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SUPERMANIA

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6/6/08 | 12:19 am

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Prompted by the latest challenge over at Project: Rooftop, I have taken on the daunting task of redesigning THE superhero of superheroes...SUPERMAN!
I must say...the process put me in a bit of a contemplative reverie...


What makes the superman costume a superman costume? Is there something in the visual iconography of the character that, even if only on a subconscious level, underscores his iconic status?

To me, the design of superman's outfit is all sort of an extension of his logo; a proper redesign, it follows, would be as much or more about symbols and graphic design than any fabric-based fashion statements. Michael Chabon, in his illuminating Secret Skin essay, seems to come to a similar conclusion:

a superhero’s costume is constructed not of fabric, foam rubber, or adamantium but of halftone dots, Pantone color values, inked containment lines, and all the cartoonist’s sleight of hand. The superhero costume as drawn disdains the customary relationship in the fashion world between sketch and garment.

The big blue boyscout's got seventy some years of comics attesting to his superpowers, sure, but allowing for a little deconstructive microscopy, I think we might find a decent part of his elevated status stems from the fundamental make-up of his design dna.

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BLUE. YELLOW. RED. Red, yellow, blue. Put these these three primary colors next to one another on a page and I'd wager that most people would be able to guess the character (or characters, if we're including both male and female versions of the archetype) you are trying to evoke*. Symbols are the stuff of which gods are made and superman is indeed a modern symbol of a god in human form (the original inspirations for him, after all, came from mythical strongmen such as Hercules and Samson**, and his birthname, Kal-El, has been pointed out by many as being quite similar to the Hebrew for "voice of god").

According to some interpreters, the red and yellow in superman's costume point to the red and yellow suns of Krypton and Earth (RAO and SOL respectively). The blue might be seen as emblematic of justice and, as in certain blue-skinned deities, cosmic powers likened to the mighty spread of the sky or the sea (& speeding bullets and locomotives, in other contexts).

The superman symbol is large, containing multitudes. Just as the three primary colors in superman's costume can be combined to create every imaginable color in a spectrum, the core structural elements of superman's design (chest logo, strongman physique & cape) have influenced depictions of countless crusaders since him. Primary colors certainly suit the idea of the superman character as macrocosm-in-microcosm, universal man, apollonian ideal and superhero qua superhero.

In constructing a new symbol for superman, we can look at primary shapes as well. An analysis of the famous "Universe" painting by the zen monk Sengai gives a sense of the deep meanings these shapes can convey.

The circle-triangle-square is Sengai's picture of the universe. A circle turns into a triangle, and then into a square, and finally into infinitely varied and varying figures.

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The circle represents the infinite, and the infinite is at the basis of all beings.

I place a circle at the center of my new superman logo.
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Traditionally, the circle is also symbolic of the sun, Photobucket SOL, from which our hero draws his superpowers. To include RAO in this symbol, I go from the dotted circle SOL to the two-dotted circle recognized as yin/yang, Photobucket, the ancient symbol of unity in duality. I think it fits: superman is a being of two worlds and two identities, both human and more-than-human, balancing ultimate strength with ultimate compassion. In place of a hexagram (which would illustrate the same union of opposites), this modified yin/yang symbol is less overtly-loaded with religious connotations*** and, as and added bonus, implicitly serves up the classic superman 'S'!

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On to the next shape...

...the infinite in itself is formless. We humans endowed with senses and intellect demand tangible forms. Hence a triangle, which symbolizes the human body in its triple aspect, [mental, physical and spiritual].

I draw a triangle surrounding the circle.

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Going by the above analysis, the resultant circle-in-triangle symbol could be interpreted as the infinite in human form (or, looked at from the opposite end of things, the identity of the bodily existence with ultimate reality). Flipped vertically (as it would be on the suit), an alternate reading of sun-over-water becomes available; this opens up the idea of superman as a variation on the character of Helios/Apollo, flying in the chariot of the sun across the sky to Oceanus.

The symbol bears some resemblance, in simplified form, to the "squaring of the circle" glyph created by alchemists in their pursuit of the legendary philosopher's stone.

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The Vitruvian Man (the emblematic superman of the Renaissance, you might say) is built out of the same immortal, primordial series of shapes. Again I think of Chabon's Secret Skin essay, which points out that-

for all the mad recombinant play of color, style, and materials that the superhero costume makes with its limited number of standard components, it ultimately takes its deepest meaning and serves its primary function in the depiction of the naked human form, unfettered, perfect, and free. The superheroic wardrobe resembles a wildly permutated alphabet of ideograms conceived only to express the eloquent power of silence.

