May 13

The Jackpot

FT + The Brown Wedge//8 comments • 3,257 views

A Brief History Of Teen Superhero Comics, Part 4

It’s probably the most famous panel in 60s Marvel history. A gag, a cliffhanger, a revolution. A young woman standing in a doorway, smiling, in total amused confidence, at the boggle-eyed kid she’s just been introduced to. “Face it, Tiger… you just hit the JACKPOT!”

It’s Amazing Spider-Man #42, a half-dozen issues into John Romita’s run on art. It’s the debut of Mary-Jane Watson, and a defining moment for the teen superhero comic. For the first three years of Spider-Man – under Steve Ditko – he’s been an awkward, put-upon nerd: teen frustration sometimes pushed into farcical territory. Then Romita replaced Ditko, long-running plot threads were put to rest, and Peter Parker could suddenly get a life. A love life. A complicated love life.

amazingspidey42-3 But it goes further. In one panel Romita changes the comic’s premise as much as any “everything you know is wrong” move. It’s a one-frame “The Anatomy Lesson” (Easy now, Tiger). Because MJ isn’t just beautiful, she’s fashionable. Well-dressed. Hip. Or a Stan Lee approximation of it. Peter Parker has hitherto been adrift in a world of tragic or psychopathic grown-ups: his peers show up mainly to shun or bully him. In an instant, that changes, and suddenly superhero comics aren’t just about typical teens, or outcast teens, or nerd teens. They can be about the cool kids. Cool? Well, maybe not cool exactly – though MJ is. But the possibility of adjusting well to life is suddenly a real one.

You can theorise about why this shift occurred. On the one hand, Marvel’s magazines were selling on campus, and Stan loved that. On the other hand, if you have Johnny Romita on staff, you don’t waste him drawing geeks.

Romita had a reputation for drawing beautiful women. In the 60s that implied something a little different from what it does now, when “drawing beautiful women” in superhero books means tracing porn stars’ O faces, or in the 90s, when it meant posing bodies to flex like an eel that’s swallowed some beach balls. Look up, o reader! Why are people beautiful, in the real world? So many reasons, but confidence and attitude and clothes are a big part of it – and I say this as someone who’s never dressed well in my life. “Drawing beautiful women” the Romita way meant being able to draw people out of costume, people who dressed well. He made it look clean and simple, but Romita cared about clothes and hairstyles in a way most long-underwear merchants don’t, and it meant his characters did too. After all, suggesting through art that a character thinks about what they wear is a way of giving characters some degree of implied autonomy and, yes, ‘strength’.

There’s a peculiar pop culture magic that happens in comics when a writer who cares deeply about representing a particular scene or culture meets an artist (or is an artist) with this genuine sense of style and appreciation for fashion. Arguably, it happened on Spider-Man back then – it depends how sincere you think Stan ever was. But it definitely happened on Jaime Hernandez’ Locas, and on Sandman as soon as Mike Dringenberg starts drawing it**, and on Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram too, and surely you can think of others.

Now this isn’t what’s happening in Young Avengers, and I wouldn’t ask it to, Young Avengers is terrific in other ways. Style is vital to this comic, but fashion and superheroics are often uneasy bedfellows, for the simple reason that superheroes are smart, hot young people who, er, hardly ever change their outfits. Superheroes are almost all Steve Jobs in that sodding black polo neck. So you can do a lot with hair, and gestures, and poses – and Jamie McKelvie, as Hazel just pointed out, is incredible with hair and gestures and poses. You can also do a lot with accessories – I recently stumbled upon this marvellous blog post about Milligan and McCarthy’s Paradax, almost unread but a milestone in super-couture, being the first hero to wear a jacket over his spandex.

But the superhero idiom makes it hard to represent a specific style, and Kieron Gillen wisely sidesteps the risks inherent in rooting his characters in specific cultures: superheroics is their subculture, an idea that works really well. Even so, every modern superhero comic starring attractive young things – particularly when they’re drawn as people, not blow-up dolls and action figures – owes some kind of debt towards Romita, and that November ’66 Spider-Man, and the panel that changed teen superheroes forever. The difference now – it’s a good difference – is that nobody would single out Jamie McKelvie’s women as beautiful.

*Are the Young Avengers cool? No, for the most part. None of them would call anybody Tiger, either. But they’re attractive with flashes of confidence, at least. Compared to early 60s Peter Parker, they’re sharp as hell. Though who isn’t?

**I’m re-reading Sandman at the moment, for the first time since the series ended. So it was “top of mind”. I should write about it.


  1. 1
    omni-mog on 31 May 2013 #

    Even Captain Marvel fancies Spider Man these days.

