Because we live life on hard mode, we naturally decided to use column #2 to dig into the most difficult to define point on our triangle: fashion. In simplest terms, we’re defining fashion as building designs from the ground up rather than duplicating or reworking real world outfits. That doesn’t mean runway versus rack, though! Crafting original looks for the comics page from scratch can encompass everything from superhero tights and fantasy armor to custom activewear — and all points in between.
Véronique Emma Houxbois: We need to open this installment with a recognition of Tini Howard (The Magdalena, The Skeptics, Rick and Morty: Pocket Like You Stole It) and her commitment to fashion by using an empty airport, pre-SDCC, to put on some Madonna and do her best Naomi Campbell runway strut.
Alejandra Gutierrez: Okay, but that’s a BIG statement to make. I’ll hold off on endorsing this fantasy until further investigation.
Houxbois: I think you have to respect her ambition. We need more women in this industry fearlessly reaching for the top.
Gutierrez: Let’s not talk about this anymore, I think Naomi is somewhere listening in. (Love you girl, fuck Tyra amirite?)
Houxbois: So, to bring it in a bit, the key thing that we want to explore under the fashion label is to interrogate the motives behind designing from the ground up versus, I guess, drawing off the rack, and how that impacts the finished product.
Gutierrez: Well from an artist’s perspective, it’s definitely exciting to see that kind of product and process and where you can go with it visually (we have people like Trungles’ super whimsical, flowy fashions that from a mere technical standpoint are super impressive and, I mean, just fucking beautiful). And then when we talk about a more reading/storytelling look at things, it can showcase the author’s point of view in the world they have created.
What in this world informs the way things look and why the designs we see in this world are the way they are, aside from telling us more about the characters and their lives? I’d like to mention, in this instance, creators like Jake Wyatt or Michael Lee Macdonald’s ability to understand what (ready-to-wear) fashions are, were and will be, and turning up the dial on those specific sensibilities to create something completely new and nonderivative make them beasts of world-building.
Houxbois: I also think it’s fascinating how poor fashion choices can really excessively warp a comic, like when these tangents occur to try to justify sleazy designs. Like, dedicating entire chunks of story to explain why say Vampirella or Starfire wear suspender thongs in public, but like, can you give me a specific example with Wyatt of something he’s expressing through his designs in a positive way?
Gutierrez: I really appreciate the way he brings an element of almost magical realism to his designs. Like we all know mythological/fantasy shit is his deal, which is awesome, but what’s even better is it doesn’t feel like any of the regurgitated ideas that flood those type of stories. They feel real, worn. His designs feel almost melancholic of an era that even tho may have never existed, definitely took its roots from ancient times. They’re also fun and magical, in a grounded world. They’re, and I may just shoot myself in the face after this, what “gritty” fantasy reboots should be.
Houxbois: JH Williams III to me is the artist beyond anyone else who can really delve deep into symbolism to create a visual language for a character that tells us exactly who and what they are without any need for text on the page. The Kane twins are really the apotheosis of that for me in how you had these deep blacks and reds to create this predatory, transgressive sexuality drawing on the scarlet woman archetype, and then leaning on blues and whites to invert that in Beth.
It’s the color coding of the twin poles of feminine divinity that he and Moore used in the Binah issue of Promethea, but you don’t really need to know that to understand what’s at work. Beth is wearing a hood like typical portrayals of the Virgin Mary contrasted by geisha lips to hard-sell this image of her as a mocking evocation of the madonna/whore complex and to invert the typical color schemes of good and evil between the twins. It’s all so incredibly intricately worked out.
Gutierrez: My standout in current superhero comics is definitely Kris Anka. He’s kind of made fashion his brand and it really sets him apart from most artists in that corner of the industry. His aesthetic (though a bit stuck in 2011 taste-wise, both for what’s currently happening in fashion and my liking) is very recognizable as his own. His influences are very clear in his design work, but what I really enjoy is how ultimately he makes it an Anka original, and he’s also not short on ideas; the dude is like a machine with how many different looks/styles/feels he’s able to translate into a page just by his pieces being in it. I’d like to see him make the jump from Project Runway finalist to Haute Couture Atelier, but I can see how he’s a bit constrained by the boundaries of superhero comics to stay in that weird sportswear meets runway that, although successful and cute, ends up feeling just a tad too Manhattan WASPy hacker in a 2005 family movie for me.
