Project Rooftop

If you’re a comic book aficionado and you’re not familiar with the design web site “Project Rooftop,” let me enlighten you (and ruin your afternoon as you spend the next several hours going over the site’s archives from top to bottom). Started in 2006 by artist Dean Trippe (creator of the web comic “Butterfly”) and comics journalist Chris Arrant, the site reports on the latest in superhero fashion both in official continuity and in fan art.

In addition to blogging about the latest four-color fashion trends, the site also instigates new designs by holding contests periodically for costume redesigns of popular superheroes. Trippe and Arrant, together with a panel of judges, grade the submissions on a scale of 1 to 10, and the submissions with the highest scores get posted and critiqued on the web site.

PR’s contests are usually entertaining little events, kind of like a Project: Runway for geeks, and I usually always find myself excited to see the next batch of submissions. Of particular interest to me are the attempts within the competition to make superhero costumes that feel more grounded and realistic. Sometimes this means thinking up new functions for implements that were usually mere flourishes, other times it means just remembering to place a button here or a seam there to remind us that these are outfits and not just a can of blue and red body paint slapped on a naked body builder. Here are a few of my favorite redesigns from the site that work toward giving superheroes a more life-like wardrobe.

Spider-Man by Rosy Higgins. This design took third place in PR’s Webhead 2.0 competition. Right off the bat it doesn’t look to “super” for a superhero, and might be more feasible in those 10 minutes during the character’s origin story when he’s just throwing a bunch of street clothes together to hide his secret identity during a wrestling match. However, the more I looked at this design, the more I admired it. In my opinion, it seems to bring all the best aspects of the character to the surface.

I’ve always felt best when two things were made clear about Spider-Man. Firstly, he’s a teenager. Not a sidekick, but not a fully matured superhero either, just some punk kid from Queens living at his Aunt’s house and going to class. Secondly, Spider-Man’s costume is cheap. It’s not the Bat-suit, it’s not unstable molecules, it’s not a Kryptonian battle snuggie. He made it himself and it should look more nuts-and-bolts than pristine or high-tech. It’s when these two aspects of the character are brought into the forefront that Spidey is the most fun for me and this costume nails it. I even considered for a few weeks last year using the design for a Halloween costume since it would be so easy and yet so unarguably Spider-Man, which speaks to how well Higgins’ design works in real life.

Captain America by Shane McDermott. This design received a score of 54.5 from the judges out of a possible 80 points. This is another design that, at first glance doesn’t necessarily leap off the page, but as you let it soak in, it starts to make sense. In this case, the costume that McDermott has designed seems to construct a narrative around it of a sort of “quick change” Captain America who can adopt his superhero identity at a moments notice by adding a few implements over what he’s already wearing. The chest armor and shoulder pads appear to be collapsible and easy to fit into a case along with the gauntlets and helmet. The shield has also been re-conceived into a discus that attaches to the gauntlets and projects a larger circumference as a sort of hard light/laser field.

The result is a Captain America that is somewhere between a G.I. Joe and Batman. It would be easy to imagine this version of Steve Rogers remaining in active duty and being deployed to different military bases and encampments abroad with his superhero armor in tow in case things get especially hairy. Otherwise he might sport a more casual look with just the sweater and pants. This might not be the only appearance Captain America takes, but it’s still a new function of the armor and a new perspective on the character, and that is a credit to McDermott’s design skills.

Superman by Jon Morris. This design was a finalist in PR’s “Superman: Man of Style” contest. While we’ve seen two entries so far that seem to point to a pattern of regular clothes being adorned with a few “super” implements translating best into realistic costumes, this isn’t quit the rule. For one thing, both of the last two examples were re-designs of Marvel characters. The same rules for what would make a character more “realistic” doesn’t always apply in the DC Universe, where characters aren’t just regular folks that became super as a product or by-product of military experimentation, they are super because they are gods amongst men. Morris taps into that theory for his redesign of Superman, and in my eyes, he hits a grand slam.

The Man of Steel, as writer Grant Morrison has stressed on numerous occasions, is a Sun God, as is Jesus, Baldur, and many other mythological and religious figures. While he is also a sort of policeman and a sort of circus strongman, which are elements that seem to inform his traditional costume choice and emblem, he is still a graphic representation of the Sun as God. Morris celebrates this by giving covering Superman in gold, the color of the Sun (and, as explained in Alan Moore’s “Promethea,” the color of the sphere in which Sun God archetypes reside on Cabala’s Tree of Life), and turning the cape into a regal red flame that flows down his body. The leather straps that attach the cape and gauntlets are adorned with not only the typical Superman “S” shield while his belt is decorated by a symbol of the Sun, acting as a secondary logo for the character. In this context, even the blue becomes a solar color, as it recalls the final years in a star’s lifespan. Overall the design is both classical and space-aged, which feels like a more realistic interpretation of the Man of Steel.

Our final example of realistic superhero redesigns is Carly Monardo’s Wonder Woman. This design won second place in PR’s “Wardrobe War” competition, and is another example of classical cues making for a more realistic result in the context of the DCU. Wonder Woman is typically a pretty hard character to redesign for. Her traditional costume slowly evolved in subtle ways, such as the boots becoming more typically superhero-y, the logo on her breast plate becoming more stylized and her star-spangled skirt shrinking into, basically, underwear. Her alternative costumes over the years have also been pretty sub-par, with 2010’s redesign giving her a leather jacket and skin-tight black pants, and the recent “New 52” relaunch giving her back her old costume with the blue and gold replaced with black and silver (I’ve only just recently come around to this new design, thanks to Cliff Chiang, since I thought she mostly just looked like a lame, bad guy version of her old self).

