"Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane! This amazing stranger from the planet Krypton, The Man of Steel, Superman!"
Most people wouldnít recognize this curious alternative to Supermanís celebrated introduction since itís the more famous "faster than a speeding bullet" opening that is so familiar today. But the phrase "faster than a streak of lightning" very well could have become a cornerstone of American pop culture. The fact is both slogans were first heard in the Fleischer brothersí SUPERMAN cartoons.
It is not generally known what a great influence the Fleischer films had on the Superman mythos. The character was only four years old when Paramount Pictures contracted Max and Dave Fleischer to produce a series of cartoons based on the popular character. The Fleischers, creators of BETTY BOOP and POPEYE, oversaw the production of seventeen classic SUPERMAN shorts between 1941 and 1943. Those films were an important, if somewhat unsung aspect of the Kryptonian heroís development. Many people are unfamiliar with these shorts, despite the fact that they were The Man of Steelís first cinematic incarnation, pre-dating the movie serial of the late 40ís and the TV series of the 50ís.
The first episode features a one-minute origin segment thatís a bit spotty ó did you know that Krypton was a planet of supermen? Or that Clark Kent grew up not with the Kents but in an orphanage? Obviously in 1941 Supermanís beginnings were far from concrete. The fact that the character was still in his infancy at this point is also evident by the lack of familiar villains in the series. Lex Luthor and company are nowhere to be found. Instead Supermanís foes include common thugs, mad scientists, dinosaurs and Nazis. Thereís also a lack of subject matter modern day fans are used to ó no trace here of Kryptonian story lines, superhero crossovers, or love interest subplots.
But none of that matters. The beauty of these shorts is in the care applied to each segment. Unlike the admirable SUPERMAN and BATMAN series of today, these cartoons were produced as short films with all the attention to detail that you would find in an animated Disney feature. After all, the Fleischers only made seventeen shorts over a period of almost three years; compare that to the relative factory line production rate of the modern Warner Bros. series.
The animation is consistently good, and frequently atmospheric, often using shadows to lend a moody aspect to the proceedings ó Superman changes into his costume in silhouette, villains obsess over their plots in extreme shadow, entire scenes unfold as dark forms against a wall. Rather than fly, at times Superman seems to hop around with an almost balletic grace. One breathtaking shot in particular portrays the Kryptonian stepping out of a phone booth and simply rising up, up and away. As he shoots into the air in one seamless motion, the camera tracks up with him while the skyscrapers speed past and disappear. Finally he comes to an effortless stop, levitating among the clouds. Itís a beautiful shot.
The stories tend to be formulaic and straightforward in these 7 to 10 minute films ó the villain is introduced, Lois Lane is endangered, Superman saves the day ó and there is none of the character development that modern audiences have come to expect, although there is a bit of the playful banter between Lois and Clark that would become a benchmark of the characters in later years.
It is interesting to note how often World War II plays a part in these stories. In several instances Superman encounters the Nazis or some form of Axis threat. Of course in the forties even Donald Duck was doing war bond shorts, so it should come as no surprise that The Man of Steel was defending democracy and reminding people everywhere about the fascist threat. In fact, Hitler even makes a cameo at one point! Unfortunately the occasional racist sentiment surfaces, as in the segment about Japanese saboteurs entitled JAPOTEURS. One episode even has Superman taking it upon himself to sabotage the Japanese war effort! Truth, justice and the American way, indeed!
This is a classic, groundbreaking series and a must see for any animation or Superman fan. One might even say this original series is "mightier than a roaring hurricane!"