With all the chatter and flow about Batman v Superman, the Justice League genesis movie, we thought it would be useful to have a look at a bit of how all this began, with today’s selection entitled First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series. Though Superman obviously got his start in the comics, a great deal of what Superman looks and acts like was established in those early cartoons.
Max and Dave Fleischer didn’t originally even want the Superman project. When Paramount came to Fleischer Studios to do the animated cartoons, they quoted them an outrageous price to try to dissuade them from doing it. To their great surprise, Paramount simply shrugged and said, “okay!”
The look of the Fleischer cartoons was strongly influenced by the colorful, lurid covers on the pulp magazines of the day — books like Doc Savage, the Spider and The Shadow. It was something of a departure for the streetwise Fleischers, who up to that point had been doing humorous cartoons mostly black and white. Best known to that point for their Popeye the Sailor and Betty Boop cartoons, they had never done anything so ambitious as the Superman productions. For Superman, the Fleischers were tasked with creating an entire world for the character to inhabit, complete with crumbling buildings, crowd scenes, vehicles crashing into each other, and a level of realism that to that point had never been achieved in animation. The film noire look of the cartoons actually preceded the film noire movement, and pioneered that look.
Max Fleischer was an inventor as well as an animator. He invented a camera system called the Setback Camera, used on Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor in 1936, to allow for multiple elements in the background of the cartoon to move in correct perspective. This was the first system to do that. It was large and ungainly, but it also allowed the Fleishers to use actual models and miniatures in the setup as part of the scenery. The Disney version of the same thing, the Multi-plane Camera, was much more compact but only allowed the use of flat animation cels.
Fleisher also created the Rotoscope, a device that allowed them to trace over live action footage. This let them create animation that looked so realistic in its motion that it brought the art of animation to a whole new level. That technology is still in use today, though it’s done on computers now.
The influence of the Fleischer Studios cartoons on the modern mythology of Superman is profound. That famous phrase, “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound”, originated in the cartoons. So is Superman’s ability to fly. Fleischer petitioned to allow Superman to fly because making him leap from building to building may have sounded great in the radio serial, but on screen it just looked silly. After that, Superman’s ability to fly became canon, because everyone had just seen Superman flying on the big screen.
Only seventeen of the cartoons were made, and passed into the public domain in the 1970’s, thanks to National Comics, the rights holders at the time, failing to renew their copyrights. The pilot and first eight shorts were produced by Fleischer Studios from 1941 to 1942, while the final eight were produced by Famous Studios, a successor company to Fleischer Studios, from 1942 to 1943. Superman was the final animated series initiated under Fleischer Studios, before Famous Studios officially took over production in May 1942. Altogether the series lasted from 1941 to 1943. Although all entries are in the public domain, ancillary rights such as merchandising contract rights, as well as the original 35mm master elements, are owned today by Warner Bros. Entertainment. Warner has owned Superman publisher DC Comics since 1969.
We’re glad the copyrights of the actual films were allowed to lapse. It makes it a lot easier to share and enjoy these amazing and unique works of art in the history of Earth’s greatest hero.
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane …