Skip to content


Following on from the last post and still using the cover of Action Comics #1, here I’ll investigate different  modes of interpretation.

Formalist reading. What are the dynamics of a text? Why are we moved to an aesthetic/emotional response?

The formal aspects of the cover can be sorted into colour, line, shape, and direction, and are designed to lead to an aesthetic response of excitement. The depiction of the impossible depicted via the creation and manipulation of visual elements.

Individual emotional responses vary from person to person and over time due to unique lived experiences. For myself, there is a strong connection with a very fond memory of childhood, of Superheroes, of drawing, and escapism.

Art Historical reading, Researching what a text might have meant in its time.

Okay so here is where it gets a bit easier, and more interesting. As I’m going on what the text might have meant in its time I will avoid Googling and have a guess. In 1938 the world was being pulled into a war across nations. And this is a blog, so I’ll keep it fun for myself. Creative writing even.

At the time Superman was being birthed, the outlook for many was bleak. The first world war had taken place only a generation ago and now another war was happening, this one with the capacity to be even more destructive than the last. Superman, created by two young Jewish men, may have emerged out of the hope and wish for peace. That there could be some single, simple way to save us all. Something better, more righteous, and decent than us, that could help mankind to reverse its spiral into full-blown global war. A Deus Ex Machina to pull us out of desperation, to provide a light of hope, something godly, not-of-this-world, the impossible in the lived reality, but not in the world of the imagination.

(Note- In dark times, in times of economic hardship and uncertainty, studies have shown that sales of comics with wholesome heroes such as Superman increase, and when times are good, sales of comics with dark anti-heroes such as Batman enjoy a spike in popularity. This speaks to the possibility of a deeply rooted, humanistic need for balance in our lives, influenced through the telling and receiving of stories, a percentage of which can be regulated by intake of media.)

Semiotic reading. Uncovering what a text can mean in contemporary culture and explaining how its signification works.

Semiotics is the study of signs, their signifiers and signified meaning. Superman is a sign. His signified meaning is clear and regularly reiterated. “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” This is upheld with a number of signifiers. The colours of red and blue are not one primaries, they are two-thirds representative of a more recognisable sign- the red, white and blue American Flag. This in itself is a signifier of ideas of democracy, justice, and freedom, and a sign of America. The cape is a sign, triggering semiotic responses and intertextual associations such as royal or regal bearing, ceremonial wear, and swashbuckling heroes. The colour, deep red, carries connotations of violence, of power, action, blood, roses, danger, the satanic. (Please note, these connotations vary from person to person and according to indoctrinated ideology across cultures.)

As an experiment, I can take this semiotic association a step further, into the realms of the ludicrous.

The car being held aloft is a modern marvel of engineering and industrialisation. Let’s say the car could be a sign that signifies capitalism. We then need to look at the visual connections it interacts with. The car is being wilfully damaged in a barren setting, not a city as you would expect, but a desert of some kind. This may be due to one or a combination of a number of elements.

1- The need to grab attention and create interest in the product. The cover image may or may not be representative of the internal narrative.

2- A weakness in drawing backgrounds and perspective. Although I don’t think this is the case in this instance.

3- An artistic desire to create an iconic image where the point of interest is surrounded by negative space for clarity of reading.

The point of interest is a muscle-bound superhuman clad in brightly coloured tights and a red cape. The superman, as outlined above, represents ideas of the pioneering spirit of the early white Americans, the strength to tame the land and fight for independence, and a belief in a modern system of justice. The businessmen represent the hard-working everyman. They run in panic; this could signify their disbelief, stemming from ignorance of this truth of the consequences of capitalism taken to its extreme.

The American Ideal, or Form of the mind, serves as a shining example of Democracy and freedom for the rest of the world. The rock that capitalism is smashed upon is a simple and direct representation of nature. But it is still a sign that triggers signified associations, connotations, and enables a liberal mix of imagination with rational guess-work. However, this is all purely speculation without being backed up by rigorous research, otherwise, ye enter Illuminati Territory. Armchair Youtube Ethnography.