Let’s do a little time-traveling, shall we? Imagine yourself as a kid in 1938. It’s the middle of the Great Depression, and money is scarce. Your parents give you some mad money each week, though, and, this week, they’ve given you a quarter. You’re excited; after all, at the drugstore, a quarter can buy you a lot: an ice-cream soda, a bag of candy, and, most important of all, a comic book.
You run to the drugstore, trying to decide what comic book you want. Most of the comic books on the rack are reprints of newspaper comic strips, and you’re trying to decide which collection you want this week: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, or something else. You’re still trying to decide as you arrive at the drugstore & stand before the comic-book racks.
At that moment, your thoughts of those collections go out the window. Why? Because this cover has boomed off the rack at you:
You’ve just been a witness at the birth of an icon. That icon: Superman!
If you’re unfamiliar with Superman (I’m not sure if that’s possible, but stranger things have happened), here’s all you need to know. Superman’s true name is Kal-El and he’s the lone survivor of a race of beings who lived on the planet Krypton. Unfortunately, Krypton moved too close to its red sun, putting it in danger of exploding. Kal-El’s father, Jor-El, was aware of this danger and wanted to save his son, so he put Kal-El in a rocket ship and sent him to Earth before Krypton blew up. Arriving on Earth, Kal-El was discovered by Jonathan & Martha Kent, who adopted Kal-El, named him Clark, and raised him. Eventually, Clark discovered his superhuman powers and his unearthly bloodline. At this moment, Clark decided to use his powers to benefit the people of Earth. So, with that goal in mind, he moved to the city of Metropolis, got a job as a newspaper reporter (to have easy access to the news of the world), and fought crime in his spare time.
Under the care of creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman became a smash hit. Copies of Action Comics and Superman’s stand-alone comic sold like hotcakes, making lots of money for their publisher, DC Comics. This success was noticed by other companies, who immediately clamored for a piece of the Superman pie. Before long, the world was flooded with a ton of Superman stuff: live-action movie serials, a radio show, dolls, jigsaw puzzles, and even Superman peanut butter.
There’s one piece of Superman stuff, however, that stands above the rest . That’s Fleischer Studios’ series of animated Superman shorts, produced from 1941 to 1943. It’s those shorts that bring us together today!
By 1941, Fleischer Studios had graduated from producing Betty Boop and Out Of The Inkwell shorts to feature films. Unfortunately, while the studio’s first animated film, Gulliver’s Travels, had been a success, their second feature, Mr. Bug Goes To Town, had almost bankrupted the studio. Notice the word ‘almost,’ though. Luckily, Max and Dave Fleischer had foreseen the upcoming financial disaster, and they had decided to buy the rights to a property that would be sure to pull in audiences. Superman was just the thing they were looking for, so they acquired the rights from DC Comics and went on to change the Superman story forever.
When I say “changed the Superman story forever,” I’m not exaggerating. The Fleischers’ seventeen Superman shorts are so beautiful that the comic book writers and artists took elements from them and incorporated them into the official Superman canon.
Even if the animated shorts hadn’t changed the Superman myth, though, they would still be landmarks. The shorts are so well-done that they’ve been influences for a vast array of people, from Frank Miller to Hayao Miyazaki to the producers of Batman: The Animated Series and The Tick. They’re definitely something every animation fan should see!
Each of the Fleischers’s Superman shorts follows the same story structure. It goes something like this:
- The threat is introduced (usually by a front-page spread in the Daily Planet).
- Lois Lane begs Daily Planet editor Perry White to let her follow up on the story. White consents, despite Clark Kent’s objections.
- Lois ends up kidnapped by the mad scientist, trapped in a burning building, etc.
- Now that his girlfriend is in danger, Clark decides to turn into Superman and save her (and whoever else he can in the process).
- A huge battle takes place. Superman saves Lois at some point during said battle.
- After the dust settles, Lois gushes over Supes, while Clark winks at the camera.
So, yeah, after one or two of these shorts, the writing gets a little predictable. That’s okay, though; the shorts are so beautiful on a technical level that it overcomes the predictability.
Originally, the Fleischers planned to use rotoscoping extensively throughout the shorts, but they found that Superman’s superpowers were impossible to rotoscope (like flying, for instance). The Fleischer animators weren’t really used to character animation without rotoscoping, so all the “Superman uses his powers” scenes were done pose-to-pose. The long-time Fleischer animators would sketch out the main poses, and younger animators, being more skilled with character movement, would serve as inbetweeners. While the inbetweeners worked, the older animators would work on the non-Superman scenes, which were rotoscoped. The difference in animation is obvious; the character animation in the Daily Planet scenes is stiffer than the Superman fight scenes. It’s not jarring, though, and it doesn’t detract from the quality of the shorts.
All the shorts boast a cool-looking Art Deco look in their backgrounds and layouts. The skyscrapers are tall and sleek-looking, with sharp corners and narrow spires. The strong, sharp features even extend to Superman, whose jaw is so square and rock-hard it could knock someone out. Where the designs aren’t sharp and straight, they’re made up of lots of rounded lines, curves, and domes. This is particularly obvious in the villains’ hideouts, which are almost always in huge, observatory-like buildings. The look is really distinctive and cool; it’s easy to see that the producers of Batman: The Animated Series took a lot of inspiration from it!
However, the shorts really stand out in their use of color, light, and shadow. All of the shorts have a blue tint to them; it matches Superman’s spandex, and also does a good job of giving the shorts their modern look. The ink-and-paint crew did a great job with color on every level, though. For example, there’s a moment in the first short, The Mad Scientist, where Superman gums up the works of the scientist’s death ray by pinching off a pipe. Right before (SPOILER) the laser blows up, there’s this really amazing-looking mixture of colors and light in the swollen pipe. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in an animated film before.
As for light and shadow, most of the credit has to, again, go to the ink-and-paint crew. They did a great job of choosing warm oranges and yellows for the light sources; it stands out against the blue tint, and it really catches the eye. Credit also has to go to the camera crews, though, for shooting the cels and backgrounds in such a way to make the fires flicker and light quality waver as needed.
And, now, we come to the big question: why have the Fleischers’s Superman shorts been forgotten? They don’t deserve to be; after all, almost every animator (or anybody, really) who sees them comes away impressed. Ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that the shorts have fallen into the public domain. Public domain has been great for some films (I’m looking at you, It’s A Wonderful Life), but it causes some work to fade into obscurity, since no studio has the rights to give the films a wide DVD release. Unfortunately, that’s the fate of the Superman shorts. The plus side, though, is that all the Superman shorts are available on YouTube, so they’re easy to find, should you want to do so!