Sequential Sartorial: Give Me More Fashionable Superheroes

Persephone character designs by Mike Hawthorne for Marvel Comics 2018

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I was constantly sketching ideas, collecting fabric samples, and chopping up my sister’s Vogue and Bazaar. I was infatuated with Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista and the original supermodels. I dreamed of visiting the runways of Paris.

As with many of my childhood obsessions, fashion design fell away, but I’ve never completely lost interest in it. Like when a new artist on one of my favourite series asked a fan forum for some tips on dressing the main character, I jumped on the opportunity to send over some sketches and was thrilled to see them in print a few months later.

That was about 20 years ago, and, aside from the few pages where my designs appeared, I remain disappointed in how often fashion and style fail to find footing in mainstream superhero comics. Effort goes into designing costumes—for better or for worse. When Kelly Sue Deconnick took over Captain Marvel, she was unimpressed with the costume recommendations from Marvel and brought in Jamie McKelvie to get the look just right. In an interview with SyFy Wire, Deconnick talks about how she practically had to strong-arm Marvel into a decision that has since transcended into geek fashion lines like Her Universe and will soon be immortalized on screen in the Brie Larson-powered movie.

Fans and artists alike are often dabbling in costume redesigns, but it’s so rare to see any care put into superhero and villain attire when they’re off the clock, despite Famke Janssen teaching us that superheroes and fashion do not have to be mutually exclusive. Oh, there have been some notable fashion trends in comics, particularly in the ‘90s, when all the female characters wore thongs, and even if butt floss wasn’t part of their costume, we still had to know they were wearing them. Thanks, Image Comics.

There certainly are comics that touch on fashion or even make it the focus. And there are comics outside of the Big 2 that have no problem letting their characters shine through clothes that reflect who they are as much as their words and actions do. The Wicked + The Divine comes to mind, with art and character designs by McKelvie.

Fashionable gods in The Wicked + The Divine
Fashionable gods in The Wicked + The Divine Volume 1 (Image Comics, 2014)

“A highlight of the series,” writes Image Comics in its WicDiv spotlight, “is the attention [Kieron] Gillen and McKelvie pay attention to what their characters are wearing as much as what they’re doing and going through. Fashion is a type of language, and what we wear says things about who we are. The same is true in fiction. Fashion is a storytelling tool, and in the right hands, it can work wonders.” McKelvie and Gillen also invited artist Kevin Wada to collaborate on an issue of the series, capitalizing on Wada’s keen fashion sense.

The Spider Ladies on the cover of Vogue, by Kevin Wada
And Vogue” by Kevin Wada

Wada and McKelvie, along with other artists like Kris Anka and Sophie Campbell, frequently play around with character designs that are quite stylish and unique to the characters they are working with. Writer Paul Tobin recently tweeted style sheets by Bill Sienkiewicz for Dazzler, with Tobin expressing a desire to write a fashion comic.

Clearly, there’s an interest in fashion from industry creatives, but again, we rarely see that translate to mainstream comics, even and especially when it comes to the character of Emma Frost. Aside from her role as an X-Man or villain, Emma Frost is a fashion mogul, a teacher, and a business woman. In fact, it’s her funding and business acumen that kept Scott’s little student military afloat. Yet, she’s condemned to forever flounce her Hellfire Club aesthetic, epitomizing her questionable views on sexism and power. When she does occasionally get to be fashionable, she’s still too often the subject of slut shaming.

Hope Summers is displeased with Emma Frost's classroom attire
Emma’s fashion sense once again the butt of the joke in Generation Hope #5 (Marvel Comics, 2010)

I look back fondly on Generation X when Emma’s favourite outfit was a powerful pantsuit that even made it into the TV series. But since officially becoming an X-Man, Emma has spent the majority of her time in underwear—and not even stylish underwear! Like that cheap-looking bra January Jones was stuffed into for X-Men: First Class.

“It definitely shows what Marvel really thinks of Emma when they haven’t let Kris Anka (who loves her!) or Jamie McKelvie redesign her,” said our Reviews Editor, Kayleigh Hearn. Lots of fans have posted amazing designs for the character as well, but Marvel persists with the misunderstanding of what sexy means for a fashionista who could seduce anyone while wearing track pants—designer track pants. It causes me all kinds of disappointment, especially when I see something like this:

My first thought upon seeing Charles Soule’s tweet about Mike Hawthorne’s character designs was simple: take my money.

