Two Fish and an Arrow
Is there any symbol in popular culture more recognizable than the following?
Superman. A big ol’ “S” right there on his chest… instantly recognizable as such. Or is it?
I remember reading years ago, I think it was in the foreword to the paperback collection of The Man of Steel, that John Byrne grew up thinking that Superman’s chest emblem/shield/family crest was two stylized yellow fish on a field of red, rather than a red “S” on a field of yellow. Imagine that. Two distorted fish, crossing paths like two strangers in the underwater night, and then a few little extra random shapes thrown in all against a red pentagon.
Now, in the years since I encountered this phenomena, several other people have told me the same thing about themselves. They look atSuperman’s classic unmistakeable shield and somehow misinterpret it as an undersea mural.
I didn’t buy it.
Not for a second.
I’m certainly familiar with this sort of optical illusion. There’s a very popular example of a similar trick of the eye, in fact. I remember seeing the following image for the first time at a children’s museum when I was very young and I’ve encountered it countless times since.
Now, whether you see a fancy goblet or two gentlemen preparing to eskimo-kiss is all up to you. Normally, the viewer will instantly recognize one of these shapes and that’s the one that they’ll see until they realize there’s another one hiding. And once they’ve seen the second one they can’t “unsee” it so to speak.
However, this wasn’t quite the same as the “S”/Fish debate to me, because in the case of Superman’s emblem the viewer has information presented to them that should immediately persuade their eyes to see the “S”. If Aquaman were walking around wearing that design I’d imagine most people would think it were the two goofy fish. Similarly, if the example above were entitled ” A Fancy Drinking Glass”, it would be unusual for someone to immediately recognize it as two silhouettes.
So I spent 15 or so years thinking that people who saw the fish rather than a letter were just trying to be interesting or contrary. And then just the other afternoon I was talking comics with a friend (in fact, one of the very friends who purported to see the fish) and we got to the subject of the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, the evil anti-matter universe versions of the Justice League. I pulled out a trade paperback of JLA: Earth 2 to point something out and when I saw the cover, I was blown away.
For some unknown reason, despite the fact that the character was a supposed to be an evil version of Superman with an upside down shield, I didn’t see a letter inscribed in it. I saw an arrow pointing upward. I never understood why this was, and I’d actually considered it. I thought perhaps it was supposed to harken to his position as an ubermensch lording his power over the lowly humans of his earth. I maybe it was pointing at his face in some absurd display of vanity.
The point is, I see the error of my ways. I was so quick to assume it was impossible to mistake the first letter of a character’s name for some arbitrary and wholly irrelevant symbol. I thought that until I realized I had been doing it myself for so very long. People who saw the fish, I ask for your forgiveness.
All images and characters depicted are copyright of their respective owners.