Superman – The Golden Age of Animation


[Intro Music] There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of different incarnations of Superman, in the nearly eighty years of his existence. He was the first superhero, the Hercules of American culture. And, while he was created on the page, he wouldn’t become fully realised until his cinematic debut. And, when I say “cinematic debut”, one of these probably comes to mind, but Superman actually made his leap to the silver screen in a cartoon, Announcer:
“The infant of Krypton is now the Man of Steel! “Superman!” helmed by this guy, Max Fleischer. And, if the name seems familiar, that’s because he’s also the creator of dozens of characters, like Popeye and Betty Boop. He, and his brother Dave, were approached by Paramount to create a show for Superman, who was surging in popularity at the time, and, with a budget of about half a million per episode, they were able to create one of the greatest achievements in animation history. They produced seventeen single reel films, nine by the Fleischers themselves, and the remaining eight by Famous Studios. So, what makes this show so significant for the character? Well, for one, it established everything from the look of the Daily Planet, all the way to Superman’s ability to fly. Superman couldn’t fly before 1941, that’s where “He leaped tall buildings in a single bound” comes from. because of the limitations of animation at the time, it was difficult to have him bouncing around everywhere. Fleischer put in a request to have him fly to lighten the workload on the animators, while unknowingly creating a staple of comic book superpowers. Flying’s the second most popular superpower behind, maybe, super strength. Everybody flies. Tony Stark:
“Yeah, I can fly.” Green Lantern:
“Can you fly?” Batman:
“In a plane.” Green Lantern:
“Are you freakin’ kiddin’ me?” But the show didn’t just build on the Superman mythos, it also helped push innovation in every facet of animation, and film-making in general. It was the first of its kind, it was an action-adventure serial, which no-one in animation was doing at the time. Animation was for comedy, it was something for the kids to watch. Superman elevated the medium. took it to places nobody thought it could go. And it inspired multiple generations of artists. Bruce Timm:
“When we started doing the Batman animated series, “I was actually going to go with something a little bit brighter, “gaudier, a little bit more weird and stylised, “but my boss at the time suggested that we look at the Fleischer Superman cartoons again.” Every element in these films, from the movement to the colour, to the sound design, everything worked so synergistically that sometimes you forget these cartoons were made in the ’40s. Even the lighting is realistic. It looks almost like an oil painting, being dark and shadowy while maintaining that beautifully saturated colour that adds a heightened sense of drama to the cartoons. And it actually anticipates the look of film-noir. Now, let’s compare it to something like “The New Adventures of Superman” series from 1966, so, 25 years later. ♫ Is it a bird? ♫ ♫ No! ♫ ♫ Is it a plane? ♫ ♫ No! ♫ ♫ What is it? ♫ ♫ It’s Suuupermaaan! ♫ Holy shit. That is terrible. Max’s approach to animation was less about putting pencil to paper and more about adapting the mechanics of film-making to bring these drawings to life. Cartoons don’t move like this any more. There’s so much life in the action It’s fluid, it’s balletic. Every frame is a wholly new drawing. Richard Fleischer:
“My father was “a pioneer in animation. “A great innovator, great artist “and really gave cartoons “the movement “and flexibility that we see today.” Now, I want you to just take a close look at this shot from an episode called “The Bulleteers”. Did you catch it? Alright, let’s reverse time real quick. Take it back right there. So, you can see how, after he catches his balance, he positions his foot on the ledge for leverage to kick back off. That may seem like a really small detail but it’s different to capture that kind of nuance in character movement and to do it, Max Fleischer developed an entirely new method of animation Richard Fleischer:
“He invented a machine called the rotoscope, “which is still in use in every special effects house in the world, “that made a complete change in the look of animation.” It was a process of filming the movement in live-action, and then matching it to the characters by drawing directly onto the celluloid. And, just remember, without the rotoscope, lightsaber fights would still look like this. But, lightsabers weren’t the only thing Superman had a hand in. Take a look at this episode. It’s called “The Arctic Giant” and it’s responsible for inspiring one of the biggest icons in pop culture history. I’ve noticed while modern portrayals of characters like Batman are constantly updating, and becoming bigger and more grandiose, Superman, at least in his current incarnation, seems to be trying to get back to his roots. DC even went so far as stripping him of most of his powers, and reverting back to the classic black and red insignia Max Fleischer designed in 1941. And, what I think most people are just beginning to understand is that Superman, when over-explained, becomes uninteresting. When you take a look at this scene from Man of Steel this opening sequence lasts nearly 25 minutes, and while being very visually engaging, ultimately, adds nothing to the narrative other than telling us two things: 1. Krypton was a place, and 2. Baby Kal leaves Krypton, Krypton’s no longer a place. Now, comparatively, the Fleischers give that same origin in about 25 seconds. And Grant Morrison famously did it in just four panels. In the original comic, Superman’s origin was told on just the first page. Origin stories are boring as hell, which is why the second film in a franchise trilogy usually works the best. Wrong! It’s the simplicity of Superman that makes him such a compelling character The Iron Giant:
“I Superman” He’s a hero with perspicuity in his motivations. We always know what Superman will do, because he’ll always do what’s right. The clearer the motivations, the more distinct the character becomes It’s the stories around him that should be complex and, while these cartoons and their 10-minute runtime aren’t necessarily the most complicated narratives, they present Superman in his most fundamental attributes. If you strip away all the faff, and plot, and continuity, and just look at the core of the character. If you had to explain to a five-year-old who Superman was, this would be your description. Someone who’s never read a comic in their life can hop onto this show and have a real understanding of who Superman is, who he truly is. He’s not an alien, he’s not a god, he’s just a dude from Kansas, doing the right thing. [Outro Music]

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