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Truth, Jawlines and the American Way: The Changing Face of Superman

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 1, 2011

In 2013, Superman will turn 75 years old.

As the first and most widely known representative of the spandexed set, Superman remains the popular face of that uniquely American creation, the superhero.

But America has changed a lot since 1938. And as it did, that face changed, too.

You can talk about the S-shield, or the bright red booties, or the cape, or the red trunks. (Actually, let’s not talk about the red trunks, or their absence of late, if it’s all the same to you.) But the fact remains: Kal-El’s super-kisser has become an internationally recognized icon in its own right. Which is remarkable, given its completely generic look.

Super-ficial Good Looks

Consider: Unlike many of his compatriots, who hide themselves behind masks of various baroque design, The Man of Steel still gazes out at the world from behind the unnervingly symmetrical, blandly handsome features of a 1930s movie idol.

Key aspects of his visage haven’t changed at all: The strong jaw, the defined cheekbones, the cleft chin. The hair, so impossibly black that early colorists had to throw in blue highlights to keep the printing processes of the day from making it look like an inky smudge, a bug squashed between the pages. And whether he grows it short, long or achy-breaky (oh, you’ll see), one thing about his hairstyle remains constant: that single S-curl descending from his hairline like the tail of a lemur.

To readers of his very first adventures, back in the heyday of Brylcreem, even a single out-of-place lock of hair on a character’s head must have signaled derring-do: “HERE, then, is a man-of-action! Look! See how his coiffure cannot be contained by puny Earth-pomade!”

The face beneath that curl is a blank canvas assayed by many different artists, over the years, each of whom brought some of his personality — and a great deal of the prevailing cultural sensibility — to the task.

NOTE TO SUPER-FANS: Hundreds of artists have drawn Superman over the years, of course. This list is not meant as a ranking of the most accomplished or iconic; it’s simply a selection of artists whose work seems to me to point up some notable cultural aspect of the era in question.

Joe Shuster

Superman’s first artist was his co-creator, Joe Shuster, who cranked out pages at a fast clip to keep up with incredible demand even as his poor eyesight grew steadily worse. As a result, Shuster’s linework in those early strips is often thin, even scratchy — but that rushed execution neatly imbued his Superman with sense of urgency and movement.

The character’s earliest persona was that of a tough-talking wiseguy, so Shuster drew his with a sardonic smirk and slits for eyes. The message: Here was a hero who, quite literally, laughed at danger.

Max Fleischer

In a series of 17 Technicolor cartoon shorts produced between 1941 and 1943 by Fleischer Studios (and, later, Famous Studios) the Man of Steel hit the big screen for the first time. Animating Superman meant streamlining some of his visual elements — note how his s-curl has become a simple crescent.

With the advent of World War II, the time for cracking wise was over; it was time to get serious. The later animated films gave Superman a nobler, sober and more patriotic mein.

Al Plastino

After the war, DC Comics tapped several artists (Al Plastino, Wayne Boring and Curt Swan, chief among them) to draw Superman regularly. Plastino was one of the most prolific and influential; his clean-cut Man of Steel looked a lot like the G.I.s who had returned home to start families, don gray flannel suits and like Ike. Gone were the laughing eyes, replaced by a pair of piercing blues capable of conveying concern for us, his charges. His Superman was America’s Dad, albeit one who opted for boots and a cape over slippers and a pipe.

Wayne Boring

In the late 50s and early 60s, and editorial edict came down to broaden Superman’s universe beyond bank robbers and mad scientists. So began an era of space-adventure, time-travel, grotesque transformations and deep, abiding weirdness (Enter: Beppo the Super Monkey!). In one landmark story, Superman traveled back in time to a Krypton before it exploded, where he met his doomed parents, fell in love with an actress and worked feverishly, futilely, to prevent the tragedy that created him. Douglas Sirk could have directed the movie.

This was an era when Superman’s thought balloons filled up with *choke*s and *sob*s and sundry passions to which he dare not give utterance! Artist Wayne Boring, who’d been working on Superman for years (and had, in fact, helped establish the Man of Steel’s bluff, barrel-chested post-war look) relished the task of adding some melo- to the dramatics, and deepened Superman’s brow (the better to smolder with), narrowed his chin and elongated his features (so all those expressions of super-melancholy would land with the readers.) Superman by way of Montgomery Clift.

Curt Swan

Artist Curt Swan’s Superman wasn’t as moodily expressive as Boring’s, or as Eisenhower-Republican as Plastino’s. Swan split the difference, creating a more illustrative and less cartoony Superman who looked … kind, more than anything else, and handsome in a vague, unthreatening way.

