*Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero — Recommended

Review by KC Carlson

(Disclaimer: The author interviewed me for this book, although much — if any — of what we discussed was just background material. Which is as it should be, since my involvement with Superman (as an editor) was just a tiny blip in the overall legacy of the character.)

Larry Tye likes writing about American heroes. His previous book was about baseball great Leroy “Satchel” Paige. He’s currently writing about Robert Kennedy for a forthcoming project. But his latest book is about the biggest icon of all — Superman. How American can you get?

Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero is Larry’s first book about a fictional character — perhaps the most famous and popular American fictional character — yet the book also reveals the histories of the many flesh-and-blood heroes behind the icon, heroes like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. George Reeves. Christopher Reeve. Even some oft-forgotten heroes like Whitney Ellsworth, Robert Maxwell, Bud Collyer, Richard Donner, and others. Because every great hero needs great villains, we also encounter Harry Donenfeld, Jack Liebowicz, and Mort Weisinger — not exactly Doomsday-level villains, and maybe not even evil, but all were responsible for something ego-driven applied to the character that required fixing down the road.

And what of DC Comics/Time Warner itself, who may be cast as both hero and villain depending on how pending legal situations fall and how the corporation reacts? What of the ongoing legacy of Jerry Siegel, who may have been his own worst enemy for much of his life? These too are investigated by Tye.

All through the years…

Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero is a multi-faceted book, telling not only the history of the character through all of his multimedia appearances, but also the oft-secret history of the character through the eyes of his “handlers” (the writers, artists, editors, actors, directors, and even many of his biggest fans). The structure of the book is remarkably simple. After thoroughly investigating Superman’s origins (both creative and editorially), each chapter of the book covers about a decade of Superman’s career, with emphasis on the major appearances of the character. The 40s chapter focuses primarily on the Fleischer cartoons, the Kirk Alyn movie serials, and the popular radio show. The 50s is primarily about the Adventures of Superman TV show, so popular that many of today’s Superman fans first discovered the character here (or in the later movies), rather than in the comics. Superman media was light in the 1960s, although there was an animated Saturday morning show and a failed Broadway musical in the latter half of the decade. The 1960s chapter is mostly about the frequently bizarre Mort Weisinger-edited comic book series.

George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman

George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman

The 1970s is all about the massively popular and influential Christopher Reeve movies, with the most concise play-by-play of the the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that I’ve ever read. It’s also a look at the first deliberately focused “reboot” of the comic book version by Denny O’Neil, Curt Swan, and Julius Schwartz. It ultimately didn’t “take” but was influential anyway. The 80s was about the reboot that did succeed — John Byrne’s The Man of Steel — which reset the stage for the contemporary comic book version of today. Subsequent comic book re-workings of the character have either been about altering the percentages of elements of Byrne’s work, reinstating basic concepts from Siegel and Shuster, or making the comics more like the movies and/or the TV shows, as we enter the era of “corporate synergy”. Plus, there were more movies — of diminishing returns.

The 1990s was “The Death of Superman” in the comics — and the behind-the-scenes story is almost as amazing. A resurgence of media presentations took place, with both Lois & Clark and the great animated TV series that took influences from everywhere, yet remained distinctly unique. Actually, as Tye documents, Superman himself was everywhere in the 1990s — from cartoons to theme-park rides to hawking American Express cards (with Jerry Seinfeld)! Tye also tells of the behind-the scenes creative struggles of corporate synergy gone off the rails as the comics were desperately trying to finally get Lois and Clark married, while the Lois & Clark TV show, whose ultimate purpose was the same, was dragging their heels on the event, apparently trying to avoid the “Moonlighting Curse” (the concept that romantic tension completely dies the second that characters finally get together.) Guess what — the TV show won. The comics had to put off the wedding story for a year or two, marking time until it got the “go” — which only came when Lois & Clark was eventually cancelled. It wasn’t a fun time for the comics. Trust me, I was there. (Until I wasn’t.)

Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

The 2010s chapter covers Smallville, the movie reboot, the many comic book re-imaginings, and, sadly, the lawsuit era, as the Siegel estate ramped up their efforts — and got some traction — for getting more remuneration and restitution for the family. (Jerry passed away in 1996). Tye does an excellent job of clarifying the complicated (and often melancholy) proceedings.

This is easily the most researched and documented book about Superman to date. The printed documentation and index in the back of the book runs to over 100 pages. But this is no dry repetition of already well-known history. Tye places the fantastic facts of the character (and the occasional chicanery of corporate concerns and egocentric individuals) into a human context. All these conflicts give new context to “the never-ending battle”.

While based entirely in fact, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero reads like an old Hollywood screenplay, full of heroes and villains and twists and turns. I thought I already knew a lot of this stuff. Boy, was I wrong. Tye gets into some real nooks and crannies of the Superman legend, both on the page (or screen) and off. I couldn’t put this book down, reading it straight through the night, not realizing the time. I had the feeling of reading the original comics when I was six years old again. And when I finished, I immediately went to the bookshelf, grabbed a Superman Archives, and started re-reading that.

“You’ll believe a man can fly.” Sure. But after reading this book, you’ll believe that an improbable fictional character born of teenage frustration, unexpected tragedy, pencils, paper, and india ink can inspire the entire world. (The publisher provided an advance copy for review.)

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