Friday, 12 June 2009

THE CLASSIC SUPERMAN CARTOONS

(Part One: The Fleischer Years 1941/2)


“Up in the sky, look!” “It's a bird!” “It's a plane!” “It's Superman!”
“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!”
“This looks like a job... for Superman!”


We fans must be the world’s biggest primarologists. When it comes to getting to the source of things, Doctor Livingstone has got nothing on us. To us, the best view is always from the ground floor. My Spider-Man stops dead the day Ditko left; even the Romita issues are a dream, a hoax, an imaginary story. And don’t ever try telling me about the Slits’ first album. I’ll counter immediately with their earlier Peel sessions and an air of smug superiority.

So when it comes to secondary media, we are tolerant at best. I went to see all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, and even found good things to say about them. But try telling me they rival those classic Ditko comics and them’s fighting words. Silver can be shiny, silver can be precious, but it can’t ever be gold.

But our obsession with origination doesn’t always strike gold. Take those three quotes above, now so integral to our appreciation of Superman. Not one of these came from the original comic strips, all originated with the later cinema cartoons. And I for one find this significant, for I claim Superman found his finest classic-era depiction in the Forties Fleischer cartoons.

(Note to pedants: Some claim these phrases come from the radio series. This may simply be because that started a year earlier, in 1940. But this site not only insists they came from the cartoons but names their author, Jay Morton, and states they were only later incorporated into the radio shows. The picture is perhaps fuzzy because the two overlapped a lot in practise, even using a lot of the same voice actors. But little matter, for our point here is that these totemic phrases didn’t start with the comics.)

The real early comic-book Superman, far from being a pure Platonic thing who then slowly faded, was only semi-recognisable as the figure we now think of. Likened to “some occult, avenging demon”, called by one character “the Devil himself”, there is something Loki-like, manipulative and mischevous about him. In virtually every early story he dons a disguise - the better to put some dupe through the mill. True, the dupes are always villains (a corrupt arms dealer, a decadent mine owner) who he teaches the error of their ways. But he does seem to take an almost sadistic glee in his work. He threatens one that he’ll “tear out your cruel heart with my bare hands!” (Kent Worcester wrote a good piece on the ideology of early Superman back in Comics Forum 6, to which I replied in the following issue’s lettercol. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have made it on-line anywhere and may be difficult to purchase.)

But perhaps the main drawback to these early strips is their perfunctory quality, which often verges on crudity. This is true of Siegel’s scripts but particularly of Shuster’s art, which can lack drama or dynamism. The Superman we know is here merely nascent, a rough sketch still awaiting life to be blown into him.

Perhaps the key to these cartoons can again be found in that classic credit sequence. The second episode, ’The Mechanical Monsters’, describes the big S as “empowered with X-ray vision”, and we get one demonstration of this power. But in all subsequent episodes it is gone, leaving him (at least as listed) with but one power – “possessing remarkable physical strength.”

This shift is telling, for here Supes is pretty much defined by his physical strength. The opening monologue pits him favourably against machinery or its makings – speeding bullets, locomotives, tall buildings. From the first episode his foes tend to be mad scientists, pitting rays, robots or some other technocratic force against him. In weeks when mad scientists are in short supply, he goes up against gadget-assisted gangs (as in ’Billion Dollar Limited’). Sometimes we just get a fusion of the two, ’The Bulleteers’ for example are something like a mad scientist cloned into a gang.

Throughout this Superman never outsmarts his enemies, he merely draws on his reserves of strength and resolution. As Jim Steranko has put it, “Superman could punch his way out of anything; he didn’t have to think!” Yet it’s important to note that the man of steel is not stainless – it’s vital that to use his strength Superman has to strain.The scene where he first falls, only to pick himself up again, is virtually compulsory. My favourite image of this is in the very first episode, where he is hit by the mad scientist’s Electrothanesia Ray (yes really!). First struck down, he gets up again and advances against the ray by (I kid not) punching it repeatedly in the jaw.


(The Fleischers having made their name with the comic surrealism of Popeye and Betty Boop, this jaw-sporting ray is but one instance of a bizarre cartoon logic. A skyscraper topples so curvaceously it must surely be made of rubber, and has never heard of foundations. The Mad Scientist has a pet bird, so anthropomorphic it even copies his movements. Yet even during such absurd, if charming, moments, the Brothers always attempted to use Rotoscoping to give the Superman figure a sense of realism. The more-than man needs to keep his roots in the human.)

In fact the extent of Superman’s strength flies all over the place according to script necessities, one minute carrying a whole train aloft, the next getting tangled up tackling two guys. But the idea his strength has limits is important. (Kryptonite was not introduced to the radio show until ’43, after the cartoons. But perhaps it was never needed here, for Achilles was not yet so all-powerful as to need his heel.)

A good contrast might be the most recent film, Superman Returns, where he doesn’t overcome badness so much as transcend it – never raising a fist throughout the film’s running time. A crucial distinction is in the way he flies. In the Fleischer cartoons he’s still super-leaping. Even in the later cartoons (which we’ll come onto), he flies Newtonially – by thrusting himself off the ground. In the film he simply floats, with serene disdain for earthly forces. But in gaining this Zen crown, he loses his blue collar.

