Superheroes live and die by their visual designs. A silhouette, a stance, a color combination, a great hero design stands the test of time and evolves into a form best suited for the character. Sometimes the creators knock it out of the park on the first try, other times it takes several iterations to get to something iconic, but regardless, a top tier superhero design is visually distinct and unmistakable.
The whole point of this little exercise is to take a quick walk through comic book history by way of visual design to see what works and what doesn't for characters that I feel are important or that I just plain like for some reason. (So if I do a big post on Firestorm: the Nuclear Man, then you know why). I doubt this will be some regular thing, but I love comics and hate to see the garbage fire that is the modern industry, so this is a fun reminder of the better days. I'm going to limit it to actual comic costumes because it would get extremely bloated with various movie, tv and game suits, and also because the roots go deeper than some actor who thinks he's bigger than the mask.
The best place to start? Bruce Wayne, because there's been surprisingly little deviation from the basic design.
First appearing in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, you know the deal with Batman. Rich kid, murdered parents, devotes his life to philanthropy and also dressing up as a bat to fight crime more directly. Uses detective skills and gadgets to win the day. Initially a ripoff of the Shadow and the Phantom, but evolved into his own thing. The original Bat-Man was put together by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and the first version put to paper was an edgier vigilante who used a gun to fight crime, and his design reflected that. Criminals being a cowardly and superstitious lot, Wayne adopted a bat motif, because they fly stealthily at night and tend to scare the bejeezus out of people when they startle them.
The costume reflects that. Gray bodysuit, black cape that kind of looks like wings, a deeply pointed cowl with narrow eyes. Dark blue/black trunks and boots broke up the grayscale, and a yellow utility belt drew the reader's attention to his gadget usage. The palette is set: Gray, black, blue, gold. And then there's the purple gloves. No idea why.
As the Golden Age wore on, Batman's image softened. He ditched the guns and adopted a no-killing rule, he picked up a sidekick in Robin, and he moved to more of weightlifter body type. The bat ears got shorter, the cowl became less severe, and the lantern jaw made it clear that this was a hero. The cape switched from black to dark blue and the purple gloves were mercifully replaced with the iconic “serrated” gloves. This became the template for Batman, where every following variation would build off of.
Here's where it gets complicated because DC Comics loves retcons and reboots. The Golden Age Batman would later become known as “Earth-Two Batman,” occupying a separate continuity from the “Earth-One Batman” of the Silver Age, where he would retroactively “first appear” in Superman #76 in 1952 (an issue written by pulp novelist Edmund Hamilton, the husband of the mighty Leigh Brackett, Queen of Space Opera). Initially appearing much as the 40s version, and following along with the lighthearted camp of the 50s and 60s, this Batman would get a single major costume change in Batman #164 by penciller Sheldon Moldoff: the gold badge around the bat logo. This was the Batman design of Adam West, and as the 60s moved on, the stories in the comics grew less goofy and touched on more serious themes again.
Probably the biggest influence on the Batman design of this era was Neal Adams, who started as a cover artist on Batman in the late 60s and started doing interior pencils in 1971. Adams brought a kinetic dynamism to Batman (and his cape), and made him leaner, slightly meaner, and gave him new threats to deal with, like Ra's al Ghul. Aside from the lengthening of Bats' ears, the costume remained fundamentally the same, the real change was the increase in dynamic lighting and use of shadows to create mood. Gothic horror, film noir, and martial arts elements permeated the Bronze Age Batman titles of the 70s and 80s, and the design could go from the moody streets of Gotham City to hanging out with the Justice League and the Outsiders.
Technically, “Earth-One Batman” stopped existing after Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986, and he was folded into the “New Earth Batman” of the new, unified continuity. This was Batman at his most balanced, the Caped Crusader AND the Dark Knight Detective. A Batman who would take the time to help some kids out, mentor the junior members of the Justice League, and later suffer some of his greatest personal losses like the death of Jason Todd and having his back broken in Knightfall. This was the design adapted for the first couple seasons of Batman: The Animated Series.
In the 90s, the design moved all over the place. Different artists went in different directions; sometimes the cowl and trim are blue, sometimes black. sometimes the ears got shorter, sometimes they got insanely tall with Sam Keith on art duty (but that was a deliberately extreme visual choice).
Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns from 1986 heavily influenced the artists of the 90s, since a grizzled, chunky Batman with dark, muted colors and no cheerful gold badge suited the edgy grit of the 1990s. The thing is, TDKR is an alternate 80s series deliberately stylized to portray an over-the-hill Bruce Wayne operating in a dystopian hellscape where everything's gone wrong. He wasn't meant to be what a “Batman in his prime” looks like.
That would be more along the lines of Batman: Year One, written by Miller himself and drawn by David Mazzucchelli in 1987.
In 2002, Batman's design seemed to stabilize with Jim Lee's rock-solid design during the Hush storyline: Gray bodysuit, dark blue cowl, fairly short ears, large black bat symbol on the chest, muscular past the point of ordinary people but not a brick wall, and more often than not, a permanent scowl. The Batman of the 00s was serious business. It was all grit and very little of the warmth that balanced out his humanity (and his sanity). Batman's cold “Batgod” personality where he was paranoid to the point of constantly being prepared to take down anybody, be it friend or foe became a cliché. It became a plot point in Infinite Crisis where his paranoid dickishness led to a sentient spy satellite he created to go rogue and create super-powerful killing cyborgs for a government black ops agency. Oops.
Then he died and came back to life. It happens.
2011 saw yet another massive continuity reboot with the Flashpoint event and the “New 52” ushering in the “Prime Earth” timeline.
Like the new continuity or not (I certainly hated it, but for lots of reasons not worth getting into right now), we got a new, standardized Batman costume. Gray suit, black cowl & trim, black chest emblem with a little bit of gold or white to help it stand out on his chest. Its actually quite good in most ways. Except for two things: The weird little seam lines around the bodysuit feel like needless busywork. I get that its supposed to hint at being armored under there because Bruce is just a guy so he'd need body armor, but this is Batman we're talking about here. Realism stopped applying the moment he looked at a bat and went “That's the ticket!”
The other problem is the lack of trunks, which you don't realize is a problem until they're gone. Again, I've heard the Realism argument, but he fistfights people dressed like clowns regularly, so no, I reject the validity of that point. They may look silly on a flesh and blood actor, but on the page they go a long way to break up the solid gray of the bodysuit and make it easy to cover up the, uh, Bat Batch. Throw on some black trunks and get rid of the busy lines and it'd be a top ten design.
As it stands, for personal preference I'd have to go with the Silver/Bronze Age design as the best. The gold oval around the logo makes it impossible to confuse with anyone else, and the blue instead of black cape make Batman work in every kind of story, from teamups with goofballs like Ambush Bug to finding Robin's broken body after the readers voted to kill him, because with Batman, the lighting is everything for the type of story being told.
Simplicity is king with this design. Its the Batman for all seasons, and you can't go wrong cribbing from masters like Neal Adams, Alan Davis, Norm Breyfogle and Jim Aparo.