The 13 Greatest Superhero Designs Ever — RANKED

13 QUICK THOUGHTS on sartorial splendor …

(UPDATED 7/12/16: Such timing! The CW’s released the first images of Kid Flash from the upcoming season of The Flash — and you just gotta love those threads! (Those leathers?) And the pix come so soon after we ruminated on the greatest superhero designs ever — and just where Kid Flash fits in. So, in case you missed it the first time around, check out our list below. And if you wanna see our picks for the 13 Silliest Superhero Designs Ever, click here. Meanwhile, the TV costume definitely gets the Official 13th Dimension Seal of Approval!)

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Time to go out on a limb again!

I recently did a piece about Kid Flash and how the original Wally West outfit (or the first revamped one, to be more specific) is one of the all-time great costume designs (click here). As soon as I wrote that, I started putting a list together in my mind of the Top 13. A highly subjective Top 13, to be sure.

Gary Frank

Gary Frank

And here we are!

Now right off, I’m taking four out of consideration: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America.

You can say that’s a dodge and I don’t care. I make the rules, bucko. The thing is, their outfits are so larger than life that their inclusion is self-evident. They’re the baseline and we can argue the merits of one over the other but a lot of it comes down to who’s your favorite: I think Batman looks cooler than Superman but Superman’s design is the original, which makes it the de facto measuring stick. And so much of Wonder Woman’s and Captain America’s symbolism is tied up in the Star-Spangled Banner that it automatically skews judgment, or at least it skews mine.

So. Who’s left? Well, here goes.

(Oh, and naturally, if yours isn’t on here, don’t sharpen the pitchforks. Just add it in the comments below or in whichever social-media thread you found this. And by all means if you don’t like a design, say so too. Debate’s fun! Just be nice to each other, y’know?)

13. Disco Nightwing. OK, don’t laugh. Yeah, it’s dated but man, it still looks cool. So many people prefer the modern Nightwing — hell, I’m actually pro-red-and-black — but I still think the original is snazzy — unintentional campy high collar and all. I still don’t know what that triangle/diamond design in the midsection is supposed to signify, but I don’t care. It was just so damn exciting when Nightwing debuted.

George Perez

George Perez

12. Black-Suit Spider-Man. You’re going to start to notice that, with some notable exceptions, I’m generally fan of simple designs. (Cable will not be on this list.) And this design is almost as simple as it gets and yet it’s an example of genius graphic design. I love that the whole thing came from an idea by a reader. Spider-Man’s original design is dazzlingly inventive and yet this one makes you go, “Hunh, I’m surprised this wasn’t the original idea to begin with.” It’s brilliant.

Mike Zeck and John Beatty

Mike Zeck and John Beatty

11. Black Terror. This is the only non-Big Two design on the list. It’s not a bias, as much as I’m leaning toward iconic and that generally means Marvel and DC. But Black Terror always looked so damn cool. He is, without a doubt, my favorite public-domain superhero, from an aesthetics standpoint. Close second? The original Daredevil.

David Gabrielsen is the artist credited with co-creating Black Terror. This first-appearance cover is by Elmer Wexler

David Gabrielsen is the artist credited with co-creating Black Terror. This first-appearance cover is by Elmer Wexler

10. Hourman. By all rights, Hourman should probably not be on the list. So many of his costume elements are counterintuitive or kind of busy. And how exactly does that hood work anyway? And is it black, yellow or yellow-black? (Which, actually, is not a thing.) Y’now what? I don’t care! He looks GREAT! Bernard Baily is the artist who co-created Hourman, but I particularly dig how Mike Allred draws him.

From Solo #7

Allred, from Solo #7

9. Power Girl. I know, I know, you’re thinking “boob window.” I promise you, that’s not it. OK, maybe that’s a little bit of it. But really, it’s the boldness of the color scheme. Bright white, with, the primary red and blue accents, with some gold thrown in. And nobody’s ever drawn her better than Amanda Conner, who gave her the perfect haircut. (Wally Wood and Ric Estrada were the artists credited with co-creating her.) Again, this is a design that’s so simple it really catches your eye no matter where PG is on the page. It’s definitely more super than Supergirl.

Amanda Conner

Amanda Conner

8. Doctor Fate. First, the helmet. Doctor Fate’s helmet alone is one of the great pieces of comic-book ephemera. I still can’t believe the helmet was halved across the face at one time. You don’t mess with that kind of design excellence. The outfit itself is deceptively simple, but so appealing. Like many on the list, it’s kind of silly to think of Doctor Fate walking around in real life, but then that’s what comics are for, right? (Howard Sherman is the artist credited with co-creating him.)

