Why Do Superheroes Wear Their Underwear Over Their Pants?

Batman Logo

Batman Logo, Copyright DC Comics, All Rights Reserved.

Batman may be the most popular of the DC Comics characters but I wonder how commonly known it is that Batman is really a knockoff of Zorro and The Shadow? Ever see the Disney version of Zorro? It’s straight from the original pulp novels of the early 1900’s. Zorro is a rich playboy who returns home from a long trip abroad just like Batman. Upon his return he becomes a caped crusader who roams the streets and rooftops of California at night. His base of operation is from a cave beneath his expansive mansion that is accessed through a grandfather clock in the house, just like Batman (For real, that’s how he enters the Batcave.) The only one in on his secret is his butler (just like Batman.) And that’s just a short list of the similarities but the cave is an awfully big one.

The Shadow, Copyright Condé Nast Publications, All Rights Reserved.

The Shadow, Copyright Condé Nast Publications, All Rights Reserved.

Zorro Logo, Copyright Zorro Productions, Inc., All Rights Reserved.

The Shadow was a very popular radio character in the 1930’s most notably voiced by Orson Welles. Once again it tells the story of a rich playboy who roams the world on a 10 year journey in Asia where he trained with monks and yogis (just like Batman…) and he returns home to the city to fight crime as a caped crusader. The Shadow’s Rogue’s Gallery is a lot like Batman’s but the one property that’s most common with Batman in this regard is Dick Tracy. The Shadow has a secret society of friends who aid him in his quest to fight crime (much like Batman has several friends he turns to as Batman to help him out.) There’s other similarities as well but there’s just a few. I actually enjoy The Shadow very much. There was a pretty good Shadow movie in 1994 starring Alec Baldwin. It’s not great but it’s not bad and what a great comeuppance for a villain!

By the way, one of the best comic book movies ever is “The Rocketeer”. For a film that bombed it’s a fairly solid motion picture. Of course it has a lot of inspiration from the old Republic Serials and things but it’s not a bad movie at all. Usually films that bomb like that one did are really bad but it’s a pleasant gem. The first “Hellboy” was pretty enjoyable too and, of course, the first few “Spiderman’s” were great. I never cared for the “Batman” or “Superman” films. I never saw any of those until my 20’s and my opinions of them have caused seem deeply seeded anger from some of the people I’ve shared them with.

First I think they have the wrong Lois Lane. She looks like a trailer trash meth addict. They needed someone like Marion from “Indiana Jones” because Lois was always a spunky woman and Marion was spunky. This is where the film falls flat to me. The new film coming out next year has Amy Adams as Lois and I think that might work. She usually shines in everything she does. But anyway, what it comes down to after that is Christopher Reeve is a lousy Superman. (No one beats George Reeves. Sorry. That‘s who that character was from his inception. Not some girly man.) So what that he later got paralyzed. He looks like a scrawny mannequin through most of them and everyone knows that Superman is a more beefy built guy. (Look at the comic books) They actually turned Superman scrawny in the comic so he’d look more like Christopher Reeves.

Vintage Circus Strongman Poster

Superman Ad, Copyright DC Comics, All Rights Reserved.

Interesting fact, do you know why superheroes wear their underwear outside of their pants? It’s not because they’re making some crazy fashion statement. It’s because they were based on Circus Strongmen. Superman was the first and a lot of those who came later were knockoffs on Superman. It is interesting to me that DC Comics seized several of these superheroes away through legal action like Captain Marvel by claiming they owned all superheroes because they coined the term while at the same time Batman was busy knocking off Zorro and The Shadow. Even Superman is very Flash Gordon like of a character with undertones of Doc Savage. Both Superman and Doc Savage had a North Pole arctic retreat packed with artifacts and mementos of their illustrious adventures called “The Fortress of Solitude”. I wonder how that slipped by with no legal challenges…

Popeye the Sailor, Copyright King Features Syndicate, All Rights Reserved.

Popeye the Sailor, Copyright King Features Syndicate, All Rights Reserved.

