This series of “Related Genres” posts will discuss things other than RPGs, but which also had a huge influence on me growing up.
First up is a discussion of the 1940’s Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, which, if you’ve never seen, seriously stop reading right now and go order them from your Amazon.com or rent them on your Netflix thingy-ma-jig, or use that Youtube gizmo that all the kids are using. Or, if you’re old like me, you might even seek them out at a store, assuming you can find an actual brick-and-mortar store that carries them.
Did you go watch them? Great. Welcome back.
I stumbled across these gorgeously drawn animated shorts back in the late 1980s or so when one of the local independent networks here in L.A. showed a bunch of them one weekend. It’s possible that it was on a national cable network, but it’s been too long and I don’t really remember. What I do remember was being instantly sucked in by the very lavish illustrated style and the spectacular music.
Paramount Studios released 17 of these animated shorts in the early 1940s, created by Max Fleischer of Fleischer Studios. The history of why the shorts are so beautifully produced is kind of funny – Max (and his brother Dave) were actually too busy and didn’t want to commit to working on the series, so they told Paramount that each episode would cost $100,000 to produce, which was about four times as much as they had been paid to produce their Popeye the Sailor animated shorts. They hoped to price the episodes so high that Paramount would pass. Instead, Paramount agreed to a budget of $50,000; half of what the Fleischer’s requested, but still double what they’d been given for Popeye.
There are lots of firsts in these shorts, like making Superman fly (before that, in the comics, he only “leapt tall buildings in a single bound”), and the famous opening line of the radio production and live-action TV series that came after the animated shorts (“Faster than a speeding bullet…”).
It’s difficult to talk about why I like these shorts so much if you haven’t seen them, but the style is just amazing. There is a very art-deco look to them, which is natural given when they were made, but there’s also this futuristic early science fiction look and feel to the shorts which anybody who appreciates early science fiction would love. The music, by Sammy Timberg (who also wrote the Popeye and Betty Boop music for Fleischer Studios) fits just right with the artistic style, especially the opening “Superman March” theme. It has this very retro and somewhat kitschy feel, but is still majestic in its way.
To be sure, some of the themes in the shows are dated by today’s standards, and some might be offended by a few of the shorts, which were made right at the beginning of the United States’ entry into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don’t make apologies for that kind of thing – it’s sadly part of our history and if it bothers, just skip those episodes. It’s easy to tell which ones I’m talking about when view the titles.
Later on when I watched Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series from the early 1990’s, it was clear that their style (especially Batman: TAS “dark deco” style) was influenced by these early Max Fleischer Superman shorts. That’s quite a compliment to Max and Dave, over 50 years later.
My buddy Jeff forwarded me a link to a short fan-made animated short on Youtube called Superman Classic. It’s a loving tribute to the style of the original Max Fleischer Superman animated shorts from the 1940’s and I would totally watch a Superman animated series that had that look to it.
But then again, I’ve watched every DC heroes animated series that’s aired since Batman: The Animated Series came out, up to and including Young Justice, currently on Cartoon Network. What can I say? I like DC Comics. But, other than Batman: TAS, which is a close second for its look and feel, I haven’t ever really enjoyed any of them as much as I enjoy the Max Fleischer Superman shorts.