I don’t care about Logan’s shockingly inevitable return, but I will pore over every page featuring Persephone. Maybe even buy an extra copy of the issue just so I can cut it up and make a collage/shrine dedicated to her Grace Jones-esque grandeur.

My second thought: Emma Frost is so pissed right now.

But let me not allow my Emma lamentations to overshadow the blessings Hawthorne has bestowed upon us in a medium that ought to be far more closely connected to fashion.

The artist, Mike Hawthorne, kindly took the time to answer a few questions about this stunning character design.

Do you have a background or particular interest in fashion design?

No, unfortunately. I regret not studying it more, to be honest. I spent most of my time in school studying the figure and not the dressing. But I believe in doing one’s “homework.” So anytime I get an assignment the first thing I’ll do is just start researching so as to avoid drawing from a point of ignorance.

Soule asked you for a design that was “’70s sci-fi, very fashionable, all confidence and sweeping grace.” What were your initial thoughts based on this description? Where did you then turn for inspiration in designing Persephone?

You know, it’s funny. When the art was released online everyone was immediately saying “Grace Jones,” and I kinda kicked myself because I didn’t think of her initially. My initial thoughts were that her clothes couldn’t be practical; they should have a drama to them. She’s rich and should look the part, all her clothes are high end and custom. Charles also wanted someone that would show skin, which usually makes me uncomfortable in character design, but I decided that if she showed skin it would be in a way that felt visually compelling and not merely titillating.

I also tend to want to stick to a theme, and with the name Persephone we talked about using the pomegranate seeds. Instead of a typical super villain logo, I snuck three red “seeds” into her design, earrings, buttons, etc.

I also wanted to group things in threes, so you’ll notice that reoccurring. Three buttons, three straps on her blouse, three strips on a skirt, three braided, and so on. I like the number three, and it also gives her a visual connection to Wolverine and his three claws.

It’s important to get input too. I loved the first jacket I designed for Persephone. I showed it to my oldest daughter who pointed out that it looked cool, but too much like Princess Leia’s in the newest movie (which I hadn’t seen). So, back to the drawing board. Also, Annalise (another editor) gave me some good input on her original boot design, so again I reworked it. I think that’s important, to never assume you’re always right not when it comes to design. Good, smart criticism always helps.

Have you done such stylish character designs like this before? Something that made Soule determine you’d be the perfect person to design Persephone?

You know, not really. I mean, I’ve done dozens of designs for Marvel, but nothing so directly fashion oriented. It was Jordan (series editor) that assigned this one to me, and I think the reason he came to me is cause I try really hard to make each design individual. I try to make it fit the character, not my own tastes, if that makes sense. I designed a team for them a while back, Mercs for Money, and I got to show my range because the six characters on the team were so vastly different from each other. I think that showed my range, and my commitment to make each special. I feel like as a professional I should be able to hit the mark that client needs, regardless of the challenges.

Deadpool & the Mercs for Money Vol 1 5 Design Variant by Mike Hawthorne (Marvel Comics 2016)
Deadpool & the Mercs for Money Volume 1 #5 Design Variant by Mike Hawthorne (Marvel Comics, 2016)

Charles helped immensely though, and had such smart direct ideas for Persephone that I had a ton of stuff to play with right out of the gate.

Your design doesn’t stop with her outfit; you’ve been meticulous with her hair as well, which is important for her as a Black character. Depictions of Black hair and features in comics can sometimes be disappointing, but your designs make it clear that this is part of who the character is. What inspired your designs for her hair?

Oh, absolutely. Honestly, I started with her face and hair. I couldn’t see how I could design her without feeling like I know the character, which usually means starting with the face.

For inspiration I thought back to ancient Greek sculptures, and modern stars like Janelle Monáe. I wanted something that felt modern, but harkened back to the name a bit. And, as mentioned above, I kept the theme of “threes.”

If you were given the freedom to redesign the everyday look of an iconic character, which would you choose, why, and what kind of style would you give them?

Honestly, Wonder Woman would be fun. I loved the recent movie version, but I have this version in my head of her more rough and tumble. I’d love to come up with an ancient look inspired, MMA fighter kinda outfit for her.

Hawthorne almost makes it sound easy to put some effort into designing characters with an understanding that their look, both on and off the field, is integral to their characterization. Based on the response to Soule’s tweet, there are a number of readers like me who want to see more fashion conscious folks in superhero books in general. Style shouldn’t just be regulated to costumes.

And give Emma Frost some Brandon Maxwell pantsuits, dammit!

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Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.