Is Action Comics #1 a Swipe? (Updated)

It is the single most iconic image in the history of comic books. But was it swiped?



"Liebowitz pressed Vin Sullivan to get the fourth comic book up and running…The title would now be Action Comics. There was no time to go soliciting material.

Independent wanted it on the racks in the spring of 1938, and the sales force was going to push it hard. The deadline was so tight that Sullivan would have to pull it together from inventory and stockpile pages. Only parts of it would be printed in color. He collected a decent set of adventure strips, but it lacked a strong lead feature. He wanted something with a catchy central character, something he could splash on the cover, but there was nothing at hand strong enough. So he asked his friend and former coworker Sheldon Mayer if Charles Gaines had anything knocking around that he hadn’t been able to set up with the McClure Syndicate.

Mayer found a rejected Superman comic strip, and then…Vin wrote his letter to Jerry [Siegel] and Joe [Shuster], telling them that their Superman samples were headed for Cleveland by parcel post and that if they could cut and paste them into thirteen comic book pages in a matter of days, he’d buy them." - Gerard Jones, in Amazing Heroes #96, June 1, 1986

As I write in Our Gods Wear Spandex, Jerry Siegel was one of those creators who seemed to have a fairly deep fascination with the occult and mythology. Siegel is on record as saying that his inspiration for Superman came from mythic characters like Samson and Hercules. And as I document in Spandex, Lex Luthor bears a strong resemblance to infamous British occultist, Aleister Crowley, both visually and biographically. And of course, Superman's immediate prototype was the occult detective Doctor Mystic, aka Doctor Occult...




The cover of Action #1 may well be a homage to one of Siegel's inspirations. The pose bears a strong resemblance to a classic image of Hercules- "Heracles and the Hydra" painted by Antonio Del Pollaiolo in 1475.



• Note, for instance, that the angle of Hercules' staff is identical to that of the running board of the car there. The position of the legs is changed but the effect is the same. And the forward foot looks swiped.

• Both heads are oriented downward. Shuster's anatomy on Superman's torso seems a bit awkward, as if he were trying to force the swipe into the pose, but as with the hand couldn't nail the anatomy.

• Note that Superman's hand seems to be a bit tentative, as if hastily redrawn.

• Early versions of Superman did not have a cape. Was Hercules' lion skin cloak the inspiration for that?



• The rock on Action is a near stand-in for the body of the hydra, following essentially the same contours.

• The hydra's neck forms a S, just like the snake-like S on Superman's chest.

• Note that the flying rock is in the same position and orientation as the hydra's head.

• Note that the hydra's belly seems to become the tire, an obvious choice since the scales are reminiscent of tire treads.

•The nebulous background on Action also is strongly reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. Perhaps a subconscious inspiration, but seeing that the pose of Batman from Detective #27 was taken straight from an Alex Raymond strip, perhaps not.

Siegel and Shuster were under the gun to get this book together, they certainly could well have drawn on one of their top influences to create an iconic image for their shot at the big time. It certainly wouldn't be the first time...

Swipe? Homage? Sheer coincidence? It's seems obvious to me to be a swipe, but I'd like to hear more opinions on this...

Action Comics, Superman ©2007 DC Comics, Inc.

4 comments:

  1. Chris,
    I've never been much of a comic book aficionado but I like the correlations you are finding. They remind me of some of the techniques used by early Catholics to make the new religion more palatable to sun worshiping pagans. In this case it seems more like a simple artistic swipe they used to build the character around. My guess is that you are seeing something deeper and I'm sure you delve into this in the book. If you you think they are, my question is Why? I can see many cases where the religious framework is used as a clever mean to package products that become fads.

    More later.

    -Dave

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  2. Hey Dave,

    What I'm saying is that they might have swiped the image, or more accurately, taken design elements from it because they needed to throw something together quickly.

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  3. Makes sense to me. I can't think of the name of it, but many artists still keep samples from which they draw animals, plants, people, etc.? Some artists keep thousands of such images in little books and folders they can quickly reference. If they had such samples with them it would have been easy to swipe such an image out and quickly create a pose and basic imagery to draw from...

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  4. Very interesting theory. I really wish there were more to support it to the blind eye, though the angles you provide are quite eye-opening.

    Best of luck in your continued research!

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