Hero in Transition: The Fleischer Brothers' SUPERMAN cartoons

I've been watching the old Fleischer Brothers SUPERMAN cartoons from the 1940s, and I'm absolutely fascinated by them, much like I was when I was a kid. I remember very vividly the sensations of watching episodes like "The Mechanical Monsters" or "Mad Scientist" in the back seat of my grandparents' van on weekend trips, thrillingly of note is that this is right after VCRs and Televisions became available for cars and vans. I would very often pop in a cassette (one of those you get at the grocery store that says something like, "Over 3 HOURS of Cartoon Classics" on it), and watch away, absolutely enamored when SUPERMAN, POPEYE and BETTY BOOP would come on.

In any case, I've been wondering what about this incarnation of Superman on screen has stood the test of time so well, especially considering that they're not entirely faithful to the origins of the character. For instance, in the cartoon, Superman sometimes seems subject to the law of gravity, but other times he is literally cruising along through the sky. As far as I can figure, this is because Superman could not always fly, but instead gained this ability as the comics continued and fleshed out the original creation more and more. He could always leap very far (not entirely unlike the Hulk), but the flying did not come until later, and this series of cartoons is very obviously showing a transitional period in the character's makeup. While some might view this as a continuity issue, especially judging from the ability to fly from the first episode, but then arching up and falling from the sky in others, or even during flight in some cases, I can't help but think it doesn't really matter. The Fleischer cartoons remain enthralling because of their tightly plotted scripts and fluid animation work. I am thrilled by how good this cartoon looks after six decades. The animation is flawless, and much like the Fleischer's other classics (POPEYE and BETTY BOOP) was highly influential in the medium and is still beloved to this very day.

Simple animation illustrates fully the capabilities of the character in this scene from "Mad Scientist"

Watching the episode "Mad Scientist," in particular shows a lot of visual flair and the ability for animation to convey so much information through very little action. Perched high above Metropolis, the Mad Scientist aims a laser beam at various structures, destroying them, and it's not long before Superman comes to the rescue, saving a skyscraper from toppling onto another building, and then forcing his way up to the laser itself, punching and fighting against the beam all the way. While simple, the animation shows how powerful Superman truly is, able to lift buildings and right them, and shows his invulnerability, impervious he is to his fisticuffs with things as powerful as laser beams. Once atop the tower, Superman literally rips his way into the tower, pulling down a section of wall in a single fluid movement, with the wall literally crumbling after he enters. The attention to detail is staggering for such a youthful age in animation's history.

Aside from just a period of change for just Superman and his identity and abilities, the Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons represent a milestone achievement for all the series that were to come after them, animated or not. Just a simple look at the live-action television series with George Reeves shows the influence, up to and including the current Bruce Timm (Justice League Unlimited) school of animation. The need for each episode of a series to tell a self-contained story is a direct result of the completely self-contained nature of the Fleischer cartoons, though I also acknowledge the original structure of the comics for this as well.

The iconography of this opening stands with the character to this day, and has been copied directly by other versions.

I don't know how many people still are interested in these Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons, but I'm willing to bet it's more than just a few. My only regret is that they are relegated to countless discount DVDs, with no real remastered version existing, as they fell into Public Domain many, many years ago. But for anyone interested in the birth of not only the current incarnation of the world's most famous superhero, but also the genesis of popular animation, these cartoons are must-owns. I can't get enough.


Julia said...

Perhaps it's a side-note (sadly, I don't have fond, nostalgic memories of the Superman cartoons, although I watched them some)...have you read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay? It's about the birth of comics, and Kavalier & Klay's main character is a thinly-veiled Superman character. It's BRILLIANT, if you haven't already read it.

matt said...

i've not read it, though i have read the off-shoot comic series that came of it, THE ESCAPIST, and it was awesome.

Julia said...

READ IT...i've done so twice already and would gladly do it again. Chabon is amazing, and his characters are wonderful. I didn't know there was an offshoot comic, but that's awesome. :)