|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.