This was a hard one to come up with a title for.

Vampirella Lives #2 (Jan. 1997). Cover art by ...

Vampirella Lives #2 (Jan. 1997). Cover art by Adam Hughes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My thanks to Four Color Media Monitor for pointing out this article.  I find that I talk about female costumes more than most straight men should between Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl, and Ms. Martian. Oddly not as much as Supergirl and she’s had the most costume changes out of all of them. But for this one we leave the world of superheroes for one I admittedly am not as connected to, the world of pulp fantasy. Well, two of them anyone. The third is about space vampires or something so I’m still out of my element.

I’m referring to Dynamite’s takes on Red Sonja, the “John Carter” series (specifically John’s love interest, Dejah Thoris), and Vampirella. Gail Simone is one of the best writers in comics who just also happens to be of the female persuasion. She’s the one behind naming the trope “women in refrigerators” but also the one who put Barbara back in the Batgirl costume when she was more interesting as Oracle. Her run on Secret Six is still one that comic fans rave about. Well, recently she decided to alter the clothes of the aforementioned Dynamite characters. Avi was critical of Simone’s reasoning more than the costumes themselves. And while the costume changes were done with fellow creator Nicola Scott, she did the interview so we’re going to pick on her. Sorry, Gail. I know you follow my Twitter for some reason and I do like your work. But critic and commentator I am. This means that I of course have my own thoughts on the matter.

CBR News: Gail, how did your involvement in this movement to reimagine and redesign Vampirella, Dejah Thoris and Red Sonja start?

Gail Simone: The short answer is, I love the pulp heroines and I want others to love them, as well. And the long answer is, I have loved the pulp heroines my entire life, and I want others to love them to the ridiculous degree I do.

The truth is, all three of these classic characters had their looks designed decades ago. I love ’em, I have nothing against cheesecake and I have a real affection for classic looks of characters. But they do present a bit of a wall for many new readers. If you are used to manga and video games and someone gives you a comic with almost any Golden Age hero, there’s so much there that is a barrier to you jumping in. The look, the style, the dialogue, the designs… it can be charming, it can be quaint, but it can also make the characters look dated.

On the other hand give most classic comic fans a manga and they may not like it either. I have nothing against manga or some stylized art style allegedly based on the Japanese style (because Japan has more than one) but I don’t want Superman done in that style on a regular basis anymore than I want Sailor Moon done in a US style.

I’m not saying that’s the case for everyone, but we heard it a lot, and it makes it a harder sell for retailers. So that’s all a factor. I think of it as part of a natural evolution… the Beatles never wanted to make the same album forever.

But the biggest one was simply wanting to polish the characters up a bit and do something fun and visual and exciting. That’s always my motivation, what new thing can we offer with these amazing characters?

You’re not going to please the broad spectrum of comic fans with any design change. You will only annoy the fans who have been there from the start. Either you will draw in fans interested in the styles of the 1940s pulp comics (looks what happens when they attempt to modernize The Shadow or let Frank Miller near The Spirit) or your going to go for modern style fans. You can’t have both unless you can get someone who can appreciate multiple styles. Changing the outfits to please the “cool kids” is what led to half of the DC universe wearing V-neck armor and Wonder Woman turning into the Greek myth Amazons/female Kratos rather than the ones we know and enjoyed. You know, when Themyscira wasn’t all exploded for the 15th time.

Again, I have a way higher tolerance for cheesecake, if done with charm and humor, and balanced out with some decent eye candy of other kinds especially, than a lot of people do. But almost no characters from decades ago have made it to this point without an updated look. Batman’s a robot or something right now,…

Don’t remind me.

I mean, art is alive. How many times has an updated version of Sherlock been presented? Seems weird to me to leave only these three characters in a bubble forever.

Actually, there have been two attempts to send Holmes to the future, at least one I remember to the present (two if you count mini-me puppet clones), and shows like CBS’s Elementary. However, we all know him as the guy in the particular hat and coat smoking a pipe (or at least carrying it because you’re only allowed to smoke weed in modern media). Some designs ARE untouchable. You can tweak them…maybe, but not outright change them. The general public won’t accept it and if your goal is to broaden your reach you end up with the opposite effect. The buzzword for this commentary is “icon” and various variations.


