Superman/Batman Public enemies, the latest DC animated feature, was released last week. As usual Bruce Timm and his team have given us another superior effort. The script efficiently compresses the events from the Superman/Batman comics Public Enemies story arc and the animation is the usual high quality. But this column is not really about this recent release. In watching Superman/Batman Public Enemies I was reminded of the fact that Superman has been appearing as an animated character since 1941!
SIXTY EIGHT years and still going strong.
The interesting thing is that it was those Fleischer Superman cartoons that remain the highest quality of all the Animated Adventures Of Superman. Today animation is a much slicker process, involving the use of artists and powerful computer rendering plus entire CGI sequences. Modern animation techniques allow studios such as Warner to release MANY more features than in the past. Consider that DC Animated gives us two to three features a year. This was not the case in 1941. In those days every single cell had to be hand drawn (24 for ONE second of animation). This process meant that it took far longer to produce a quality short. In the case of the first Superman cartoon, it took nearly 11 months and of $50,000 (equivalent to $1,316,000 today).
The Superman cartoons, were a series of seventeen animated shorts, produced by Fleischer from 1941 to 1942 and Famous from 1942 to 1943. These high quality TECHNICOLOR cartoons were released to theaters through Paramount Studios and met with both critical and commercial success.
The first short, simply entitled “Superman” garnered an Academy Award nomination for best short subject
The first seven cartoons originated the classic opening line which was later adopted by the Superman radio series and in the live-action television series in 1951.
"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" However, for the final two of the first nine Fleischer-produced cartoons and first of the eight Famous Studios-produced cartoons, the opening was changed to "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to soar higher than any plane!".
The Fleischer cartoons were also responsible for Superman being able to fly. When they started work on the series, Superman could only leap from place to place But they deemed it as "silly looking" after seeing it animated and decided to have him fly instead.
Superman was voiced by Bud Coyler who had been portraying the Man of Steel on the hit radio show for the previous two years. Joan Alexander, radio’s Lois Lane, reprised her role in the shorts as well. As a side note, Jack Mercer, the long time voice of Popeye voiced the Mad Scientist in the first Superman short.
The Fleischer Studio was one of the very first houses to use the technique called rotoscoping. , Rotoscoping is the process of tracing animation drawings from live-action footage, was used extensively to lend realism to the human characters and Superman. However, of Superman's actions, however, could not be rotoscoped (flying, lifting very large objects, and so on). In these sequences the animators hat to rely on the comics and their imaginations for inspiration. In this area they met with great success. The films are simply stunning and remain a standard in animation even today.
The films were SO successful that DC produced a Superman story where Clark and Lois attend a screening of an animated short and Clark must distract her so that lois does not see Clark change to Superman on the screen! Warners produced a spoof of the Superman series called Snafuperman in 1944 and even comissioned the Fliescher theme song!
Fleischer produced the first seven cartoons before it folded and was absorbed by Famous Studios. The drop in quality was immediately apparent, though the cartoons were still of very high quality. The stories also moved from Sci-fi (Mechanical Monsters) to WWII propaganda (Japateurs).
Famous Studios ended the series after a total of seventeen shorts had been produced. The high cost of the series kept it from continuing in the face of budgetary restrictions that were imposed under the new management sans the Flieschers.
Over the years the Superman cartoons moved into the public domain and became widely available on VHS and DVD. However the quality of the prints was generally very poor. Recently, however, yet another release was made, this time a collection of all the cartoons released by Warner Home Video has released the first authorized collection from the original masters, titled Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942. The prints, while not as pristine as advertised, ARE of excellent quality and a joy to behold.
The Fleischer Superman cartoons are wonder six decades after the last was produced. If you enjoy classic animation, it does not get better than this!