A superhero is often only as good as their costume. It’s what helps make a comic book character truly iconic in the larger pop culture world. And it gives a steady visual continuity to characters. Especially considering artists change all the time. But not every superhero costume hits it out of the park the first time. Batman and Wonder Woman are icons, but their costumes are always drastically evolving. They don’t even keep the same emblems for very long.
Meanwhile, characters like Daredevil had lousy first costumes that only later changed into something more memorable. And heroes like Thor and Iron Man? They have changed looks so many times it’s hard to say which outfit is best. But the following superhero looks basically nailed it on the very first try (with some minor tweaks along the way). This is why we consider the following superhero costume the GOATs.
Although the basics for the Man of Steel’s costume were there from Action Comics #1 in 1938, things were a little rough at first. The “S” emblem went through a few iterations until about 1940. But once it solidified, it became and remained iconic. While Superman’s fellow DC icons have drastically changed looks and color schemes over the years, that basic original design of Superman just always works.
Superman’s look is so perfect that even the slightest change, like taking away the red underwear or making it armor like in the New 52, evokes a visceral “oh, no you didn’t” response. People may poke fun at the red undies, but they help break up all the blue and serve an aesthetic purpose. Superman is one hero whose look they pretty much nailed on the first try. We take our hats off to you, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
When Stan Lee first had the idea for a Spider-Man, he went to his Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby to design his costume. But Kirby’s design allegedly looked too much like Captain America. Too bulky, a bit too traditionally “superhero.” Not enough wiry teenager or creepy wallcrawler. So Stan went to artist Steve Ditko, who created the head-to-toe webbed Spider-Man costume that remains iconic today. So iconic that almost all attempts at updating the costume—even the super cool black costume from the ‘80s—have gone by the wayside. And it’s simply because the original feels right.
Most female analogs of male heroes wore a version of the male hero’s costumes. Supergirl has a red cape and an “S” symbol, while Batgirl has Batman’s horned cowl and scalloped cape. But Spider-Woman, who is only technically a Spider-Man spinoff, has a totally different design aesthetic. Artist Marie Severin decided to not mimic Peter Parker’s look, and gave heroine Jessica Drew her own striking design in red, black, and yellow. In more recent years, Spider-Woman has tried a few new costumes on for size. But she recently reverted back to the OG Severin creation. Because why mess with perfection?
Green Lantern and The Flash (Silver Age)
Ok, I’m cheating a bit. But both Green Lantern and The Flash debuted around the same time. Plus they’re both reinventions of earlier characters. So… we decided to give them one slot.
Poor Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern from the ‘40s. For a character named Green Lantern, his costume was mostly red, purple, and yellow. The only green came from the cape’s interior lining. It was just terrible branding. Green Lantern later got totally reinvented as space cop superhero Hal Jordan in 1959. And the Lantern uniform received a total makeover too. Designed by artist Gil Kane, it was mainly green and black, with touches of white. Super sleek and space-age, it’s only been updated with very minor revisions in 60 years.
Jay Garrick, the Flash from the ’40s, didn’t have as bad of a costume as the Golden Age Green Lantern’s. His winged helmet evoked the Greek god Hermes after all. But when the character got a top-to-bottom redesign in 1956, along with the new identity of Barry Allen, Carmine Infantino went for a sleek all-red look, with yellow lightning highlights. It was all meant to evoke hot rod racers. And for 60 years and various media incarnations, it has remained intact (Ezra Miller’s Justice League movie look notwithstanding).
Jack Kirby created half the superheroes you’re familiar with, mainly at Marvel Comics. And while he was known for lots of complicated designs, perhaps his best was known for how simple it is. And that’s the costume for King T’Challa, the Black Panther. But it wasn’t always like that. The original Kirby concept for Black Panther was far more garish, with lots of bright yellow. He redesigned it to become a head-to-toe black bodysuit, with only the striking white eyes to give expression. Sometimes the cape comes and goes, and sometimes the suit has gold highlights, but the original Kirby look from Fantastic Four #52 remains the gold standard.
Jean Grey, the X-Men’s telepathic Marvel Girl, was reinvented by writer Chris Claremont and artist Dave Cockrum in 1976. Debuting in Uncanny X-Men #101, Jean ditched her mid-sixties go-go boots and mini-skirt, and powered up to the level of the God-tier Phoenix. Cockrum gave her a gold sash, thigh-high boots and opera gloves, and a flaming bird as an emblem.
Although Cockrum designed it, artist John Byrne later perfected the costume. This is when Jean transformed into the Dark Phoenix (now trading green for brown). Although Phoenix later died, her daughter Rachel Summers would use this design for a time, and then later, Jean would use it again. Despite the tarnished reputation of Dark Phoenix, Marvel keeps finding new uses for this costume, because it’s just that stylish.
The stalwart German X-Man made his debut with the “All-New, All-Different X-Men” in 1975, designed by an artist whose name you will see pop up on this list many times: Dave Cockrum. Nightcrawler was designed for another project years earlier for DC Comics, before transitioning into a Marvel mutant. Everything about Kurt Wagner’s look just works. The blue skin with yellow eyes and pointed ears gives a demonic feeling, and the red and black leotard evokes the character’s circus performer roots. Add in that devil’s tail, and it’s a “chef’s kiss” design. It’s so good that the character has barely changed costumes since.
Before Barbara Gordon’s 1967 debut, there was another Bat-Girl. But wearing red and green, Bette Kane evoked Christmas more than creatures of the night. Artist Carmine Infantino designed a new Batgirl for DC, essentially for the Batman TV series to use. He nailed the design. Infantino maintained the cape and cowl of Batman, but instead of Bruce’s gray, black and yellow, Infantino went for solid black with yellow highlights. Although the TV series switched out black for purple (also iconic,) the original design is continually revived, as recently as the New 52 2011 reboot.
Mutant. Goddess. X-Man. Fashion icon. Ororo Munroe has been a major Marvel hero since her debut in 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men #1. In that issue, she wore a Dave Cockrum design that the artist had originally intended for a character from rival publisher DC Comics’ Legion of Super-Heroes. He took that basic design, added in Storm’s flowing white hair and striking white eyes, and threw in an intricate headpiece. She wore that costume for most of the next decade, before trading it in for a mohawk and biker clothes. While that was cool in its own right, the Cockrum design keeps returning with only slight tweaks, because it’s just so regal.
In no way, shape, or form is Black Canary’s superhero costume practical. It’s high heel boots and fishnet stockings after all. But comic book costumes are about design and inspiring emotions, not what you’d really wear to fight crime. Carmine Infantino designed Black Canary’s costume in 1947, and from the get-go, he had the basic design down. Black leather jacket, black fishnets, black heels, and a mass of blonde hair. In the original look, Dinah Lance’s bodice appeared a little loose-fitting, so as not to appear too sexy for kids.
But by the time the character returned in the sixties, everything about the original costume was tightened up. Canary would famously drop the classic look in the ‘80s, for what fans call the “Flashdance” look. But despite different attempts at other designs over the years, DC keeps coming back to the classic fishnet and leather. (At least in the comics—live-action is another story). Whether it’s partnering with Green Arrow, the Birds of Prey, or going solo, this seems to be the fan-favorite costume always.
Featured Image: DC Comics / Marvel Comics