Monday, December 03, 2007

The Secret Secret Origin of Superman?

We got letters! If you wish to read them in full, just scroll down to the past blogs, specifically the Stardust and Green Lama focused ones. However, I do want to call attention to them and a couple of links they provided. Paul Karasik reminds me that the name of his Fletcher Hanks book is “I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!” and is currently on its third printing! Way to go Paul! Also, there’s a link provided to a Fantomah story not found in the book if you cannot just get enough of Hanks’ oddball style to:

Writer/artist of the Green Lama mini coming from AC Comics has a preview of the first issue up at his site (there are a few more pages in the printed book, he promises). So, if you a bit more of a sample than the cover image:

The Secret Secret Origin of Superman

In talking about his upcoming book “Our Gods Wear Spandex”, Chris Knowles compares Joe Shuster’s iconic cover of Action Comics #1 to the renaissance painting “Heracles and the Hydra” by Antonio Pollauoio. By comparing angles and such he scores a few hits in making an objective and informed argument, even if to do so, he must in one instance have Superman be the same size as the Heracles figure and in another, change the size of the figure so as the Hydra and car line up properly.

But, where he falls is when he tries to take the arguments further and what he actually ignores. A problem I had in my younger days with English teachers and criticisms. They become so concerned with intellectualizing a story, with dissecting and codifying it into themes, metaphors, and symbolisms that would put Dan Brown to shame, they forget the actual story and confuse it all with actual intent and fact. Many times, the symbols and themes that one sees in a story inform us more about the readers than the authors, it’s what they bring to the book not necessarily what’s really there or intended. Ask Roy Thomas about the sexuality of Union Jack and Dynamite in THE INVADERS sometime, something many readers and some creators thought was very obvious. Until someone actually thought to ask Thomas what he intended.

Despite his objective hits, in his subjective arguments Chris Knowles shows many holes in his reasoning. First, we’ll look at the painting. 1) While Kane is known for using swipes, Joe Shuster used models and tons of assistants. But no one before has really shown a link to any swipes. 2) While swipes was indeed a common practice, most of these artists were pulp and comic strip fans and indeed aspired to working for them and as such, swipes tended to be from those and other illustrator sources. Not museum pieces. (And for a painting that he claims is famous, as someone who read a lot of mythology and was an art major for 3 years in college, I cannot say if I ever saw this painting before). 3) I’ve never seen in the history of swipes or homages or what you want to call it, where the energy and direction of the two pieces would be so dissimilar resulting in a completely different effect.

The last part is where I really have trouble with it. He argues that the anatomy of the Shuster figure seems off, yet I don’t see any inconsistencies in it especially compared to his other drawings. What it does show is a very different style and approach to drawing, more akin to the pulp and comic strip illustrations. Whereas the painting Heracles does look stiff and awkward and suggests impending action. He’s rearing back, preparing to strike, all the energy and the viewer’s attention is being pulled into the Heracles figure. Shuster’s cover instead is action personified, a violent explosion emanating from the Superman figure as he is shoving the car forward while in full run, the dashing against the rock with parts flying and people fleeing outward. The two works are almost complete polar opposites in the way they actually read which is not something one aims for when choosing to actually reference an earlier work. You use the reference to gain a similar effect, to help get it right. Not to do it differently (unless you are purposely parodying or critiquing the reference).

In looking at pulp covers, I came across a cover from 1935 that is very simlar to the running pose of of Superman on that cover. In fact, other than the position of the arm, I think it has more in common with the Superman figure than the Heracles does. For one thing, much of the energy, the suggestion of forward movement is the same. And, then there’s this 1936 issue of MORE FUN COMICS, a title Siegel and Shuster were doing Doctor Occult. Look closely, and you’ll see the same triangle frame-work that ACTION COMICS #1 and the Heracles painting share though reversed. But, noting the similarity and actually arguing the intent are two different things.

As Knowles goes on, it becomes obvious that he’s over-intellectualizing in his approach to Superman and other early comics. He sees similarities and relationships without taking into account contexts, without actually looking at the creators or the time period they and their works exist in. From his interviews:

This all started with a nagging question: Why would Superman wear a cape? It would be a liability in a battle; it could blow in your face and block your vision at the worst damn times. And what about the Spandex? Superheroes like the Shadow and Doc Savage were around before Superman and most of them didn’t run around in skintight clothing, right? Well, perhaps it’s because the guy who created Superman had his sights set on an earlier role model.

… Well, I got to thinking that it reminded me of Hercules and his lion skin, which was always flapping around in the breeze. Of course, I thought this until I saw "Heracles and the Nemean Lion" by the Renaissance relief sculptor Antico, which pictures Hercules almost exactly as Superman is today: short, wavy hair, long, flowing cape and naked, muscular body. Well, OK, add the Spandex and the underpants and it’s Superman.

Except for a few other nagging details. Because, instead of looking to the sources, to the accounts by Siegel & Shuster, to the context of the times and the types of works that they and other creators stated as serving as inspirations for the characters, he runs with what the character reminds him of. Right away, he's judging the work through his own eyes and perceptions instead of actually being objective.

