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.