Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Forget the New Gods, what about the Old Gods?

Okay, I'm still working on my second post re: Jack Kirby's Fourth World, but in the meantime, this article showed up over Comic Book Resources today. Chris Knowles argues (and promotes his new book, Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Superheroes) for the influence of ancient myths on the creation of Superman and subsequent costumed crimefighters in general, and specifically that the cover of Action Comics #1 was all but copied from a Renaissance of Heracles by Antonio Pollauio. I gotta say, I'm not really buying that last bit. It seems a little too Da Vinci Code to me. But what do I know? Maybe someone with some art or design background (you out there, Wade?) can weigh in on these graphs and charts.
Knowles (a dubious name for someone putting forth opinions on the Internet) seems a little single-minded here, and makes no mention of circus strongmen, who most certainly influenced Superman's look. Circus strongmen indeed wore colourful costumes, including tights and leotards and sometimes capes or robes as they made their entrance into the ring, and were not shy at all about drawing comparisons to Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian legends. Certainly, the circus would be much more familiar to a couple of teenagers growing up in Cleveland in the 1930s than Renaissance art.
And with all due respect to Siegel and Shuster (who, for the record, is as Canadian as Jack Kerouac--which is to say, not really), I think Knowles is giving them too much credit. I'm skeptical of Siegel's supposed contribution to the layout, and the process Knowles describes seems a little beyond the famously near-sighted Shuster's abilities.
All the same, Knowles has an interesting premise for his book (which CBR bafflingly describes as a "256 page novel"). Though its narrow focus seems to lead Knowles towards inflated conclusions, it's probably worth a look.
UPDATE: Knowles posted an interesting bit on his blog on the symbolism and metaphoric properties of superheroes, which is the stuff I like. Again, he's a little wide of his mark and a little too narrowly focused, but he's playing with fun ideas.

1 comment:

wade said...

Ok, I'll weigh in on this. While there are certainly similarities, both are kind of based on pretty common principles in the worlds of design and fine art. Hercules and the Hydra is built upon the golden ratio or the Fibonacci number which is, really, kind of everywhere but especially in the world of art. Though, after looking at it, it isn't really the perfect ratio but, it fits the same principle. You can get a glimpse of it at work on the image at:

As you can tell in the image, arms try to follow the yellow angles. The foot aims towards the center. Well, you get the idea. It's pretty common stuff and once you know what you're looking for, you kind of see it everywhere. It's possible that the Superman cover is based on this image but it's more likely that the pose was witnessed elsewhere and went with. Of course, there are only so many ways you can lift something over your head and face an object so, um, you know. Comic cover.

Read up on the math here: