Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Adventures of Superman, Baby Boomer Hero

For more than seventy years and counting, Superman has been a hero in comic books, on the radio, in animated, low-budget serial and big budget feature films, and in several incarnations on television, as reflected in this collage (click on it to enlarge.) Beginning with radio in 1946, Superman is specifically a Boomer superhero, as described in the posts below.

The first of the superheroes has been bending steel with his bare hands since 1932, in comics, animation, on radio and television and in movies. Now even as Smallville, the latest in a string of popular TV series, may be ending, another feature film is reportedly coming: a reboot by Chris Nolan, director of the successful Batman reboot.

The parents and even grandparents of Baby Boomers may have encountered Superman in comic books (his success jump-started the entire comic book industry), or in the movies (cartoons and a live-action serial) and especially on radio. Though the comic books were (and still are) going strong, middle Boomers likely first saw an animated Superman on TV, and late Boomers were introduced to the Man of Steel via the Christopher Reeve feature films.

[continued after illustrations]

But early Boomers probably started, as I did, with the George Reeves television series, The Adventures of Superman. I knew nothing about Superman or about the existence of the TV show when one afternoon several months before I started first grade, I happened to have the TV on the channel that showed the very first episode—the origin story. I was transfixed, changed forever.
Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!

I made sure to watch every episode. I talked about Superman, and I thought about Superman. I also sought out the various comic books--Action Comics and the various Superman, Superboy, Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Pal, Justice League of America, etc. issues, which I read consecutively for hours, thanks to the piles of them in the barber shop adjacent to my grandfather’s tailor shop.

This year, author Tom De Haven published a kind of tour of such adventures in their various media, in Our Hero: Superman on Earth (Yale.) He tells the story, (now familiar to fans) about how two boys from Cleveland, Joel Shuster and especially Jerry Siegel, dreamed up Superman and produced many of the first comic book stories, only to be cheated and forgotten until recent decades. (It wasn’t all bad, though. Eventually Jerry Siegel actually married Lois Lane—or the Cleveland girl they first hired to model for the character in the comics.)

De Haven explores the possible origins of Siegel’s creation—bits and pieces of characters from popular culture (especially science fiction) and popular science speculations, plus adolescent interest in muscle-building. By reversing the more common sci-fi situation (instead of human hero goes to strange alien planet, the strange alien hero comes to earth), throwing in some Flash Gordon wardrobe and a movie serial newspaper heroine (even adapting the Lois Lane name from a B-movie actress), they came up with Superman. (For one reason or another I suppose, De Haven doesn’t include this possibility of a more dramatic source for Superman— the death of his father during an armed robbery. The name L. Luthor turns up, too.)

De Haven breezes through the early comic history, dwelling for awhile on the odd attraction of the first Action Comics cover (above.) But he notes a pattern that recurs in each Super-incarnation. At first, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman was a champion of the oppressed, a crusader for tolerance and social justice.

He quotes an essay by Thomas Andrae noting that their Superman was “neither alienated from society nor a misanthropic power-obsessed nemesis but a truly messianic figure...the embodiment of society’s noblest ideals, a ‘man of tomorrow’ who foreshadows mankind’s highest potentialities and profoundest aspirations but whose tremendous power, remarkably, poses no danger to its freedom and safety.”

But as Superman became more popular, he became a commodity, a franchise, and so in the comics he became an upholder of the establishment: “He became a defender of the existing order and private property,” De Haven writes. “The brief era of the activist Superman was over.”

But even Superman as tough crime fighter faded, partly due to congressional pressure on comic book violence, partly due to Superman’s popularity with children. He became more cuddly and more comic, and even in later incarnations as writers increased his powers and his build, he was more of a fantasy figure, fighting fantasy super-villains.
This Super-arc was repeated on radio and TV. As author De Haven notes, many of the film and TV conventions and characteristics common to Superman stories arose in radio that ruled through the 1940s. There were variations on the musical theme and opening narration in the (see above) 40s Fleischer animated cartoons (with their modernist look and sexy Lois), and then again in the 50s George Reeves TV series, with the music even forming a basis for the Christopher Reeve feature films.

Radio also added the Daily Planet, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and kryptonite. And the key characteristic that brought him to the silver screen in 1978: he is the man who flies.

But he also returned to fighting for social justice: he was “repeatedly unleashed...on religious bigots and the Klu Klux Klan during the late 1940s...” Though De Haven doesn’t note it, the famous “truth, justice and the American way” opening had additional lines on radio, describing Superman as “champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice.”

The next step was television, although producers tested the waters with a low budget feature film in 1951, Superman and the Mole Men. At its climax, Superman doesn’t battle the pathetic little aliens from deep inside the Earth, but defends them against a bloodthirsty human mob. With World War II still fresh, George Reeves in his first appearance railed against this mob for acting like “Nazi stormtroopers.”
While most of the stories in the first TV season were based on radio stories, the first to air in his second season was a recapitulation of Superman’s inaugural story in Action Comics #1, in which he saves an innocent man (or in the comics case, innocent woman) from the electric chair.

