Capes benefit characters both from an aesthetic and practical point of view.
Flying and gliding across the sky is enhanced when wearing a cape. Wearing a cape on the ground can give protection, camouflage, and even act as a weapon. A superhero wearing a cape is part of a long tradition that includes not just comic books characters but also literary characters.
Where did capes for superheroes come from?Many consider Superman’s introduction in Action Comics in 1938 to be the first appearance of a superhero wearing a cape.
But before The Man of Steel was introduced in the Golden Age of comics, other superheroes before him such as The Shadow and Mandrake the Magician also wore capes.
As anti-heroes lacking superpowers, they were as influential in the modern comic age as the cape-crusaders of the earlier 19th Century French and Spanish literature were.
Heroes have worn capes in fiction since the mid-1850s. In the French and Spanish literature of the mid-1800s, the Three Musketeers became superheroes because they were masked and caped mystery men with unique abilities. The Musketeers were gentlemen of mystery dedicated to defending the people from tyranny with their swords.
The cape has always been a symbol of aristocracy in 19th-century literature. It has implied wealth and repute. Wearing a cape has always signified great nobility. Capes are worn by gentlemen – including Dracula.
Consider Dracula, the 1932 Universal Studio movie. Adapted from Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, audiences became enthralled with Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula because he was a man of mystery. Count Dracula, a bloodsucking fiend, was a gentleman from Europe in both the novel and movie with a cape who wrapped it around himself to transform into a bat.
In addition to the Three Musketeers, the masked and caped Zorro also influenced a generation of American children in the 20th Century through literature and early film serials.
Just as Superman (Clark Kent), Batman (Bruce Wayne), and the Three Musketeers (Aramis, D’Artagnan, and Porthos), Zorro had a dual-identity.
Introduced in 1919 in the novel The Curse of Capistrano, Zorro (aka Don Diego de la Vega) (Spanish for Fox) was a masked hero dedicated to helping fight tyranny.
Prior to the introduction of comic books, radio, and television, the children of yesteryear (including Jerry Spiegel, the creator of Superman, and Bill Finger and Bob Kane, creators of Batman) flocked to the movies. They went to see the Three Musketeers and Zorro on the silver screen as portrayed by legendary Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Why do superheroes wear capes and tights?Another influence on Marvel and DC comics superheroes with capes is the circus.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, American kids visiting the circus saw circus performers (acrobats and strongmen) in capes and leotards (one-piece, full-body spandex suits) with trunks covering the waist region and high-boots.
These costumes worn by performers were comfortable and flexible. Wearing these costumes drew attention to themselves. But, these costumes also served as protection. Spandex outfits would protect them from an injury such as rope burns which would also help to protect superheroes fighting evil.
What was the purpose of capes?
Superheroes like Superman, Batman, Doctor Strange, Thor, and Spawn wear capes for specific reasons – and its not only because of aesthetic look and practical usage.
Capes make a superhero look extraterrestrial. A Cape creates mystery, etc.
The capes of Superman and Batman act as a shield – Batman's is bulletproof. A cape distracts an enemy in combat. Spinning in a cape can act as a diversion allowing a superhero to escape an unwinnable scenario. The capes worn by Doctor Strange and the Scarlett Witch have magical powers. Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation allows him to float, even though that is not its only power. Strange also uses his cloak as a weapon – he uses it to defend himself against enemy attacks as it can grab and hold a villain.
Spawn's cape can fight his enemies even when its owner is incapactitated. Spawn’s cape is living creature. Spawn is attuned to his cape and his costume – they have a symbiotic relationship. As a living organism, the Cape feeds off Spawn’s nervous system; it survives on his necroplasma.
Unlike any other superhero, Spawn’s cape has its own name. Known as Leetha of the 7th House of K, the cape and suit provide Spawn his power. They allow him to create weapons of personal destruction that he can use to lash out against his enemies such as spikes, armor, chains, etc. Spawn’s cape and suit even allows him to grow in size.
Wearing a cape makes a superhero look much larger and stronger too. A cape can add some a theatricality as well.
Capes can also hide a character when they need to disappear. Batman often uses a cape to blend into the shadows of Gotham City.
Batman’s cape draws attention to and masks his body when on the move – making it difficult for an enemy to shoot at him. Batman’s cape is one of his best accessories. The Dark Knight's cape masks his body and prevents his enemies from being able to shoot directly at his body while at the same time also deflecting his movement.
Thor’s cape cloak is a part of his armor. Shazam’s short-cape has magical powers that are directly-connected to Billy Batson.
A cape also shows movement in comic books. The flow of a cape can highlight the physics of a scene in a comic book panel. Capes are a great tool for animators and comic book artists because they make drawing a superhero easier since they allow them to skip drawing the backside of a character.
Why does Superman wear his cape behind his back?Superman wears a cape on his back because if worn down the front of the body, he would not be able to have use or a free range of motion with his arms.
Wearing a front cape, Superman's arms would get tangled up in his cape. If Superman temporarily lost the use of his arms, he would no longer be able to defend the Earth once encountering a threat.
On websites like Reddit, superhero fans often discuss what the Marvel or DC Comics universe would be like if all the superheroes of the world got rid of their capes.
A superhero cape works for some superheroes better than others. Capes are essential to understanding how the superhero exists in our world.
Capes do not necessarily work for all superheroes, though. A Superhero like Aquaman, for example, does not wear a cape because it doesn't serve him in any way.
One thing everyone should consider when imagining your favorite superhero with or without a cape -- whether for a cosplay for comic con or just in a discussion with friends-- is not only how a superhero's cape functions but how it makes you feel when you wear it.