Note: Captain America — the Sentinel of Liberty, America’s Avenger, and … fashion maven? He’s gone through almost as many costume changes as there are stars in the American flag, and for this P:R Roundtable we assembled Glen Weldon, Vito Delsante and Jon Morris to break down some great (and not-so great) designs of Steve Rogers over the years. – Chris A.
Joe Simon’s original take on Cap (1939)
Vito: The craziest thing about this costume is…I didn’t know it existed until many years after I started reading Captain America. No mention of it, no flashbacks…nothing. I hesitate to admit it, because I may be wrong, but I think my first exposure to it is the Waid/Garney run on Cap. Everything about it is so…sincere. When viewed at from the 21st Century, it’s hard to take it seriously because, nowadays, we like to know why a character is wearing the things she’s wearing. But when I look at this, all I can think about is innocence and honesty. It looks so…American. That shield is by far my favorite superhero accessory in all of comics next to the Batmobile and the Bat-Utility belt (which are tied for #1).
Jon: You do really see Simon’s origins as a newspaper sports page illustrator here, this is basically a fit guy in a costume, it doesn’t have the superheroic proportions that Kirby will ultimately give him – everything from the pose to the broad wings and shape of the shield, plus the friendly posture, makes him look like a War Bonds mascot. Anyway. I always liked this shield, it’s so much more design-y (and therefore less iconic, I suppose) than the round one, it would have been neat if Cap’s shield weren’t indestructible and he had to get a new one every year or so, we could’ve had a whole assemblage of them. Anyway again. Very classic, but so very tied to the era – I barely understand how the mask works, much less think it could fly outside of the books of the time…
Vito: Jon, how do you mean that you, “…barely understand how the mask works?” Because that’s a fascinating comment to throw out and I’d love to hear what you mean.
Jon: Well, it looks like a bald wig with a domino mask attached. I don’t know how it wouldn’t just fall off.
Vito: I see what you mean. Especially when viewed against the next one.
Glen: I’m going to come off as a rank, hidebound traditionalist — still, again, some more — but I figure I can get away with that when we’re talking about Captain Freaking America. This is not a guy who’s supposed to be hip to the scene — unless the scene in question is painted by Norman Rockwell.
He IS a war bonds mascot, and a victory garden pitchman, and a scrap metal collection spokeshero. More than that, he’s an AMERICAN etc. etc. etc., so the moment his look evolves beyond “star-spangled super-guy” is when he loses me. This is more or less what I picture, when I picture him. Well.
Not the shield, admittedly. And not the mask-as-Mushmouth-hat. Which: dumb.
Cap’s official debut from Captain America Comics #1 (1941), art by Jack Kirby
Vito: I think what Kirby improved on from Simon’s design (and I’ll cop to not knowing who came up with what) is…in terms of the character origins (the 90 lb. weakling wish fulfillment), Simon’s seems more in line with that character. But Kirby made him a superhero. Without a doubt, I think that reading Captain America with art by Jack Kirby is what made it a hit, and that’s no slight to Simon at all. But Kirby was (and in many ways, is) something special.
Jon: Streamlining the wings and making the mask more of a helmet does wonders for the look. Reading a Flashback reprint (those old black and white reprint books from back in the day) was the first time I realized Cap’s wearing a short-sleeve half-shirt. I still don’t know how I feel about that.
Glen: Here you go; a guy who wraps himself in the flag, and then throws in some scale-mail. To protect his delts. And pecs. Because theoretically, he’s got the shield to protect the breadbasket.
Silver Age Captain America. Designer unknown, art by
John Byrne Mike Zeck (Thanks, Smitty!)
Vito: This is where I jumped on; during Byrne’s run, Zeck art here and there, replays of the 60’s cartoon (that I saw on a View Master) and Secret Wars. That Secret Wars action figure was literally by my side 24/7 (or in my pocket). Whoever came up with the round shield was a genius because it added a dimension to Cap because, yeah, he could fight and he was strong…but throwing the shield just opened up a whole new world to the character. This costume, this period, this shield…I know I put the “triangle” shield (what shape is that, anyway?) up high, but as a whole? This is my Cap.
Jon: This is probably one of the most iconic superhero costumes in the genre, and basically I’m glad it’s gone, I think? It’s very much of its age – Cap was a weird fit for a superhero, when you step back and think about it – Marvel was fond of playing the “old soldier card” even as they were shipping him off to fight space wars or unlock time travel puzzles, when really what he was built for was patriotic adventure against a nation’s enemies. This outfit recalls a time when he was suited for the same breed of adventures as, say, The Fantastic Four or Spider-Man – you know, it was perfect for the weirdo Kirby adventures in the 1970s – but a little too off-the-rack for a unique hero.
