Maggie’s World 045: Capes
I recently received this communication: “I have a question. I think it’s probably pretty broad but didn’t know if you had a concise answer. My friend and I were going back and forth in mock pro/anti stance of the cape making a superhero. I felt it almost belittled the character and wasn’t necessary. She was pro-cape. Is there a precedent to establish that a superhero has to wear a cape in his/her uniform? Is there a Marvel vs. DC thing going on? My point was that Wonder Woman didn’t have a cape and was still a superhero. Or was that just TV?”
Well, clearly, most folks reading this have opinions on the subject (and know that Wonder Woman didn’t have a cape when she battled evil, even when she was introduced in 1941).
Back in the early days of comics fandom, Jerry Bails commented that he was interested in any comics character who wore a mask and/or a cape. Many comics buffs clearly enjoy that approach to the art form, despite cape-shaming in some venues. (Recall Edna Mode’s “No capes!” in 2004’s The Incredibles.) And, of course, Wonder Woman didn’t have a mask or a cape—because she was established, not only as a role model for girls, but also as eye candy for (presumably boy) readers. (In fact, just as an observance in passing: There seems to be an ongoing slight reluctance to cover female costumed characters with a cape.)
There’s a pertinent quote from Christian Bale [Batman in Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)] at christian-bale.org, reported by “Angelic” on August 24, 2007. “Let me say, whichever superhero first came up with the idea of wearing a cape, he wasn’t really onto anything. The number of times I’ve tripped on that damn thing. Or I throw a punch, and it ends up covering my whole head. It’s really not practical as a superhero. I wouldn’t do it ever, myself. I’m wearing a cape every damn day. Practically, the situations where I wouldn’t wear a cape? Crimefighting.”
Where Did They Come From?
Why capes in the first place? Was it the Spanish tradition of “Cape and Sword” tales that Johnston McCulley used in connection with Zorro in 1919? Did Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 film The Mark of Zorro, in turn, influence the eventual creators of super- and costumed-hero characters Superman and Batman? (Pause to look at the dates. Bob Kane was 5 and Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Bill Finger were 6, when the Fairbanks film opened in 1920.) On the other hand, Batman was also based on images in the pulp magazine The Shadow, with stories written by Walter B. Gibson (who’d been born in 1897). The first issue of that publication went on sale in April 1931, when the someday-comics guys were 15 or 16. (Scholar Will Murray has even tracked down the Shadow story [“The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Theodore Tinsley] that Finger adapted for Batman’s first adventure.) Moreover, depictions of The Shadow were reminiscent of yet another aspect of the cape—especially in the case of magical characters—the tradition of magicians wearing a cloak. (Think of the illusion assistance that a cloak provides.) And—presto!—the cloak easily becomes a cape.
Capes can have other practical functions for a non-super-powered hero. Douglas Adams’ science-fiction romp The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which earned itself a DC mini-series in 1993) began as a BBC radio show, and the seventh episode (December 24, 1978) quoted The Guide with regard to a similar device. “A towel … is about the most massively useful thing any interstellar hitchhiker can carry. For one thing, it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth on the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; sunbathe on it on the marble beaches of Santraginus V; huddle beneath it for protection from the Arcturan megagnats, as you sleep beneath the stars of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini-raft down the slow, heavy River Moth; weight it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it around your head to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Trall (which is such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal it assumes that, if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); and even dry yourself off with it, if it still seems clean enough.”
All of which is just as true for a cape, of course. If you have a cape, you have a towel, and you don’t need a hand free to carry it.
OK, So …
At one point, readers were expected to believe that the Clark Kent gear was somehow stashed in Supes’ cape. But Batman needed a utility belt for his stuff, and the cape was to … Strike fear, maybe? Because bats? But over the years, there are capes and capes and capes and capes. They appear on a variety of characters drawn by a variety of artists for a variety of publishers.
I know folks who have worn superhero costumes professionally and I’ve been assured that some of the outfits are hugely uncomfortable, though a cape might make sense for, say, the non-caped Spider-Man in winter. On the other hand, Superman is presumably pretty indifferent to heat and cold, so (again) why his cape?
Maybe I’m most comfortable with capes on characters in the fantasy world (Doctor Strange, Fawcett’s Marvel Family, Mick Anglo’s spinoff Marvelman Family), because the concerns of real life can then be ignored? Supernaturally created figures can wear capes and raise no problems for me. As for the others, I continue to wonder why.
On the Other Hand …
Maybe it’s about the art.
A cape adds a feeling of action to a scene. Bonus: It can leave less to draw. As I point out when people question the skin-tight costuming of supers, it’s easier for artists to draw characters that way—the art can be a simple “life study” with lines at neck, wrists, and ankles. Now, think how much easier it can be (and how much time can be saved), if part of the character is covered by a cape. Heck, if the cape is big enough, it can even save time that would otherwise have to be devoted to drawing backgrounds and other characters.
And a cape can convey “flight,” lightness, and motion, whether it uses bird or bat as an inspiration.
By the way, it can be fun to compare and contrast the way the multi-talented Steve Ditko, for example, handled design challenges through the years, his confident hand producing a variety of costumed characters. Ditko’s Spider-Man and revamp of the Golden Age Blue Beetle wear skintight suits. (Teen Peter Parker even sews his costume himself, including underarm webbing.) Doctor Strange is magic and has a swirling cape. The Question wears a business suit. Each design lends its own “feel” to the character.
Finally, in the hands of less-talented artists, a costume lets the reader identify the hero (or the villain) at a glance, and capes make differentiation even easier.
There Are Commercial Reasons, Too, Right?
Sometimes, whatever the costume, it’s more than a uniform; it’s a trademark. Readers focus on the story, the powers, the fights. Marketers look at what can be (harrumph) monetized.
At a guess, the “established tradition” of cape-wearing heroes (and villains) is easy to translate into “trademark” and “marketing.” If you Google “hero” and “cape,” you’ll find immediate sources for Your Very Own trademarked cape. Licensed capes for kids are everywhere at Halloween, in party stores, and so on.
So This Is “A Concise Answer”?
Well, not so much. But I was about to leave it at that, even so. I’d have said that capes are unnecessary, given that we can all wear capes—but don’t. I wear a travel vest with tons of pockets, and that leaves my hands free to hold a beverage while I open a door. Better than a cape.
Then, I saw the image from Pressley Johnson Design that embellishes the 2016 “Banned Books Week” promotion from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. The week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read, and this year it was September 25–October 1. Considering the comic-book burnings of the 1950s and the ongoing need for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to protect creators, publishers, and shops, it’s a promotion of special interest to comics readers.
This year’s ALA messages include “Stand up for your right to read banned & challenged books” and “Defend the First Amendment. Read a banned book.” Accompanying each is an image of a silhouetted man and woman above an open book. Simple enough by itself. But each figure is wearing a red cape. And, suddenly, the symbol becomes heroic.
Hmm. I’m going to have to think about capes again.
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!