Thursday, April 15, 2010

Showing Superman without showing Superman

As if I need to clarify this, I don’t own Superman.

While the fair use doctrine meant we could legally show a proportionately small number of Superman images inside Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, the same does not apply to covers. Therefore, the dilemma: how to show Superman on the cover without showing Superman on the cover?

Here's our solution:

(Before this concept existed, my suggestion was to keep Jerry and Joe in the center oval and add a red and blue streak in the sky behind them, a streak that ends with a silhouette of a man in a cape. Even without the word "Superman" in the subtitle, and even though many well-known characters have a cape or red and blue outfits, this flying shadow would still be instantly identifiable as Superman. But obviously, our illustrator Ross MacDonald found a more dynamic approach.)

We have not been the only book to face this challenge. Here’s how other Superman-themed titles (both before and since mine) have handled it. (To be clear, using the word “Superman” is permissible. It’s using his trademarked look that isn’t.)

Some reference the familiar ripping-the-shirt-open pose:






Some want readers to leap tall buildings in a single glance:


(This is the paperback version of the hardcover immediately before it.)

(This is a novel and not about Superman. I include it because it nonetheless clearly references Superman. Also, I could not find a cover image online that wasn't cropped.)

Some are confident that all it takes to conjure the thought of Superman is a red cape:


This one has more than the red cape but the cape is still the key clue:

Even with a yellow cape, we see Generic Hero but we think Superman:

Like we did with Boys of Steel, some others went the silhouette route:

(Obviously, this one also qualifies for the "red cape" category above.)

The following book counts on people (a) knowing who Clark Kent is and (b) associating a man in eyeglasses and a fedora with Clark Kent:


Men of Tomorrow is about the comic book industry as a whole so its cover is more all-purpose superhero, yet even its undetailed solo figure in flight suggests Superman:

Some avoid visual ties but rely on a verbal one:

Many of the above also incorporated the Superman color scheme into the design.

In sum, Superman is so iconic that many of his parts do telegraph the whole:
  • a man pulling his shirt opening to reveal an emblem underneath
  • a figure flying against a tall building, especially from low angle
  • a figure flying period
  • a cape (particularly but not exclusively red)
  • a muscle-bound male silhouette
  • a suited man in glasses and a fedora (sometimes even just glasses)
  • red and blue together (if yellow is there, too, it’s unmistakable)
If you know of other covers that belong in this category, please let me know!

5/3/12 addendum:

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

fascinating -- good research! Glad to be in the company of Tom De Haven's 2 wonderful books ('It's Superman,' and 'Our Hero...'). Thanks for compiling this --

Nancy Schoenberger, co-author of 'Hollywood Kryptonite'

Dave said...

Great post; I'd tend to think that's exactly how the cover for 'The Superlative Man' is supposed to look, though.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Dave - hmmm. That might be. But then I also feel I saw an "uncropped" cover online at some point...

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