Glen: This guy shows up at your July 4th picnic, you’re glad. You make him a plate and get him a beer. You thank him for his service.
I’m with Vito; this is the Cap of my youth, which means this is the Cap in my head. The round shield, the actual cowl, the itty-bitty eagle wings which, in real life, would forever wobble and go askew.
Steve Rogers as ‘The Captain’ from Captain America #350 (1989)– art by Kieron Dwyer, design by Tom Morgan
Vito: What makes this costume work is the storyline around it. It’s really not all that special…but I always loved the way the star and stripes motif from the original was placed. It makes the character instantly recognizable without diminishing anything from Captain America. Black and red is a hard combination to mess up.
Jon: Whenever I see these all-black costumes from the 80s, I remember Don Simpson’s throwaway gag in Megaton Man about a character dripped in ink saying something along the lines of “Doesn’t this seem lazy to you?” … The flap is neat, but it’s a bit pasted on, and the rest of it is “Remember how cool it was when Spider-Man did this?” It’s weird, for instance, that he’d keep the wings – if the point of the costume was to downplay its patriotic bits, what are the wings supposed to be?
Vito: That’s a great point. I never considered how there was a trend to “blacken” costume redesigns back then.
Glen: Yeah, it’s an arresting look, the undifferentiated black, but that stripey triangle is a little too of its time, for me. Remember how random triangles and squiggles and dots used to be a design thing? Eye On Springfield, that kind of thing? That’s where this takes me.
Captain America from Death’s Head 2 #4 (1992), art/design by Liam Sharp
Jon: Gonna spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how that knee brace works ::promptly forgets about it forever::
Glen: Oy with the thigh straps, already. And that insignia — it’s like the white worm-thingy from PROMETHEUS is arising out of his crotch.
Captain America from What If? Vol. 2 #51 (1993), art/design by Paris Cullins
Vito: Ok, for context, this is is from “What If The Punisher Became Captain America?” In this story, he was also known as the Captain, but had cybernetic parts after being nearly blown to bits by the Red Skull. This is the result. I actually kind of dig this costume as it is as gaudy as any I’ve ever seen. There’s a charm to it.
Jon: Y’don’t gain anything by making the wings bigger. The wings are the part of the costume that, I think, everyone ends up having to address, and making them bigger makes it look like his head is actually a notably ugly dove. I’d love to host a competition just based around “keep the wings but make ‘em look like they weren’t just glued there”… I like the striping, basically, however. Also, the very strange palette, there’s something appealing about white, sky-blue and burgundy…
Glen: This sort of face-cowl thingy never makes any damn sense. Doesn’t hide the identity, covers the ears. It’s basically there to hold the wings up. Which, if you’re going for a whole silly-rabbit-Trix-are-for-kids vibe, then mazel tov.
Curious to see what this outfit would look like if he were just standing around. As it is, it looks kind of dynamic — X marks the spot — but normally it’d just look like a weird Y, no? And hence kind of Solid Gold dancer?
Yeoman America from Avengers Vol. 3 #2 (1998), Design & Art by George Perez
Vito: George Perez, without a doubt, is a very conscious designer. Sometimes they miss, and sometimes they hit, but no matter what, every design that springs from his pencil always has his aesthetic. I always liked this one. All the classic colors are represented, and the context of the team being re-imagined in a medieval setting is represented. It’s a smart, sharp design. The only misstep is the gloves. They’re the only modern looking element here (which is tough to quantify, but that’s just how I see it).
Jon: Cousin, all the redesigns in this arc were terrific, love it. The insignia maybe doesn’t work for me – it’s clearly a tunic, but the silver of the design seems to imply that it’s armor – would work better as a raised breast plate, maybe. Still, for what it was used for, this is a great design.
Glen: No, yeah, I like it. I mean, now the blue scale-mail makes sense. I wish the insignia had gone a bit farther along in the heraldry direction, but it works for the story.
Captain America 2099 (1998), Designer unknown, art by Mike McKone
Vito: Without knowing the context of the story, I’m not entirely certain what was trying to be accomplished here. It’s…it’s certainly a way to go, I guess. I like the stylized “A” on his helmet, but that’s about it. I’m legitimately confused by 99% of this.
Jon: The little tiny white gloves, lordy.
Glen: What if … Thor joined Up With People?
American Dream from M2/A-Next #1 (1998) Design & Art by Ron Frenz
Vito: I forget the actual origins of AD (she’s Cap and Sharon Carter’s daughter, right?), but I always liked this design. What makes it so special, to me, is that there was no need to “sex it up” just because a woman is wearing it. It’s proof of concept…the design was so strong that you could put it on anyone (man, woman, child, alien) and it still stands out.