For me, it was never about taking away the sex appeal, or we wouldn’t have asked Nicola Scott to do the redesigns. She draws some of the sexiest people and outfits in comics. And we wouldn’t have chosen the writers we picked, who also are known for bringing the heat in their work.

As Shaggy Rogers once said, why mess with a classic look? Touching Superman’s suit was a bad idea for years until that lame armor they have him and so many DCU characters wearing. When you see the classic outfit (which was tweaked but not outright replaced except for the “electric” period) you know it’s Superman, but the haters have to make fun of the red area which is part of the pants, not something extra he slips on. Every time they alter Spider-Man’s classic red & blue webbing fans go crazy. A costume is part of the character. It’s what makes him or her recognizable. Why do you think every time a new actor plays The Doctor he gets an outfit just for that Doctor. It makes him recognizable and it’s what makes Superman stand out from his wanna-bes.

That said, I’m not against costume changes to freshen a character when iconography isn’t an issue or you actually have something better. The only Batman change I ever truly questioned were those weird spikey additions to the cape from the 1990s. I still prefer the black costume (sans symbiote) for Spider-Man and the Silver Centurion design (perhaps a slightly less bulky version) for Iron Man. My favorite Supergirl costume is not the original but the one with the S on the left chest area and slight v-cut. Sometimes a costume change is a good thing. The question is whether or not the new designs work. Let’s start with the one you all may know more thanks to the Brigitte Nielsen movie (which I full admit is the only full story I’ve seen of the character), Red Sonja.

Red Sonja then & now

On the left is the clothing designed by creators Roy Thomas, Doug Moench, and Howard Chaykin. Wikipedia also gives some credit to Robert Howard, who created the Conan series, where the comic was set because Marvel had the rights to the Conan adaptation…it’s a long story. Point is, she’s a comic design but living in that universe. And her outfit matches the clothing style of that continuity and the fantasy art of that period which still shows up today. That said, it is a chain mail bikini, which really only protects the vital parts. To men.

And yes, Sonja has a cheesecake character model, but she’s a sword-wielding warrior who happens to be female and given fighting skills by a goddess. I expect her to look like this. Red Sonja is an example of being sexy by necessity, like gymnastics stars or professional beach volleyball players. They have to be in good shape and good shape just happens to be sexy. The new costume also keeps her looking sexy, but is actually usable. In video game circles there are jokes surrounding how the female character in fantasy games have skimpy, sexy armor compared to their male counterparts. It may be there to look sexy but it’s also in line with how character were depicted in classic Dark Ages art. EVERYONE is sexy. Conan doesn’t wear a shirt most of the time and usually not much of one when drawn with any kind of not-pants clothing. But Sonja doesn’t just have a bikini but one made of chain mail, which must be very uncomfortable on her secret place. The new outfit is probably safer for the kinds of fights Red Sonja is used to fighting in, allowing her to still swing a sword like always but keeping her more protected. Men aren’t going to aim their swords for the breasts. They’re men and those are boobies!

I never thought of the bikini as “armor,” and my feeling was that she lived in the Marvel version of Hyboria, where almost nobody wears any clothes. So the exposed flesh was never the big deal. It’s just a look she’s had for a long time, and it wasn’t even her first comics look.

We went for something that had both a nod to her original costume, the one before the bikini, as well as some elements that would fit a more modern idea of fantasy. It’s a bit more “Game of Thrones” or “Outlander.” I think it looks just fierce, and it feels a lot more believable to me.

We gave her a cloak that she uses when she doesn’t want to be recognized, so her famous hair is under that hood. When she takes it off, it’s like Wolverine popping his claws. It’s just kapow.

Giving up “Red Sonja” killed me, and it would have been impossible if we hadn’t snagged the wonderful Marguerite Bennett, who has been killing it on “Bombshells,” “A-Force” and so much more. She couldn’t be in better hands.

