Yesterday, "Our Gods Wear Spandex" author Chris Knowles stated here on CBR his case for why he believes the cover to "Action Comics" #1 may have been playing tribute to the renaissance painting "Heracles and the Hydra" by Antonio Pollauoio. Today, Knowles continues his look at the most iconic comic book cover in history and explores the various depictions of Hercules throughout history and the role Astrotheology played in the creation of Superman.
Contrary to what you might think, I'm not cynical about any of this. They weren't swiping or stealing- they were paying tribute. If I were a young true believer like Jerry Siegel and wanted to show the world that my hero was going to be the new Hercules, I'd pick out my favorite image and work with my artist to really create something special. We've been working on this damn thing for five years, Joe, five years and now we get a shot at the cover- let's make this just like the classics. So instead of a club, our hero wields a friggin' Studebaker. How do you like that, punks? And instead of a Hydra, it's a bunch of no-good hoodlum bums, 'cause the papers always refer to the mob as a "Hydra," on account of the fact that you take one boss out and two more take his place. We can play with the sizing and get some picture of a really nifty-looking sedan 'cause this is our big break, Joe. This is our big break...
I have come to believe that Siegel was making a statement- this is the new Hercules, and he will be the greatest hero of this age. Siegel was no dummy, and he was nothing like the naïf that fan mythology has painted him as. Even a cursory glance at his career proves he learned his lessons well from mystic-minded pulp authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer and Walter Gibson. And there are plenty of examples of Herculean iconography on the covers of Superman comics during Siegel's run.
Once this is settled in my mind, something Dave mentions in passing upsets my applecart entirely:
There's something very archetypal about the image, as evidenced by the recurrence of the image in Western art. Pollaiuolo was probably basing his depiction on statues of various gods, including Hercules, in the same position
Furthermore, it's likely that the position was not original with the Greeks. I've also attached an image of the Phoenician god Marduk, whom the Greeks considered to be the same as Heracles/Hercules. The pose actually goes back even further, to a traditional Egyptian motif, usually referred to as "Pharoah smites his enemies"
So the wheels start turning. I'm in Jungian Heaven- a bona fide universal mythos, all in color for a dime. Right about the same time I'm chewing on that, I get an angry email showing me a bunch of other poses of Hercules, just like the one in "The Hydra," see, so there, shut your face already. Which is kind of a strange way of proving that the pose wasn't based on Hercules. Anyhow, a couple of them are actually images of the constellation of Hercules. My brain is about to explode and I look at a bunch of other images of Hercules and I think – Damn, Astrotheology. What did you step in, Jerry?
The night sky was where the action was in the ancient world. It's how they marked the passing of time and how they predicted the future. The Zodiac is so ancient no one is really sure where it comes from, and scholars believe that many of the ancient myths in the movements of the stars and the planets. It's my belief that when an ancient hero "defies the gods" what he is actually doing is acting against the advice of his astrologer, who charted "the will of the gods" with horoscopes. So what all of those old artists were doing when they depicted Hercules or Marduk or Horus in that "Hydra" pose was creating an icon based on the constellation of Hercules, which everyone would have understood the importance of.
But it gets stranger.
I've been writing on the blog about the Art Deco movement and its influence on comics, and recently found a couple Art Deco statues of Hercules from the early 20th Century done by a Danish sculptor named Rudolph Tegner. And they both picture Hercules with both arms raised above his head. This may well be where Siegel first saw the image; maybe in a trip to the museum or reading a magazine or whatever people did back then waiting for Wii to be invented. Again, though not a great businessman, Siegel was a very smart guy and he may well have known that all of these icons were based on the constellation and wanted to play with that iconography with Shuster.
So getting back to why everyone is angry at me, that pose of Superman on the cover of "Action" #1 is essentially the same pose that artists had been depicting Hercules and his equivalents in for literally thousands of years. And they did so because that pose is based on the constellation of Hercules. And an early-unfinished cover lays it on the line in black and white- to Siegel and Shuster, Superman is the new Hercules.
It's one thing to say, it's another to fully realize the implications of that. Heracles may have been a hero, but Hercules was a god. Shouting out "Mehercle!" (pronounced "miracle," perhaps?) in Roman was as common as people yelling "Jesus!" today. In fact, in many ways Hercules was a Jesus figure in the ancient world. The fact that this figure comes to us from an ancient astronomical tradition raises all sorts of issues I'm not even bother trying to address, they're so frigging overwhelming. But some of the reactions I've gotten to my theories on "Action" #1 remind me a lot of some of the reactions I've seen surrounding the Shroud of Turin, or Creationism, or biblical inerrancy. But I can certainly understand these impulses and even appreciate them. After all, I wrote "Our Gods Wear Spandex" about them.
I'm pretty low in the funnybook pecking order (just below the stockboy at Wild Bill's Comics Roundup) and I realize someone else will have to probably establish all of this in the record. What I hope to do is open people's eyes to the greater issues, and the astonishing legacy of superheroes. A lot of fans feel guilty or ashamed about their passion because society still sees all this stuff as juvenilia. The fact that a figure as historically central as Hercules is encoded in the basic DNA of characters like Superman can open people's eyes to how deep - and how important - this type of storytelling can be.
For more from Chris Knowles, check out his blog at http://secretsun.blogspot.com.
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