Adventures in Superheroic Style
A little over a year ago, I went to San Diego Comic-Con. Because I’m someone who generally avoids situations involving long lines and large crowds, attending the world’s largest Comic-Con was a bit of a departure for me, made doubly stressful by the fact that I wasn’t just an attendee—I was also a presenter. Though my panel was technically part of the Comics Arts Conference, an academic conference hosted by the Con, my full name was still listed in the official program alongside comics creators and pop culture luminaries—individuals who, unlike me, would be household names to most of the Con’s 160,000+ ticket holders.
I’d worked hard to be there, writing a PhD dissertation on superheroes and contributing a chapter called “‘This Female Fights Back!’: A Feminist History of Marvel Comics” to a wonderful anthology titled Make Ours Marvel: Media Convergence and a Comics Universe. But in the months leading up to the Con and throughout the first two days of the Con itself, I was far too anxious, insecure, and downright scared to be proud.
I routinely prepare for stressful situations by thinking way too much about what to wear. For me, clothes have long been both a salvation and a constant struggle. While I’ve always loved expressing myself through what I wear, with each year that goes by, I’ve grown more and more aware of the often-daunting gap between what you’re trying to express and how the people around you interpret that expression. Academia’s supposedly open-ended but actually limiting dress codes are their own special minefield. In academia, if you dress too formally, you risk being seen as fake. Yet if you dress too casually, you risk not being seen as authoritative, particularly when you’re a younger scholar who also happens to be a woman.
I’ve tried to navigate this quagmire by developing styles that reflect my research interests (and vice versa). My hope was that, in the process, I would turn people’s reactions to my style into barometers of shared affiliation. Most recently, I’ve been researching and writing about representations of the body in superhero comics. Through this process, I’ve begun to face my lifelong bodily insecurities by experimenting with the unapologetic, curves-first boldness of superheroic style. By curves I mean flesh as well as muscles, and my boldness involves hiding as well as showing; I’m less into the types of superhero costumes that involve G-strings and cleavage windows than the ones that coat you like a second (and shinier) skin, and let you disappear when necessary inside the voluminous folds of a cape and the anonymity of a mask. In service of this goal, I own several bodysuits and at least one actual cape, plus many more over-sized jackets reminiscent of capes, and plenty of over-sized sunglasses that function like masks. I also own entirely too many jumpsuits, colored tights and leggings, stretchy pants, and metallic everything, while never quite feeling like I have enough of any of these things.
You’d think that San Diego Comic-Con, the mecca of cosplay, would be the ideal place to dress like a superhero. But even though at least some of my wardrobe is directly inspired by 1980s X-Men comics (especially the ones where they fight the Shi’ar Imperial Guard in outer space), my version of dressing like a superhero isn’t about precisely replicating the look of a beloved character. Instead, it’s about wanting to capture something of what the superhero costume represents. My favorite superhero costumes offer a kind of functional glamor—a way to be bright, glittery, and sexy without sacrificing the ability to run, jump, and punch. They also offer a fantasy of transformation that involves bringing the inside to the outside (and not just in a “wearing your underwear over your pants” kind of way). Peter Coogan, for instance, argues that the superhero costume expresses the hero’s “inner character” and “embodies his biography.”  Mila Bongco agrees that “[t]he colours, shapes, and ornaments in the superhero costume… show the features essential to the hero’s identity, powers, and capabilities.”  In this, the superhero costume is not so much a disguise as it is, in the words of Richard Reynolds, a “sign of individual identity,”  one that’s so bold, obvious, and perfectly abstracted that it can’t be misunderstood.
As I was trying to decide what to wear to Comic-Con, I was especially worried about my individuality, both because it’s easier to feel like a superhero when you’re the only person trying to look like one, and because I was torn between a desire to stand out and a desire to fit in. My worst fear was that my passion for superheroic style would be seen as my only investment in that world. Essentially, I was afraid of being seen and dismissed as an example of the mythic “Fake Geek Girl,” who, according to her misogynist creators, loves parading around male-dominated spaces in superhero-inspired outfits, but doesn’t know anything about comics.