If you look at Siegel and Shuster’s own accounts and such, we know they read pulps. In fact, the pulp that inspired both of them, the one that contained the first Buck Rogers story, but whose cover of a flying man (not Buck) seemed to be a watershed moment for many early science fiction fans and wannabe writers, I’ll be danged if it doesn’t look too different from a superhero type costume. Tights were already being worn by the Phantom in the comic strip pages. An early drawing of Doctor Occult in superhero costume shows him in cape, tight shorts and boots, looking very much like covers and the St. John drawings of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter. And you have Tarzan himself flexing his muscles fighting lions and such. There were covers of Doc Savage where he wore just shorts, looking very much like a superhero. Keep in mind that Carter’s abilities and all were Superman in reverse, an Earthman on a warlike planet with lesser gravity giving him vast powers and able to bring about justice through that greater strength. Circus performers, weight lifters and other professional strongmen ( and had been sporting similar outfits for years whereas Lee Falk credited portrayals of Robin Hood in tights inspired the costume of the Phantom. Either way, there’s plenty of direct popular sources for adopting such a look that don’t require a trip to the library or museum. The precedent is in place without them re-inventing the wheel. And Knowles doesn't provide a logical reason as to why his Heracles theory should carry more weight.

No one is arguing that Hercules, Samson, Gilgamesh and Beowulf aren’t the grand-daddies of them all. But, Knowles wants us to believe that they are the direct sources, the direct links. Because it makes the comics sound more intellectual and cleverer than they in reality were, drawing inspirations not from classical literature but the pop culture of the time. It sounds better that they are using renaissance paintings and classical sources for their inspiration instead of some decades old pop culture source a couple of times removed that the general public will never have heard of.

Just as he also suggests that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster seemed to be into the occult and that Lex Luthor bears a strong resemblance to Aleister Crowley. Forgetting that Luthor wasn’t bald to begin with, the argument is spurious at best. Shuster’s drawings were primitive and cartoony in likenesses for all the energy and luster they could have. To say any one character bore a strong resemblance to a living person would be hard to prove. Why not say that it was the actor Lionel Barrymore that fueled the likenesses of Luthor, especially in the post “It’s a Wonderful Life” years? Why would anyone base a mad scientist on Crowley anyways?

And again, to say that early comics were interested in occultism… where’s the charge that Siegel and Shuster were interested in law enforcement and spies since they did strips starring such characters? The real truth is messier and more mundane. First off, both were Jewish just as I’m a Christian. With that comes a bit mythos in upbringing and heritage. One doesn’t have to look any further than the Old Testament to see where the likes of the Spectre comes from. It’s not a question of some esoterical and exotic interest that makes the creation and artform more glamorous, but one of simply heritage and religious background. An everyday humdrum background and heritage that millions share. A lot of comics did deal with ghosts, vampires, magicians and sorcerers, things a little bit out of the purview of that background.

You want an explanation for the ghosts, ghouls and other nightly creatures? Just look again to the pulps. Even by the time of the creation of Doctor Occult, the extremely popular WEIRD TALES had been around for over a decade with tales of Atlantis, heroes on other planets, and ungodly creatures. A steady diet of the likes of Lovecraft William Hodgson’s Carnacki, Seabury Quinn, Manly Wade Wellman and Robert E. Howard will give you enough inspiration to last a lifetime without doing any kind of formal research. You also have the Universal Horror mo vies Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy; the popularity of magician characters such as Chandu and Mandrake, and so on. You don’t need a deliberate interest in the occult more than a general liking and reading of such tales, gaining information second hand from the gestalt of the popular culture of the time any more than Jerry Siegel needed an interest in Entomology to make the comparison of Superman’s leaping ability to a human sized flea. And, the truth is, these comics weren’t all that intellectual. I’ve recently read several werewolf comic book stories, one where the creatures could turn others into creatures like themselves just by their howls and could be killed by bombs and another that stated the preferred method of killing such a creature was a stake through the heart! There's very little indication of any serious research beyond one of today's youth writing a vampire story based on knowledge solely gleaned from watching Buffy and Angel and never reading Dracula or even more obscure tales.

These are people making it up as they go along, pulling bits and pieces from all these different sources that are part of their individual make-ups, from what movies they’ve seen, what books they’ve read and just from what they see in their culture every day. It’s messy and inexact and inaccurate so the method to kill a werewolf is taken from how to kill a Hollywood vampire. It’s not pretty. It’s not people going to the museum or the library to do hours of research as much as it is pulling from various sources just laying around and looking at what succeeds on the next rung up. It’s not glamorous and offends our ideas as we think artists and creators should be all about creation and being Artists. And, too often, comic book fans want to legitimize their hobby and hold it up as high Art by denying the true fact that it is a craft and trade as much as art, meant to tell stories and to entertain and excite. Read some golden-age comics. They are fun and full of potential, rawness and creativity. And many are poorly drawn, stories badly structured and full of latent racism. But, they ain’t intellectual.


Yo said...

Great job Cash.
I enjoyed your critique.


Doctor Zen said...

My contention is that the superheroes (other than the obvious ones like Wonder Woman or Thor)were not directly influenced by research into mythology, but more like mythology and popular culture heroes were both inspired by symbols, archetypes, buried deep in the human consciousness. They are popular because we all share similar dreams. With one exception (Jack Kirby) anybody who tries to create a modern hero based on myth makes a total mash of it.

cash_gorman said...

And even Kirby made a mish-mash of it in the early days. His and Simon's Hurricane/Mercury character was a borrowing of several myths. And Captain Marvel mixed in several mythologies, his name being a hodge podge of Greek and Roman gods as well as two mortal heroes, one from the Illiad and the other from the Old Testament. And Achilles for courage? Captain Marvel's probably one of the few that shows a more literate background and still there doesn't seem to be much more thought given to the character than absolutely necessary, no more research required than a junior high school level of understanding classical literature and a few motifs. The later creations of Mary Marvel and Black Adam undoubtedly sent the writers to the library, but again, mistakes would be made that show a lack of anything more than a superficial understanding as Mary's power brokers were supposedly all female but one minor Greek god is slipped in that's actually male.