Typically, the scientist lives away from the city, in a remote and spacious tower. According to a note he sends, his main motivation seems to be revenge against “those who laughed at me”. This is perhaps at its clearest in ’The Magnetic Telescope’, where this time a telescope stands for Frankenstein’s castle and the Police the torch-bearing villagers who smash up his lab for “tampering with nature.” (While at the same time too polite to point out if you have a telescope you don’t actually need to draw the celestial objects nearer in, as it will magnify their appearance.)

So it follows that the world’s first superhero had antecedents. For example, there’s John Henry (the “steel drivin’ man”) from the blues and folk songs where a railroad worker who races his muscle against his boss’ new-fangled steam hammer. (Though dying of exhaustion at the moment of victory.) The songs may well date back to the 1870s, but became standards and a musical version starring Paul Robeson was staged in 1940.

Then, perhaps slightly more obliquely, there’s Houdini. Rogan Taylor comments upon the appeal of Houdini’s escapology for poor audiences: “The vision of this working class man bursting out of the best chains the capitalists could produce would not have been lost on the proletariat that watched him... The audiences identified with him totally and shared every minute of his ordeal. When Houdini got free, everybody got free. They had witnessed not so much a variety turn as a celebration of the human spirit triumphing over every obstacle.” While of course watching a mere cartoon is not so visceral an experience, contemporary audiences may have felt something similar when they saw (for example) Superman freeing himself from a frazzling tangle of electrical wires.

However, it may be that the later cartoon audience were able to wring an extra frisson from the sight. For theirs was the era of Fordist mass production, described by Wikipedia as “the moving, or continuous, assembly line, in which each assembler performed a single, repetitive task.” While the replacement of car workers by robots was still some way off, workers may have felt that it had already become them who were ancillary to the machines.

So Superman, with his endless reserves of strength, bounds in to reverse that. Even in this age of machines, he’s here to remind us that the worker is still the most powerful thing – the man of steel more resolute than the steel. It’s perhaps notable that the very indicator of Fordism, the motor car, appears on the cover of Action Comics 1 as the mere plaything of a man. Superman is an idealisation of the notion that Forties America is still borne on the shoulders of the blue-collar worker. It’s notable his scientist adversaries are literally white-collar, while Superman’s red-white-and-blue predominates with blue. Moreover, ’The Mechanical Monsters’ are the obverse of the worker, plundering wealth rather than creating it.


And yet isn’t there something inherently science fictional about our extraterrestrial star? If the mad scientist lives apart from other men, Superman is only among them due to a cosmic accident. Isn’t making him a heroised worker dragging him down to the Earthbound? The show’s opening, the very thing which calls us to notice his all-important strength, also reminds us he’s an “amazing stranger from the planet Krypton.” Of course, as has often been noted, his alien status fits a nation founded on immigration. Yet there is surely more to it...


A key to this lies in another image, as striking as the death-ray-thumping, yet in many ways the opposite of it. In the afore-mentioned ’Magnetic Telescope’ it is not the Scientist’s recklessness that endangers the city so much as the conflict between him and the Police. When they smash up his lab, he becomes unable to dispel the meteorite his telescope is already drawing towards us. Superman solves this partly by picking up two cables and using his body to conduct the current. Here the worker unites with the machine, completes it. Unlike John Henry the two are not intrinsically at odds, but the technocrats might need reminding from time to time that they need both.

The idea that there is something retrogressive about these cartoons would in any case only survive in a study of plot summaries – for in their look and feel they almost crackle with modernist urgency. Everything is sleek and gleamingly futuristic (in the most retro valve-addled way imaginable). Sets are the spacious side of gargantuan, when they’re not actually cavernous. Shadows and silhouettes abound while colour schemes are limited and controlled, never gaudy like so many comics of the era. (Supes’ red cape is often made to dominate the frame.) This look is most likely the killer app which makes the cartoons so classic, for it is not just aesthetically appealing but supremely fitting. Forties art was typically about simplification and idealisation – and what better subject for that than the idealised worker himself - Superman? A man with a jaw so square it was surely sculpted.

(Scott Bukatman takes this further to suggest that Superman represents “a kind of Corbusierian ideal...Through his benign, controlled authority, Superman renders the city open, modernist and democratic; he furthers a sense that Le Corbusier described in 1925, namely, that 'Everything is known to us'.”)

They are also remarkably fast-paced, particularly considered against the sedentary standards of their era. Stories fairly roar by! Newspapers (at least modern, photo-led newspapers) are often used as a totem of modernity, not just recording events but racing to record the modern pace of life. You’ll lose count of the number of times a shot of a newspaper photo dissolves into the real object, or vice versa. In this the cartoons are almost reminiscent of the way newspapers were used in a film released the same year - Citizen Kane. (Disclaimer: Before anyone starts, this is not to suggest that there are multiple points of comparison between these cartoons and Citizen Kane.)

In this way Superman has a double identity which allows him to fulfill his double role in these cartoons. He is the ultimate worker, defined by his labours just as is a plumber or a mechanic, yet the very fact that he is ‘super’ simultaneously means he is more than a worker. His alien-ness becomes associated with his status as a symbol, and makes him a credible force to bring worker and technocrat together.

Coming Soon! Where the Superman cartoons went after the Fleischers left...

Postscript: These cartoons are now public domain and can consequently be picked up cheaply on DVD or (in our current recessionated times) are even downloadable from here.

Or check out this sampler...

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