They say that clothes make the man, and if that’s true, then Laura Jean Shannon has made most of your favorite screen superheroes. As supersuit designer, Shannon has been responsible for designing and creating the costumes worn in the first Iron Man film, TV's Black Lightning and The Boys, and DC Universe’s Titans, Doom Patrol, and Stargirl. We recently had a chance to chat with Laura Jean, who gave us some insight into how she brings our beloved characters' costumes to life, the Easter eggs she's incorporated into their designs, and how the outfits of Stargirl capture the heart and soul of the source material. Read on to hear what she had to tell us!
Can you talk a little bit about your history with comics and with superheroes in particular? Were you a fan as a kid and, if so, were there any particular characters that inspired your art and design?
I used to go to a little corner market in my hometown with my dad every weekend and I'd grab an Archie comic or a Spider-Man. I always, well into adulthood, watched my Saturday morning cartoons and was always really jazzed for any superhero stuff. I think that it was just woven into the fabric of who I was creatively without my really realizing that it was an opportunity for me to be able to make my life's work be mashed with it -- until later when I started to be a costume designer and designing a myriad of different projects. I always [thought] that it would be really neat to be able to design superhero projects.
When [director] Jon Favreau called me for the first Iron Man, I thought that was a really cool opportunity to get in with Marvel when they were first starting out as their own entity, as their own studio. Landing here on all of these shows on the DC Universe, it's really a homecoming for me. When I first designed Black Lightning's original suit for Season 1, it was actually for a pilot presentation. My husband said to me, "Honey, I don't think I've ever seen you this excited about your work." Later in the day, I got a call from our studio executive at Warner Brothers and she said, "Hey, when are you leaving again? Because Geoff Johns and Akiva Goldsman want to meet with you to talk about Titans." I said, "Today." She was like, "Wait, don't leave." So I got on a call with those guys that day and it was just a really neat meeting because it was cool to talk to like-minded folks who really understood the value of what our collaboration could bring. It's just been a dream ever since.
Can you take us through the approach you took with each of your DC Universe projects and how that approach may have differed from show to show?
The opportunity I've been given by being able to design all of these shows is that each and every one of them has such a unique voice and requires a unique visual voice. I share my specific office with my assistant designer Sarah Mgeni and my visual administrator Jen Chen. We have lining the walls of our office all of the concept art of the characters that we've done on Titans, Doom Patrol, Stargirl, and also Black Lightning. It's so cool because when you look at all of that stuff and when we have folks that come visit, the actors will come in there and have a little chat with me before we go into the fitting room. Everybody always says the same thing, which is, "Wow, you would never imagine the same person designed all these shows," because they're all so visually specific to the show and to the characters. That is something that my team and I really pride ourselves in and really value, which is constantly researching and developing new techniques, new materials, new construction, fabrication, engineering, innovation. My concept artists, of course, are also just phenomenal.
Speaking of phenomenal, how did you go about creating the costumes for Titans?
Titans was our first jumping-off point into the DC Universe and it was really fun to develop the visual language for that show. One of the things that was really important -- to Geoff and Akiva and then Greg Walker -- was that our show is grounded in reality even though it's a superhero show. It was really important to them that we'd be able to create suits that weren't only practical and fully functional, but also that could coexist in the Titans world. It was really quite the task because what we wanted to do was in some ways for the first time create cinematic costumes that were in line with the design in films, but that could be practically worn and that didn't have to always have visual effects augmenting them in order for them to tick off all the boxes of being overtly a superhero costume; being badass and also being able to function on the body.
I'll never forget when I was given the task to design Hawk and Dove, for instance, who are just such cool characters, but also a major challenge. I had to put this dude in a white suit and have him look like a badass. You can draw that, no problem, but when you actually are talking about putting a white suit on a human being and having them look menacing, that's a whole other order. Dove with her beautiful wings...everybody was convinced, they had a bet against me that there was no way we'd be able to practically build wings that were cool, badass, and also beautiful. I loved being handed a challenge like that. It was the journey on that project for each of our characters to create things that were practical.
Your Titans costumes looked like they jumped right off of the page. The Robin costume is especially dynamic.
For Dick Grayson/Robin, it was important to me that we engineer his R to be a practical weapon. When you see that on screen, when he's prepping his chest and the R comes out and he throws it, that actually is happening. Also, being a geek myself, I love a good Easter egg. So with each one of our costumes, we try to embed some Easter eggs into it. If you look at Dick Grayson/Robin, for instance, the repeat of that R that we use for his fighting weapon is also what comprises his tactical fabric that his entire suit is built out of. Then we also have another repeat of it on the interior of his cape. It's meant to look like chain mail, but when you get really close up, it's, again, the repeat of the R. So it's just layer upon layer of really paying attention to all of the details and really just assuming that every single solitary person that's watching our project is going to notice those details. If they don't, they're going to feel those details. Even if your eyes don't catch them, your soul does and your heart does.
