Superman is almost universally recognized in western culture [i]. The image above is not official artwork from DC comics, but a painting by amateur Joe Thompson after Alexej von Jawlensky’s Alexander Sakharoff (1909). Viewers will recognize that it is intended to be Superman – yet also that there is something distinctly not Superman about this piece. The face is narrow, the body is slim, the pose is coy; it ceases to be a painting of Superman, and becomes someone dressed as him.  This illustrates my central question: is it necessary or meaningful that Superman be drawn as hypermuscular in official representations? How do we read the body and costume of Superman, and why is figure 1 so different to our usual readings? Is this painting an equally valid representation?


In order to analyse representations of Superman, it is first necessary to consider the mechanisms by which the image and the drawn body may be analyzed. Roland Barthes defines semiology as “a science of forms” studying “significations apart from their content” [ii]. According to Barthes’ semiological structures, signs are composed of three elements; the signifier, the signified, and the sign, which is the combined effect of signifier and signified. Signs are dependent for their meaning on the historical and cultural context in which they are read and understood[iii] .


Barthes’ analytical framework breaks the image down into the linguistic message (writing and captions), the coded iconic message (signs) and the non-coded iconic message (what the photo or drawing literally represents). While Rhetoric of the Image (1964) was written with photographs in mind, this system is appropriate for analyzing comics as linguistic messages are considered; comics, by their nature, are a combination of image, text and meaning.


On the cover of Superman #1 (1939) (see image left) the viewer is first confronted with the linguistic messages of the image. “DARING” and “ACTION” convey the sensational nature of the story and character. His chest emblem contains a linguistic symbol, the single initial “S”. What is interesting here is the repetition of the word “SUPERMAN”, both times in red.


The name alone holds meaning; the term “Superman” was coined by Nietzsche (“übermensch”), but also appeared in early science fiction [iv]. “Super”, latin for “above, over”, implies a higher being. Superman implies the ultimate male. This gives us some idea of what the reader can expect – an ideal of perfection, which one can assume to carry over into representation of the body as well as in the narrative. But what constitutes a perfect man, or a perfect male body? The answer lies in the cultural context in which Superman was created.


Historical ideas of the ‘perfect man’ within presentations of the heroic male body in art are discussed by Myrone [v]. The pursuit of the ultimate expression of the male body led to the emulation of figures “of legitimate masculinity”, the muscular Ancient Greek statues. In perpetuating these ancient examples of heroic males as “the official hierarchy of aesthetic value” [vi] the ideal of the ‘muscular hero’ was ingrained into classical art. However, contemporary writers highlight the imperfect nature of the Greek heroes they sought to emulate – “it is not necessary the manners of a heroe [sic] should be virtuous” [vii]. Though the muscular body was symbolic of heroism it did not necessarily signify perfection. In fact, Myrone considers a perfect hero to be a “monstrous impossibility”[viii] .


The association of the muscular hero with virtue came in the nineteenth century when male image in both England and the United States was influenced by the Victorian ideal of ‘manliness’, a collection of character traits encompassing physical courage, chivalry, virtue and fortitude[ix]. Central to this was ‘muscular Christianity’, a mixture of traditional belief, Darwinian thought and biological science. Strengthening the body was believed to “strengthen the will”[x], thus the association of the muscular body with a man of good character was established.



Attention to the male body meant the athlete became an icon of “power and prowess”, becoming a vessel for the cultural values of the time[xi]. By the 1890s the ideal athlete was no longer merely “lean and lithe” but “mesomorphic”[xii]. Early Hollywood brought about further changes in the male ideal - actors such as Douglas Fairbanks (see image above left) capitalized on their athleticism and fitness[xiii]. Fairbanks’ films were an influence on the creators of Superman, Siegel and Shuster [xiv]; the ideal masculinity of Hollywood was imbued in Superman from the beginning.


The first coded iconic messages of Superman #1 can now be seen. The signifier of the athletic body combines with the signified cultural connotations of virtue and heroism to make the sign of the idealized man. With muscles clearly outlined underneath the costume, the image draws on associations of the bulky heroes of Hollywood and sporting arenas. We are presented with the body of a ‘perfect man’ of the 1930s – the body represented is not dissimilar to that of Fairbanks.


However, the image to the right (above) shows an example of a more recent cover (Superman #654, 2006). In one sense little has changed – he is still muscular, his pose dynamic. On the other hand, his muscles are larger and strikingly defined through his costume, to the point where he may as well be wearing nothing. Is this still a ‘perfect man’ today?


According to Featherstone, today’s heroes are celebrities, “’beautiful’ people of leisure” [xv] – quite the opposite of the muscular Christian. Value is measured by cultural capital; the closer one’s body to the ideals of “youth, health, fitness and beauty” the higher its “exchange value”[xvi]. Indeed, the Superman in issue #654 seems younger than the middle-aged Superman #1. However, associations of morality with the fit body have not disappeared; instead, bodily deterioration and ageing have become “signs of moral laxitude [sic]” [xvii], and body maintenance is encouraged to keep cultural capital as high as possible, for as long as possible. “Fitness” is the new judge of one’s “worthiness as a person” [xviii]. By this logic, the extreme body in issue #654 becomes a flawless example.


While modern conceptions of masculinity are far more diverse, shown by the plural masculinities proposed by Connell [xix] and Rutherford [xx], masculinity in mass culture is “almost always thought to proceed from men’s bodies”[xxi], though the adoption of “hyper-masculine” styles by gay men, either as “parody” or a distancing from feminism [xxii] now means the muscular body is not necessarily indicative of heteronormative masculinity 1. However, Butler asserts that gender is performative, repeated acts imitating socially constructed gender identities [xxiii]– meaning the hegemonic male body is also a parody[xxiv].


Connell (1995) notes there is an “active defence of hegemonic masculinity” in response to gender equality movements and alternative masculinities[xxv]. The hero archetype is integral to the production of hegemony in both Hollywood and military arenas – both seek to prove dominant masculinity and power through violence, yet these “exemplary” men are still portrayed as heroes. Masculine heroism functions as a disciplinary standard to which soldiers particularly are expected to conform [xxvi]. For adolescents, this may result in the production of ‘jock/nerd’ binaries, the division between those displaying hegemonic masculinities and those who do not [xxvii]. The jock/nerd binary can perhaps be viewed as a division between the mental and physical, unlike muscular Christianity in which mental and physical merits were seen as dependent on each other.


Mosse considers masculinity to be a “positive stereotype” that became normative [xxviii], defining itself in opposition to negative “countertypes”[xxix] consisting of the ‘other’ (e.g. women perceived as a threat to hegemonic masculinity, such as feminists). The pervasiveness of the masculine stereotype means that countertypes must either attempt to conform or directly oppose it. The jock may be considered a “masculine stereotype”, while the nerd may serve the role of a countertype. The “masculine stereotype” is also important to political agendas [xxx], appropriated by both conservatives and revolutionaries adopting the male body as a “symbol” of liberty and freedom while reflecting a society’s traditional values [xxxi]. Mosse implies a direct correlation between Nationalism and the “symbolic value of manliness within that framework” [xxxii] – extreme agendas such as Fascism include a preoccupation with classical ideals of male beauty [xxxiii].


Sport, too, continues to define masculinity in modern cultural imagery[xxxiv], but masculinity constructed through athleticism is vulnerable when the body cannot keep up with the strain put onto it [xxxv]. An invulnerable body (narratively, those of Superman #1 and #654) would then be a signifier of unshakeable masculinity. The athlete remains representative of morality, but instead of religious influences, Shilling points to political and commercial forces; international athletic success is symbolic of political “efficiency and superiority” [xxxvi], adding patriotic significations to the sporting body. Athletes who cheat, by drugs or foul play, are seen as “letting down” their country [xxxvii]while commercial sponsors drop athletes involved in scandal[xxxviii] , thus an insistence of morality from athletes is embedded into modern sport.


Shilling notes that “attempts by athletes to exceed the limits of the body could be viewed as heroic”[xxxix], but the use of drugs to push the body further comes into direct conflict with the demand for a moral, “authentic body” by audiences. Despite this, Hornak [xl] claims steroids have shown a consistent increase in use since 2007 – she points to men’s magazine Men’s Health as evidence of media sending a “message that bigger is better”. As increasingly unnatural bodies are portrayed, the bar of hegemonic masculinity is set higher and “the incentive to ‘cheat’ is stronger”. Hornak neglects to mention that many photos are now digitally enhanced, which may be another factor to consider in the production of images of unnatural physiques.


In the machine age, Shilling suggests audiences want to see the natural body as “evidence of our humanity”[xli]. But this highlights the central problem in analyzing Superman. In fiction, the character never engages in body maintenance – thus representing Featherstone’s (1982) ideal, effortless cultural capital. Superman’s body represents the “Dreams of limitless performance” [xlii] of the drug-free body.


