Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Superman: The Fleischer/Famous Studios Cartoons (1941-1943)

by G. Jack Urso

The Fleischer Superman
In 1941, a scant three years after the introduction of Superman in 1938, animation producers Max and Dave Fleischer were approached by Paramount Studios to create a series of cartoons based on the new superhero. The results were breathtaking. Although the Fleischers were hesitant to take the project, they treated the topic seriously and used state-of-art techniques and technology to bring this quintessential American character to life. A total of 17 episodes were eventually produced.

One innovation the Fleischers introduced is Superman’s ability to fly. Prior to the cartoons, Superman traveled by leaping, as in “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” After initial animation tests, however, the scenes of Superman leaping lacked the fluid motion the Fleischers sought. More frankly, they thought it looked “silly.” After consultation with DC Comics, Superman began to fly both on the screen and in the comics.

Max Fleischer invented rotoscoping, the process in which animation is applied over live-action film footage to create more natural movement. For the Superman cartoons, the Fleischers employed this technique and over 600 artists and technical personnel to bring the comic book superhero to life. No attention to detail was spared. The black shield on Superman's chest draws the eye to the character.  Art Deco accents and the use of shadows to emulate film noir lighting give a cinematic feel to the shorts. Brilliant special effects create electricity, lightning, and fire to heighten the sense of danger. The overall production design influenced the look of the critically acclaimed 1990s Superman: The Animated Series.

Following the first nine shorts, a falling out between the brothers led to the creation of Famous Studios with many of the same animators. The Fleischer Studio shorts, completed by the end of 1941, had mad scientists, robots, dinosaurs, earthquakes, meteors, and volcanos – the stock and trade of the classic Man of Steel. Famous Studios, however, in the wake of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. involvement in World War II, introduced plots with Japanese saboteurs and Nazi spies. Here we begin to see the shift of Superman from a brightly costumed super-powered pulp hero to an All-American icon. Nevertheless, one cannot mistake a hint of racism in the title of the episode “Japoteurs.” On many levels, these animated shorts typify the era.   

What I love about these cartoons is not just the animation, which retains its beauty nearly eight decades later, but also how they show America in the twilight of the Machine Age, that period of time between the 1880s and 1945. We built big, from the Empire State Building to the Hoover Dam, and had cautionary tragedies from the Titanic to the Hindenburg that tested our moral and technological limits. In many respects, these cartoons embody the zeitgeist of the times and give us a unique look at America at a critical time in our history.  Click on the links below to see all 17 episodes on the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel!

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel