Studying Superhero Costumes

By Beth Davies-Stofka
June 2, 2008 - 20:44

Dr. Peter Coogan, Director of the Institute for Comics Studies , will be hosting a one-day event of lectures and panels on Superhero costumes in comics and beyond on June 22 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Click here for more details.  Dr. Coogan sat down with The Comic Book Bin to talk about the conference and the Institute for Comics Studies.

CBB:  The story of how you came to be involved is a very nice one.  Would you share it with us?

Peter Coogan:  Sure.  Peter Sanderson, who writes the Comics In Context column for Quick Stop Entertainment, picked up a copy of the exhibit catalog and noticed that my book, Superheroes: The Secret Origin of a Genre was quoted.  He emailed me, I emailed Harold Koda, the Costume Institute’s head curator, and he passed me on to Andrew Bolton, who is curating the Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy show.  Andrew and I got to talking, and boom, we’re doing a big conference.  And this was just back in early May, so we’ve done about four months of work in four weeks.  The staff at the Met is incredible and they really back up their programming with resources and energy.

CBB:  How did the themes of your book come to influence the exhibit?  

Peter Coogan:  From my conversations with Andrew it seems that they found my definition particularly useful.  My definition of the superhero genre is based on the idea that the superhero genre is a genre unto itself, like the Western, the detective story, the gangster story, musicals, romantic comedy, soap opera, etc.  Every genre has its core conventions, and for the superhero genre they are mission, powers, and identity.  Andrew was looking for a way to focus on superheroes, not heroes who are super (like science fiction, fantasy, or action movie heroes) and my definition helped him focus the show.  

They also used some of my analysis of costumes.  There has been very little scholarly work done on superhero costumes, and even less is easily available.  They also drew on Richard Reynolds’ work in Superheroes: A Modern Mythology, which is why we invited Reynolds to participate in the conference. I’m hoping that the exhibit, the catalog and the conference will help forward scholarly analysis and discussion of the superhero costume.

CBB:  What's your favorite part of the show?

Peter Coogan:  My favorite part of the show is the body types the Costume Institute uses to organize and shape the show: The Graphic Body, the Patriotic Body, the Virile Body, the Paradoxical Body, the Armored Body, the Aerodynamic Body, the Mutant Body, and the Postmodern Body. These body types encompass the superhero paradigms and archetypes but from a different perspective than is typically used in comics studies or fan discussions.  This exhibit has brought in new terminology that I believe will useful in discussing superheroes and superhero costumes in the future.  The show is laid out at the Met’s website.

CBB:  Tell us a bit about the June 22 conference.  How does it link to the exhibit?  In what ways do they complement each other?

Peter Coogan:  We have the day divided between talks and panels.  We have three talks and three panels. The participants are a mix of scholars, comics professionals, film professionals, and costume designers, many of whom fit into more than one category.  The day is a great mash up of the industry, the academy, and the art world.  The program is laid out on the Met’s calendar.

The conference and the exhibit are linked in that both take on the superhero costume from a variety of perspectives—fashion; museum exhibitry; comic book writing, drawing, and publishing; film production; scholarly analysis; etc.  In all of these perspectives we take a topic that has not been investigated but which is fascinating and take it up for analysis and reinterpretation.   

The conference participants will likely touch on the themes of the exhibit—some of them have work displayed as part of the exhibit, but we didn’t want to restrict the participants to commenting on the exhibit. Instead we want them to talk from their own experience making, drawing, writing about, and thinking about the superhero costume.  So the exhibit and the conference complement each other by providing many different lenses through which to see the costume; taken all together, the exhibit, conference, the related publications promise to launch the superhero costume as a concept in fashion, art, and cultural analysis. Or at least we hope so!
CBB:  Who will be attending?