I find it fascinating where characters come from and to unearth forgotten characters from previous generations. Popeye is another fun character from the past. Think about how jacked-up of a concept he is too. He’s an old, toothless, one-eyed guy who smokes a pipe and beats the crap out of people. His girlfriend is about the homeliest woman in comics and his best friend has a fetish for hamburgers and would sell him out for one. If you have never read the original Segar comic strips I highly recommend the recent 6 volume set of collecteds. There’s some really crazy stuff in them. One of my favorites is a 2 part Sunday Strip where the Jewish peddler Geisel is tired of Wimpy stealing hamburgers and hides rat poison in a burger and KILLS WIMPY!! And this was the SUNDAY comic geared to kids!! Imagine if someone did that today. The Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons are great too. One of my favorites is called “Fightin’ Pals” where Bluto gets lost in the jungle and Popeye misses getting the crap beat out of him so he goes to find him. The cartoon ends with Bluto reviving a sickly Popeye with a can of spinach and the two joyfully pound the crap out of each other. What a crazy idea for a cartoon! And yet no kids imitated this stuff. It’s sad that people now censor this old historical stuff like that.

Pulp adventure stories are a whole forgotten genre just waiting to be rediscovered. Dr. Syn/The Scarecrow, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, John Carter, Doc Savage, and the Shadow are all popular characters who have originated from this genre. There were juvenile series that are in the same mode too like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. A lot of this stuff you can’t even find reprinted anymore but a lot of our current popular characters are based on these earlier efforts. Indiana Jones and Star Wars famously come from the Saturday Morning Serials made by Republic Pictures. Indy is very much a pulp character like Doc Savage and Star Wars falls into that same category as Flash Gordon. If George Lucas ever makes that third trilogy of Star Wars movies he should make it artistically look like the retro 1930’s-50’s look of the Flash Gordon fare. That way he can explain how the past depicted in the new trilogy is very modern while the original trilogy is like the 1970’s. The answer; fashion is evolving backwards in that galaxy far, far away, but I digress.

King Solomon famously said there’s nothing new under the sun and this is especially true when one analyzes the history of various popular characters like this. Everything is a riff off from something else whether it’s a particular genre, a remake of an original property, or an outright imitation. There really are no new ideas. There’s only novel wars to retell a preexisting idea. Look at all of the different versions of comic book characters that are out there. I’m not an avid comic book reader but I’m aware of some of the variations not to mention competing heroes with similar abilities and everyone has a favorite. When you can bend and twist officially recognized versions of a character and it still can be that same character it’s only a few nudges to make a new character. I often ask myself when I’m seeing the similarities between Zorro and Batman or Superman and Flash Gordon at what point does it go from an imitation to a new conception. Whenever a new animated film comes out Good Times Home Video always has a knock off title to coincide with the release of the big budget film. Although I don’t know if Good Times was behind it my favorite title for a knock off I’ve ever seen is “Ratatoing” Oh, my! Even the beloved Universal Monster The Creature from the Black Lagoon is just a re-imagining of King Kong story and all.

 

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. J
    Dec 27, 2012 @ 20:27:21

    Ed, your insight into the inspiration behind earlier superheroes was quite profound! Zorro and Batman are both certainly little more than a “shadow” of an earlier superhero who actually got his start as a popular radio drama in 1930 with the famous quest of “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” However, I think that your opinion of Superman is lacking due to your age and gender. I don’t disagree that George Reeves was the best superman; however, your harsh opinion of Christopher Reeves felt almost personal. Chris Reeves did an exceptional job as Superman- so much so that no others have been able to touch his movies. The only bomb of the lot was Superman 3. It didn’t fit with the others at all! However, I will agree with you completely about Lois Lane. I definitely think she was a heroine of her time (not in a good way)- a chain-smoking, self-centered woman, and I wondered what Superman saw to appreciate in her. 🙂 Enjoyed your blog! How do I subscribe?
    J

    Reply

    • edmccray
      Aug 10, 2013 @ 10:39:25

      Glad you enjoyed my post but I would disagree that my profound dislike of the Christopher Reeves Superman films is not personal. Most people my age grew up with the Reeve Superman (I’m 32, I was 31 when I wrote my article) I would argue that those who grew up with the film are the ones with tainted memories of it. As bad as Superman 3 was, Superman 4 was even worse. I still say Karen Allen would have made a better Lois Lane. I haven’t seen the new Superman film yet but I bet Amy Adams would make a better Lois Lane than the one’s we’ve seen in the Reeve’s films and the last one.

      Reply

      • edmccray
        Aug 10, 2013 @ 10:40:41

        You can subscribe by clicking the icon on this page. I’ve been very busy with my projects over the past several months but I intend to begin posting again soon.

        Reply

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