Superman is one of the most enduring comic book characters of all time. For more than 75 years, The Man of Steel has been one of DC Comics’ greatest heroes. From starring in countless comic issues to being the star of numerous movies and TV series, Clark Kent has been battling evil and inspiring audiences for generations. While he may be the hero that inspired literally thousands more to come to life in his wake, Superman has possibly changed the least out of any enduring superhero.
From his powers to his attitude to the John Williams theme song that scored his adventures for decades, Superman has been a stalwart character that rarely alters at his core. Most vividly, it is Superman’s costume that has stayed largely the same for decade after decade. Everyone knows what Superman looks like. Red cape, blue spandex, red briefs, and giant red and yellow “S” emblem displayed proudly on his chest. For the most part, it is a look that has only undergone the most minor of alterations for generations.
However, even Superman has a change in fashion every now and then. While it may be Superman’s most recent appearance changes that have caught the public eye, the Kryptonian hero has actually altered his looks many times. While he may not constantly be changing like fellow DC hero Batman, who seems to undergo an alteration every year, Superman does have many outfits in his adventuring wardrobe.
The following costumes are the major changes in appearances for Superman over the years. Specifically, these are supersuits worn by the Man of Steel in comic books that are part of canonical storytelling. That means no Elseworlds stories, alternate timelines, or one of the many different worlds that make up the Multiverse. This is the one and only Big Blue Boyscout himself.
The Golden Age
When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1938, the hero who would inspire decades of comic book characters was created with a very large portion of his look, personality, and powers already intact. In particular, Superman’s look was created to resemble the characters who were already popular in pulp magazines and comic strips like Flash Gordon. Siegel and Shuster also took inspiration from circus strongmen, who used tight-fitting spandex outfits to accentuate their muscular physique. In particular, this is where the hero’s shorts found their genesis, which is a look that would come to define the appearance of countless superheroes and would help break up the general colors worn on the printed page. And while the red, blue, and yellow that make up the character’s iconic look are all here, there is still something very rough about his appearance. In particular, Superman’s S Shield is more like a policeman’s badge, although this would soon begin to change.
The Man of Tomorrow
Like many characters created at the time, it took several years for Superman’s permanent look to be nailed down. In particular, The Man of Steel would go through many different minor tweaks in 1938 and 1939 as his appearance was changed from issue to issue. The police badge shield was quickly removed in favor of a triangle symbol with a red S that jumped out more thanks to color contrast, although it seems almost squished into the shield. In addition, Clark Kent’s heroic persona was given long red boots that added more dynamic color, and a yellow belt that added to the texture of the costume. At the same time, the Fleischer Studios cartoon serials playing in theaters showed Superman with an S symbol containing a black background and also first gave the character the ability to fly. Combined with the live action serials happening at the same time, the character of Superman soon became ubiquitous, necessitating a permanent consistent look.
The Classic Look
This is the look that everyone knows and loves. While it took about a year for The Man of Steel’s look to be completely nailed down, the classic Superman costume has been largely unaltered since its finalization in 1941. Importantly, it was the Fleischer serials that created the S Shield in the shape of a diamond, which has been the character’s defining logo ever since. Adopted into the comics, the black background was replaced with yellow. As time went on, the exact shape of the italicized S was altered, finally settling on a look that is almost identical to the shield today by 1994. While the character has been brought to life by countless artists with various styles, the simple and sleek look of the supersuit has stayed intact through the years. At times, the suit has been given slightly different shades of its iconic colors and even had a black background added to the symbol, but it is remarkable how little the costume has changed. For the most part, every other costume listed here has only been a brief detour meant to shake up the Superman comics for the sake of reader interest. But there is a reason why this classic didn’t change for 70 years. It’s perfect.
Back in Black
In an effort to shake up The Man of Steel’s comic book run, DC Comics decided to kill off Superman in 1992’s “The Death of Superman” storyline. While Supes died heroically in battle with the monstrous Doomsday, it wasn’t long at all before the hero was alive once again. Turns out, all he needed was some time in a regeneration matrix (comic book hooey) in order to return to life. But when he did, he did so decked out in a black and silver bodysuit sans cape and rocking a very timely mullet. The darker look implied an edgier Man of Steel, as did his brief use of massive guns while he was somewhat depowered. The black costume was abandoned once he had returned, bright outlook returned, the guns were dropped, but the mullet stayed for some time, with Supes fighting crime in his classic costume once again, just with a new terrible haircut that could never be timeless like the classic hairdo. Still, it was a change of pace for a while, even if the storyline shattered most readers faith in the idea of comic book death.
Like Superman, Doomsday didn’t stay dead for long. So when it was time for these two foes to do battle once again in the 1994 Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey miniseries, Superman decided he needed more than his already awesome strength to defeat the villain. Apparently, the ‘90s was what Superman truly needed in order to defeat his enemy. While Superman has had his look updated to minor degrees in order to suit the times, this was by far his most time-sensitive look ever made. Check out the countless straps, pouches, shoulder pads, and general over all excessive nature of the entire costume. There isn’t a single thing about the outfit that doesn’t scream ‘90s and hasn’t aged poorly. While the story is that this outfit upgrades The Man of Steel through the use of New Genesis technology, which included a laser sword attached to a thigh strap, this was really just a way to make the hero fit in with the times more to the degree that Superman would be right at home on an X-Force team. It didn’t work.
