Fashion

Superhero Meets Supermodel: A Short History of Comics' Weirdest Crossover

The cover of Models, Inc. featuring Tim Gunn and Iron Man.

Yes, that's Iron Man. Yes, that's Tim Gunn. We can explain. Marvel Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption Marvel Entertainment

Oh, sure: On the surface, the comic book conflation of high adventure and high fashion doesn't make a lot of sense, especially if you judge strictly by audience demographics. The readership of superhero comics, far and away the medium's dominant genre, consists largely of straight men.

Close followers of fashion, on the other hand, tend to possess ovaries and/or a killer Heidi Klum (er, Heidi Samuel) impression.

If we're Venn diagramming, any objective assessment of the intersection of those two sets would deem it both teeny and weeny.

Why, then, does fashion figure so largely in many of today's comics, both within and without the superhero genre? Books like Models, Inc., Amazing Spider-Man and Dave Sim's Glamourpuss are lousy with leggy models, imperious fashionistas and quippy sartorial critiques that might as well have been birthed in the Ugly Betty writers' room.

Cheesecake is one obvious answer, even though the kind of women who populate the superhero comic resemble real-world fashion models in much the same way that an overstuffed couch resembles a picnic bench. But it's not the only reason.

The superhero and the supermodel have much in common, after all. Both are cultural icons. Both look good in tights. Both face down tough challenges every day (the hero: natural disasters, fiendish deathtraps; the model: flyaway hair, combination skin). Both can abruptly lose their powers when exposed to certain agents (the hero: kryptonite; the model: Janice Dickinson).

Whatever the reason, the decidedly weird mashup of comics and fashion bears a long and literally colorful history.

After the jump: A brief chronology of superheroes who've proved too sexy for their capes over the years, and done their little turns on the catwalk.

1945
A Timely (later Marvel) humor/romance comic aimed at girls, Minnie the Model debuts; proceeds to run for 28 years. In 1965, Millie and her friend Chili Storm became part of (then just burgeoning) Marvel superhero universe.

First appearance of Archie Comics character Katy Keene, the "Queen of Pin-Ups and Fashions." Katy's publishers soon stumble upon what will become her signature gimmick: readers design and send in outfits for Katy to wear.

1963
Marvel Comics' mystic hero Dr. Strange debuts. Will spend the next 35 years protecting humanity from eldritch threats and trying to make puffy sleeves happen.

1966
First appearance of Mary-Jane Watson, girlfriend/wife/sort-of-ex of Peter (Spider-Man) Parker. Semi-successful actress/model. Marries Peter in 1987 in a Willi Smith gown designed for the occasion. In current comics continuity, MJ hosts a reality competition TV show about fashion, making her the Marvel Universe's Tyra Banks. (Ironic, that, as Tyra Banks is more like our universe's She-Hulk.)

1968
Marvel Comics' Jean Grey (later Phoenix/Dark Phoenix) becomes a swimsuit model to work her way through college. She soon becomes the X-Man's resident costume designer. (In 1994, when she eventually marries fellow X-Man Cyclops, Nicole Miller designs her wedding dress.)

1977
Betsy Braddock, twin sister of Marvel Comics' Captain Britain, dies her hair purple and becomes a fashion model.

In Superman, the Movie, the Man of Steel's first public appearance in his kicky, primary-colored ensemble earns the following rave from a cringeworthy, Huggy Bearish bystander: "Say, Jim! That's a bad out-FIT!"

1980
Debut, in the New Teen Titans, of Koriand'r (hero name: Starfire), an alien warrior princess who falls in love with Dick ("Robin") Grayson and attempts to create a secret identity as a fashion model. A SECRET identity. As a FASHION MODEL. A fashion model with orange skin, pupil-less eyes, and hair that turns into jet fuel exhaust. Yeah.

In this same series, Donna "Wonder Girl" Troy's career as a fashion photographer is introduced. You can tell she's a fashion photographer because she wears big sunglasses pushed up above her hairline.

2000
In the film X-Men, Cyclops dismisses Wolverine's complaints about their black leather outfits with a meta-reference to Wolverine's comic book costume: "What, you'd prefer yellow spandex?"

2005
During the realtity shifting crossover event called House of M, erstwhile "New X-Man " Angel makes a living as a plus-sized supermodel.

2006
The adult Dick Grayson (the first Robin, then Nightwing, now Batman) briefly becomes a male fitness model. No, seriously. Let us not speak of this again.

2008
The for-real Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy explores how, um, "the fashionable body and the superhero body are sites upon which we can project our fantasies, offering a virtuosic transcendence beyond the moribund and utilitarian." ... Yeah. So, that.

The idiosyncratic and iconoclastic comics artist/author Dave Sim, fresh off the 26-year run of his self-published Cerebus, unveils his latest comic creation, Glamourpuss. The series is inspired, according to Sim, by nothing more than the artist's desire to draw "cute teenaged girls in my best Al Williamson photo-realist style." Okay, his muse is slightly skeevy, but that's some truth in advertising, right there: Each issue is essentially the wildly discursive, if technically polished, sketchpad of an artist fascinated by fashion models in designer clothes. Sim isn't interested in narrative, much - he'd rather take us through his process of teaching himself to draw in the style of 60's photorealistic cartoons. Part how-to guide, part fashion magazine parody, often puzzling but never anything less than interesting, Glamourpuss is a trusted source of weirdness in white lipstick.

2009
Model-obsessed website Modelinia.com premieres the deliberately and comprehensively cheesetastic Spiked Heel, a series of cameo-laded video shorts starring Heidi Klum as superhero "The Kluminator."

Former Tommy Hilfiger model Tyrese Gibson launches and tirelessly promotes his masked urban vigilante comic, Mayhem.

On an episode of America's Next Top Model, Tyra Banks dons a trashy superhero outfit for reasons known only to her and the voices that tell her to do things. (Footage mercifully missing.)

The Marvel title Models, Inc. (no relation to the Linda Gray/Emma Samms vehicle) brings together several of Marvel's classic fashion model characters, including Millie the Model, Chili Storm and Mary-Jane Parker, for a sudsy, ridiculous, feather-light "Murder at Fashion Week" romp. But that's not why you've heard of it, if you have. No, you heard about this comic because the first issue's backup story featured Project Runway's Tim Gunn saving the day - which, granted, is not exactly a new role for the guy. The much-hyped twist: This time, Gunn dons the Iron Man armor and wipes the floor with bad guys while sagely critiquing their outfits. Dumb - but because writer Marc Sumerak nails Gunn's dialogue - a lot of fun. As for the book's main storyline, well: I'll let Newsarama.com's Brian Andersen break it to you gently. He's very right.

Now I'm sure I've missed a lot of comics/fashion crossovers, but I've managed to make it all the way through this post without once busting out the phrase "Geek Chic," so. I got that goin' for me.

Commenters: Let's try to make this a bit more definitive (come on — there had to be something happening between 1980 and 2000, no?)

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