Superman doesn't need that phone booth anymore. For 63 years, the Man of Steel has flown through every pop culture medium wearing his blue tights and red cape, a costume that is instantly recognizable from India to Indiana, by ages 8 to 80. The suit has been as indestructible as the hero himself -- until now.
A new WB network series called "Smallville" debuts this season, and, for the first time in any medium, it will chronicle the ongoing exploits of the hero sans costume. The reason? The show's creators say today's teens may be willing to believe a man could leap tall buildings in a single bound, but they're far too hip and media-jaded to accept that he would choose to do so in long johns. "The kids now can't get past that cape," says Miles Millar, one of the show's writers and executive producers. "It is the most recognizable element, yes, but it is also the thing that makes it cheesy."
This is more than one hero's fashion crisis. The "tights problem" speaks to the gradual change in the very nature of the American superhero from a square-jawed, all-American crusader who wraps himself, almost literally, in a flag to today's conflicted, gritty avengers who appear to be outfitted by Versace. The old heroes aren't the only ones looking creaky -- their primordial home, the American comic book, is an eroding business that has gone from a staple of the youth economy to a minor league that offers up its best creations to other mediums. Today's most popular superheroes flash not across newsprint pages, but across shimmering screens in digital glory.
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