Note that his Man of Steel’s hairline seems to have receded a bit, from his early days. Here was Superman as your favorite uncle.

Kurt Schaffenberger

Over in the pages of Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane, the Man of Steel spent more time fending off a man-hungry Lois’ advances — and schemes to expose his secret identity — than alien threats or giant robots. This called for a Superman who looked like a romantic lead, the kind of dreamboat readers could see Lois tying herself in knots over.

Kurt Schaffenberger drew his Superman to be just that, using clean, thick lines to lend him a forceful, uncomplicated and confident look reminiscent of Cary Grant. (If you’re keeping score at home, Schaffenberger’s is, for my money, the handsomest of them all.)

Curt Swan (again)

By the time the 70s rolled around, Swan was still drawing Superman, and had begun to let some of the turbulence of the times show in the Man of Steel’s face. His blue-black hair grew slightly longer (slightly! The Last Son of Krypton was no hippie!), his sideburns began to creep further and further down those granite cheekbones, and the more photorealistic approach in comics of the time meant readers began to see more lines in his face.

Suddenly, Superman looked older, more careworn, than he ever had. By now, the cultural lines were drawn, and Swan’s Superman clearly sided with the worried parents of America’s wayward youth.

John Byrne

1986 saw DC Comics relaunching their entire universe, and rebooting the Man of Steel along with it.

Artist/writer John Byrne created a younger, more dynamic Superman whose immense jawline could slice Pecorino.

Note that the super-hairdo isn’t particularly long, but it is high.

The 1980s, ladies and gentlemen.

Tom Grummett

… Okay, yeah, let’s just move on.

Look, cut the guy a break. A. It was the 90s. B. The man had just died and come back to life; that seems like a thing that could screw with a man’s tonsorial sensibilities, no?

Anyway, yes. The super-mullet happened. It’s not something anyone’s proud of. But we acknowledge it, and we proceed.

So… Let’s proceed.

Bruce Timm

For Superman: The Animated Series, which ran from 1996-2000, artist Bruce Timm designed a highly stylized, angular hero that paid homage to the Fleischer shorts — and John Byrne’s moosejawed Man of Tomorrow.

The s-curl has become a squiggle, the eyes have once again dwindled to black dots. He doesn’t need expressive eyes — this Superman is about action, not words. Or, worse, feelings.

Ed McGuinness

In the early 2000s, artist Ed McGuinness rejected the psuedo-photorealism of comics and embraced a hyperstylized, cartoony approach to drawing Superman. The character’s musculature ballooned from its default, merely steroidal setting to anatomically impossible. His neck grew so thick it threatened to consume his head. And it might have, had not McGuinness also inflated the jawline to act as a bulwark.

The eyes narrowed to slits; to make up for it, McGuinness turned the eyebrows into a pair of thick, angry em-dashes, the mouth into a flat line, a space left blank. The icon had became iconography.

Gary Frank

As if in reaction to McGuinness’ mega-mandibular Man of Steel, artist Gary Frank returned to photorealism for his run on late 2000s run on Action Comics and the mini-series Superman: Secret Origin. He went further than that, in fact, consciously based his version’s look on the late Christopher Reeve.

Other artists’s Supermen seem to shimmer on the page with raw, otherworldly power; Frank’s Superman instead radiates an utterly human warmth and compassion.

A New-ish Beginning

Over the years Superman has been our scrappy big brother, our concerned father, our compassionate uncle and, for an unfortunate stretch of time deep in the bowels of the benighted 90s, our mulleted hillbilly cousin. And the artists who’ve drawn him have continually iterated the character to suit to the time, and the role he plays in it.

Earlier this year, DC Comics once again rebooted their universe, and Supeman along with it. This was no organic narrative evolution, this was a coolly corporate decision rooted in branding meetings and discussions of new audiences and cross-platform synergy.

The image that tops this post, by artist Jim Lee, was the reader’s first look at the Man of Steel that, the company believes, is ideally suited to our modern age. He’s younger, angrier and more introspective, we are told. He’s ditched the tights for a kind of armor. He’s lost the red trunks.

But there, on that blank, unremarkably handsome face, is Shuster’s iconic and ironic smirk. We haven’t seen it since World War II smoothed down his rough edges in an effort to transform him from a wry crusader into a patriotic symbol — but there it is, back in force.

It’s too soon to tell what that smirk signifies, exactly. Is he simply laughing at evil-doers? Scoffing at danger?

Or is it just possible that it’s us he finds so funny — the lowly, ineffectual humans he’s been saddled with for almost 75 years? [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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