The perfect human hero remains an impossibility, a point which becomes the motivating force behind Superman’s nemesis in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. On both covers for Superman #1 and #654, Superman appears no different to a human (if exaggerated) – “…he has almost everyone forgetting he’s not one of us” [xliii]. The narrative situates Superman as an unreachable goal for mankind: “the end of our achievements, the end of our dreams”[xliv]. When humans reach the level of Superman, they are then superhuman. Wolk proposes that Superman is effectively the perfect man, the embodiment of Jung’s Self, his one weakness (“Kryptonite, the remnants of his home planet”) being that which reminds us that he is alien[xlv].


Although in narrative Superman is not human, he is drawn as if he were, thus semiotically he can be read in the same way. Barthes (1964) reminds us that the drawn image is never pure – drawings are always done in a particular style, often influenced by contemporary codes of transposition. Indeed, the line, colouring and printing style of comics is often indicative of its time period. The medium “necessitates a certain division between the significant and insignificant” [xlvi]; the artist will only draw what is necessary. McCloud argues that cartoonists amplify meaning by doing so [xlvii].


The stylistic representation of the bodies on the covers for Superman #1 and #654 are radically different. If the first relates to Douglas Fairbanks, then a Hollywood star of 2006 may give some insight into the style the second. Wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson - alias “The Rock” - (see below) is larger and ‘bulkier’ than Fairbanks – the difference between the two is perhaps comparable to the differences between these covers. However, both drawings are exaggerated compared to their ‘real-life’ counterparts. If the drawing is always an exaggeration of reality, then perhaps the closer to reality it gets, the further the drawing must distance itself, which may account for the impossibly defined muscles of Superman #654. To be superhuman, Superman must always be drawn one step ahead of what is physically possible. Hornak’s [xlviii] unnatural men’s bodies of modern media may push this exaggeration even further.


An alternative explanation for the increase in muscles between the two covers would be Butler’s assertion that gender is a “repeated stylization” of the body[xlix]. If artists imitate older drawings of the stylized body of Superman, over time they may exaggerate this muscular masculinity further and further. Just as the repeated ‘doing’ of gender appears to solidify one’s gender identity, so the ideal of the muscular hero is ingrained into the character’s design.


What else could the bodies on these covers signify? In The World of Wrestling, Barthes examines the expression of character through the physical body. A wrestler’s physique constitutes a basic sign[l] to which all his actions and dialogue correspond. The obese, sagging body gives the impression of “ignobility” – it comes as no surprise when the wrestler is treacherous in his performance [li]. Physiognomy, too, is based on the assumption that body features, particularly of the face, indicate character [lii].  With their well-maintained bodies, no ‘ignoble’ characteristics can be attributed to the bodies on the covers (except, perhaps, vanity). Examining the faces,Superman #1 shows Superman smiling, generally indicating friendliness; the impression is that of a non-threatening person. In contrast, Superman #654 shows a grimace. It seems aggressive, but in combination with Superman’s pose, it becomes an expression of effort.




Surroundings and pose also contribute to meaning in these images. Both position Superman as ‘above’; this is literal on Superman #1. He flies above rooftops, motion signified by ‘speed’ lines. The effect of height is emphasized as he looks downwards. Superman #654 positions him as above symbolically – he stands with three men beneath him, giving the effect of dominance. This cover makes visual reference to Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics (1938, see above) through the car wreckage, colour and the man’s “abject posture” displaying “whimpering submission to the ultimate alpha male”[liii]. As Morrison points out, the first glimpse of Superman was “deliberately ambiguous” [liv]. In figure 4 the ambiguity of Superman’s grimace also makes his status as hero or villain questionable. Here he conforms to the violent “masculine heroism” of Hollywood[lv].


The importance of pose in portraying hegemonic masculinity is highlighted by Kelly Turnbull’s drawing of Superman posed (and dressed) in the same way as Wonder Woman on a recent cover (see below[lvi]). The covers examined here show the body in action; whereas this portrays a body on display. The drawing parodies the sexualisation of superheroines; however, many argue that superheroes are also sexualized.


The most famous of these critics is Wertham; although he focuses his attack on pulp comics, he insists that “attention is drawn to sexual characteristics and sexual actions” in superhero comics, instilling in boys the desire to be a “supermuscular” he-man [lvii], and “latent…homosexual tendencies” [lviii]. Writers such as Kaveney and Morrison have since heavily criticized Wertham, but admit the problem of sexualisation remains. Kaveney claims that “All superheroic characters are presented in a sexually objectifying manner” and that this has “worsened over the decades” [lix]. This is reflected in the two covers, the latter revealing far more of the body than would have been acceptable in 1939.


Wolk instead proposes that heroic characters are purposely drawn to look “sexy” in order to trigger a response in the reader [lx]. The reason for this is to give a sense of “the most everyday actions” being charged with sex and power (ibid). Superman #654 certainly seems to carry this power. Wolk notes that while heroes are almost universally hypermuscular, villains have the option of being “ugly or lanky or doughy” [lxi].




This is evidenced in the body of Lex Luthor, Superman’s ‘nemesis’. In contrast to Superman’s steadily increasing muscles, Luthor has been variously drawn as fat (see the second caption above), bulky (see the third caption above), and hypermuscular (see the fourth caption above). The reading of Luthor in the second and third caption corresponds to the flabby “bastard” wrestler of Barthes[lxii] and allows him to be read as a villain. The presentation of Luthor as muscular is problematic – if Superman’s muscles support the reading of him as a hero, why is Luthor not read the same way?


The dual reading of the muscular body as heroic and savage is explored by Shilling. While white athletes at the beginning of the 20th century were praised, muscular black men were criticized as “brute” and animalistic[lxiii], demonstrating the capacity of viewers to attribute positive and negative significations to a signifier, based on previous cultural knowledge. Mosse’s [lxiv] idea that masculinity must have a countertype to work against may also mean that Luthor will be placed in the negative role through failing to live up to the virtuous nature of the masculine stereotype, regardless of body type. The fact that Luthor is naked (in the final caption) is also in opposition to Superman – his muscles are revealed through removing clothes entirely, where, as will be seen in chapter four, Superman’s muscles are revealed through wearing a costume.


Lex Luthor’s face, too, contributes to the reading of him as a villain. Almost every panel in the comics these images are taken from show him frowning, regardless of his emotions; particular attention is given to the lines of his face, giving the impression of severity and aging (a sign of “moral laxitude” [lxv]). That he is bald is also significant; hair is associated with health and youth. A lack of it could signify the opposite. Alone, the muscular body may signify positive qualities, but only in combination with other signs can a character be read as truly a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain’.


Turning back to the Joe Thompson image, the reasons why this representation is so different to official images such as the covers for Superman #1 and #654 start to become evident: while it may represent one of many valid masculinities [lxvi], without the muscular body, readings of morality or heroism cannot be applied. The pose is one of the main obstacles to applying cultural significations of hegemonic masculinity – rather than signifying confidence or action, the folded arm is defensive, while the tilted shoulders and smile seem coy. With his little finger splayed out, the piece gives off an air of vulnerable femininity instead. This femininity renders him a countertype to Mosse’s (1996) positive masculinity. Yet the costume is almost the same – does this, too, factor into our readings of the character?



Rendering The Man of Steel: Superman’s Body and Hegemonic Masculinity

by Josceline Fenton

[i] Daniels, L. (2004) Superman Complete History. Chronicle Books p11

[ii] Barthes, R. (1954-56a) Mythologies. In: Barthes, R. (1993) Mythologies. London: Vintage: p111

[iii] Hall, S. (2007) This means this, this means that: A user’s guide to semiotics. London: Laurence King: p5

[iv] Daniels, 2004: p18

[v] Myrone, M. (2005) Bodybuilding: Reforming masculinities in British Art 1750-1810. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p5

[vi] Myrone 2005, p6

[vii] Dryden, cited in Myrone, 2005: p7

[viii] Myrone, 2005: p7

[ix] Mangan, J.A., and Walvin, J. (1987) Manliness and Morality: Middle-class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940. Manchester: Manchester University Press: p1

[x] Park, R.J. (1987) Biological thought, athletics and the formation of a ‘man of character’: 1830-1900. In: Mangan, J.A., and Walvin, J. (1987) Manliness and Morality: Middle-class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940.: p9

[xi] Park, 1987: p2

[xii] Park, 1987: p9

[xiii] Featherstone, M. (1982) The Body in Consumer Culture. In: Featherstone, M., Hepworth, M. and Turner, B.S. (1995) The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. London: Sage Publications Ltd: p181

