Thursday, April 20, 2006

Look, Ma, No Mouth!

alex maleev design
A few weeks ago, Heikki Myllari sent me a very nice e-mail posing a very interesting question: "Since her (underrated) series ended just last month, I was wondering what you thought about the old-new Batgirl, and her S&M themed costume with the stitched-shut mask?"

I sent Heikki a reply a while back, but I wanted to address Batgirl's costume in length on my blog. And I'd like to offer Heikki a hearty thank-you for sending me the above image. I had no idea the outfit was designed by Alex Maleev. I was shocked. You could've knocked me over with a feather, I tell ya! Maleev is an artist I like, except for his tendency (if I recall correctly) to use photocopied panels every now and then in talking scenes. Y'know, those bits in the comic where a person is standing there with the exact same position and expression in three or four panels straight, babbling some Claremont-speak or rambling away with some of that "Get to the freaking point or as God is my witness I'm going to stab your boring ass" Bendis-talk.

Heikki said that one retailer has remarked that his customers found Batgirl's costume offputting. It is awfully solemn and mannish. I wonder... if the comic had starred "Alessandro Cain" instead of Cassandra Cain, would the average male customer have liked the costume more? I have no problem with superheroine costumes looking intimidating, but I do think there is a disconnect between the costume and the "girl" part of her codename. I hear "Batgirl" and I'm expecting something that could be reasonably worn by Betty Cooper or Hilary Duff. So in that light, the costume is unnecessarily serious. Not to mention boring. I think restricting the yellow to that ridiculously chunky belt and a mere outline around the bat-symbol was a big mistake.

color costume

The costume really falls apart with the cowl. I have no problem with cowls that cover the entire face -- the Black Panther, the White Tiger, the Atom -- those are great. Batgirl's cowl, however, has some very conspicuous stitching around the mouth. Which is stupid. Because this stitching is nowhere in evidence on the rest of her costume. Most superhero costumes are drawn like they're painted onto the body. Even if they're drawn with wrinkles and folds and such, stitching is almost never indicated. In Batgirl's case, the stitching implied that the section of fabric covering the mouth was going to be dramatically ripped away at some point. Now, I didn't follow the "No Man's Land" books so I have no idea if that actually happened when the Huntress was wearing that costume or not. But my point is, it looks like it was meant to be impermanent, and yet it never went away. Some artists would even exaggerate the stitching's theatricality by making it huge, like Batgirl had sewn her costume using very fine thread for most of it and then switched to half-inch nylon rope for the cowl.

My big question is, why did Cassandra feel she had to hide her mouth behind that thing? What was she concealing? My guesses?

1. Seriously chapped lips
2. Subcutaneous acne
3. Receding gums
4. Light, downy mustache
5. Snaggletoof
6. Harelip
7. Stank breath, y'all
8. Her tongue piercing (trust me, Batman is a hard-core douche when it comes to that kind of thing)
9. Big snapping mandibles because OH MY GOD she has the head of a giant ant!
10. Love-bite from Jason Todd

Or, y'know, somethin' like that.


Anonymous said...

BATMAN: Hard-Core Douche.

heh heh.

I think the cowl-stiching was sort of heavy-handededly symbolic of the fact that she didn't talk much. One wonders. Still it was nice to see a female superhero that didn't have a square-inch of flesh showing. Talk about uncommon! There aren't many other examples I can think of offhand, and they're both obscure.

Anonymous said...

I never cared for Cassandra Cain-Batgirl. The S&M outfit looked really striking when I first saw it, and the theme of "this person has no face" being carried out in the costume seemed cool. I even liked the hollow bat when Huntrss wore it because she was like Batman, but without the heart (Awww!). Finally, I too thought it was a nice change to see a girl design without cleavage. I'm not that subspecies of fanboy/prude, but it lent her an air of authority and its similarity to the boss's suit said that she should be taken every bit as seriously as he himself. In short, I think she's what people are taking about when they say burqas allow women to be taken seriously as individuals even though to me they're totally dehumanizing. The thing that got my goat almost immediately was the overrendered physique. Part of what makes the costume work is that the Bat-silhouette is on a gamine, a waif. It makes it a juxtaposition of weakness and strength. When the artists insist on making her look like a lightweight female bodybuilder with striations on her pecs and ass, I understand what they're going for, but they should have limited that effect to a once-in-a-while thing.

My comments are limited to her costume here. I also think the character is really derivative and boring, but that shouldn't disqualify her per se.

I don't know about the mouth, I think the eyepatches are there so she can roll her eyes sarcastically at Batman when he acts like a dick without him seeing (he can anyway of course, HE'S BATMAN!).

Anonymous said...

When I read through most of her series recently I thought it was interesting how rarely the artists actually had her wear the costume. I guess they thought it kind of sucked, too.

I think the stitching is symbolic not just that Casandra didn't talk much, but that she was made incapable of speach deliberately by her father (as a side effect of making her the greatest martial artist ever (tm). Bondage gear symbolizing the literal male domination inherent in the character.

Anonymous said...

As has already been pointed out, it looks like Maleev designed her costume with a specific agenda in mind. Rather than just a full-face Spider-Man-type mask, there's stitching around her mouth, which is always pretty visible. If the best character concept you can come up with is "victim of child abuse, so doesn't talk much", you might as well run with it. Can't say it was a particularly compelling concept, though.

Steven said...

The symbolism is everything with the visible stitching, but it's thrown out of whack by her pump fack introduction. Since Huntress was playing Batgirl just before Cassandra Cain was officially introduced, it was Helena who was wearing the costume originally.

Which means the mute mouth feature was neither designed by or for Cassandra, for whom it's appropriate. For Huntress, it was really, really creepy.

And I don't think it's a gender issue, either. Murmer has a similar stitched mouth design, with a more obvious symbolism behind it, but there it's intentionally creepy.

(oh look, actually commenting on costume design on BB's website. Still waiting for supervillain casual accessories, though)

Steven said...

"pump fake," that should say, but you already knew that.

Jon said...

The bondage stitching is there to scare criminals, who are, as you are well aware, a cowardly and superstitious lot. It dehumanizes Cassandra and lets criminals know that she isn't going to talk to them, she's just going to beat their asses. (It's certainly scarier than bat ears, if you ask me).

Anonymous said...

Wish I could agree about the costume being designed for Huntress. That whole part where it was introduced as maximum mystery and everyone wanted to know whether the all new Batgirlwoman was really Detective Montoya but all the favorite money was on Helena all the way (and then, as always, Batman gives Helena a spanking and winds up with this extra suit), when all of a sudden who should show up but a new character whose neuroses are a perfect match with her costume's theme? Hmmm...Doesn't it seem like a classic bait-and-switch to you? I think someone saw the sketch, had a geekgasm, invented a character to fit it and then built a lightweight little fifth plotline into NML around it. Cassie was always going to end up in that costume. Nothing against that process, I bet it's been the genesis of scores of great characters.

And there's a lot of commenting on costumes around here. It's not all bitcing about Claremont (get well soon, CC).

Jeremy Rizza said...

Trenchant comments all around! The Batgirl costume is truly a touchstone for deep, philosophical thinking. Also, it's kinda fugly.

Steven, not only did I not know you meant "pump fake", I have no idea what "pump fake" means. Ah, you charming 21st Century folk and your quaint 21st Century slang! I assume it means the same thing as a "fake-out."

Dorian said...

Heikki said that one retailer has remarked that his customers found Batgirl's costume offputting.

Hmmm...I wonder if he meant me. I have mentioned that costume from time to time, and how amongst certain customers it seemed to be a deterrent. We would fairly often get parents of young girls coming in looking for "girl-friendly" super-hero comics, and Batgirl is one of those characters that has seeped into the public conciousness through appearances in television shows and cartoons (we'll ignore the movie, ok). But as soon as they got a look at the costume, back on the shelf the book went. Parents of young girls, as a general rule, were really bothered by the stitching on the mouth.

Steven said...

Uh, yeah. Pump fake is a fake-out.

Here in the 21st century, we have a sport called football, a lot like your Grav-Ball.

Anyway, sometimes you pretend to throw the ball down the field in a pumping action, drawing attention to the wrong receiver (in this case Huntress), when the actual pass goes to a second receiver no one is paying attention to (the newly introduced Cassandra Cain).

As Anonymous points out (seriously, you can sign in without giving any real information away, just click "other" and right in a fake name), clearly the costume was designed by the artist for the nearly mute Cassandra. Great, fine.

But why then was notably chatty Helena Bertanelli wearing it? Was she afraid Batman would recognize her chin? No one ever recognizes his.

Oh, and I should have been clearer. I rarely comment on costume design, despite this being a superhero costume blog. I usually make dumb jokes about Black Adam's dating habits (does he cuddle? Cause he seems like a cuddler) rather than discuss noticable treads on the shoes, excessive gauntlets, or bad haircuts.

Anonymous said...

>>As Anonymous points out (seriously, you can sign in without giving any real information away, just click "other" and right in a fake name)<<

I know, but coming up with clever pseudonyms is such a drag. Here, I'll use a cool name from the phone book.

>>But why then was notably chatty Helena Bertanelli wearing it? Was she afraid Batman would recognize her chin? No one ever recognizes his. <<

Well, it was a while ago, but if I remember, the in-story reason was, when Huntress first appeared in it, it didn't have the covered up mouth and eyes. She added them after someone spraypainted her in the face to escape (maybe I don't remember it right, that looks really stupid in print). At first it was your standard shiny PVC fetish suit. Then she added the flaps and then Batman came back to the city.

So why do I still think it was made for Cassandra if it debuted without the mouthflap? It just looks more like a Maleev with the stitching. Without it, it's just a perfectly ordinary riff on the Batsuit. With it, it looks like the product of that Heroin Goth machine he and Bradstreet perfected on those Vampire games back in the day.

Anonymous said...

If you want to get technical, Constantine, the outfit originally debuted with mouth flap. It was only in a flashback that the stitches recieved their own origin. Since it's the only particularly memorable part of the outfit, it seems pretty clear that was intended for Cassandra all along. Helena wasn't going to keep it -- she never even stopped being Huntress. Having three identities only works for Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this is a newer comment on an older blog. Sue me.

Huntress got spray paint to the face while posing as Batman during the events of No Man Land; she stitched over the face, originally.

Was that already said? I don't read more than the first few comments.