Never compare anything to Wolverine to me unless it’s the Hugh Jackman or Scott McNeil version. This isn’t the Marvel Hyboria anymore and Conan, last I heard, was now licensed to Dark Horse (they even had a crossover with Conan parody Groo The Wanderer recently) so they aren’t glued to the fashion of the universe. Going by the movie, armor may well exist depending on how well the costume designers matched the look of the comics beyond Sonja’s outfit. I honestly think this is a better outfit given her life.

Before I get into Vampirella, here’s how Wikipedia describes her origin:

Vampirella was originally presented as an inhabitant of the planet Drakulon, a world where a vampiric race lived on blood and where blood flowed in rivers. Drakulon orbits twin suns that were causing droughts across the planet, marking certain doom for Vampirella and her race. The race of which Vampirella was born, the Vampiri, were able to transform themselves into bats at will, possessed superhuman physical attributes, sprout wings when required to fly, and drink blood.

The story begins with the inhabitants of Drakulon dying slowly due to the drying up of its blood. The last few lie dying when a spaceship from Earth crashes on the planet. Vampirella, sent to investigate, is attacked; retaliating, she discovers that the astronauts have blood in their veins. In order for her race to survive, she manages to pilot the ship back to Earth where her adventures begin. Vampirella becomes a “good” vampire, and devotes her energy to ridding our world of the evil kind. Evil vampires owe their existence to Dracula, who came from Drakulon but was corrupted by Chaos.

That is totally not my kind of story so I’m even more out of my element than the other two ladies in this list. Still, let’s be complete and look at her old and new looks.

Vampirella then & now

I have never understood Vampirella’s costume. While I can make allowances for Sonja’s look, this is totally cheesecake, and not even the fun kind unless you really just like near-naked chicks. Which as a straight male I do to a point but that’s the outfit you chose to fight space vampires? Granted I’ve seen bathing suits today like that (on TV anyway) but in 1969? You’d get in trouble for running around wearing that thing on the BEACH much less on the streets. And it’s an easy target for fangs, unless the neck is the only allowed point. I’m not into slut shaming someone because of an outfit but if I were this would be the main target. At least Sonja’s was somewhat practical for the world she lived in.

Of course now we appear to have Laura Croft’s tailor taking over. Which may actually work better for space vampire hunting. And Laura always looks sexy so why not?

Vampirella has a very famous and distinct traditional appearance, and her new main look is a departure. What influenced this approach? And how do you see recasting her as a Hollywood celebrity shaping the character’s motivation in a way that hasn’t been seen before?

 Vampirella is the funnest one for me, in some ways. The truth is, I just adore here (hey editor!) weird swimsuit outfit. So we had this problem. She needs an update, lots of people will never take her seriously in the old look, but I love that look for the history (it was designed by one of my heroes, the great Trina Robbins) and for the simple eye-pop of it.

So what we’ve done with Vampi is come up with a really interesting story that gives her essentially, a public identity, where she wears the classic outfit, and a private, more dangerous one, where she hunts in the new garb. It’s just a ton of fun, and deals a lot with our weird, home-made media culture. It’s smart, sexy, scary and funny, by the wonderful writer of Hellcat, Kate Leth, who is bringing a modern, indy feel to the book, and I love it.

Wait, she still wears the stripper gear while fighting vampires, and only wears the other outfit to hunt? Fine, I don’t know Vampirella’s fighting style so I don’t know if the “hunter” outfit would hinder her style or not, like putting Dick Grayson in a battlesuit. But I’ve seen more clothing in fanservice fighting anime…before it’s ripped off because boobies and it’s usually that bad kind of fanservice. There goes the praise I guess.

Finally we have Dejah Thoris, princess of Mars in Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel series about an Earthling transported to another planet where he develops superpowers and fights evil armies. How is her outfit change? Well, I can’t find pictures of her regular outfit on Wikipedia, and I could go into any image search (I find that this is one occasion where Bing outdoes Google for reference material) but there’s this:

Except for some jewelry, all of the planet’s races seem to eschew clothing and look down upon Earth’s inhabitants because they do wear clothing. As Burroughs describes Dejah Thoris:

And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life… Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure. Her skin was of a light reddish copper color, against which the crimson glow of her cheeks and the ruby of her beautifully molded lips shone with a strangely enhancing effect.
She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

Emphasis mine. So any outfit they would put Thoris in would go against the original book. Could it be practical? Could it still be sexy as the copper-skinned beauty should be?

