lundi 14 octobre 2013

Breaking Boundaries: An analysis of Superman's first appearance

By Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist)
From Action Comics #1, June 1938, panels numbered 10 to 17
Breaking Boundaries

The creation of a miraculous champion for justice: How Superman shatters comics conventions and social barriers
The creation of Superman changed the face of comics in America. How could a character rejected many times suddenly become the incarnation of a nation?
This page shows Superman racing to the governor to save an innocent life, presumably to ask for a stay of execution. He carries a woman, gagged and with her hands ties. He leaves her outside as he reaches for the governor's house. He doesn't behave as a gentleman but treats her like he would a man.  In the first panel he looks like a giant straddling the landscape as if he wore seven-league boots. This makes him a fantastical character. The shading lines on his costume and the landscape point toward the right and the bottom of the whole page but also to a house in the lower left of that panel. The language is very terse with even the word "through" shortened: "A tireless figure races thru the night." The sparseness of words evokes the urgency of a telegram: “Seconds count: Delay means forfeit of an innocent life.” Superman is always drawn with a leg before the other one and with his chest forward. He’s a motion that cannot be stopped. His supernatural strength and giant leaps make him a force of nature.
The page has three equal tiers. The top tier has three equal panels. When the governor’s butler closes the door on Superman on the first panel of the second tier, the width of the panel is reduced, leaving Superman with very little space. But in the next panel he smashes through the door, and through the gutter as well as the camera recedes to show his whole figure and the whole door. As a result the butler is cornered in the third panel. In fact when one looks at the whole tier one can see that the figures of Superman surround the butler: there’s no escaping Superman.
Having thus been cornered, the butler is now seized by Superman in the bottom tier. In addition the respective positions of the butler, Superman, the door and the wall on the third panel of the top tier, the first and third panels of the second tier as well as the stairs on the second panel of the bottom tier lead us to think the page and its panels are a representation of a house and its rooms. For instance, the right side of the first tier shows Superman on the outside. The next panel on the left side of the middle tier reverses Superman’s position so that the inside stays toward the middle of the page while the outside remains on the borders of the page. The right side of the middle tier depicts a wall. Similarly, the positions of the Superman figure, always seen in profile, help the eye read the page. On the first and second panels of the first tier, he faces to the right. On the third panel he faces to the left as the reader now needs to go to the left of the middle tier. The middle tier repeats this pattern. The last panel of the bottom tier has Superman taking the butler up the stairs, thus leading the eye outside the page and toward the top of the next page. Since the reader’s eye follows Superman, it helps reader identification with the character as well as it teaches the reader to follow Superman’s lead. Superman masters space by swallowing great distances with his leaps and by cornering the butler on the comics page itself but he also masters time.
To the butler’s “See him in the morning” he retorts “I’ll see him. Now!” He swallows time. His dialogue with the butler “Are you going to take me to the governor?” “No! I won’t!” “Then I’ll take you to him!” makes Superman like a prophet as it echoes this exchange, “If the mountain won’t go to the prophet, then the prophet will go to the mountain.”
Superman’s actions are miracles. He’s an agent of divine justice, unstopped by social conventions such as difference of status between men and women or between lower class and upper class. This page shows Superman owning the space of the comics page. Time, space and people submit to his will. He breaks boundaries of the page, moving inside and outside it at his leisure, and is not bound either by social conventions concerning gender or social classes. Right from his first appearance he embodies might in the service of right.

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