How Comic Book Costumes Make the Transition from Page to Screen

Kim Taylor-Foster
Movies Comics
Movies Comics DC

Have you ever wondered what goes into creating a superhero costume on screen? It’s a lot more involved than you might think. It’s not just a case of copying the comic book illustrations. In fact, the two are often poles apart. And while a costume designer working on a superhero movie will look at the evolution of the costume on the page, it’s a very small part of bringing the costume to the screen.

For the comic book artists, it’s unlikely they’re thinking much further ahead than the blank page they have to fill. Artist Alan Davis has been prominent in the field for more than 30 years. He’s worked for both DC and Marvel, and for him, it’s about keeping things simple.

Making Life Easy for 22 Pages

Batman's ears look just about the right size, but as for Catwoman's nose...

“Where we differ from film is that with a real-life costume, you can make it as detailed as you want and film it from every angle. I’ve got to draw it and I don’t want to draw every detail so simplicity is usually one of the things I consider,” says Davis.

The artist, who has worked on 2000AD; X-Men, Avengers and Fantastic Four titles for Marvel; and DC’s flagship Detective Comics among others, adds “I don’t think [a director or costume designer is] going to care what I’ve done. They’re going to want to do something that’s going to make a good toy. I’m worried about my considerations, which are that I’ve got to draw it for 22 pages so it needs to be something I can draw quickly and economically. They’re looking at something that’s going to be flashy so it’s completely different.”

But does Davis find he has to stick to a set of limitations? Either because of the iconic nature of a character on the comic book page or because a certain style of artwork is considered ‘sacred’?

“Oh without a doubt,” he says with no hesitation. “Yeah, the first criticism I got was: ‘Make Batman’s ears smaller’. That I’d made them too big. It was: ‘Make Batman’s ears smaller and make women’s noses smaller’. Those were the two criticisms I got on my first job. I was drawing women with real-sized noses. It didn’t go down well at all.”

Wonder Woman Challenges

Lynda Carter's iconic Wonder Woman costume with Michael Wilkinson's modern version from Batman v Superman in the background at London's DC Exhibition: Dawn of Super Heroes.

For costume designer Lindy Hemming, who worked on the Dark Knight trilogy with Christopher Nolan and Wonder Woman with Patty Jenkins, the route to finished design and beyond is far more involved and labour intensive. And that’s despite the fact that on Wonder Woman, she had a previous screen design to work from.

Lindy explains, “The great thing about designing the Wonder Woman costumes was, and you can’t imagine how liberating it is, that they had already had Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman. So I had a kind of backstory to fall back on. I wasn’t falling back on Lynda Carter twirling, I was falling back on [costume designer] Michael Wilkinson and Batman v Superman. So my challenges to bring it from the script to the screen were to try to create a world for the Amazon women which somehow keyed into the end result. Which is that Wonder Woman takes this costume and leaves the island of Themyscira and goes off into the world.”

Integrating Wonder Woman Into the Real World

Wonder Woman
One of Wonder Woman's most memorable scenes.

Hemming continues: “So all of the costumes for the island of Themyscira needed to somehow, design-wise, make sense with this costume. Instead of it being a standalone thing that comes from nowhere and is only originating from [Lynda Carter’s 1970s] cloth costume, it came from some logical armour.

“My other challenges in this film were to bring the worlds which she then goes to save, or help with — which was the First World War — to make it feel as absolutely real and horrible and muddy and dirty … so that when you see her in her superhero costume you accept it as more real and more believable because the world she’s entering is a real and believable world. That’s the sort of juxtaposition which you can say you want to do, and you can only know if it works when you watch it happening in the film.”

It’s probably safe to say it works – and the swathes of people who went to see the film will most likely agree.

Ancient History + Comic Book Art = Screen Design

Wonder Woman concept
Wonder Woman concept art.

Although Lindy admits to taking inspiration from the pages of the comic books, she points out that what Alan Davis and other artists like him do is a “different discipline.” When she’s designing for a film, Lindy’s process is all-encompassing.

