We got the word in the middle of January:
“Hey, guys, DC here. Just so y’know…Superman’s trunks are coming back.”
And comics fans rejoiced. (Mostly.)
You might think those of us who care about this change are making a big deal out of underwear, and yes, we are, thank you very much. Because Superman’s trunks are more than just a design choice. The trunks are a symbol, just like the “S” on Superman’s chest. The “S” might stand for hope, but the trunks? The trunks stand for wonder.
Where Superman’s Trunks Came From
The trunks look a little silly. I’ll concede that point. But they’re supposed to. Before 30-somethings like myself co-opted superheroes, they were designed for children. To give kids exciting stories to read and heroes to look up to. Superman’s a “strange visitor from another planet,” and maybe you think that’s why he doesn’t know to wear his underwear on the inside. But the design aesthetic goes a little deeper than that.
The first superhero designs were inspired by the costumes of circus performers and wrestlers. People who perform. People with amazing abilities. People whose acts are designed to fill you with wonder. That’s where the trunks came from, and that’s where Superman came from.
During the eras in which Superman was nearly unbeatable and exhibiting a new superpower every week (and in which his trunks were also necessary to *ahem* provide definition), the trunks did not stand out. But as we moved further into the Marvel era, and then into the ’90s, and then into a DC that was embracing Identity Crisis as one of its top stories, jaded comics fans, who wanted to see their heroes operate in the “real world,” began questioning the trunks. As did the general public.
“No one would wear something like that. The underwear makes Superman look silly,” said these people, missing the entire point. Of course the man looks silly. He’s a hero for children. He’s designed to stand out. He should look a little silly, a little strange. He’s Superman.
But DC embraced these fans’ trunks-less train of thought, culminating in the trunks’s disappearance during the New 52.
Enter New 52, Exit Trunks
Even if DC hadn’t gone out of their way to show us Superman would be trunks-less in the New 52; I think we would’ve figured it out pretty quickly.
Above are the first two panels of the first comic published during the New 52 (Justice League, natch). You can see that the New 52 DC Universe is not a place with beloved heroes. It’s a place where the public doesn’t know what superheroes are. Where the police are chasing Batman over rooftops and apparently exploding buildings just to get to him. Where it’s not good enough for Superman, a completely invulnerable alien, to wear a circus strongman’s costume. Instead, that guy’s got to wear some armor. Because that’s “believable,” and how things would work in the “real world.” In the world of the New 52, there are no trunks, or wonder, to be found.
Granted, this story is set “five years in the past,” and is supposed to show the transition from a world without superheroes to a world with them. But the New 52 never got there. Throughout most of its run, the New 52 played with stories in which the world mistrusted or hated Superman. Where there was no room to trust the man with the “S” on his chest, because he might turn against you at any time. Right near the end of its run, the New 52 started to get Superman consistently right, once again showing him as a champion of the common people, someone they could unabashedly look up to.
Someone who could once again inspire wonder.
Thankfully, DC’s maintained this trajectory through the end of the New 52 and the start of DC Rebirth. The Rebirth DC Universe is a place where heroes are allowed to be heroes, and, therefore, Superman’s allowed to wear his trunks.
“Trunks: Rebirth” has been coming gradually.
Superman’s costume has gently slid from a suit very much in line with Man of Steel, to a suit that found decent common ground between the old and the new, to the version you see below (coming in April, in Action Comics 1000):
I’m honestly of mixed opinion on whether the last DC Rebirth suit had to go. But to see DC return Superman to his design roots, just in time for his biggest anniversary celebration, does inspire a sense of wonder. There’s the man with the “S” on his chest, a smile on his face, and his underwear on the outside, looking exactly like he should.
I’d hate it if Superman never changed. That would mean the character had grown stale and boring. But again, DC bringing the trunks back is more than a design choice. It’s a sign that this new, old direction Superman’s been on, on becoming a character of wonder once again, is locked in for the foreseeable future. And that the powers-that-be don’t care whether I believe a man would wear his underwear on the outside, as long as I believe that he can fly.