Monday, 22 June 2009


(Part Two: The Paramount Years 1942/3)

“Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane!”

Keen and attentive readers might notice something about the breathless narration above, which opened the Superman cartoons from September 1942 onwards. The cartoons were no longer produced by the Fleischer Brothers but by Paramount, trading under the name Famous Studios. Yet that change alone would create the opportunity to amend the opening, but not the motive. No longer contrasted against machines (“a speeding bullet”) but the natural world (“a roaring hurricane”) it of course comes as no surprise that Superman is now more earthly and political. It was time for him to take on human foes. By the time this round of cartoons were made, Pearl Harbour had happened (in December ’41) and Superman became enlisted in the war effort.

Jim Steranko has suggested an Elvis-in-reverse scenario, that this enlistment was the act which made Superman into a legend: “[He] never really had anything to flex his muscles over until the war... He had come to save the world and was put to work breaking up fist fights.” Yet, contra to Steranko, Frank Miller once argued it didn’t matter what changes the publishers brought to Superman - for the right character would always live on in the popular mind. We clearly remember “speeding bullet” more than we do “raging hurricane”, it lodges in our brains like it belongs there. In fact the DVD collection I possess of these cartoons even cites that variant loudly on its case, crying it as the definitive version. But why should that be, why should the speeding bullet be the thing which gets lodged in our heads? Why should the Famous Studios formulation be so un-famous? The episodes certainly feature some fairly shrill anti-Japanese (and in one case anti-African) racism, which might lead to their being less well-remembered today, though that alone would scarcely account for it.

Previously, Supes stood for a grand concept. As we saw in Part One, if he symbolised a heroised worker that wasn’t exactly the same thing as being a worker. Superman has to represent the worker, but always with enough of a distinction to allow him to make that representation to other groups. Consequently, there was the simultaneous sense of something quite unique about him. To reduce his concerns to the earthly and political, even over an issue as big as the fate of the earth, diminishes him, turns him from a tableau into a propaganda poster. Superheros-at-war stories tend to resemble those opening scenes where they round up some bank robbers, musing all the while what a quiet night it seems. The reader sits through these merely human conflicts, expecting something more exceptional to come along in a minute.

There’s also something of a lapse in logic, if he’s so all-powerful why doesn’t he just fly over and duff up Hirohito himself? (In fact in his second ever comics appearance he does pretty much that, albeit in a bid to keep America out of the war! He then even repeats the image on the cover of Superman 17.) Or he could at least fly into battle to bring down ‘Jap’ planes... Yet, were he to do something like this, it would risk trivialising the problem. Imagine him scuppering Auschwitz and rescuing the Jews... It might also undermine efforts to present the troops heroically, his super-strength elevating him above them rather than representing them.

Paramount dodge this question by selecting carefully what kind of war stories they’re telling. These aren’t battlefield capers but espionage tales. This is made clear in the opening episode – telling titled ’Japoteurs’. It doesn’t make much sense when you stop to think about it. Why does Superman have to wait for the cover of night? Why does he even have to be over there as Clerk Kent in the first place, now he can finally fly why can’t he just nip over every night? But these problems only come up when you do stop to think about it. There is a dramatic association between the super-secret-identity and the undercover spy, which allows our brains to file them alongside each other. So, by coding the stories this way, they introduce narrative conventions which make it much easier for them to plug a super-being into a war scenario.

However, an alert reader might have already spotted a small flaw in this schema. If the new Paramount Superman is a war character, what does that have to do with changing the opening? Having already been faster than a speeding bullet, why not now speedier than a Japanese fighter plane? Or able to hold his breath longer than a Nazi U-boat?

In fact, the changed opening is not primarily to do with the war stories at all; for a good half of the episodes are quite different in nature. The comparison point would no longer be John Henry, the man as strong as any machine, but his predecessors - the ‘big man’ folk tales of the American frontier, such as the lumberjack Paul Bunyan.

Unlike Henry, Bunyan’s stories almost always pit him against nature - for he’s a man big enough to match the American frontier for size. A minority of stories in the Fleischer era would match this description, such as ’The Arctic Giant’ (effectively a Godzilla story), ’Terror on the Midway’ (a King Kong-a-like) or the self-explanatory ’Volcano!’ Yet, while the credit sequence may seem to set us up for something similar, that’s not quite what appears here.

Just as he had with the Fleischers, Superman still represents modernity. This is now manifested by his battling menaces from the ancient world. What was war with nature for Paul Bunyan becomes war with the primitive, as Superman is set against Mummies (‘The Mummy Strikes’), or lost kingdoms of bird people (‘The Underground World’). This gets tied in with the war stories, with their focus on the ‘regressive’ nature of the Japanese, epitomised by foregrounding their ‘old-world’ architecture to tell us we’re no longer in modernist, democratic New York. With the one story to prominently feature Nazis (’Jungle Drums’), presenting Germany as old-time is less credible so they are shown to be in hock with an African tribe. They become the hurricane and lightning of the credit sequence. (The irony here of course being that fascism was always keen to portray itself as modernistic and technocratic!)

While these episodes are more resonant than the espionage tales it’s the one episode which can’t be filed alongside any of the others, ’Showdown’, which becomes the only rival to the Fleischer era.

There’s plenty of superhero stories which follow the same premise, a villain disguises himself as the hero who then has to go on the run. Except here being thought guilty seems to present few problems for Superman, his challenge is just the intellectual one of figuring out who’s behind it. Instead the emphasis is on how the bad guy exposes the limits of the concept of clothes-maketh-man - he lacks Superman’s heroic physique and even smokes! (We discover he’s not even the scheme’s deviser, just a dumb henchman.)

The episode includes the iconic moment where the imposter pulls a gun, but the bullets just empty on the big S emblazoned on that heroic chest. This image may well not start with the cartoons (for all I know), but it epitomises what the cartoons really do. This may be partly down to the medium - it simply works better with animations’ continual flow than divided into panels, the at-first cocky crook toting the gun, then expending all his bullets with growing fear and finally throwing it uselessly away.

But above all, even in the later Paramount years, these cartoons simply had style! There’s a thin line between classic and cliché, and sometimes pulling off a standard trope with sufficient style is enough to make the difference. It’s like hearing a pub band wheeze their way through a blues standard, then hearing the Muddy Waters original – formally they’re the same song, but as listening experiences they’re a world apart. These cartoons feel right, almost reassuring, in that they give us the Superman we expect to see. But they tell us something we already know so well that it’s as if it’s the first time we ever heard it. Through this combination these cartoons earn their classic status.

Postscript:Now public domain, these cartoons can consequently be picked up cheaply on DVD or (in our recessionated times) are even downloadable from here.

Or check out this sampler...

1 comment: