Review by KC Carlson
First of all, the title is confusing and possibly in error. The Fleischers were only involved with the first nine of the 17 Superman cartoons collected here on two discs. The remaining eight were produced by the company set up by Paramount after they forced the Fleischers out of their own studio in 1942. That company was called Famous Studios and included many of the same artists and animators that the Fleischers employed. The two batches of cartoons are similar, but they also have several marked differences, mostly in tone and story content. The Fleischer Nine are the superior cartoons, much heralded and admired by animation fans and tremendously influential on both animation and superhero comic books, even today.
Further, if you take all 17 Superman cartoons together as a group, they were actually released from 1941 to 1943. Technically, the title is correct, if misleading, as Max Fleischer was only involved until 1942, although the series ran without him (and his brother Dave) for another year. Perhaps the correct, nit-picky title should be Max Fleischer’s Superman 1941-1942, plus the Famous Studios Superman 1942-1943.
Also, if you look closely at the cover of the packaging, you’ll see a nifty faked sticker with the legend “Authorized Edition – From the Original Master.” While technically this is true, what you may not know is that these 17 cartoons have been in the public domain for several years now and have previously been released in a number of “unauthorized” collections. While I’m no legal scholar (I only played one on TV), Warners does now control all the original film elements and obviously hold the the trademark on Superman, the character. Plus they paid the $$$ to have them restored. But their actual current legal status? You got me.
But this is all trivia behind the scenes. The main event here is the first authorized, restored collection of these great Superman cartoons — all in one compact edition for the first time!
If you’ve never seen the Fleischer Superman cartoons, you are in for a real treat! During the time that their cartoons were produced, the Fleischers were the major competition to Disney in both artistic merit and popularity. (The Warner characters, like Bugs Bunny, were still a few years from breaking out to the big time). The Fleischers’ Popeye was the most popular character for a couple of years (beating even Mickey Mouse), and the Fleischers were also competing with Disney in feature-length animation with the 1939 release of Gulliver’s Travels.
After Gulliver’s release, Paramount approached the Fleischers with the opportunity to produce cartoons for them, based on America’s most popular comic book and radio superhero of the era – Superman. Because they were busy with their own feature-length projects at the time, the Fleischers initially weren’t interested in taking on the new project, so they quoted Paramount a ridiculous fee, reportedly $100,000 per episode — about six times the budget for a typical 6-minute Popeye cartoon at the time. Astonishingly, Paramount countered with $50,000 per episode, still a tremendous budget for the period, and suddenly the Fleischers were in the Superman business.
And it looks like they put most of it up on the screen, as the first episode, Superman, blew people away with its amazing images and high-quality animation. The 10-minute cartoon was later nominated for the 1942 Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. It lost to a Disney Pluto cartoon.
Even better was the second installment, The Mechanical Monsters, a tour-de-force of great animation and action, pitting Superman against a squadron of really coolly-designed robots. Elements of this cartoon have influenced several anime productions, including director Hayao Miyazaki in an episode of Lupin III as well as in his feature Castle in the Sky. Subsequent episodes featured even more amazing animation and action sequences featuring runaway trains, bullet cars, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, thawed-out dinosaurs, and giant magnetic telescopes capable of pulling planets out of the sky! Reportedly, the budgets on the series were eventually reduced, but the quality of the productions of the Fleischers’ cartoons never showed that. Every cartoon attempted to better the previous one.
Some amazing things to look for while watching these:
* When you first see the Metropolis backgrounds (especially during nighttime scenes), be aware of how similar the design is to that of modern-day Gotham City in the Bruce Timm-produced Batman: The Animated Series, especially its opening sequence. When the Bat-boys say they were influenced by the Fleischer Supermans, they weren’t kidding!
* Other big names who were influenced by these cartoons include Frank Miller and Alex Ross. Watch for what they picked up!
* Fans of the Wally Wood and Keith Giffen-illustrated Justice Society stories in the 1970s All-Star Comics will note that they swiped the look for the Earth-Two Superman directly from these cartoons, as well as a sequence or two!
* Keep in mind while watching these cartoons that the Superman in the comics at this time was still the relatively lightly-powered version (as opposed to the “juggles planets blindfolded” Weisinger version which came later). So this Superman still leaps more than he flies. There are a couple of great sequences in the cartoons where Superman is bounding from building to building at great speed which makes me giggle with glee – not because it looks silly, but because it’s so freakin’ cool to watch!
This brings up another interesting side point: the Fleischers were known for inventing and frequently using the rotoscope — a technique of more-or-less tracing the movements of filmed actors to aid in the animation process. They were pretty much stymied in trying to rotoscope Superman, however. It was hard to get real-life footage of people leaping over buildings, flying, and picking up heavy things — like airplanes!
Eventually someone always puts a halt to all good things, as Paramount did when they forced the Fleischers out of their own studio and created Famous Studios to replace them, putting greater control over those artists who remained. The last cartoon with the Fleischers’ name on it, Terror on the Midway, is obviously a transition cartoon. If you watch it closely, it’s like watching several different cartoons all at once, at least style-wise. It’s not a well-written cartoon to begin with, and it gets no help from the artistic mish-mash on the screen.
