My parents have been longtime subscribers to The New Yorker magazine. I never really read a whole lot of the issues, but I did come across an interesting article by author Michael Chabon, the author of one of my favorite books of all time, the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which follows the history of comics pretty closely, and has brought out a couple of comics based off of its title character, the Escapist.
The article, called Secret Skin, is part biographical essay and part examination at the characters in the superhero genre, mainly in what their costumes mean and represent. It’s a brilliant article, covering a number of things that I’d never really given any thought to.
The first real theme of the article is how people immerse themselves into their fantasy characters. He starts with an antidotal story that a teach told him in class, about how a boy tied a red towel around his neck as a cape and jumped from a building, hoping to fly, with the explanation being that the boy could not distinguish between reality and the reality that he saw in comic books. He then goes on to reminisce about times when he dressed up as a superhero, as Batman or Superman, to some of his own superheroes that were created out of pure convenience, and he then goes on to speak on transformation.
This, I feel is one of the defining elements of Science Fiction and Fantasy fandom, at least a part of it. I don’t do a whole lot with costuming – only armor from the Star Wars movies, but I think that this applies somewhat. Chabon describes what he sees in conventions (which he frequents often – an audio interview with him via the New Yorker’s site speaks on this) as a disappointment. He describes, in the article that oftentimes, despite extensive attention to detail and elaborate care, costumes fall short of what they resemble:
“Without exception, even the most splendid of these getups is at best a disappointment . . . acts to spoil what is instantly revealed to have been, all along, an illusion.” (Chabon, The New Yorker, March 10, 2008, 66)
I don’t believe that he intends these remarks as a criticism of fans that spend the time and effort, or of their accuracy, but rather, that they miss the point. Merely putting on a costume doesn’t automatically turn one into a superhero, as the boy who jumped off the roof found. The costumes aren’t real, they aren’t a character, and their creators are creating a replica of an illusion.
From here on, he discusses some of the elements that make up a superhero’s costume, and chiefly examines them as an extension of the character. This is one of the interesting points where form seems to follow function, at least to some extent. He looks at the components, the mask, gloves, boots, suits, capes, and symbols, and most importantly, how all of these components relate to the person’s identity. Symbols relate to very personal elements to the characters, to how this tells a story.
In the audio interview, he describes the costume as an idea that wraps up a person in a number of sub stories and meanings, and how that translates the person underneath into the embodiment of an idea.
“Now the time has come to propose, or confront, a fundamental truth: like the being who wears it, the superhero costume is, by definition, an impossible object. It cannot exist.” (Chabon, 66)
Not to say that it can’t be replicated down to exacting details. I think that with a replication, you only get the appearance, nothing more. However, I think that it’s how people perceive these characters that have come to life, rather than what the costume itself brings to the table – people around you make it more than just a costume. The costumer and viewer need to come together in order to make the illusion work. One instills wonder, and there has to be wonder, excitement, coming from the viewer.
I’ve sort of found this when I don my TK armor. A friend of mine once told me that I hold myself much differently once it’s on, almost like I’m a different person. I’ve sort of felt that as well. In a way, I think all costumers have a similar feeling – we don’t become the character at all, we represent their ideas, that feeling that we’d get as children reading a comic book under the covers or watching Star Wars for the first time. It’s a way of honoring the character or figure, not becoming them. The time and energy spent on their creation is almost a work of love, an homage to something that really inspires us.
Michael Chabon isn’t really criticizing fans for their efforts, I think. I think that a lot of other people do, because they don’t really get this depth and this love. I don’t really agree that costumes are a disappointment really – although there are some really strange ones out there – it’s quite something, especially for the younger kids, to see your favorite character walking around, right there, in the flesh, and he shakes your hand. I do think that he’s right when he says that when you see a character as an adult, you think “cool costume” and look at it in purely practical terms, whereas a child might see that and encapsulate that with everything that they’ve read and seen, not making the distinction that all you really have is a representation. Maybe even some adults. And that’s what makes it all worth doing.
I highly, highly recommend checking out this article if you’ve been to a Con, do costuming, a SF/F genre fan or even someone outside of all that. Read it, and let me know what you think, I’d be interested in hearing other reactions beyond my own. I have a feeling that this’ll prompt a couple more things from me, which I’ll be interested to see what direction it takes me in.
The full article can be read here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/10/080310fa_fact_chabon