Houxbois: Go in, mama.
Gutierrez: I mean, no tea no shade, cause baby when it’s right it’s right. And we both know Anka was one of my first comic boyfriends but I’m just sayin…
Houxbois: I think a lot of that speaks to where comics are and how far you can stretch the elastic before it snaps, and not necessarily to the full potential of what Anka can or does do. I mean you go back to that issue he did for Bendis’ X-Men run where the girls drag Emma out shopping and the strength of what he did there is self-evident, but there just are not that many outlets for that kind of thing in superhero comics. Keeping it Marvel, no one is out there actually making a Janet Van Dyne [who was (is?) canonically a fashion designer –Ed] comic.
The archetypes for female superheroes right now are either some kind of athlete/soldier or a scientist of some kind. There’s not really a space for creative women actually being the heroes right now. It’s a gap you see the most in Gwenpool I think. As much as I love it, this character who’s meant to be a superfan and represent the current generation of female Marvel readers doesn’t have any engagement with cosplay or sewing of her own, which I think is a real tragedy and an illustration of the limitations of what Christopher Hastings can do with her as a character. You don’t really see that commitment to the fantasy of a character having a look for every occasion anywhere but Harley Quinn and her neo burlesque sensibilities, partially because there’s a damn army of artists behind Conner and Palmiotti to execute it on a double shipping book.
Gutierrez: Speaking of creative women, there really isn’t a comic out there right now like Snotgirl with its cast of characters and aesthetic. Sure it’s a book about a fashion blogger and her fashion blogger friends, and there’s some freedom that comes with that, but Leslie Hung DELIVERS. I have not seen such contemporary and modern design like in her work. She’s able to translate today’s trends and styles into fashion that the characters in the world her and Bryan Lee O’Malley have created can wear and it makes sense that they would. It’s also impressive the range of aesthetics she’s able to showcase from Normgirl Meg’s bougie kinda-rockabilly latte chic to Cutegirl Misty’s pastel Harajuku fang-tasies. Designing ready-to-wear can be as tricky as designing avant-garde and honestly, girl gets both and she gets them good. I’ll shut up about her now because we’re gonna talk about her a lot in the other installments of this series.
Houxbois: That’s kind of a space that Sophie Campbell straddles, or at least really did in her Jem and the Holograms designs, trying to sit between designing for ready-to-wear and avant-garde. I remember interviewing Kelly Thompson right around when the series was coming out and they were being told that they had to scale back the designs some so that people would be able to cosplay them. It was so wild to finally hear about that kind of thought being put into the creative process, that editors were looking at finished comic book art as being essentially design work for someone else’s eventual finished product.
Even though Sophie was scaling it back to be achievable in terms of things people could sew or make with worbla, at no point was it ever things you could walk into a store and piece together, it wasn’t like, say, Babs Tarr’s Motor Crush designs where she’ll later post a collection of similar items you could use to put it all together. If you’re gonna be Sophie’s Pizzazz, you need a sewing machine to get there. Which is interesting because later artists on the series, especially Jen Bartel, took it in the opposite direction and started at fairly normal items and built them up from there to fit the aesthetics of the series.
Gutierrez: Less ready-to-wear and more pain-in-the-ass-need-a-degree-from-parsons-to-wear. Loves it.
To recap, fashion, as a point on our triangle, is building clothing more or less from the ground up rather than duplicating or approximating existing outfits. Building from the ground up means that creators are building their characters and world up along with it, especially in science fiction and fantasy settings where costume choices tell us everything from social standing to atmospheric conditions without using a single written word. Dust off your Pinterest account for our next installment, because we’re having a digital breakfast at Tiffany’s for the next point on the triangle: style!