Electric Red and Blue
If there was ever a development in Superman’s publication history that screamed “What were they thinking?” it was certainly this one. Beginning in 1998, Superman derived energy-based abilities once he could no longer use his solar-based powers. This led to his use of a blue and white containment suit and new abilities in an effort to shake up a character that was becoming stagnant after so many decades in comics. As if this wasn’t enough, a trap created by the Cyborg Superman led to electric blue Superman being split into two beings – Superman Blue, who was a more cerebral version of the hero, and Superman Red, who was more impulsive and physical. Eventually, the two halves converged once more to form the original Superman in a highly convoluted way of erasing a plot development that quickly ran out of steam. The electric look may be a fun changeup to the hero, but a Superman who is not really Superman can only last in comics for so long.
New Krypton Soldier
Among the more recent Superman storylines came the New Krypton saga that ran from 2008-2009, which saw the 100,000 miniaturized Kryptonians living in the bottle city of Kandor returning to normal size and gaining Superman-like powers on Earth. Eventually, this leads to the creation of a brand new Planet Krypton in our solar system populated by Kryptonians, with Superman himself eventually becoming a resident and ditching his superhero garb for a more militaristic and low key outfit. It’s an interesting departure which reflects a darker nature and a more subdued hero, with grey and blacks being the predominate focus as the S Shield turns more into a small badge. It’s not exactly a thrilling costume update, but the point is more to show the changes happening rather than permanently replace the Superman costume. Of course, it as temporary and changed back within the New Krypton saga itself. Oh, and they also blew up that planet to get things back to normal eventually. But they also restarted the entire comic universe, so that works, too. Comics! What a wacky artform.
The New 52
When DC Comics decided to reboot their universe once again with The New 52, one of the biggest changes was that every character was given a brand new look, most of which were done by artist Jim Lee. While some were given only moderate updates, others were given massive overhauls. Most apparent was the brand new look for Superman, who had never been given such a massive overhaul despite the many universe reboots the character had experienced. Here, Superman’s costume is a Kryptonian armor that expands and responds to the physiological nature of Superman. Rather than be designed by Clark or Martha Kent, the new Superman costume is straight from his alien homeworld and provides another layer of protection for The Man of Steel. While the colors are still there, new texture is used to separate this from the typical spandex. In addition, the cuffs are given a pointed and red-tipped look, there is a new higher collar, the belt is changed to red, and it is an overall more detailed costume. For a character who has only changed costumes for the briefest of moments, this new overhaul to go along with the changed universe was incredibly controversial among longtime fans. Given its similarity to Superman’s big screen appearance, it may take years for the classic look to return in continuity.
New 52 Early Days
When Superman was rebooted through The New 52, the hero was given two ongoing comics – Superman and Action Comics, with the two publications tracking the hero’s modern adventures and early days, respectively. The Superman we see in Action Comics has just moved to Metropolis and begun fighting crime. Here, Kal-El is equipped with the indestructible cape he was wrapped in as a baby hurtling through the universe in a rocket. But rather than a spandex outfit or the Kryptonian armor he would come to wear, the young Superman wears jeans, work boots, and T-shirts emblazoned with his symbol, none of which are invulnerable like his typical costume. As such, they are frequently ripped up and destroyed and while he may usually wear the light blue shirt that echoes his classic costume, Clark also sometimes wears red and white variants. It’s a fun and out of the ordinary look that echoes the look of Superboy from the 2000s and feels more like what someone would wear when they are young and just starting out as a hero. While the look didn’t last long, it most definitely announced the new beginning for the hero and what The New 52 was looking to do. The cape would last beyond the jeans and shirt look, as this is what is attached to the modern Kryptonian armor.
The most recent shakeup to the Superman mythos has seen the hero become severely depowered. Due to various complicated reasons, The Man of Steel is slowly losing his powers. While he retains some strength and invulnerability, The Man of Tomorrow can be hurt far more easily, cannot fly, and is without many of his signature powers. In addition, his physiology moving away from Kryptonian, which caused The Fortress of Solitude to remove his New 52 Kryptonian armor. And the biggest change? Superman’s secret identity as Clark Kent has been revealed to the public, with Lois Lane being the one who did it. With so much being shaken up, Superman took to wearing a similar outfit to the one he wore as a burgeoning hero in The New 52. However, the hero is now sans caps and uses an S Shield with a black background and yellow rim, which evokes most clearly the symbol used in Fleischer Studios Superman cartoon serials in the 1940s. But Superman is still dedicated to fighting evil and defending the innocent. He’s just having a harder time doing it. Who knows, maybe this shakeup will end with the hero returning to his classic costume when his powers return.