Thursday, December 14, 2006

Superman

Mark Evanier, whose excellent blog (www.newsfromme.com) is often my first daily Internet stop, posted this 10-minute Google video today and I enjoyed it so much I thought I'd borrow it myself. In 1941, just three years after Superman's comic book debut, Max and Dave Fleischer began producing a series of animated shorts starring the Last Son of Krypton. I love these cartoons, which I believe are now in the public domain, and this is the first one they made.

According to Evanier, at the time this was the most expensive non-Disney cartoon ever produced. It's gorgeous. The art is art-deco lush and expressive throughout, and I think the sequence at the end with Superman punching out (!) a death ray is truly one of the best bits of animation art ever done.

Also interesting is how much of the Superman mythos and family of characters was already in place. Each of the Fleischer cartoons distilled them to their essence: Lois and Clark are professional rivals and spunky Lois gets into trouble that meek Clark finds a reason to avoid so Superman can save her. It's a lovely little cartoon formula that, like Road Runner vs. Coyote or Charlie Brown vs. Lucy's Football, has worked in countless permutations for many decades.

At the same time, you can see they were still working out the bugs. This Baby Kal-El wasn't found and raised by the Kents but grew up in an orphanage. The opening title states that Superman could only leap great distances, but the cartoon clearly shows him free-flying. All of his auxiliary powers (X-ray vision, heat vision, super-breath, whatever) would come later, along with a gradual ratcheting up of his strength to absurd levels--an error that subsequent creators tried to correct once in a while and then committed all over again.

Anyway, this cartoon backs up a strong opinion of mine that the 1940s and '50s was a Golden Age of comic and cartoon art that has not been and probably never will be surpassed. There are a lot of reasons why. One is that the people producing it were adults creating to entertain adults. Their work was never condescending. Another is that they were professionals who'd paid their dues mastering (and in many cases inventing) their craft. Very few cartoonists or animators working today would be fit to clean the old guys' inky brushes. They also brought a wealth of life experience to the job that I think enriched their work.

(I often think of the latter point in relation to the original Star Trek, which I believe had a verisimilitude that subsequent spin-offs lacked because Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, and the others involved had long, interesting pre-TV careers--including military service--that gave their adventures and characters a realistic edge despite the groovy far-out setting. In contrast, Star Trek writers and producers in the 1980s and '90s were relatively recent college grads whose life experience consisted of writing screenplays--and watching old Star Trek. Not that the newer Treks were bad, but I think they could have benefitted by hiring a fifty-year-old writer who'd maybe served aboard an aircraft carrier.)

At any rate, I'm rambling and I think this cartoon speaks for itself. If you haven't seen the Fleischer Supermans before and have 10 minutes to spare, I think it's time well spent.

6 comments:

the other ronnie said...

That was great! Thank you so much for a wonderful nostalgic trip back to the olden days when superman was super.

L said...

Yay, that was fun to watch! ^^ They made cartoons very detailed back then, and you can definately tell that it was made for adults too. I think any present day animator would probably have a heart attack if someone asked them to put together something like that...

Kid Sis said...

Ah, unfortunately not in the public domain. The famous comic Mark I know has done frightening research on public domain issues for his clique of Hollywood/comic writers. The 75 year thing is bunk, for all practical purposes, which torpedoed several projects. In case you were thinking clever thoughts like the rest of us pirates...

Brian Fies said...

Other Ronnie, entirely my pleasure. Glad you liked it.

L, I don't think anyone even knows how to draw and paint like that anymore. But you can see how much the Fleischer cartoons influenced later animators, especially Bruce Timm and the crew that made the Batman series in the 90s.

Sis, although Superman is obviously not public domain, I believe those cartoons are. I think that's why you can buy 27 different crappy versions of them at Target for $1 per DVD. Charlie and I actually talked about it at some length while getting "Mom's Cancer" ready to go because we were worried about using the PowerPuff Girls and considered substituting a still from the Fleischer Superman instead. In the end we decided my PowerPuff use was small and incidental enough to constitute Fair Use and we feared DC might not perceive the subtle distinction between Fleischer's Superman and theirs, but on this particular issue I trust the judgment of the guy who used to make a living securing rights to use old comics art for DC.

Kid Sis said...

Now you wouldn't be referring to the lovely Chrismas present I received last year as one dollar crap, would you?

I love Charlie, but on this one I'm going with the world's Superman expert/DC archivist (Mark? You out there?). Especially since the math doesn't add up for Fleischer even under the old law.

There's something huge about the 75 year copyright law being quietly changed during the Bush Admin (insert snarky misdirection joke here). As I remember it explained to me, there's no public domain now until 75 years after the copyright owner's DEATH. So stick it out a while longer, and no one will be messing with Mom's Cancer until at least the 22nd century.

Also, I believe the copyrights themselves can now also be passed on to heirs and entities. Making the thing we were all looking forward to; the 75 year rule finally catching up to 1930s properties, well, crap. And, I'm sure, torpedoing many a Noel Coward remake. Bottom line is nothing can be assumed to be public domain based on its age anymore. The chain of ownership has to be researched for each property.

Anyhoo, not trying to start a debate, just passing on some helpful info from an expert researcher/scholar that some big people in Hollywood use as truth...

More importantly, check out my blog post about meeting Carrie Fisher.

Brian Fies said...

"Now you wouldn't be referring to the lovely Chrismas present I received last year as one dollar crap, would you?"

OH NO! Not yours! But there are many different versions available at many different price points and print/sound quality. You got one of the GOOD ones!

"I love Charlie, but on this one I'm going with the world's Superman expert/DC archivist (Mark? You out there?). Especially since the math doesn't add up for Fleischer even under the old law."

For what it's worth, which is not much, Wikipedia backs me up here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superman_%281940s_cartoons%29 : "All seventeen cartoons were sold to Motion Pictures for Television (producers of the TV series The Adventures of Superman) in 1955, and all eventually fell into the public domain (their copyrights having not been renewed by either Paramount, NTA/Republic, EMKA, Ltd./Universal Studios, or even Motion Pictures for Television and DC Comics)..."

I have a copy somewhere of a "Wired" magazine story that listed the Top Ten Movies in the Public Domain, of which the Superman cartoons were one.

You may well be right--copyright is complicated--but since it has no effect on my life, that's about all the research and effort I plan to put into it.