The Evolution of Superman’s S in the Comics


Knowledge Waits is a feature where I just share some bit of comic book history that interests me.

In a recent article, I wrote about how Captain America’s scale mail on his costume had slowly been depicted differently over the years to the point where it was effectively non-existent during most of the 1990s. Reader John W. wrote to me about how I made reference in that article about how the evolution of Captain America’s scale mail was similar to the evolution of the costumes of both Superman and Batman, specifically in regards to Superman’s S and Batman’s fins. John wanted to know if I had written articles ABOUT those evolutions and, if I had not, then could I? And well, sure, why not?

Today we’ll look at how Superman’s S changed over the years and tomorrow we’ll look at the much briefer (but perhaps odder) evolution of Batman’s fins.

First off, the answer to pretty much every example in the history of comic books when the question is “Why did this artist drew that thing differently than that other artist?” is that there were no specific standards put in place so that nobody was held to any one design for the S. I’m not talking other artists not knowing how to draw the S the same way that Joe Shuster drew the S, I’m saying that even JOE SHUSTER wasn’t consistent in how the S was depicted!

Here is the first time that we get to see Superman bearing the S on his chest. Hint, it is also his first appearance…

Note that Shuster has Superman basically rocking a ornate shield-looking background for the rather simple S on his chest.

The early issues are interesting because Shuster was not exactly the most detailed artists in the world and so for the next few issues, it was unclear exactly what he was intending to draw at times. Heck, there were moments where it looked like it was a SQUARE on his chest. Really, though, it was just Shuster drawing a hint of a cover symbol.

Six issues after Superman’s debut, when Superman returned to the covers of Action Comics for the first time since #1 (yes, they seriously took MONTHS to give him a shot at the cover again), Shuster had refined the look to a basic triangle look with a simple S in it…

That’s basically the look of the S when Superman got his own solo series in 1939…

Here’s where the big changes happened. You see, Superman was HUGE now and so he was appearing in Action Comics, he had his own newspaper comic strip AND he had his own solo series with multiple stories in every issue. It was one thing for Jerry Siegel to come up with stories for all of these stories, but there was no way that Joe Shuster could draw it all, so they began to hire more and more artists to draw the character under Shuster’s name.

These artists had an astonishing amount of freedom to define the character in their own way.

The most influential of these early artists was Paul Cassidy, who was the artist who came up with the BASIC design that we would come to know as Superman’s classic S symbol. Here he is in Superman #4…

However, the next issue would refine the Cassidy design to the point where DC literally would trademark this guy’s take on the S…

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