shuster was starting from scratch, and the closest version to what he had in mind was circus strongmen. This makes sense to me. Of, course, the modern argument against super-briefs is that old-time-y strongmen don't exist anymore, and today no one knows what they looked like or why superheroes are dressed like them. So take off those knickers, right?

I say thee nay! Here's the fallacy of that argument: Thanks to the last 80 years of comics and pop culture, superheroes now own this bold fashion statement. Superheroes have been wearing the outside-underpants at least as long as old-time-y circus strongmen did, but with infinitely more market penetration. There have been countless Superman comics, cartoon, TV series, movies, toys, merchandising over the last 80 years, and in every single one of them he's had red briefs on. Superman is an icon, and so is his outfit.


Let me put it this way: No one is looking at Superman's redesigned outfit in DC's New 52 and saying, "Boy, now that Superman doesn't have underpants, he no longer looks like a circus strongman, which was a visual that had no value to me!" Maybe a few people are saying, "Boy, Superman's skin-tight unitard sure looks adult and manly now that he isn't wearing underwear!" …maybe. But most people are saying, "He looks weird without it."

Now, part of that is because Superman has been wearing the damn things for over 80 years, and we're all just used to them. Silly or not, obscure origins or not, it's part of him, and he looks... off without it. DC might have ditched the briefs, but when merchandizers and videogame and toy companies need a Superman product to appeal to the masses, they make the most iconic, visibly identifiable version of the character - and Superman has the underpants. Every. Single. Time.

But there's an even more important reason why Superman needs the briefs. Think about why circus strongmen decided to start putting their underpants on the outside. They didn't have a group meeting and arbitrarily decide that would be their style, you know.

Old-time-y strongmen wear tights and unitards to show off their physiques and muscles, because that was their thing. Makes sense, right? But as any man who has worn any kind of tights can tell you, tights expose muscles, but they also expose the crotchal reason - the same sheerness that shows off the contours of biceps also shows off the contours of the penis. So rather than scandalize to 19th century audiences, strongmen put their underwear on the outside to effectively cover up what needed covering up.


"But Rob" you cry, "superheroes don't need covering up! Unless the artists purposely draw their penises - which would be super-weird - comics underpants don't do anything!" Well, yes and no. Because even without actually junk to cover, drawing underpants on characters wearing tights still has a use. Please, consider Superman's Crotch Classic:


And now, New 52 Superman Crotch:


Somehow, the lack of underpants draws attention to the crotchal region. It emphasizes it in a way that underpants de-emphasizes it. I have no idea why this is - maybe our brains instinctively know when a guy is effectively wearing a unitard, his junk should be visible. You don't have to want to see it, you don't even have to think about it for more than a second, but the lack of underpants forces us to acknowledge the super-crotch, while underpants allow us to ignore the region entirely.

And live-action Superman is even worse! Consider Brandon Routh:


And Henry Cavill in the upcoming Man of Steel:


By all accounts, Brandon Routh has an enormous penis, yet it's Henry Cavill who looks like he's about to burst out of his tights. Somehow, the all-blue of the outfit draws the eye right to the crotch, while the red briefs allow the eye to pass over it unmolested. Look, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with thinking about Superman's penis - far from it - I just think it should be a matter of choice and not necessity.


(And please don't talk to me about "armor," in either comics or live-action. If it's skin-tight armor that shows the contours of muscles, it's skin-tight. That's the operative part. A dude could be wearing a skin-tight mattress, but if it's skin-tight, it's skin-tight.)

Old-time-y circus strongmen weren't idiots - they knew putting their underwear on the outside proved that they were wearing underwear, and allowed them to reveal the rest of their bodies safely in a modest era. When designing Superman, Siegel and Shuster may have chosen that aspect of the strongman's costumes inadvertently (although I sincerely doubt it) but it helped perform the same function, and furthermore, became an integral part of the visual identity of the superhero genre.


By taking away Superman's briefs in both the comics and the movies, DC is working against 80 years of tradition, a tradition that superheroes have completely claimed from their original inspiration. They aren't making Superman look any less "silly" - he's still wearing tights and a cape, for fuck's sake. They're simply making people think about Superman's penis now, and not everybody wants to. And most of all, they're needlessly changing the look of a character known around the world, by all ages and races and sexes, for nearly a century… as wearing his underwear on the outside.

Viva la underpants!