'Super' history on DVD


POSTED: Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's likely that the “;superhero”; genre could not have been invented anywhere other than the cultural stew of the United States. When Siegel and Shuster created the Superman character in the '30s, it was equal parts Jewish folk culture, Scandinavian mythology, eugenic breeding philosophy and Hollywood moxie. The character was an immediate sensation and soon was adopted for other media, including Saturday-afternoon one-reel serials.

But the spectacular nature of Superman's feats would have bankrupted the average Hollywood picture company. Animation seemed to be the way to go, and in 1941—only three years after the comic book appeared—the Fleischer Studios began to release what became 17 action-packed cartoons.

Not just cartoons, either. The Fleischers, producer Max and director Dave, had always been cutting edge, even more so than Disney, and these Superman cartoons were in Technicolor, with full musical scores, rotoscoped animation, a clever blending of the malleable qualities of fever dreams crossed with Art Deco design, and scripts that were simple enough for kids and exciting enough for adults. Ground-breaking when they came out, these cartoons became legendary over the years, and every once in a while you'd see one used as filler on a cable network and be blown away.

The Fleischers actually only did the first nine or so cartoons—Paramount Pictures acquired the Fleischer Studios and, in the ways of Hollyweird, canned creative geniuses Max and Dave—and the later shorts were animated by Famous Studios to the same visual quality, but not to the same verve and writing skill.

These cartoons are clearly collectible, from anyone interested in Superman to anyone interested in film history and technology. Since the Fleischer stuff was considered public domain, the Superman cartoons popped up here and there, singly and in groups, in various VHS and DVD compilations, often looking muddy, as if the reels were unearthed from ancient Troy.

The question of which set to get has been neatly solved by Warner Bros with “;Max Fleischer's Superman 1941-42,”; a DVD set of all 17 Superman shorts, plus some extras, and for less than $20. The package boasts the films are “;remastered from original, superior vault elements.”;

The cartoons were shot in Technicolor, and on DVD and a big screen, everything really pops. The colors are deep and saturated, unlike the pastels you're used to. It's also a stained-glass effect. In terms of color balance, as well as creating a rich, vibrant soundtrack from the original mono score, these Supermans pummel those other pirated Supermans. The only set that comes close is the “;Complete Superman”; box set from Warners that this edition is spun out of.

Purists have noted that the “;prologues”; to the shorts—you know, “;faster than a speeding bullet! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It's a ...”;—were subtly different between shorts, and Warners has mixed and matched prologues. Also, the package title says 1941-42, when the series actually was produced through 1943.

They look and sound great, better than ever, but the cartoons still suffer from scratches and dust and audio pops. Since that stuff can be digitally scrubbed away, it's annoyed that Warners didn't take the last step. There's no excuse for it except cheapness. Maybe they're waiting for a Blu-Ray edition, when dust on the print can be seen in higher resolution.

The extras included some Warners advertising for upcoming cartoon attractions, plus “;The Man, The Myth, Superman”; featurette examining superheroic archetypes, and “;First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series”; short, showing how the series was made, which is fascinating, but mostly to us cinefx wonks.

To the non-techies, the Superman cartoons are enjoyable actioners—the first non-”;cartoony”; cartoons ever made—and have a high level of tension between physical restraints of the real world and the demands of artistic storytelling. Buildings bend like trees. Robots are huge and menacing. Mad Scientist lairs are soaring castles. Military aircraft are the size of mountains. It's interesting how small the humans appear here, in terms of scale. It was a time when faceless fascism threatened the world, after all. (Speaking of which, these cartoons are a window on the time period. Renegade Japanese-Americans are “;Japoteurs”;!)

These cartoons created and set the stage for the iconography we later built around Superman, particularly the '50s TV show. And some things never change. That annoying minx Lois Lane never shares a byline with Clark Kent.