Max Fleischer's Superman (part 1 of 5)
When I was a kid, every Saturday morning I would plant my ass down in front of the television and watch it without fail. Back then, all three networks (there were only three back then, if you can believe it) had their kids’ programming.
There was stuff like the live-action Captain Marvel and Isis (JoAnna Cameron was many a boy’s first crush), Fat Albert, old Looney Tunes, Scooby Doo, and the Sid and Marty Krofft shows like Land of The Lost. There was the Pink Panther, and of course, Star Trek, the animated series.
There were a ton of others, and most of them were crap. By the ‘70s, violent content had been sharply curtailed, and where good cartoons would use about 24 frames per second, most of the stuff seen in the ‘70s were using around four. Even kids could tell a classic Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker cartoon was better because 1) the animation was smoother, and 2) people were getting shot, punched, burned, mangled, etc. If you wanted to see the good stuff, you had to turn to local stations during the week. There we could see stuff like Droopy, and Tom and Jerry, and the greatest of them all: Popeye.
Popeye cartoons, especially the original black and white ones, were gloriously violent. I loved Popeye in large part because my dad had been a sailor in the U.S. Navy (between wars. Thank God). For the longest time, I thought his job had been to travel to foreign ports and beat the shit out of people. I didn’t understand why he would quit a job like that. It wasn’t until I was around eight years old and he took me to work that I discovered a large part of his job as a graphic artist meant he worked with colored pencils and Magic Markers all day.
Best. Job. Ever.
Even after that, Popeye was still my favorite cartoon character. And who created Popeye?
Max Fleischer was an animator, inventor, and film industry pioneer. He invented rotoscoping and a three dimensional background effect known as “The Stereotypical Process” before Disney’s Multiplane. He created Betty Boop, the first animated sex symbol. It’s no exaggeration to say that when you watch any animated feature today, you have Max Fleischer to thank as much as you do Walt Disney.
While I could write a lengthy article about the sheer awesomeness of Popeye, and maybe someday I will, I want to talk about the other famous Fleischer product that made Super Friends look so horrifically bad in comparison. I’m speaking of Fleischer Studios’ Superman shorts.
The music scores were exciting, the animation beautiful, the stories told in a tight and quick manner, and the ‘90s Batman series took its cues directly from it in terms of look and tone. Superman flying? He first flew in the cartoon series, because the animators felt he just looked stupid leaping around.
All seventeen Superman cartoon shorts were produced between 1941 and 1943, and the plots can be broken down into three groups:
Superman vs. Man:
Superman vs. Nature:
And Superman vs. Mad Scientist:
Today, I want to focus on that last one, because these are the most fun. There were three episodes that starred Mad Scientists, starting with the pilot (there was a fourth, but I feel it has more to do with Nature than Mad Scientist in theme. The fact that I was pressed for time to get this review out had absolutely nothing to do with my decision. Really. Get that look off your face). The pilot did not have a name originally, and later it was labeled… “The Mad Scientist”!
Gee, I wonder why.
A threatening note has been sent to the Daily Planet, because apparently no one at City Hall was paying attention to the guy.
“Electrothanasia-Ray”. I will give the writers credit: it sure beats calling it a death ray, doesn’t it? And only a madman would use a wicked font like that in his death threats! The scientist is upset with those who laughed at him. Well, with hair like that…
Look, by the time your scalp gets that way, you’re just better off shaving your head and growing a goatee. Trust me, I know.
The editor (one assumes it’s Perry White. The character appeared in the radio serials in 1940 and then in the comic later that year) tells Clark Kent to back Lois Lane up. Clark, being a complete wuss, readily agrees to what amounts to carrying Lois’ purse. But Lois insists she can crack the case on her own, suggesting she has her own lead. She takes off—
—for Death Ray Mountain—
—because apparently she’s the only one in the city that figured out the best place to put a death ray is on the highest peak overlooking the city. I’m going to be giving Lois a lot of crap during this article, but one thing I can’t fault is her intelligence. Her sense of self-preservation, maybe. But brains? Yeah, she gots ‘em.
And… it’s midnight, and our Mad Scientist is out to do some mad science! He approaches his Electrothanasia-Ray and turns the sucker on. And man, is it an awesome sight to behold. We’ve got dials, gauges, flashing lights, and electricity bouncing between balls.
We even get bubbles!
The scientist is about to get mad all over Metropolis when Lois shows up. The scientist captures her (get used to that), and he gets right back to doing what he does best. The scientist boasts that Lois is about to get a real story, and he fires the ray at the city!
And now I just noticed a slight design flaw in the Electrothanasia-Ray: it only has one firing arc. All he can hit is a narrow corridor of city. I guess the Mad Scientist will correct that design flaw when he constructs the Electrothanasia-Ray Mark II.