Monardo, however, takes Wondy back to her roots. The costume we see here is a very literal, classical interpretation of Wonder Woman. Her breastplate really is a breastplate, and the eagle on it is just that – and eagle. Her boots are of the original, laced up variety and her skirt looks like part of a toga that is being worn under the armor. The design theme of America’s flag is still present, but it is pushed back and made subtle by leaving the stars as a border at the bottom of the dress and making the red and whites a little more worn and washed out. Her face and hair also bring to mind a less glamorous, more modest version of Wonder Woman. Overall she comes across looking like a classical painting or statue, something very close to her character origin (pre-”New 52”). I’ve always imagined Wonder Woman as the Lady Liberty that has lead men through battle in the fight for democracy, and Monardo’s design is the closest I’ve seen this character get to that spirit while maintaining a level of realism.

As “Project: Rooftop’s” costume re-design contests illustrate, characters can feel more realistic or more believable when what they wear reflects the core ideas they represent. Spider-Man is a DIY, punk rock superhero and looks the most convincing in a hoodie and a pair of Chucks. Superman is a mythological archetype and starts to really shine design-wise when put in a Herculean getup that pays homage to Earth’s yellow sun. While none of these designs were awarded first place in their respective competitions, they still get this valuable point across by taking a real-life perspective on superhero fashion, and they should be praised for their efforts.

To be sure, realistic and believable designs are only one of the many ways to interpret and re-interpret comic book superheroes. I encourage everybody reading this to head over to “Project: Rooftop” and spend some time scrolling through their posts to see all the amazing designs on display. The site contains a humongous collection of solid superhero artwork, which my column only manages to scratch the surface of.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. Ben Roth says:

    As you predicted, I spent a long time on P:R after reading this article, and I really enjoyed exploring the redesigns they’ve featured — so thanks for the plug. However, I don’t think the reason that we find alternate costumes compelling comes from taking “a real-life perspective.” Every character design is a real-life perspective, including that of the original comic’s artist. All we have is “real-life” perspectives — heck, that’s the essence of perspective.

    Perhaps there is an enhanced realism to putting Spider-Man in a stylish hoodie, but this way of expressing him has less to do with how believable he is than with how we as readers generally perceive and identify with his character. Rosy Higgin’s Spidey isn’t just more realistic, he’s brought in line with a fashion style that emphasizes youth, modernity, and a kind of slickness. Redesigns like Higgins’ extrapolate from one or a couple characteristics and emphasize them through the medium of physical form. But the design choices Higgins made are an artifact of current fashion, and of her particular impression of what, at Spidey’s core, ought to show through in his outfit. Putting emphasis on those same youthful traits in the same character even ten years ago would have a fundamentally different result–I don’t think a 2002 version of Higgins’ Spidey would wear that hoodie or high-top boots or skinny jeans, nor would his body be so thin and contoured, since those are all very current fashion trends.

    The superhero has always been variations on a theme; and they have always, as it were, worn their hearts on their sleeves. You’re right: costumes in comics have a dual purpose, to serve as an icon recognizable to onlookers (including the reader,) but also to express the character that wears them. The designers that develop these characters possess and repossess visual cues and symbols to shape how we understand that core. It doesn’t matter if an artist draws Superman to emphasize his sun-god characteristics, or his alien side (like Aaron Diaz did in his JLA redesign last september,) or his idealism (like Rags Morales did in Action Comics #1,) Whether or not each of those perspectives resonates with you personally, all those Supermen are reconizably derived from a sense of what constitutes Superman.

    Last month I attended a synchronized swimming meet, and an athlete who performed one of the solo routines wore a bathing suit modeled after Wonder Woman’s costume (synchro, like ice dancing, often features flashy outfits.) I learned from one of the other swimmers that she had intended to invoke Wonder Woman’s flair and glamor by wearing the suit, and the routine definitely attempted to embody those qualities. But I also learned that she was an immigrant to the US, which I realized meant that the way she and I read Wonder Woman was potentially very different. Where I as a native American see dignity and gravitas in Wonder Woman’s american flag imagery, perhaps the athlete finds more meaning in Wonder Woman’s posture and form. We both have “real-life” perspectives on what makes the character, but realism has little to do with it.

    • Mike Greear says:

      Thanks for the comment. I totally agree. When I talk about things from a “real-life perspective,” I intend to mean things that come from a point of view where the elements of the costume and the design serve a function. I like to think a bit about how the costume would be of use to the people wearing it, rather than just looking like a typical hokey, silly superhero outfit. An example of this would be the costumes of the Avengers versus the costumes worn by the Ultimates (especially the early, Millar-written Ultimates). It could also be things that recall some sort of historical aesthetic, and would then make more sense for a warrior to wear it into battle in the real world than, let’s say, a bathing suit. Either way, it’s a totally aesthetic perspective, and, as I said in the piece, it is one of many lenses with which to view and appreciate comic book costume design.

  2. May I try to make the Spidey re-design as an actual suit?

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