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Interestingly, the superman costume has always used a downward-pointing triangle/diamond/shield shape Photobucket, sign of water and feminine grace, rather than the upward triangle, Photobucket, which signifies fire and masculinity (the same ideas are behind the da vinci code's talk of chalice/blade symbolism, if this all sounds vaguely familiar). Perhaps this is telling: does this "female" symbol- placed over the heart of the ultimate male -suggest a rule of mind over matter? compassion and justice reining in brute force and physical violence? Who knows? It looks cool as it is. It works.

The pentagonal "diamond" shape of the modern superman logo has connotations related to his superhuman strength, of course, but I think it might have two sides too many. A triangle can say the same sort of thing more simply and more forcefully (and it's how the logo first looked anyhow). Superman's chest symbol has gone through a variety of changes over time, but it remains one of the most immediately recognizeable aspects of his costume. Why an 'S' though?

From the superman logo wiki:

Initially, the S-shield had one meaning: S for Superman. One of the first alternative meanings was presented in Superman: The Movie, in which it was not an S, but rather Superman's S-shaped family crest representing the House of El. After the Superman reboot The Man of Steel, the symbol was designed by Martha Kent and once again stood only for Superman. It was eventually discovered that the symbol also doubled as the Kryptonian symbol for "hope." In 2004, Mark Waid's Superman: Birthright limited series established that it is also the symbol for Krypton as a whole. However, this as well as the ones used in Smallville and other media is a variant design, where the lines connect as a stylized infinity symbol inside the shield, not the symbol worn by Superman.

I find it amusing how much mythology has been generated to explain the simple (obvious? corny?) truth that the 'S' stands for 'Superman'. Its presence mildly puzzled me as a kid and still sort of frustrates me now when I try to draw it correctly. If we are to go by the story that supes' costume is essentially made up of the swaddling clothes he was shipped off to earth in, it doesn't make all that much sense to me how he'd end up with a big stylized 'S' on his chest (a 'K' for 'Kal-El' or 'Krypton' or even 'Kent' would seem more appropriate, surely, but even at that we are partly working with the idea that Kryptonians use an English alphabet). Saying it stood for 'sun' would probably provide writers with more serviceable threads of myth, I think (at least considering all the connections that have turned up in this little investigation).

Anyway, putting everything together: my solution to the superman redesign puzzle has been to try and rebuild the superman logo from the basic building blocks outlined above (hopefully making something that looks both otherworldly and universal in the process****). I've always been partial to the Fleischer brothers' version of superman (which, for one thing, first turned superman's leaping ability into full-fledged flying) and the simpler versions immediately before it; I'd like to think my new logo could be seen as a branching off at that particular point in the evolutionary history of the design.

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Lastly: square jaw, square shoulders...rectangle cape, boots, belt...

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The basics have all been pretty well covered at this point, and the rest is left to little flourishes more or less for the sake of flourish. As for the cape - is it really all that important? The very first drawings of superman technically didn't have one, but I guess if we are going for a costume that screams 'superman' then the answer is probably yes, the cape is an integral component. The Incredibles movie has already illustrated how impractical this bit of costuming is, but I guess when you're virtually all-powerful you can find ways to make it work for you. A cape has an undeniably regal feel to it, and adds a certain dynamic flair to actions on the page (if not always in reality). For better or for worse, it separates the superhero from all the strongman pretenders. Like the 'S' on the chest (and those absurd undershorts-as-outerwear), it's an evolutionary path that happened to stick. One can only wonder what superheroes would look like today if Siegel and Shuster had decided to keep the wifebeater tank top look...

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...yikes!

Taking things back down to the basics, examining the symbolism underlying the superman symbol, I don't think it's too hard to see where some of the iconic appeal of the character might originate. If symbols are indeed the stuff of which gods are made, I would add that they probably have a thing or two to do with creating life-long comic fans as well (I certainly felt pretty super in that get-up)!

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UP, UP & AWAY!!!

*****

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*see Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics p. 188

**Interestingly, Samson's name was derived from the Hebrew word shemesh, which means of the sun...Samson bore the name of God, who (in Psalms 84:11) is called a sun and shield... I think it makes sense, with this in mind, for superman to have a sort of "sun-shield" on his chest.

***The yin/yang symbol without dots, as seen on the flag of South Korea and elsewhere, actually has a secular origin derived from graphing the length of the sun's shadow.

****Universal in the sense that if it got shot (like our poor little superbaby's ship) millions of miles across the galaxy only to be stumbled upon by another sentient species, these creatures, with a little investigation, just might be able to figure it all out. (For a real-world example in the same spirit, see NASA's "Golden Record")

As long as we're thinking about esoteric symbolism and the like, why don't you go enjoy Grant Morrison's impassioned little chat on the subject? Spooky, kooky stuff. Also, heritage and innovation?

UPDATE: Bested by designs that had Mark Waid making vomiting noises? Thanks P:R! :D

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