Jon: Yeah, some elements are slightly sexified – that belt cut, the corset of stripes, the boob armor – although the pose is kind of a crime, here. Still, it works as a costume right out of the gate with minor fixes, I kinda like it.
Glen: Yeah, I mean, this is just Cap Goes to Roller Derby, but it works. Okay now I need to come up with Cap’s roller derby name, which has to be a bit tougher. Scars and Stripes? Amber Waves of Pain? Red, White, Black and Blue? U.S.AUUUGH?
Captain America robot from Avengers Annual ‘99 (1999), art/design by Leonardo Manco
Vito: I suppose that, theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it kind of shoots down my argument from American Dream; you can’t put the classic costume on a robot.
Jon: Haha, what? Okay. They put the wings on a robot.
Glen: Go go gadget jingoism! Yeah, I dunno. Transformers with shoulder hoops.
Earth X Captain America from Earth X (1999) Design & Art by Alex Ross
Vito: I always liked this one, too. Thematically, the idea of the “American dream” losing it’s way is appealing and the look calls to mind someone that’s been homeless for an extended period of time. The pants and the shield are the only carryover(s) from the actual costume, while everything else is added as he goes. The scarred “A” on his head is another nice touch.
Jon: I like this costume, but it implies a post-apocalyptic world (which I guess Earth X is, but everyone ELSE was able to find a t-shirt). I always just felt that the American flag is a bit too on-the-nose (wearing my ragged American flag, so you guys know that America is all ragged now, k thx), it would have made more sense for Cap to just be shirtless, I have trouble imagining “Mister Apple Pie” deciding to make a Fred Flintstone toga out of Old Glory …
Glen: I take Jon’s point, it’s a bit overdetermined for him to LITERALLY wrap himself in the flag. And, really, shirtlessness is a viable option that more hot muscular dudes need to adopt as a matter of course. I’m okay with it.
Ultimate Captain America (2002), Design by Bryan Hitch
Vito: I was somewhat thrown by the gray elements that Hitch used, initially, but I’ve come to see them as great contrasts that sit somewhere in between the blue and white. Also, the gray works for the characterization for Cap. He’s not the clean cut Boy Scout we were used to…he has an edge, and the gray seems to work toward establishing that visually. It’s a nice touch. I can see why the movies used this as a template.
Jon: Feels a little weird to me – so many of the elements look a little like decals – but it’s terrific that he’s up there for a photo opportunity and has the whole belt on, including canteen. It’s good, it worked for the function of its reveal in the story, but I think there are better ‘modern Cap’ looks.
Glen: I’ll never be caught arguing for more pouches in superhero couture, even when they make a certain amount of sense, as they do here. And I’m not fan of the extraneous, fiddly bits — the shoulder sticker (“Good job, deltoid! You get a star!”) or the gray panels, which complicate without adding interest.
1940s Ultimate Captain America (2002), art/design by Bryan Hitch
Vito: I won’t lie when I say that this design, when it debuted, changed a lot of how I viewed Golden Age comic pastiche. At the time, I was trying to get my creator owned Golden Age comic out there and, I remember telling the artist that the costume had to be simple, because that was what the Golden Age was, comparatively speaking. And then this came on the scene and I realized how wrong I really was. Hitch suddenly wasn’t just a “widescreen artist” for me (whatever that means, Wizard Magazine!); he was a legit character designer. That shield now made sense. Every element on his person made sense. I was a little upset that this design kinda made it into the Captain America movie…but didn’t last for more than one mission.
Jon: Super well-thought-out, this, plausible and eye-catching.
Glen: Yep. Basically a paratrooper. Who’s maybe a bit more demonstrative of his loyalties than most.
Mangaverse Captain America (2002), art/design by Ben Dunn
Vito: I have more problems with the fact that Cap is wearing football uniform than I do with the actual suit. It just…it looks like NFL SuperPro. There’s nothing about this that says Captain America to me…maybe that was intentional?
Jon: One of the things that bugged me about Marvel’s “Mangaverse” line was the designs felt about thirty or forty years old – this is a weird mishmosh between some sort of Robotech helmet and … I dunno, not well-thought out design? It’s big shoulders (manga!), a manga headpiece, and … pillows for gloves? Bike shorts?
Glen: I can’t, with this. You get NFL SuperPro. I get AAU Shuperstar.
Vito: That…was a thing.
Stephen Rogers from What If? Captain America #1 (2006), design & art by Carmine Di Giandomenico
Vito: It’s the same, or a similar, departure as Ross’ Earth X, and I like it, but I wish it was just pushed further. The elements are there, but I think it just needs more.
