"The Complete Superman Collection"

Up in the sky! Look! It's a dynamic collection of classic animated shorts in gleaming Technicolor!

Published August 25, 2000 2:31PM (EDT)

"The Complete Superman Collection -- Diamond Anniversary Edition: The Paramount Cartoon Classics of Max and Dave Fleischer"
Directed by Dave Fleischer (and others)
Bosko Video/Image Entertainment
Extras: Contains all 17 of the Paramount shorts (from "Superman," 9/26/41, 10:22 minutes, to "Secret Agent," 7/30/43, 7:39)

Superman makes a thunderously direct appeal to adolescents as a two-fisted and two-sided fantasy figure. As mild-mannered newsman Clark Kent he's the nicest of nice guys, while as Superman he's the most devastating of can-do heroes: the Man of Steel. The 17 Paramount animated shorts released 1941-43 never lose sight of that basic attraction. The Superman in these brisk cartoons -- produced by Max Fleischer and directed by Dave Fleischer until the middle of 1942, when others they trained took over -- resembles the energetic light heavyweight of the original comic books, not the heavily muscled paragon who puffed through DC Comics periodicals from the '50s through the '70s. Like all that decorative muscle, the excess mythology that accreted around Superman is nowhere to be found in this series of cartoons. Lean and hard, they're as minimal in plot as they are maximal in draftsmanship.

As in the '30s stories penned by Cleveland teenagers Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Fleischers' Superman is never boringly invincible. He keeps alert and stays on his toes. His hands curl naturally into fists. He's always ready to trade punches, even in midair -- and even with death rays.

It's a far bigger kick to see this out-of-the-inkwell icon soar than it is to watch a live-action Superman fly. There's more exertion portrayed here, and thus more elation. When this Superman leaps tall buildings with a single bound, you feel he actually jumps. (As in the comics, he became less of a leaper and more of a human jet as time went on.)

The animators decided to create this hero (and his villains and sidekicks) out of blocks instead of the circles and ovals they generally used to form farcical figures. The result is a sinewy tautness rarely achieved in cartoons. They also exploited a patented "Stereoptical" process for vibrant 3-D effects: During Superman's prodigious flights, the Earth falls away dizzyingly beneath him or seems to come up to meet him with a crash.

The rudimentary plots merge into a two-hour-and-15-minute marathon as Superman battles crime, disaster and America's Second World War enemies. Comic books and movies always have feasted on each other, and this series contains plot hooks ripped both from headlines and from every fantasy genre, with mad scientists, hooded bandits, mechanical monsters and even a tyrannosaurus Rex running amok. As Superman aficionados know, the catch phrases "Up in the sky -- look!" and "Faster than a speeding bullet" came from the cartoons. (In one issue of the comic book, Kent took Lois Lane to see a Superman short and had to distract her every time it revealed his secret identity as the orphan from Krypton.)

You giddily anticipate the ritual turns: Lane cheating Kent out of scoops and falling in harm's way; Kent heading for the nearest phone booth or stockroom (his profile visible through frosted-glass windows!), stripping to his supersuit and sweeping to the rescue. Technicolor has rarely been more glorious than in the prints used for this DVD. Best of all, thanks to the Fleischers, the animation puts the Man back into the Man of Steel.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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