“You must look at everything,” says the Oscar winner, who’s worked on everything from Harry Potter to James Bond. “I looked at ancient Greece, I looked at ancient Thrace, all these places and then I also looked at the way… the people drawing the comic book art had obviously looked at the same things, and [I looked at] how they’d interpreted them. So, you’re every day allowing yourself a bit of leeway when you design things because you look to see what the [comic book artists] did and how [what you do] will be acceptable to the fans. You think: ‘Would they believe this, would I believe it if I saw it? So you do look back at the comics.

“Every day we work with concept artists and illustrators. So every day we’re handing over our stuff to them. But that’s a different process really. I don’t actually think [comic book artists would] be that interested to talk [to us]. It’s a different discipline, what they do.”

How An Unlikely Rockstar Influenced Heath Ledger’s Joker

the dark knight batman joker heath ledger
Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight.

One of Lindy’s favourite costumes she’s worked on is Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. For Lindy, the challenge was conveying why he would have green hair, why his face looks the way it does and why he would wear the clothes he does. She took inspiration from real life ‘dandies’, as she calls them. She cites Keith Richards, Sid Vicious and Malcolm McLaren, as well as one other surprising one-time darling on the UK indie scene, ex of Kate Moss and former Libertines singer Pete Doherty.

They all use or used the look of madness as a method of getting their own way – that’s the conclusion she came to, and that provided the justification she needed. She borrowed ideas from fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen and eventually landed on Ledger’s iconic look. With some input from Christopher Nolan, who was the brains behind the green waistcoat.

Batman’s costume was another, more complicated, matter. With Nolan intent on conveying gravity, and bringing a patina of reality to the character and his story, Hemming had her work cut out.

For Lindy, it was a case of trying to understand who the person that chooses to dress as ‘the Batman’ really was. And that was her springboard. This meant that the costume had to be logical, practical and modern. She took inspiration from the multilayered materials used in the manufacture of Nike trainers, specifically, shoes built for protection, flexibility and lightness. She investigated plastics, meshes and metal meshes as ways to create depth, and she also looked at military gear.

Batman’s cloak, in particular, was a challenge. She rejected Nolan’s suggestion of velvet as a fabric because, although it gave a look similar to the one she was after, it didn’t move in the way she felt the cape should. So she ended up consulting costume designed Graham Churchyard – known for his work on various Marvel and DC films – who suggested flocking kite fabric. Which turned out to be just the ticket.

Building a Leather Library

Wonder Woman and the Amazons in their Themysciran warrior attire.

And if you’re in any doubt, picking fabrics isn’t simple.

“I have a team of people who go out and I ask them to look — for instance, [for Wonder Woman], I asked them to bring me as many leather samples as I could specify: animal print skins, different textures of leather, different weights of leather,” says Hemming. “I began to make a sort of leather library so that I could use it for the Amazon armour. But also for the Veld, the Belgian village, we were looking for fabrics all over the place that were cottons, that were of the period, so that they looked like they belonged there.”

So how does she come to a final decision?

“So, you sort of make a room of fabrics and you’d have your character pinned on the wall, what you think you’re doing,” Hemming explains. “And then your fabrics, as you choose them, you pin them beside it and so slowly you build up a picture. Maybe the person only has one costume, then you have few fabrics. Or maybe they have ten costumes, so you sort of build your line of what the costume will entail and what you will buy and use for it. Sometimes you’re limited because the costume has to be a multiple costume for a stunt. You’re not able to use the thing you’d like and so what you do then, if you’re lucky enough, you find the perfect example and then you get the fabric printed.”

Next time you watch a superhero movie, think twice before criticising the costumes — if that’s your tendency — now you know the lengths they go to to get them just right. It’s one thing to draw them on the pages of a comic book. Bringing them to life on screen is a completely different thing altogether, involving endless research, countless 2-D and 3-D designs, the meticulous investigation of different materials and fabrics — as well as plenty of other practical considerations too granular to detail here.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.