Dejah Thoris

Actually, yes. She does look sexy and she does look like many butts will be kicked before snuggling with John. However, this one bothers me a bit more. Maybe if this is some kind of battle armor, but as we just saw nobody wears much clothing on this planet. In fact, it’s rather cultural and the Martians look down on Earthlings because we aren’t a planet of nudists. Like I don’t think they even wear underwear. If you see them with clothing in comics or movies, it’s more a censor issue or not wanting to spend an entire comic series or movie trying to hide her naughty bits every time they show up. There are cultural reasons the Martians are nude and that seems to have been forgotten. Even by the interviewer.

Dejah Thoris is frequently seen as pretty much naked — how do you see this new look impacting the way the character is portrayed and perceived? Did you see the most potential in exploring new terrain with her?

To be fair about Dejah, in the books, pretty much all the Martians are naked, or nearly so, in the original novels. But it’s often been presented in a really cheesy way, and really, it’s hard to present a great adventure story in comics form without it looking a little dated and silly.

This time I’m with Avi Green. From the link in the first paragraph of this article:

Oh, just look how she and the interviewer muddle up everything about Burroughs’ novels. And wasn’t Star Wars cheesy too? Plenty of the best tales in comics are cheesy too, and nobody minded that. Once again, she’s demonstrated how she has no ability to appreciate cartoonish storytelling. By her logic, the early Spider-Man stories are only dated and silly, and weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. That’s what she’s basically saying. Even as she ostensibly defends Spidey’s outfit in the following:

These are famous characters in pop culture that have been around for decades and portrayed in a variety of media, and have very clear visuals associated with them. How significant of a step do you see it for the comic book industry as a whole for them to be re-presented in this contemporary way?

I think it’s essential. There are very few iconic comics characters that haven’t had some type of updating. Spider-Man (brief diversional costumes aside) is one of the few exceptions. But almost everyone else has changed with the times, and was better for it.

Nope, still not over this.

Nope, still not over this.

It’s like I said above; change for the sake of change, especially something iconic (and in Dejah’s case that’s as nude as you can get away with) is not a good thing. I like the black costume better on Spidey but Superman was better with the more iconic (which wasn’t even his first) costume. The “Of Mars” series comes with a stronger history. Again, updating the Shadow has never worked well. When Moonstone still did comics they did use modern settings but kept what made the characters classic. Most notable for me is their run on the Phantom, and longtime readers know how much I loved the Moonstone Phantom tales and how little I liked the Dynamite version. (Speaking of iconic costumes I am STILL not over how stupid the berry juice idea was for the Phantom look. Alex Ross is a great artist and I enjoyed his ideas for Battle Of The Planets even though they just made Gatchaman with Sandy Frank’s names. However, he’s a better artist than a writer, and that’s from a guy who is a better writer than he is an artist.)

I don’t see any reason to mess with Dejah’s look any more than The Shadow or Doc Savage, or Tarzan, or Zorro, anybody else from that period. We have modern takes on old ideas. You come to the tales of John Carter and friends to relive those old days and styles. This is why I couldn’t connect to their Flash Gordon. Some things can use a modern updating but some things are better off embracing their roots and being what they were created to be. There’s nothing wrong with a little cheese in a modern tale. It’s called “cheesecake” for a reason, right? Maybe we could use a bit more of that cheesy fun goodness in stories, couldn’t we?

I can defend the changes to Red Sonja and wish there were more to Vampirella but I’m not the target audience. In the end, if you can’t find a new audience for these three (and let’s be honest, naked tanned woman won’t bring the boys to the yard?) maybe that says more about them than the characters?

About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

2 responses »

  1. Sean says:

    This was a very interesting read. Hey, a little exposed skin can sell lots of comic books! Just like with any other product.

    Like

  2. […] the traditional outfit, either. Yes, I know at one point the comics gave her a full-body costume. I wrote about it. However it’s not her traditional look and ditching iconography by pointing to a temporary […]

    Like

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