No longer just a fashion statement.
March 4, 2011 6:03 AM   Subscribe

When did Batman's cape evolve from a fashion accessory into a functional item of equipment?

Somewhere along the line, Batman's cape--which you'd think would be awkward and cumbersome for a melee fighter--evolved into a device for soaring, gliding and breaking falls. Did this evolution take place in the comic or movie version of Batman, and if so, when did it occur? Does the cape ever play a role other than as a tool for gliding; for striking or confusing opponents in fights; and for stalking and concealment?

Are their any other examples, among the superheroes and supervillains in comics (and manga), of capes that are equipped with useful features, weapons, powers or magic--capes that somehow transcend their role as part of the character's "look"?

On an even broader topic, why are superheros outfitted with capes, anyway?
posted by Gordion Knott to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Look at the (sadly) just canceled TV series The Cape. Heavily influenced from comics, the hero's specially designed cape allows him to do extraordinary things.
posted by demiurge at 6:10 AM on March 4, 2011

If you have any questions about the evolution of Batman, you should probably ask this guy.

On the topic of capes: Watchmen's Dollar Bill.
posted by zamboni at 6:18 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's a Bob Kane Batman model sheet from 1939. Looks like it was designed to be functional from the get-go. [via]
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:50 AM on March 4, 2011

Let's get one thing straight: Batman has never, ever, ever, ever, ever... ever, ever, ever, had any "fashion accessories"... never ever.
posted by pwally at 7:00 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

On an even broader topic, why are superheros outfitted with capes, anyway?

Well, because Superman had one. As the first superhero, he inspired a lot of imitators during those formative years of the Golden Age, so many of the older heroes were born with capes. There are obvious exceptions (Captain America), of course. Capes kinda faded out in the Silver Age (Spider-man, Hulk, Fantastic 4, Flash, new Lantern, Iron Man, etc) but you could still find them here and there (Thor).

Looking back a bit more, specifically at Batman, is the pulp Mystery Man tradition. Lots of those guys, like The Shadow, had long coats and robes to help enhance their air of mystery. Batman is a descendant of that tradition, so a cape isn't all that surprising. Plus, as one of the formative heroes, he then went on to inspire imitators, just like Supes did.

Finally, if you are a rushed artist who has a kajillion pages due by the end of the month, being able to cover up a lot of fiddly detail with a cape is pretty handy. Also, a flowing cape is really helpful for showing dynamic motion.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:21 AM on March 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

It strikes terror into the the hearts of criminals, because they are a superstitious and cowardly lot.

Spawn could make his cape change shape and colour for camouflage.
posted by RobotHero at 8:56 AM on March 4, 2011

Perhaps not really answering your question, but capes (or cloaks) were often used as defense during the hey-dey of swordplay (fencing) during the Renaissance etc. One would sew coins in the hem of the cloak/cape to give it weight and use the garment either as a shield or to confuse the opponent by waving it around or to conceal an attack. Certainly the Batman would have used this age-old tactic.

Look at the (sadly) just canceled TV series The Cape

Oh please dont, my deep abiding love of anything Ms. Glau notwithstanding. It's .. awful. But the part about the cape is accurate.
posted by elendil71 at 10:55 AM on March 4, 2011

Early superhero creators were influenced by the look of circus and carnival performers like strongmen and trapeze artists. Capes are an important element in creating drama and larger-than-life visual excitement.
posted by MegoSteve at 1:33 PM on March 4, 2011

Some of the very earliest Batman comics showed him gliding short distances using his cape. Obviously this element was dropped after a while, probably because it wasn't terribly believable
(and that's saying something: when we're talking about Batman comics, the bar for believability is mighty low). But Nolan is definitely aware of the older material, so I'd feel comfortable in saying that the glider-cape is something that he took from the comics.

As for other uses, occasionally Batman's cape is shown as capable of protecting him from damage. In the movie Batman Forever, for example, he uses it to shield himself from the heat of a flamethrower. The comics aren't consistent about this, though.
posted by baf at 8:22 PM on March 4, 2011

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