On my first day at the Con, I tried to manage this fear by pairing some black American Apparel disco pants with a vintage Wolverine T-shirt I’d purchased on eBay from a deadstock reseller and cut up into a boat-necked, cropped tank top. When I bought this shirt, I liked it because it was from a time before the Canadian X-Man became a billion-dollar property, and because its Andy Kubert-drawn image of a snarling Wolverine decapitating an old man dressed like the Space Pope is both hilariously over-the-top and wonderfully incongruous, its extreme violence rendered in a color palette dominated by pinks and purples. I accessorized this look with some white Betsey Johnson “Boom” sneakers featuring embroidered, winking eyes on the heels and a pair of solid black Carrera aviator sunglasses.
To say this outfit didn’t succeed in making me feel either individual or comfortable would be something of an understatement. Within an hour of arriving at the Con, after being chastised by multiple well-meaning but definitely stern event staff for walking the wrong way and standing in the wrong place and realizing that I should have lined up several hours earlier to have any chance of being in the same room as Nikki Bella, I found myself struggling not to cry as I made my way across the densely packed exhibition hall, propelled aimlessly onward by a sea of humanity whose plastic weapons and over-stuffed loot bags periodically scraped and jostled my legs and arms. By the time the crowd disgorged me into the comparable tranquility of artist’s alley, I’d brushed shoulders with several dozen people wearing Wolverine T-shirts and several more wearing impressively accurate Wolverine costumes. At that point, I couldn’t tell whether I felt over-dressed or under-dressed, but was sure I felt embarrassed about how much I cared. When I walked past Andy Kubert, sitting alone at his signing table, I barely managed a brief smile before hurrying away, mortified by my efforts to both make his artwork my own and mobilize it as a badge of authenticity.
For my second day at the Con, I tried to be invisible in a pair of indigo blue French Connection skinny jeans and a dark gray tank top from Banana Republic (always my go-to brand for when I want to feel unimpeachably “normal”). I felt kind of guilty waiting for the shuttle to the Con alongside a gaggle of excited fellow fans, many of them wearing amazing, hand-crafted costumes. But, later that afternoon, my ability to take a break from the literal and figurative pressure of the Con and became just another patron sipping an overpriced green tea at a hipster-y café in downtown San Diego ultimately helped me make it through that second day without wanting to cry.
On my third and final day in San Diego, which was also the day I presented my paper, I woke up hungry to feel at home in my second skin. So, after applying some waterproof mascara and my best never-fade red lipstick, I donned a fire red Lauren by Ralph Lauren jumpsuit and my favorite, well-worn pair of bronze Sam Edelman “Gigi” sandals, accessorized with Betsey Johnson pavé leopard earrings and some Kate Spade tortoiseshell sunglasses. In the middle of giving my paper, I knew I’d done something right, because when I looked across at one of my larger-than-life slides of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel, soaring through the sky in her own red and blue jumpsuit with a gold star over her heart, I finally experienced a teensy jolt of pride. Partly, I was proud of looking just a little bit like Captain Marvel, a resemblance that’s aided by the happy coincidence of us having the same cropped blonde undercut. More importantly, though, looking just a little bit like Captain Marvel helped me feel a bit like her, which in turn helped me feel like my favorite version of myself—the one that finds in superheroes the courage to be critical, even of things I love, and that finds in superheroic style the courage to be seen while I do it.
Looking back, I still have mixed feelings about San Diego Comic-Con; nothing could make me completely comfortable with the lines, crowds, and consumerism. And my struggles with clothes continue. I’ve listed brand names in this piece intentionally, to illustrate the imperfection and irony of my quest for individuality; but I’m still worried it might make me seem shallow, as well as hypocritical. Yet amid my ongoing battle to look like myself, I’ll always be grateful for Comic-Con’s visceral reminder of the power of style. Whether you’re a spandex-clad mutant delivering a roundhouse punch to a Shi’ar assassin well beyond the atmosphere, or a junior academic delivering a conference paper about sexism in superhero comics with your favorite sandals firmly anchored to a well-trodden carpet, style can help you fight, in your own small way, to make the world a better place, one where everyone who wants to can be their own hero.
 Peter Coogan, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre (Austin: Monkeybrain Books, 2006), 33.
 Mila Bongco,Reading Comics: Language, Culture, and the Concept of the Superhero in Comic Books(New York: Taylor & Francis, 2000), 105.
 Richard Reynolds, Superheroes: A Modern Mythology(London: B.T. Batsford, 1992), 26.