Your costumes on Doom Patrol definitely capture the soul of the show's characters. They look just like Richard Case’s illustrations in his and writer Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol run.
I originally designed the characters Robotman, Negative Man, and Elasti-Woman for the Titans episode “Doom Patrol.” It's very rare as a costume designer that you're given the opportunity to also design creatures, robots, and other fantastical things that keep you up at night with excitement. Robotman was another one where I think, in the background, they had the bet against me. "There's no way she's going to be able to build a robot that a man wears that’s going to not look goofy." Had we followed the rules, guidelines, and construction principles that you ordinarily adhere to when building something like a mechanical suit worn by a man, I agree, because it looks really goofy. I just knew that Robotman had to be sexy, had to emote, and had to just have an energy about him that was sensitive and strong. He has a heart and has a brain. Those things were details that were just so imperative. Of course, I always like to find practical solutions for the choices made by the folks who created the characters in the book. Robotman had this giant shoulder apparatus for no actual reason other than it made him look cool and roboty. In our version, we covered them with these artistically-created photovoltaic cells. Then we made his little dial on his jacket a barometer for reading the amount of energy stored from the photovoltaic cells on his shoulder apparatus.
Cyborg, of course, being cybernetic, had to be part man, part machine. Trying to create a practical costume knowing that we were not going to be relying on any visual effects help -- that could seamlessly transition from organic to mechanic -- was something that made us want to laugh, cry, cheer, and crawl into a hole, but, ultimately, rejoice once we completed it. We went through a bunch of different iterations and played around with the concept for him, getting feedback from our amazing showrunner Jeremy Carver and Geoff Johns, who is obviously just such a great guy to be collaborating with for this.
Titans and Doom Patrol have two completely different tones. Did your approach change between the two?
The difference in terms of the principles of the way that the suits are approached is that when Doom Patrol moved over to its own show, that was really the only episode that we had to be concerned with a man in a robot suit. Generally speaking, other than Doctor Light for Season 2, we really don't have a whole lot of electronics over on Titans. It's more straightforward, overt superhero costumes and there's a lot of really intense fight sequences. My set team, led by Hannah Snow and Jesse Ray, who are my supervisors over there, are just really great at helping us keep those suits looking like super suits. Because I always joke that though they play super suits on TV, they're really just custom fabrics and unconventional materials integrated together and integrated engineering techniques. My team on that project really needs to have a lot of expertise in electronics and in engineering things.
In the case of Stargirl, the source material was created in the early '40s with the Justice Society. How did you bring these costumes to life for the modern era, especially with young people playing the characters?
Working on Stargirl was awesome because, of course, Geoff Johns is the creator of the show and our showrunner. He and I already had several years of collaborating together under our belt by the time Stargirl came around. I'll never forget, he actually called me on my cell phone right before he got greenlit. He gave me the lowdown on the show. I was so excited and living with so much excitement in my heart before we even got to start doing the work. It gave me an opportunity to do a bunch of research on the characters before even getting to meet with Geoff.
One thing that I love about Geoff is that he's really clear about his vision and he's really able to definitively give me direction and feedback. He was able to furnish me with a lot of visuals that he had been compiling as well on each and every one of the characters. As I always do -- but this time in a really involved way with Geoff as my pilot, and I was the co-pilot -- I got to research the characters from their genesis. He was able to point out to me all of the aspects of the different versions of them that really spoke to him. I know that fans are really always looking for which version I was inspired by. The answer is almost always going to be a little bit of every version. It's like taking the body of work and the lineage of the characters and extrapolating elements from each version of them that resonate with the modern interpretation in each of our shows.
While you were creating the costumes for Stargirl, what sorts of challenges did you encounter?
With Stargirl, one of the things that was really important to Geoff, and that I just really love, is that he really wanted to embrace the classic, old-school characters. He really wanted us to have a nostalgic feeling to the characters. The show is very immersed in nostalgia, and that was an important jumping-off point for him. He wanted the audience to see the characters and have a visceral reaction to it. To strike a chord inside themselves that really brought them back to their youth in a way. The construction principles and the design principles for all of those characters are very clean, very streamlined, and very steeped in the nostalgia and genesis of the characters while utilizing all of the tricks that we have in our arsenal, making really cool fabrics and using really excellent tailoring.
For instance, with Stargirl, herself, we have five different custom fabrics that I created for her that we put together with really unique design lines and then had our master tailors figure out how to create it in such a way that it fits her seamlessly. Geoff really wanted all of the suits to have the look and feel that you do in films, where they painstakingly paint out the wrinkles. It was a really neat challenge as well to be able to take all of that history, infuse it into these kids, and have it work in that way where modern audiences can really relate to the hopeful innocence that comes with a design that has that nostalgic sense to it.