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"This Looks A Job For The Fleischer Brothers!"
on September 17, 2015
the definitive Superman production (as if you really had to ask) is the film series starring Christopher Reeve. second place is a little cluttered, though, consisting of the George Reeves tv series, the Kirk Alyn matinee serials...and the first ever animated Man Of Steel. cartoon producers Max and Dave Fleischer did admittedly have a couple of more successful properties in their stable in Popeye and Betty Boop, but their masterpiece is easily the all too brief series of 17 Superman shorts.
it's not simply the Superman fan in me speaking. it was indeed the former Kal-El's introduction to the Silver Screen, but that is but one of a number of things that make the series a milestone in the art of animation.
most obviously, it was the very first, literally first ever, action/adventure (or otherwise non-comedic) cartoon production. animation was largely considered to of been meant to be whimsical by nature (possibly because it was so obviously a cousin of the comic-strip), so whoever suggested this was literally flying in the face of conventional wisdom. it demonstrated that animation, like so much else, was capable of things other than that with which it was generally associated.
further ground was broken by unprecedented production values. cartoons hadn't yet had to bother with recognizable environments, so the likes of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse occupied a sort of limbo world, which was meant to be surreal anyway. in this case however, because Superman was well known to be based in a composite of New York City, it was incumbent upon the animators to make sure the New Yorkness of Metropolis was unmistakable.
it was also the first time animation had been designed to reflect how the human body moved. this was achieved by a technique known as "rotoscoping," which basically amounts to filming actual people and modelling the cartoon on that footage. it sounds simple, but it was a new enough approach to make an impression.
it even contributed a thing or two to the still burgeoning Superman continuity. (the comic book was only a few years old at the time.) initially, for instance, our hero simply leaped, as in "tall buildings in a single bound." it was under the Fleischers' auspices that he began to fly. also, his first nemesis herein, identified only as The Mad Scientist, could almost be called a prototype for Lex Luthor. when he premiered in the comic a few years later, about the only thing Lex hadn't inherited was the Mr. T-esque hairstyle.
(you can tell how early this is in Superman's life from the relative absence of Jimmy Olsen, not to mention the suspiciously even disposition of Perry White.)
it hadn't been much earlier that Superman's radio adventures premiered, so it was only logical to enlist radio actors Bud Colyer (Clark Kent) and Joan Alexander (Lois Lane) for the big screen incarnation. Colyer's most significant angle on the role was to play Clark in a softer tenor voice, but becoming a booming baritone upon becoming Superman. this not only established a line between the characters, but suggested one plausible reason why the Daily Planet staff never recognized their hero as one of their coworkers. curiously, that duality is only used here in the aforementioned Mad Scientist episode. from there on in Colyer only used the baritone voice, most likely because this incarnation of Superman turned out to be a man of so few words.
most importantly, though, they still pack the same whollop as ever. it's like Star Wars, which is well noted for having broken new ground technologically even in an age when said innovations are so de rigueur that they're harder to feel in the film than they once were. similarly, the Superman series has as strong a sense of drama and excitement as one could hope for, which it was able to fall back on once the revolution it introduced had become the status-quo. (fittingly, there are those who call this series the Star Wars of cartoons.) some have criticized these cartoons for being a little scanty on the story, but considering that they run an average of 8 to 10 minutes, it's pretty impressive how engrossing they manage to be.
but alas, it's reign was all too brief. there were a total of 17 installments over two years. there are any number of potential reasons it was such a blip on the radar. given the ground it broke, it may of become too complicated and/or expensive to maintain. it's also possible that the Fleischers and company simply underestimated it. unlike producer Alexander Salkind and director Richard Donner, who knew that they were dealing with a significant piece of lasting Americana, Max and Dave were, for all intents and purposes, contributing to that mythos. you can never tell what's gonna have staying power. truth to tell, in the days before television syndication and/or home-video, posterity wasn't necessarily an issue.
but either way it was fun while it lasted, and it remains the very best Superman cartoon production ever mounted (or likely to be mounted).