Howard Sherman

Howard Sherman

7. Wonder Girl. Donna Troy’s second outfit, especially as rendered by Nick Cardy or George Perez, isn’t simply a riff on Wonder Woman’s costume, it’s an improvement. As a simple leotard, it’s vaguely utilitarian, but that bright red really pops. Given the choice, I’d go with the less-cluttered design where the stars go down her sides instead of diagonally down her front. And the necklace is a hindrance, so I’m glad that went away. But, man does she have great hair.

Cardy on the left, Perez on the right.

Cardy on the left, Perez on the right.

6. Wolverine. I will always pick the brown outfit. The yellow one just never seemed menacing enough to me. (Brown-costume designer John Byrne evidently agreed.) I think there’s a reason we’ve never seen it — or anything close to it — in the X-movies. But the brown one? It just fits the character better. SNIKT!

Kevin Nowlan

Kevin Nowlan

5. The Flash. Again, a case of sleek simplicity with just the right amount of flair to it. I think I prefer the original, lightning-circling-the-waist “belt” because of the nostalgia element, though I do think you have to give serious consideration to the latter-day bolts meeting in the front. I also admit that I considered putting Shazam! Captain Marvel and Daredevil on this list but since all three are kind of in the same family, I went with Carmine Infantino’s Scarlet Speedster. (By the way, I actually like the original yellow Daredevil outfit. Not enough to make the Top 13, but still…)

Infantino and Murphy Anderson ... and even Reverse-Flash deserves serious consideration...

Infantino and Murphy Anderson … and even Reverse-Flash deserves serious consideration…

4. Green Lantern. Black shoulders or green shoulders? Green shoulders. Gives the look a bit more weight while retaining its essential, clean-as-a-whistle design. Please, please, no unnecessary armor or seams. (Same goes for the Flash). There have almost certainly been more variations on this one outfit than any other, what with the Green Lantern Corps and all. This one is still the best. The brilliant Gil Kane is Hal Jordan’s co-creator — but I also have to include Neal Adams.

Kane on the left, Adams on the right.

Kane on the left, Adams on the right.

3. Batgirl. The first one. The black Carmine Infantino version. Y’know, it’s funny. Sometimes the offshoot is an improvement of the original (see #6) and I think you could make a legit argument that from an aesthetic standpoint, this is a more appealing outfit than Batman’s own. But then you have to consider artist, time period and on and on. Even if I’m not prepared to make that argument, the combination of black (or dark gray), blue and bold gold — with the red hair — make this an exceptionally striking look. And DC improved it by dropping the red handbag by the ’70s.

Infantino and Anderson

Infantino and Anderson

2. Kid Flash. I was just so danged happy to see Infantino’s version return in DC Universe: Rebirth #1. I won’t repeat all the reasons this is such a great outfit because you can read it — and enjoy 13 COVERS featuring it — right here.

Infantino and Anderson

Infantino and Anderson

1. Spider-Man. Whether he’s skinny and spindly or lean and lithe, Peter Parker’s red-and-blue costume is as good as it gets, a fine balance between basic and busy. The eyes, man. The eyes. You may choose Steve Ditko. You may choose Todd McFarlane. I will choose John Romita every time. This cover is about as perfect a Spidey cover as you will ever see — in no small part due just how amazing Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man looks right there in the middle. Spectacular.

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Cover images and credits from the fashionable Grand Comics Database.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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10 Comments

  1. I like costumes that double as civilian or combat clothes, so Sgt. Rock and Jonah Hex! Loud costumes for quiet characters like Black Bolt. Can’t beat the jumpsuit on Black Widow, especially compared to her first outfit, blah. Phantom Stranger always classes up the joint. Dream Girl makes lingerie look good and Saturn Girl’s tights run rings around the other Legionnaires. The Vision’s first outfit remains his best. Cyclops and Nightcrawler both make simplicity work. Always liked the spotted gloves on Steve Ditko’s Doctor Strange, the chain mail on Big Barda’s arms, the lightning design of Nexus and, hey, the red scarf on The Shadow makes it a Baker’s Dozen 😀

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  2. Good to read the view on Wolverine’s costume. I’m surprised you don’t hear this more.

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  3. I can back you up on about half of these… Dr. Fate, Hourman, Batgirl, Spider-man… hrm. Okay. The only choices I don’t have your back on are the black Spidey outfit, which is just a horror (appropriate to what we eventually found out about its nature, but just awful awful awful as a Spidey suit) and the Perez Nightwing (from Perez’s “if I can’t cover this thing with enough unnecessary linework and detail to sink a naval destroyer, by God, fire me and hire someone who can” period, when his costume designs started to be really, really annoying). Everything else is a good choice.