It’s not that the Famous Studios cartoons are bad. They aren’t, really. It’s just that they lack a lot of the imagination that went into the first batch, and probably a lot of their budget, as it stands to reason that once Paramount was in charge of the studio, they started cutting back. The Famous cartoons definitely have a lot fewer action scenes, slightly more dialogue scenes (some of the Fleischer cartoons are virtually dialogue-less), and a lot less — and more simplified — animation.
They also tried to add a little humor, most of which falls flat. Especially a dimwit office boy character named Louis, who is so dumb that he gets his own name mixed up with Lois. The less said about him, the better. (He only makes two appearances.)
The content of the Famous cartoons changed as well. The Fleischer cartoons were largely based around fantasy and sci-fi elements. The Famous cartoons immediately switched (as did the Popeye cartoons during a similar transition) to mostly stories about the real world. More than half the Famous Superman cartoons dealt directly with WWII-related stories featuring Nazis and Japanese saboteurs. In The Eleventh Hour, Lois and Clark are shown covering the war effort directly in Yokohama, where they are being kept under lock and key at their hotel during their stay in Japan. However, under cover of darkness, Superman slips out every night to cause massive destruction to the Japanese war effort. He is only stopped when the Japanese captors take Lois hostage and threaten to execute her unless Superman stops the nightly destruction! He misses seeing the posted notices, because a wall on which the notice is posted collapses on him while he is destroying it and knocks him unconscious. (Darn the luck!) Thus, we are treated to the sight of a blindfolded Lois being led away to face a firing squad! Oh, my! We never saw this story in the Superman or Action comic books!
The first Famous cartoon (although uncredited as such), The Japoteurs, is difficult to watch in a post-9/11 world. In the cartoon, a Japanese saboteur manages to take over an American bomber plane, over American soil, and then drops bombs down on Metropolis, causing great destruction. Later, as Superman struggles to overcome the saboteur (Superman was frustratingly un-powerful during some crucial times of crisis in the Famous series — here, a locked door gives him trouble), the plane becomes damaged and threatens to crash into the busy, crowded Metropolis. Luckily, Superman was there to save the fictional day.
The Famous cartoons are the ones to give this release its “intended for the Adult Collector and Is Not Suitable for Children” disclaimer, due to some unflattering racial characterizations — although not as bad as the ones in the Famous war-era Popeye cartoons. I think Disc 1 (the Fleischer cartoons) are perfectly fine — perhaps even recommended — for kids, due to their beauty and imagination. These are really no scarier than the early Disney features. If you’re a parent, you might want to preview Disc 2 first, and watch with your kids — so you can answer questions — if you decide it’s okay for them.
This is a very nice collection of cartoons, maybe a bit pricey compared to some of the public domain collections out there, but you are paying a bit more here for the incredible restoration. The colors are vivid, the sound quality is superb (a couple of the PD collections have awful sound), and the prints are (mostly) clear of major imperfections. Considering the age and importance of these cartoons, we should be thankful that they even still exist at all, besides being in such wonderful shape. There are a couple of questionable edits here and there (many of the Famous cartoons seem to end abruptly, as if a few seconds may be missing, just before the Paramount logo), so some internet animation folks have been debating whether material has been cut during the restoration. But in my admittedly inexpert opinion, these look fantastically good, and they are just not going to be made that much better — at least not with a lot of money thrown at them, with not that much chance of return.
Please keep in mind that Warners has previously released all of these restored Superman cartoons elsewhere over the past few years. The nine Fleischer Superman cartoons were on the four-disc special edition Superman: The Movie collection, and the eight Famous Studios cartoons were included on the two-disc special edition Superman II set, which also included the outstanding 13-minute documentary First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series. All 17 cartoons, and the documentary, were also included in the Christopher Reeve Superman Collection and the 14-disc Superman Ultimate Collector’s Edition. They are also available for sale on iTunes. And the public domain versions of the cartoons are available for viewing at various locations around the internets.
So why buy this set? There is one new element exclusive to this set: a new 13-minute documentary, The Man, the Myth, Superman. But I have to tell you, it’s another dud in a long series of ponderous Warner-produced documentaries, with no new insights for anyone who’s thought about superheroes and where they came from for more than five minutes. But there are plenty of authors here to tell you what you probably already know. Don’t forget the No-Doze. Not worth the price of buying this set (if that’s what you were waiting to hear).
The real reason you might want this set is that it collects all the Fleischer and Famous Superman cartoons in one convenient place (a popular request from animation fans, according to Warner). As I mentioned, the restoration and presentation is fantastic and it also includes the excellent (previously mentioned) First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series documentary, featuring people who actually know what they’re talking about including Jerry Beck, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Dan Riba, Richard Fleischer (son of Max), Roger Stern, Allan Asherman, Fleischer/Famous artist and director Myron Waldman, and Fleischer Studios biographer Leslie Cabarga. Finally, these cartoons are some of the most famous, best loved, and most influential (the Bruce Timm DC animation-verse style begins here!) cartoons of all time. How could you not want them?!
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)