    SPOILER ALERT but I was really surprised (to the point of yelping at my Kobo on a tube train) when Wiccan, uh, changed into Wiccan in this issue. I’d not fathomed that he wasn’t suited up, even though everyone else was. I am deeply disappointed in myself for this four-issue oversight.

    The whole concept of ‘suiting up’ really demands a fashion concept that (and I say this as someone currently reading through the 90s Age of Apocalypse so WITH SOME AUTHORITY, MY FRIENDS*) is so frequently ignored. And like, fashion concepts- they are not the concept of an abstract designer, fashion is how it works on a particular human being and for what they’re doing. Jamie and Kieron’s job here, with regards to costuming the Young Avengers, is both a big one to be cut out for them and one they’ve risen to totally magnificently.

    (My favourite superhero costume is Hercules’)

    *Do you want BELTS on your BELTS? How about some BELTS? Maybe as HAIR TIES for absolutely everyone’s ENORMOUS FUTURISTIC PONYTAILS? Better put some extra BELTS on just in case.

  2. 2
    Tom on 31 May 2013 #

    Something I couldn’t work out how to pithily express was the way the ‘designed’, on-brand fixity of superhero costuming is an engine for creativity when it comes to cosplayers: people unused to it (i.e. fans of my generation, basically) see cosplay as replication, but like all fashion it’s adaptation.

  3. 3
    omni-mog on 31 May 2013 #

    I was thinking about that this weekend, somewhat inevitably, as I butchered America’s look slightly to suit my own, ahem, “physique” (which is not, it must be noted, designed for throwing tanks at the moon) and looking at the variations on costumes around ComiCon. There were a lot of Mystiques and I found the variation really interesting, as she has really quite a distinctive and static (in the sense of not having been massively for at least quite awhile) costume- from the differentials in ass-y-ness to the way they were managing the difficult combination of blue limbs and white dress, through to wig styling, which varied a lot on the person in terms of how they needed to fix it to make themselves look the most Mystique-y. (And they all did look Mystique-y! It was interesting how personally Mystique-y they looked, is what I’m saying)

    The many variations on how to femme-ify an outfit also interested me; female Captain Americas, Lokis and Thors abound (I would quite like to do a Lady Thor myself but I need to get down the gym for the arms first, really) and they all really look like them but via a *vast* number of different routes. I suppose what’s interesting is boiling down what the essentials are to make an outfit a character’s.

  4. 4
    Vi on 1 Jun 2013 #

    Mary Jane Watson is one of the most underrated character in comics, considering her immense influences on fashion, attitude, personality and looks in superhero books.

  5. 5
    Tom W on 2 Jun 2013 #

    Fashion is the most underrated of the artistic disciplines, especially by men who don’t realise how pervasive it is in their lives. Consequently it’s hardly surprising that it’s ignored or worse in superhero comics, where variations on skintight with cape and cutaways ruled for decades.

    Grant Morrison got the help of Brendan McCarthy to design costumes for Zenith and his Doom Patrol and the payoff was immediate. Bryan Lee O’Malley, of Scott Pilgrim, recently shared a snap of his clothing reference folder on Twitter. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of photos… and not coincidentally, his work’s popular with women.

    Thanks for the link.

  6. 6
    Alex S on 3 Jun 2013 #

    There have been periodic attempts at superheroes who change their looks in a way which at least nods to the real-world concept of fashion, but it generally goes horribly wrong – either you get a redesign that dates instantly (remember Doctor Strange’s trenchcoat period? Or Kal’s mullet? Or worse, his collared look? Oh, wait, we still have that one, don’t we), or the character becomes difficult to follow from issue to issue (one of the New 52 Stormwatch was going to get a different outfit each issue, but it just further confused an already messy comic). Essentially, in a visual medium where all manner of craziness goes down each month, you need an instantly recognisable lead as the anchor. And even if you’ve got a Dillon or McKelvie on art, that only gets you so far if eg the hero’s back is to the camera as Things Loom.

    Also, while I freely admit that Peter Milligan is an inconsistent writer, that Paradax article disses the sublimely ridiculous Bix Barton. STOP GETTING PETER MILLIGAN WRONG!

  7. 7
    Dan Carter on 3 Jun 2013 #

    @Omni-Mog: You are right that Captain Marvel is interested in Spider-Man. However, you should add Spider-Woman, Black Widow, Silver Sable, and She-Hulk to the list as well.

  8. 8
    ben caldwell art on 16 Dec 2013 #

    alex – if a designer knows what they are doing, having different costumes or variations will not be confusing or messy. the issue is not a concept, but its execution.

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