“Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”
It was the height of the Second World War and the Great Depression when Paramount acquired the rights to Superman. At the time, they approached Max Fleischer (creator of numerous cartoon characters like Betty Boop and Popeye) to create a show based on the explosively popular pulp comic book/radio hero: Superman. As he began work on the new animated show, Mr. Fleischer worked in partnership with his brother Dave, and the result was a seventeen episode, single-reel technicolor show (each episode was ten minutes in length), and this brilliant little program would usher in the Golden Age of Animation.
Superman –a boundary-pushing cartoon series which I gleefully watched as a child– is the standard-bearer for all future portrayals of Superman. In re-watching this show, I was left awestruck. Even the cartoons of the ’40s were superior to our own! Each episode is simple –often a megalomaniacal villain threatens humanity, and the intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane is captured, only for Superman to swoop in and save the day. I made note that one of the episodes pre-meditates the image of Godzilla, others heavily allude to film noir and German Expressionism a la Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
“In the endless reaches of the universe, there once existed a planet known as Krypton –a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens. Their civilization was far advanced and had brought forth a race of supermen whose mental and physical powers were developed to the absolute peak of human perfection.”
Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound –in this series, the man of steel, disguised as mild-mannered newspaper reporter Clark Kent, battles a string of evil enemies, like a mad scientist with a ray gun used to melt bridges and buildings, an army of mechanical monsters led by a jewel thief, a train robber carrying one billion dollars in gold to the US mint, a Godzilla-esque monster discovered in the frozen tundra of Siberia, a bullet plane used by bank robbers, a mad scientist with a giant magnet conducting astronomical experiments, a Native American madman who hopes reclaim Manhattan by inducing electric earthquakes, an active volcano, a giant ape who escaped from the zoo, a Superman imposter working for an Al Capone look-alike, Imperial Japanese saboteurs, Nazis in disguise, factory workers releasing a torpedo, a reanimated mummy, a cohort of cave-dwelling hawk-men, a group of gangsters, and a secret agent. In most situations, Lois Lane is placed in harms way while the pride and hubris of the villains is broadly displayed as they are shown to have underestimated the Superman. Who is Superman? He is distinctly American –an alien outsider who must secretly hide his Herculean identity– and he uses his ancient godlike supernatural powers in a “never-ending battle for truth and justice.” Notably, he fights for “truth” and “justice” at the same time, even though Superman maintains a certain degree of untruth in his cover as Clark Kent. Perhaps justice requires a disguise. At any rate Superman’s identity is threefold –godlike hero in the vein of classical antiquity, science fiction alien creature with supernatural powers, and farm boy from Kansas working as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter.
The first nine episodes of this serial were produced under Fleischer Studios, while the latter eight episodes were produced under Famous Studios. In my view, the former list of episodes greatly overshadows the latter. As the series proceeds, the episodes get a bit redundant and increasingly campy, and it should be noted that several episodes feature xenophobic caricatures of buck-toothed Asians, bestial native Africans, and resentful nihilistic Native Americans. Nevertheless, this serial is peak Superman –a fittingly simple and concise foundation for the Golden Age of Animation.
I remember seeing these original Superman cartoons on the DVD that I bought for my nephew. It may indeed be easier today to see certain characters as stigmatized caricatures, even for a Golden Age of animation. So the abilities for certain audiences at the time to tolerate such drawbacks for whatever reasons, certainly in cartoons, can make us realize how much more sophisticated we’ve become since then with our animation and superhero legacies. Thank you for your review.
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