Sunday, 30 January 2011

The many (weird) faces of Curt Swan's Superman

If you know me at all, you know I like my superhero comics old and boring. As in Wayne Boring, Kurt Schaffenberger or, best of all, Curt Swan. Thanks to those Blue Ribbon cheapo reprints of old DC comics that were around in the 1970s, these guys defined Superman for me, as he should be: lantern-jawed, broad-chested and incapable of expressing human emotion.

There was something about the 1950s-era Superman of Swan that was almost right. Just-about-perfect, yet somehow charmingly stilted. So imagine how pleased I was as I was flipping through this behemoth of a book called DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle and came a cross this wonderfully odd two-page spread of what looks to be character studies (or maybe an artists' guide?) of Kal-El by Mister Curt Swan himself:      




What a great find, right? More than two dozen head shots of Supes in various states of awkwrad emotional distress. But, like any good 1950s Superman artist, some of the emotions are hard to parse.

Take this one for instance:




Is the Last Son of Krypton shocked here? Surprised? Without a story or word balloons, the mind struggles to pin it down, right?

Then there's this pair:



Is that a knowing jovial wink, or something more -- ewww -- flirty? GROSS! And what's he doing on the right?? I odn;t even want to think about what's happening off frame....

But my fave head shots of the bunch has to be this trio:




I know that first look! That's the unmistakable look of someone who's just eaten at a Taco Bell, Number Two could be a whole host of things, but it looks to me like the Man of Steel's heart is getting just a little crushed (Jimmy Olsen probably got a real job in a better city). Then there's that last one, which is probably supposed to be Supes soaking up the life-giving rays of Earth's yellow sun. Yes.

Er.....

   

Best not to ponder this one too much. I imagine Swan didn't, so you shouldn't either.

What was my point again? Yes, Curt Swan is the Greatest Superman Artist Of All Time, Period; in part because his art was just slightly off. He was 90 percent there most of the time, but there were plenty of times that Big Blue just looked kind of odd. Which is a better batting percentage of most artists these days, who seem to have two or three standard expressions. Maybe this was intentional! Perhaps Swan figured that Superman was an alien, and would therefore never be fully at ease with humans. Thus, the weird expressions. (It coulda happened!) 

Whoever your favourite Superman artist is you owe it to yourself to give this book a look. It takes 75 years of DC Comics history and spends a few pages on each exploring the important characters, events and creators that marked that particular period. (It starts with New Fun #1 in February 1935.) As it suggests in the intro, flip to the year you were 13 and read those pages first -- since this is supposedly the age that most kids get into superheroes.

It's a hell of a lot of fun -- and worth a look.    


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