Sunday, July 24, 2011

Reign of the Supermen #277: Fleischer's Superman

Source: Superman, animated shorts (1941-43)
Type: FilmIf you've never seen the 17 Superman shorts from the 40s, you're really missing out. These are gorgeous, and would not have an heir until Bruce Timm put pencil to black paper for the 90s Batman animated series. The inspiration is quite obvious - the dark noir look, the way Lois and other women look, and the art deco look all left their stamp on Timm's work. The animation is truly wonderful, with cloth, hair and water all continuously flowing, no use of cheap tricks like repeat animation, painted on special effects, and even directorial flair. Squarely in the same "universe" as movie serials of the day, the stories aren't very deep - usually following the same pattern, with notable exceptions, of identifying the threat, Lois getting in trouble, and Superman flying/jumping to the rescue - they make up for it in energy, thrills and exciting music. Bud Collyer is the voice (as he was on radio and then later in the 60s cartoon), pitching it higher when he's Clark Kent, with Joanne Alexander as Lois Lane. Her voice is good, but it's in the writing and direction that Lois shines. She's more an action hero than a damsel in distress, even if she gets in way over her head eventually. I think Clark Kent gets on whole headline in the entire canon, as she's been known to go so far as to sabotage him. She's got moxie and a half!

The animated shorts come so early in the life of Superman that they are responsible for a number of things we now take for granted. One of these shorts features the very first time Clark Kent changes in phone booth, for example. The original opening narration created the "Faster than a speeding bullet" lines (which I misattributed to the TV show last week, sorry about that, the opening of which even quotes the imagery of the animated shorts) and "It's a bird, it's a plane, etc.". Indeed, Superman flew for the first time in the very first animated short. It's also where the Superman shield went from a triangle to the pentagon we know today.

But there ARE differences between this Superman and the one we recognize today as well! According to the opening narration, he was raised in an orphanage, so no living with the Kents for him. And then there's the black "S" shield, which has been used now and again (Kingdom Come and in the late 90s), which feels perfectly natural on those darkly painted cells, even if we would consider them off-model today. Just as the series isn't sure if Superman can fly or not (it vacillates, but he's usually more of a jumper than a flyer), it's never too sure where the action takes place. Metropolis is mentioned a couple of times, but the Daily Planet is at least once positioned on Manhattan Island. But as we all know, Metropolis is every large city in the daylight. Though I have to say, it was frequently night there in the 40s...

11 comments:

Toby'c said...

The Electric Earthquake short was my first exposure to Superman. I saw the rest of them a few months ago on my movie box set and it's still my favourite of them.

Siskoid said...

It's certainly my favorite title card! Bzzzt! Grumbbbbllllle!

Anonymous said...

So much to love about these cartoons. Since my dad was a Captain Marvel fan from day one, I also get a little partisan joy out of Superman's not-exactly-flying. I am squarely in the camp that Captain Marvel was the original Flying Brick, and Superman eventually grew into the role (he started out as a jacked-up Doc Savage).

Siskoid said...

Looks like we'll see him jumping buildings the Morrison's Action Comics, so the dream most definitely isn't dead.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

While I would consider the WB series to be the best written non-comics Superman, I still claim the old shorts as my favorite. Not being "godlike" offered a more of a possibility he could lose and added to the drama. The occasional mad scientist or underground city story broke up the "Superman fights thugs" stories. (You can also see the thieving robots in Sky Captain & The World of Tomorrow, a great movie you sadly hear little about.)

The Mutt said...

Raised in an orphanage comes straight from Action Comics #1, doesn't it?

Siskoid said...

Yes, you're right. It's still not how we remember his today.

Anonymous said...

Also from the original origin: Superman's powers come strictly from evolution, where man in his most evolved condition will be able to leap tall buildings, shrug off bullets, and so on. I still have a fondness for the evolution idea, even if super gravity and yellow suns successively became "the" explanation for Superman's powers as they exploded.

The reconciliation I prefer: Earth-2 Superman's powers started off as evolution-based, and exposure to a yellow sun eventually caused a dramatic increase in abilities. Earth-1 Superman's powers never had anything to do with evolution, they were sun-based from day one. And modern Superman follows after the Earth-1 tradition.

Siskoid said...

Nice theory. And the next Superman might derive his powers from magic armor (well, looks like).

LiamKav said...

Are you going to do an entry for the current Superman before be becomes the "Pre-Reboot Superman", or do you think that your John Byrne entry still counts for the today's Superman?

Siskoid said...

I do believe there's a "modern Superman" who isn't Byrne's. Certainly been enough Crises since then to justify it.