The "Action Comics" #1 Cover Debate – Part 1

Wed, November 28th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Chris Knowles, Guest Writer

While preparing images for a recent CBR story on my new book, "Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes, I noticed that the cover of "Action Comics" #1, theur-icon of modern superhero history, bears a striking resemblance to a legendary Renaissance painting of Hercules. The article triggered a blizzard of controversy on the CBR Forums, since as many people rightly noted, there are significant differences in the poses of the main figures. However, the poses themselves were not what I was focusing on. The more I looked at the two images, striking parallels in placement and orientation emerged, parallels too exact to be coincidental. And in researching this story further, I've discovered information that put the ancient gods within the essential DNA of superheroes in ways I never before imagined.

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.

Hercules (aka Heracles) wasn't just a hero in the ancient (and not-so-ancient) world- he was the hero. He had cities named after him, cults dedicated to him and Roman emperors like Commodus running around dressed like him. Considered to be the protector of mankind and enemy of tyrants, his influence spread as far east as Japan and as far west as England (where some scholars believe there's a priapic representation of the hero carved in the chalk near Cerne Abbey). Amazingly, Hercules was placed on the official city seal of Florence in the 13th Century and was later appropriated by the powerful Medici family for their seal.  Hercules also enjoyed a hearty revival in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries when the Neoclassical and Art Deco movements put mythological icons back in the mainstream, and this is the environment that Siegel and Shuster were raised in.

So what does this have to do with Superman and that damn cape of his? 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

Anyway,  I'm promoting "Our Gods Wear Spandex" and the opportunity comes up to run an excerpt on CBR. While pulling together images, I come across "Heracles and the Hydra" by Antonio Pollauoio and I think, "Damn, that looks like the cover of 'Action' #1. You got the running figure with his arms above his head faced by a big, lumpy thing on the right side of the image. I think I'll be clever and do a montage comparing the two- you know, a god wearing spandex." But then I look at it some more and I think "damn if that's not a swipe, or an homage, or an 'inspired by,' or whatever I can call it that won't get people really mad at me."

So, CBR runs the piece, plays up the "Action" thing and a bunch of folks get really mad at me. I can relate: Comic fans are a very tough breed and very protective of their icons. A bunch of CBR readers put me through my paces on the boards. But I appreciate the skepticism. It forces me to really go over my facts and to really think about why Siegel may have chosen this piece for his big break. I just wasn't prepared for where all of this was going to take me.

Needing to bolster my case, I sought expert opinion: Gerard Jones, the author of the indispensable "Men of Tomorrow" and my favorite book of all time, "The Comic Book Heroes"; Roy Thomas, comic book legend and Golden Age scholar; and my friend David Dodd, who's doing post-grad for his degree in intellectual property law. Happily, Gerry, Roy and Dave all think I'm on to something. These guys know the history of Hercules and Siegel's obsession with the character. But they all say I have some pretty hefty obstacles on the road to proving my case. Dave commented that:

To my mind, the biggest problem with your suggestion is whether Siegel or Shuster had ever seen the Pollaiuolo painting. There wouldn't have been either the internet, or the range of art books that have reproduced the painting.

Gerry is more confident that the painting had been available, but lays down the challenge that I would have to prove that fact:

Jerry Siegel may even have said something to the effect of, "Hey, Joe, let's go look for pictures of Hercules and Samson at the library."  To back this up further, you might have to dig around among art books that would have been available to the library-going public or a young art student in America in the 1930s.  Although it seems pretty reasonable to assume that an image of the Pollaiolo Hercules would have been pretty available.

So I have to find a reproduction of "Heracles and the Hydra" - a very famous and well-known painting, mind you - predating 1938, and available to an average citizen of Cleveland, USA.  I'm sure there are several, but I need a bit of habeas corpus to sway skeptical fans.

Well, it just turns out there was at least one printed image of the painting available in 1938. Available in 1907, in fact.

The painting was printed on a plate facing pg. 66 in the book "Antonio Pollaiuolo," By Maud Cruttwell, which was published 1907 by C. Scribner's Sons.  The copy on Google Books comes from the Harvard University collection, and it's a safe bet that this book was in the Cleveland Public Library or any other major library Siegel had access to.

Now, at first glance the poses themselves may not seem very convincing. They both picture a guy running, but the legs are switched and the left arms are different. But that's not how these things always work.

As you see from the diagrams, the figure itself is the least of my worries. It had to be changed a bit to tell the story. Not only that, but close examination shows very awkward anatomy and very ragged lines, as if there's a lot of inking over whiteout on that thing.  The head and the arm don't seem to belong on that torso, and the entire figure is full of proportion mistakes.

Despite this, the orientation of both figures is identical, as are several of the key corresponding points in both images. Hercules club is within four degrees of the running board of the Studebaker. The orientation of the of the car as it meets the rock is identical to where Hercules' forearm is gripping the Hydra. The long shadow, the tire, and the flying rock all correspond to similar shaped details in the Hercules painting- the river, the Hydra's belly and one it's head in angle, contour and placement.

Seeing that forms and angles in the lower right hand quadrants of both paintings correspond too well for coincidence under any reasonable definition of that word, Shuster may well have used an opaque projector, which have been in use since at least 1900. Simple  opaque projectors would have been commonly used by artist bullpens- in fact, affordable projectors were made by a company right in Cleveland, the Buckeye Stereopticon Co. It would have allowed him to change the size of the figure in relation to the other details. Using key angles as reference points, Shuster would have drawn in contemporary details that would tell the story of Superman as the new Hercules.

This sort of thing is par for the course in commercial art- every artist I've ever met in my 20 years as a professional uses reference in this fashion. This is especially true in ad storyboarding, where artists have to work quickly and translate scraps of reference in all sorts of ways to fit the script. Studios are filled with volumes of photo reference, magazines, clippings, and fine art books to supply artists with images that usually become something else entirely. It's just the way things are done- two joggers become roller-bladers, a guy in a Mustang becomes a guy in a speedboat. Take a look at the appendices in "Kingdom Come" to see how Alex Ross does exactly what I believe Siegel and Shuster did then. Ross learned these long-established methods while he himself was working in advertising.

Shuster originally wanted to hire a model to pose for Lois Lane, so he knew the game. As Wally Wood famously put it, "Never draw what you can copy; never copy what you can trace; and never trace what you can cut out and paste up." Whatever mistakes in the figure re-drawing can be chalked up to haste and inexperience. Artists are "paying homage" to the same two or three Steranko covers every month, so maybe a lot of us are conditioned to see more explicit homages, but that's not the way its always done.

That takes care of the means, what about the motive and opportunity? Well, in my eyes the "opportunity" was the motive.

TOMORROW: WAS SUPERMAN'S STORY WRITTEN IN THE STARS?

For more from Chris Knowles, read his blog at http://secretsun.blogspot.com.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Community forum.

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