Jon: I take back whatever I said about the wings before, obviously all it needed was for the whole headpiece to be feathered.
Glen: At least the shield isn’t a dreamcatcher.
Alternate Universe Cap from Exiles #92 (2007), art by Paul Pelletier
Vito: I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but I just don’t see the purpose for the shoulder armor. Especially when you have it on the same arm as his shield. I suppose he could carry the shield in his right arm, but Cap is a southpaw. Look at how cumbersome that looks!
Jon: Alternate universe Caps seem to tread cautiously, you’d think you’d go a little more balls-out when you had the chance.
Glen: I don’t like the stripe field arcing up to meet the bottom of the star — it’s too backup dancer. And the shoulder-cup makes sense if Alternate Universe Cap carries his ghoulies up there. Otherwise, no.
Captain America (Bucky Barnes) design (2007) – art by Steve Epting, design by Alex Ross
Vito: Cap is one of my favorite characters (and by extension, so is Bucky), but when this design debuted, I just fell over. I own more merchandise using this costume than I do the Golden Age original Simon and Kirby. The shape, when looked at as a silhouette, is exactly the same; buccaneer boots, wings, etc. It uses the triangle shield as an element of design for the costume. And the rest is simple black. If this were a contest, and we were scoring, this is my 10.
Jon: And then, for my part, I never dug this outfit, which looks to my eye like a guy in a black bodysuit is unzipping it halfway down and revealing his Cap costume.I feel like it was given up on after the abdomen.
Glen: Jon, THANK you. That’s what was bugging me. It DOES seem like we’ve caught Bucky Barnes shucking his outerwear (in this example, Bucky is either a ninja or a stagehand, or a stagehand-ninja) to reveal his super-suit.
Vito: …I’ll just cancel that visit to the cosplay seamstress…
Age of X Captain America (2011). Design & Art by David Yardin
Vito: I’m quite fond of this one (in fact, this design alone convinced me to buy the issues of the Age of X storyline). The use of camouflage is kind of… “Why has no one thought of this already?” It’s mostly a variant of the Ultimate Universe costume, but I like it. For the story told, the darkness is entirely appropriate, but I think Cap would still have some red in there as a call back to Old Glory.
Jon: Yeah, I like this one, good overall palette and shapes, it’s still clear who the character is even without the signature red elements, and stands out strongly for their absence.
Glen: If he’s not gonna be hawking war bonds, he should be in full-on soldier mode, and while I don’t like the piping curving inward on the thigh, there’s a simple ruggedness to it that fits.
Captain America: First Avenger 1940s movie design (2011)
Vito: It’s ostensibly the Ultimate Universe modern costume, with a few tweaks. I can see why that one is appealing to a filmmaker, and some of the tweaks are clever (the red buckles into stripes on the torso). There’s nothing really wrong with it, but it sticks in my craw that the classic costume was in the movie and used as a joke (so to speak).
Jon: Superhero movies have a real bad habit of giving in to the tendency to wink at the audience, like you pointed out here Vito, as if to say “Some of the comic book stuff sure was silly but WE’RE making a SERIOUS movie *wink*” THAT BEING SAID, while that bugged me in movies like Batman Begins and X-Men, I like that a distinction was made between a practical and a showboat costume, and I like also how this one is put together – much better unity than the Ultimate Universe one…
Glen: I liked that we got both the classic costume and this grittier outfit in the film. Allowed him to be both a cheap piece of propaganda for the public and a sincere morale boost for the troops. The fact that it resembled the other soldiers’ garb to an extent (apart from the color scheme) helped me buy into the movie a bit more.
Captain America from Space Punisher #4 (2012), art/design by Mark Texeira
Vito: Seems like too much of a good thing. The guns don’t bother me; he’s a soldier, so it makes sense. It’s the stripes/star part in the middle. It’s distracting, somewhat. And I’m not a fan of the “A” logo on his head.
Jon: That whole series was a gag, right?
Vito: I feel like the official answer is, “Maybe, question mark?”
Glen: Seeing a star with a colored tail like that always makes me think Justine Bateman’s gonna step out from behind a bush and be all, “And that’s …. One to Grow On.” Just no.
Rumored Captain America 2 movie design (2013), artist unknown
Vito: Not a fan. The red and white stripes are replaced with…what? Black on blue? The red elements don’t even look red. I don’t know why they needed to change it from the Avengers movie costume. And that’s really my only gripe. The chest design is fine with me.
Jon: I don’t know if this movie is modern day or set in the past, which makes a difference, but I do know that I don’t think there’s enough attention paid beneath the chest, could use some unifying element.
Glen: Yeah, this seems a half-measure. Effective as body armor, maybe, but half-assed as a costume concept.