[xiv] Daniels, 2004: p11

[xv] Featherstone, 1982: p171

[xvi] Featherstone, 1982: p177

[xvii] Featherstone, 1982: p178

[xviii] Featherstone, 1982: p183

[xix] Connell, R.W., (1995) Masculinities. University of California Press

[xx] Rutherford, J. (1988) Who’s That Man? In: Chapman, R. and Rutherford, J. (1988) Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity. London: Lawrence & Wishart

[xxi] Connell, 1995: p45

[xxii] Connell, 1995: p218

[xxiii] Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity: 10th anniversary edition. London: Routledge: p33

[xxiv] Silah, S. (2003) Routledge Critical Thinkers: Judith Butler. London: Routledge: p66

[xxv] Connell 1995: p216

[xxvi] Connell 1995: p214

[xxvii] Koda, H. and Martin, R. (1989) Jocks and Nerds: Men’s style in the twentieth century. Rizzoli: New York: p9

[xxviii] Mosse, G.L. (1996) The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press: p3, p6

[xxix] Mosse, 1996: p13

[xxx] Mosse, 1996: p6

[xxxi] Mosse, 1996: p8

[xxxii] Mosse, 1996: p14

[xxxiii] Mosse, 1996: p160

[xxxiv] Connell, 1995: p52, p213

[xxxv] Connell, 1995: p54

[xxxvi] Connell, 1995: p106

[xxxvii] Connell, 1995: p107

[xxxviii] Connell, 1995: p109

[xxxix] Shilling 2005: p124

[xl] Hornak, F. (2011) Pump up the volume. In: The Sunday Times Style Magazine, 25/9/2011

[xli] Shilling, C. (2005) The Body in Culture, Technology and Society. London: Sage: p113

[xlii] Shilling, 2005: p111

[xliii] Azzarello, B. and Bermejo, L. (2006) Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (Trade Paperback). Great Britain: Titan Book: p15

[xliv] Azzarello and Bermejo, 2006: p25

[xlv] Jung, C.G. (1975) The Collected Works Volume 9 Part 1: The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Fourth Printing. London, England: Routledge and Kegan Pau: p97

[xlvi] Barthes, R. (1964) Rhetoric of the Image. In: Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press: p43

[xlvii] McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial: p30

[xlviii] Hornak 2011

[xlix] Butler 1999: p43

[l] Barthes, R. (1954-56b) The World of Wrestling. In: Barthes, R. (1993) Mythologies. London: Vintage: p18

[li] 1954-56b: p17

[lii] Entwistle, J. (2000) The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory. 2002 edition. Cambridge: Polity Press: p123

[liii] Morrison, G. (2011) Supergods: Our world in the age of the superhero. Great Britain: Jonathan Cape: p6

[liv] Morrison, 2011: p8

[lv] Connell, 1995: p214

[lvi] Magowan, M. (2011) What if male superheroes posed like Wonder Woman? and

[lvii] Wertham, F. (1954) Seduction of the Innocent. Toronto: Irwin & Company: p208

[lviii] Wertham 1954: p209

[lix] Kaveney, R. (2008) Superheroes! Capes and crusaders in comics and films. New York: I.B. Tauris: p19

[lx] Wolk, Douglas (2007) Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels work and what they mean. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press: p50

[lxi] Wolk 2007: p72

[lxii] Barthes 1954-56b: p17

[lxiii] Shilling 2005: p118

[lxiv] Mosse 1996

[lxv] Featherstone, 1982: p178

[lxvi] Connell, 1995: p67-69
Superman painting by Joe Thompson: Thompson, J. (2008) Superman.
Superman #1 (1939). Detective Comics Inc.
Superman #654 (2006)
Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad (1924): Martinfield, S. (2009) San Francisco Sentinel Blog Archives: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
The Rock / Dwayne Johnson: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson Workout Video.
Action Comics #1 (First Superman Cover) (1938) Detective Comics Inc.
Kelly Turnbull’s Superman posed/dressed as Wonder Woman: Magowan, M. (2011) What if male superheroes posed like Wonder Woman?
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Lex Luthor, bulky: Daniels, L. (2004) Superman Complete History. Chronicle Books
Lex Luthor, muscular: Azzarello, B. and Bermejo, L. (2006) Lex Luthor: Man of Steel (Trade Paperback). Great Britain: Titan Books
Superman redesign: Asrar, M., Green, M. and Johnson, M. (2011) Supergirl #1 (September 21, 2011). New York: DC Comics