Peter Coogan:  In putting the program together, we wanted to include people who were involved in or supported the exhibit—Paul Levitz, Alex Ross, Adi Granov, Phil Saunders, and Michael Uslan, as well as scholars who have written on superheroes like Scott Bukatman, Geoff Klock, Stanford Carpenter, Arlen Schumer, Danny Fingeroth, and Richard Reynolds.  And there’s a lot of cross over—Adi Granov worked on the concept designs for the costumes in the new Iron Man film but he is also an artist at Marvel Comics. Arlen Schumer is both a commercial artist and comic book art historian.  Danny Fingeroth wrote and edited comics at Marvel, has written books on superheroes and comics, and teaches comic book writing at New York University.  So the conference is a rich mix of practice and theory.

And it’s free with museum admission, and open to the public, so we’re hoping to get a big audience from the New York City area. The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds over 700 people and we’re expecting it to fill up, so people should get there early—doors open at 9:30 in the morning.

CBB:  What do you hope to accomplish with this conference?

Peter Coogan:  I have a number of goals for the conference. The first is to crack the superhero costume open. Surprisingly little work has been done on the costume, its function in the superhero genre, and its influence in the wider world.  My hope is that this conference will inspire others to investigate the topic from a variety of perspectives.  

My second goal is to build bridges between scholars and professionals by bringing them into conversation with each other.  For this conference we have professionals from the world of comics and film participating on panels with scholars, both university-affiliated and independent. Scholars bring the theory and professionals bring the practice, and the cross-pollination strengthens the analysis and work of both groups.  

And having those conversations in public venues brings the general audience into the conversation, and that’s the idea of the public intellectual, breaking out of the ivory tower of the academy and the “inside-baseball” of the industry.

This sort of conversation across the divide of industry, academy, and the public is something that I’ve been promoting since 1992 at the Comics Arts Conference, which runs at the San Diego Comic-Con International and at Wonder Con. In fact, the whole time I’ve been working on Sunday at the Met—Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy, I’ve also been planning this year’s CAC.

My final goal is actually the mission statement of the Institute for Comics Studies, a non-profit organization that I am the director and founder of.  The mission of ICS is to further the study, understanding, appreciation, and cultural legitimacy of comics.  In America comics and superheroes are imbricated, though not exclusively, so attention to superheroes leads to attention to comics. Support from a cultural powerhouse like the Metropolitan Museum of Art brings a lot of attention to comics, which will hopefully help people to think about comics in different ways. Ultimately events like this help people realize that the comics medium is an ordinary medium, capable of all the things that other media and art forms such as literature, film, television, music, dance, etc., are capable of.  
CBB:  Tell us about the Institute for Comics Studies.

Peter Coogan:  I have recently founded the Institute for Comics Studies (ICS), though I have been working on it for more than a decade.  ICS is a non-profit organization designed to promote the study, understanding, recognition, and cultural legitimacy of comics, and to coordinate communication within and about the medium. Think of it as a “think tank” for comics scholarship.  The board is half-academic and half-professional so that ICS can speak for the comics medium instead of a limited perspective of academia or the industry.

The activities of the Institute fall into four areas: Communication, knowledge, expertise, and support.  Communication is the building of relationships between and within the comics academy and the industry, and communicating with the public about comics. Knowledge is the creation of new knowledge and understanding via scholarly activity, including publications and conferences. Expertise is the promotion of comics scholars in the academy, the media, and the professional world. And support is the development of collections, funding, faculty, and programs in academia.  We will be launching a full-blown .org website soon, but for now we have a temporary one.

CBB:  Where can our readers get your book?

Peter Coogan:  Unfortunately my book has gone out of print.  Someone might get lucky and find a copy at their comics shop or the graphic novel section of Borders or Barnes and Noble.  It’s sort of flattering that used copies are selling on Amazon for $90-$130, and I’ve even seen it going for $230!  But the wizards at the Met have found some copies and it’s for sale at the museum gift shop in connection with the exhibit, so that’s another reason to come to the conference.  I’m hoping to have a new edition out by the end of the year, so I’m in discussion with a great publisher and hope to have news of a new edition at the conference.

Last Updated: August 31, 2023 - 08:12

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