    My absolute favorite costumes have always been the most garish and striking ones, though… Golden Age Green Lantern and the original Ultra Boy outfit. I love virtually every Legion costume redesign Dave Cockrum did, too (and Cockrum was smart enough to leave U-boy’s outfit alone). I love a lot of Don Heck’s costume designs (Hawkeye, the Swordsman) and you can’t beat a Kirby design for nothin’ (the original FF and Challengers of the Unknown and X-men uniforms were sleek and beautiful and iconic and, in the X’men’s case, wonderfully adaptable to show off different physiques and power types), Ant-man’s outfit was wonderfully designed to work with various accessories, the first gold and red Iron Man outfit was fantastic, Thor’s first look is terrific, the Inhumans look amazing (they’re a terrible team, but they LOOK just brilliant), the original Frightful Four were great looking, too.

    But you’ve chosen pretty decently.

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    • Great points, Darren. I considered the FF, but I just think they’re too bland. Same with the Challengers. I did consider the original X-Men. And Cockrum’s Lightning Lad was definitely in the running.

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  4. Glad to see your choice of number one. I have long thought that Spider-Man costume is the perfect superhero costume design. It was almost as if they intuitively got it right the first time. The way the red highlights portions of the body. The way the webbing contours and accentuates every angle and movement. The eyes in the mask, (especially Romita and Ross Andru’s version). The big spider tick on his back. The webbing under the arms. Even down to how they placed the blacks on the blue part of his suit. It’s the perfect superhero costume design. And they got it right the first time.

    I rolled my eyes every time one of the Raimi Spider-Man movies would come out and the designers talked about all the little tweaks they did to the suit. When in essence every time they were just getting closer to the original design that they should have done in the first place.

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  5. Like your list a lot — some very good choices for the most part. Here are my random thoughts. I’m right with ya on Kid Flash. I don’t think that costume can be improved upon. Ditto, Barry’s costume. (Though I have to say I’m sorry you left out Daredevil’s classic monochromatic suit as well as Captain Marvel’s, which, I believe, was the first super-hero costume to have military stylistic
    elements [the cuffs on the sleeves, the side-opening jacket, and the brocaded Napoleonic cape] to reflect his “rank.”) Batgirl you almost got right, except about her purse. She’s very intelligent, but she wouldn’t be capable of designing and building highly sophisticated (and miniaturized) equipment and a sleek-yet-practical utility belt (at that time), so she would need that purse! Spidey’s outfit is an all-time classic, but I’ve drawn those webs, and trying to keep them consistent is a huge pain! As for Mister Grayson, I can’t agree with this Nightwing suit. During this period he kept saying he wanted out of Batman’s shadow, wanted to be his own man… so he designs a black and blue suit with Batman-style boots and a bat-shaped mask and calls himself NIGHTWING?! THAT’s “being your own man”?! In some ways, the original, classic Robin suit is better. Aside from the issues of the bare legs and the bright yellow cape, it’s bulkier than Batman’s costume, meaning it has room for added body armor. And if you remember, his green trunks WERE armored! A nice updating of a medieval Robin Hood costume. (Certainly better than Green Arrow’s original suit! And WHY was Adams’ redesign of GA’s outfit left of the list?!)

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  6. I have a big fondness for Animal Man’s costume when he had that black jacket atop the orange leotard

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  7. A very nice article — I’m personally more a fan of Raven’s costume than Wonder Girl’s, however.

    Anyhow, if you’re interested in precisely when Gil Kane changed Hal Jordan’s costume from black shoulders to green shoulders, I managed to track down the change to happening specifically from issues #35 and #36, and stumbled upon the green shoulders form in issue #37, where it stayed from thereafter.

    Issue #34 was the last issue Kane used the original black shoulder look. In issue #35 he then pinched the green in the midsection so that it converged into the lantern emblem on Jordan’s chest and expanded across his entire trapezius, a terrible-looking design reminiscent of a bikini or something. And then in issue #36 he gave up on the weird green convergence on the emblem but kept the green trapezius coverage.

    He then apparently liked the idea of expanding the green on the trapezius outward and in issue #37 he went onto the deltoid shoulders muscles themselves with it, and you can tell that’s the one that looks the best. And that’s where it’s stayed ever since.

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  8. The original Spider-man was design brilliance.. I oved the black one too… more brilliance… but the original beats it by one point

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