Though never as popular as his main competitor, what with his Mouse and all, animator Max Fleischer was still able to eek out a string of popular characters including Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor Man. For three years he had been trying to talk Paramount Studios into making a feature-length animated film, against which they dragged their feet, allowing Disney to release Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Fleischer was able to release Gulliver's Travels for 1939, but too late. Not only had Disney beat him out, but the war in Europe started and Gulliver's Travels did not recoup its production costs. Finally, Fleischer was handed the licence to a popular National Allied Publications character created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. With lavish production costs and distinctive style, the Superman cartoons would prove to be another of his workhorse hits.
With roots going back as early as 1933, an outfit inspired by heroes like Flash Gordon and circus strongmen, a look echoing Golden Age Hollywood movie stars, and a city both inspired and named for Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Superman is fundamentally a Pulp hero. Like Batman, who appeared a year after Superman's 1938 debut, he seems to work best in a 1930's type of setting. Batman: The Animated Series figured it out and gave Bruce Wayne's otherwise modern, computerized world a Thirties look of Art Deco and fedoras. The creators of that series frequently cited Fleischer's Superman as one of their influences.
Superman as a Pulp hero is a great deal of fun. None of the villains we have come to know are plaguing him in these shorts... No Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Toyman, or Darkseid. Instead, its a strange array of mad scientists and gimmick bank robbers. Oh, and a dinosaur thawed out from the Arctic. Against his still fantastic but less than god-like powers, these malcontents are well-matched to the Man of Tomorrow. This is played out against a fantastic World's Fair landscape inherited from Fleischer's own 1938 cartoon All's Fair at the Fair.
They also retain his more sensible sort of origins. The framework is still there: Superman is sent from an exploding Krypton to Earth, where he is found, raised and has become a hero with the secret identity of reporter Clark Kent. Ma and Pa and Smallville haven't been retconned in yet. Superman's powers have been a weird sort of thing in later revisions, though. For some reason, Kryptonian physiology acts like a giant solar battery enabling them to fly and take bullets to the eye unless they are in the presence of minerals from their own planet. What?!
The Golden Age version, of which these cartoons are a part, posit nothing more serious than the Kryptonians have developed themselves mind and body into ubermenschen; smart enough to build rockets, strong enough to leap tall buildings and run faster than a speeding bullet. That may have its own connotations given the time period, but Captain America also has blonde hair and blue eyes. It's alternately amusing and disturbing how short the distance is between the "good guys" and the "bad guys". Later writers who have worked with the Golden Age version of Superman have added in that Krypton itself was a larger, denser planet, so his walking around on Earth would be like one of us walking on the Moon.
Unfortunately, the Fleischer studios were already doomed by the time Superman was produced, and not even the Man of Steel could fix it. Mounting debts to Paramount and a breach of contract by Max Fleischer's brother Dave allowed the studio to take over the company. Paramount ousted Max and reorganized Fleischer Studios as Famous Studios. Production on Superman continued, but that second series from 1942-1943 did not have the same charm as the originals. Some insane Scientifictional elements were added - like a race of hawkmen who live underground(?!) - and the series was spiced with Superman's enlistment in the war effort. Like every other cartoon of the time, his adventures on the Pacific front are marred by disgusting racist caricatures (but still less horrible than the live-action Batman serial, which describes Japanese-American internment as the "wise action of a prudent government").
The Fleischer Superman cartoons are all in the public domain. In addition to the ones presented here, one can also easily find Billion Dollar Limited, The Bulleteers, and Volcano online. They are also a frequent favorite for public domain DVD companies, though Warner Bros. have put out a definitive edition.
Originally Published in http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com
For Cory Gross, the past is a lifestyle choice. Native to the ranchlands of Western Canada, he works as a museums and heritage professional in Calgary, Alberta, teaching science, nature, history and art. He also volunteers with a number of science and history organizations in the city, holds a graduate degree in theology, and enjoys travelling at home and abroad. His love of Victorian science fiction and antiquated adventure stories is on display at his blog Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age.