Diamond Anniversary Editon
When Paramount Studios purchased the motion picture rights to Superman in 1941, funny animals ruled the animation world. But due to the phenomenal popularity of the Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel comic book character, Paramount chose to take a chance on a property unlike any other yet animated. As the story goes (reported by Leslie Cabarga in The Fleisher Story and Leonard Maltin in Of Mice and Magic), when Paramount pitched the project to Dave Fleisher, he warily considered the daunting task of animating human anatomy successfully. He doubted that it was economically possible. When Paramount asked for an estimate of the per episode cost, Fleischer threw out an outrageously high number -- $90,000 (according to Cabarga, $100,000 according to Maltin) . Fleischer hoped the studio would become dissuaded and abandon the project. But to his surprise, Paramount agreed to the amount.
The resulting cartoon series is one of the all-time greats, and now all 17 Superman cartoons are collected on one DVD, courtesy of Bosko Video and Image Entertainment, on a disc entitled The Complete Superman Collection: Diamond Anniversary Edition. Bosko first brought these cartoons to home video back in 1991. The same transfer was evidently used for this DVD release. While the quality of the 35mm transfer is generally good, the source materials are far from perfect. Some colors are faded and a bit muddy. But until someone assumes the task of digitally restoring the transfer, this is the definitive collection.
Before they began producing Superman cartoons, the careers of Max and Dave Fleischer were built upon characters such as Betty Boop and Popeye. These rubbery cartoon characters inhabited fanciful comedic worlds light years away from the world of Superman. However, the Fleischers weren't completely new to realistic animation. In fact they had invested considerable effort and expense in a feature-length animated movie -- Gulliver's Travels -- that utilized a process called rotoscoping to create a realistic Gulliver. But stylistically, Gulliver's Travels was a hybrid, featuring many characters drawn in a very cartoony, funny-animal style. Superman, by necessity, needed to stay in a realistic mode. In order for the superhuman feats of Superman to appear unusual and surprising, he needed to inhabit a world that otherwise looked fairly normal.
The Fleischers' first Superman cartoon, simply titled "Superman," came to theaters in September 1941 amidst a huge advertising campaign. Paramount even placed coming attraction trailers for "Superman" in front of many of their theatrical releases -- an unheard of practice for a cartoon short.
"Superman" includes an extremely brief setup that shows the origin of Superman: we see the planet Krypton from thousands of miles away as earthquakes threaten to rip it apart. Before Krypton explodes, a rocketship zips into space carrying the son of a leading scientist. A narrator fills in the gaps, telling us the boy was raised in an orphanage on Earth (he was raised by a farm couple in the comic book). Immediately afterwards, the cartoon establishes the format that would be used for most of the subsequent Superman cartoons: after Lois Lane is given a reporting assignment (or after she gets a lead), she immediately rushes off and encounters a dangerous situation. Superman must come to her rescue. Eventually, minor variations on this formula would appear. In "Eleventh Hour," for example, Superman helps the American war effort by sabotaging battleships in Yokohama harbor. His actions put Lois in jeopardy (she's in Yokohama on an assignment for The Daily Planet). Japanese soldiers capture her and threaten to execute her if Superman doesn't cease the sabotage. And "The Underground World" provides a new plot variation by sending Lois Lane and Clark Kent on a spelunking expedition--where Lois is captured by a race of hawkmen. But these cartoons are among the few exceptions to the standard Superman formula.
Storytelling was not one of the strengths of Max and Dave Fleischer's studio. In fact, it would prove to be their great Achilles heel, as evidenced by the failure of their feature-length cartoon Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1940). As a result, the Superman cartoons never let us get to know the main characters. The complete emphasis is on getting to the action sequences as quickly as possible, and these sequences are magnificent. We see Superman shield Lois Lane from molten metal by spreading his cape over her; we see Superman complete an electrical circuit by grabbing two wires and allowing the current to surge through his body; we see Superman divert a giant boulder from smashing a town; we see Superman punch the electrical surges from a giant ray gun.
Character development is kept to an absolute minimum in these cartoons, but visually these cartoons are stunning. Backgrounds are vast, detailed, and atmospheric, providing a unified painterly vision. The animated human characters move like real people and they are placed within the scenes to emphasize depth. While most previous cartoons placed characters on the same plane (the same distance from the camera), the Superman cartoons frequently give us characters who stand with their backs to the camera while other characters move beyond them.
All the Fleischer Superman cartoons make extensive use of shadows, especially on the animated human characters. These shadows help give the appearance of rounded contours and further reinforce the illusion of depth. "Terror on the Midway" even uses a glow on the edges of the characters to suggest multiple light sources.
The audio for these cartoons is less than ideal, but I'm guessing the Fleischers skimped on the recording sessions for the actors' voices. Sound effects are used sparingly, with music filling in most of the aural space. As a result, the soundtrack sounds hollow, as if it were recorded inside a cave. But the legacy of these cartoons rests on their visuals. Judged purely on those terms, these cartoons are astonishing creations, easily the equal of any that Disney had yet released by the early '40s.
The Complete Superman Collection: Diamond Anniversary Edition is now available on DVD from Bosko Video and Image Entertainment. Suggested list price: $24.99. For more information, check out the from Image Entertainment Web site.