But with some variations, the first TV season—with every episode shot quickly, before any got on the air—was heavy on crime stories, and looked to be getting harder edged towards the end. But then producer Bob Maxwell was forced out, and Superman turned softer and more establishment again, until by the third season, Superman stories were more child-friendly and comic.

But it is these first season stories that I remember most vividly, as I’ve confirmed by seeing them on DVD. The cast was the same throughout: George Reeves as Superman and also a mostly crusading Clark Kent (who still got Lois Lane’s contempt for “disappearing” in a crisis), with Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, and John Hamilton as the quintessential Perry (“Great Caesar’s Ghost!/ Don’t Call Me Chief!”) White.

The major cast different was Phyllis Coates as the harder-edged Lois Lane in the first season, replaced by the softer Noel Neill. I remember that Coates did scare me a little, and Neill was more reassuring. But I got the undoubtedly sexist and yet eternal message: no matter how mouthy and dumb a girl gets, you’re supposed to rescue her.

Though all 6 seasons were originally broadcast in black and white beginning in 1952, the last three seasons were filmed in color. They were rerun when color TV began arriving in 1965. These episodes were a familiar sight on Saturday TV for years, though I seldom watched them then. The 3rd and 4th seasons—the last I have on DVD—are fun now mostly for the color.

There were Saturday morning cartoons, even a Broadway musical, while the comic books chugged along for the next decade or two, until the Superman feature films. Superman was the biggest film release of 1978, and the most expensive in film history to that point. I saw it at one of its New York press premieres (also attended by at least one famous director and his actress wife I happened to run into.) The theatre was so full I was in the front row, so I didn’t see it properly until later. But I do recall that the credits were revolutionary—the titles swooshing out, and then the endless credits at the end—were widely imitated, and the end-credits are now standard.

At its premiere, Superman was judged for three things: Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve as Superman, and the flying effects. Reviews of Brando’s performance—especially his Claude Rains English accent for Jor-el—were mixed, but the flying passed with flying colors, and Christopher Reeve was obviously perfect, both as Clark Kent and Superman.

Young Clark Kent in the heartland was the most visually sumptuous and eloquent sequence expressing an important characteristic of Superman through the ages: the original illegal alien, Superman is also the greatest American superhero.

When Kent comes to Metropolis, he embodies the earnest, innocent and optimistic Depression-era American values thrust into a cynical contemporary world. Superman introduced the emotional theme of hero as alien and outcast, and the mythic ironies of the secret identity which other superheroes elaborated but never surpassed. Here it is the essence of his struggle for identity. More clearly than ever, Superman is unavoidably an American riff on the savior who is both human and all but divine, with all the resulting problems for him and others.

Director Richard Donner was hired to do both Superman and its sequel, pretty much at the same time. Though he shot material for Superman II, he didn’t complete it at that time, and eventually he was replaced by director Richard Lester for II and III. In 2006, the “Richard Donner cut” of Superman II was released on DVD with great fanfare, although Donner didn’t actually make it. I still prefer the Lester version (and here’s why.)

But then the film series recapitulated earlier cycles and became comic and finally low-budget. An attempted revival in 2006 with Superman Returns didn’t seem to succeed very well. It seemed okay to me, but I did think Superman and Lois were awfully young, especially after the relative sophistication of the Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman TV series, which I liked a lot ( as above: Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher.) Though I didn’t watch it regularly when it was broadcast, I enjoyed seeing it consecutively on DVDs.

Superman’s many handlers haven’t always served him well. There’s anticipation that Nolan will darken him as he did Batman, but that’s not the character who fulfills his nature and counters his isolation when “he brings his distinctive strengths into the services of others, he takes his rightful place in the larger community.” (Mark Waid, quoted by De Haven.) Camping him up doesn’t work either.
As for the De Haven book, it’s not the most thorough history of any aspect, especially of Superman’s origins in the Depression years (told so well in Men of Tomorrow by Gerald Jones.)

There is more about the later comic book history, including the Death of Superman issue (above), which apparently was a set-up for the forthcoming Lois & Clark. The book ends as Superman Returns is released, which was also the occasion of a lot of Superman material, including a new documentary film as well as the Donner Superman II.

Our Hero: Superman on Earth does cover a lot of ground for 200 plus pages, but even though it is more or less chronological, it seems to wander. Maybe that’s De Haven’s conversational tone, and his jokey, wise-guy style which can be entertaining, but also cloying and annoying. Overall, there’s probably enough detail and gossipy surmise in this book for many inner geek appetites. There’s not a lot post 1978, so not a lot specifically for Christopher Reeve fans and fans of the late 80s Superboy series, Lois & Clark or the current Smallville (which I myself haven't seen much of, but which I look forward to seeing consecutively on DVD. Although I expect this is a different generation's Superman.)