Contrary to what a lot of people may think, Superman was not the first superhero. Costumed heroes date back to such characters as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro in the early 1900s; Buck Rogers in the 1920s; pulp heroes like The Shadow, Doc Savage, and The Avenger; and newspaper strip heroes The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician. In fact, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created another hero several years before Superman called Doctor Occult. But…none of those characters have had nearly the kind of pop culture impact that Superman has had. As Superman celebrates his 75th anniversary this year with a new major theatrical film, “The Man of Steel”, Mania takes a look at the history of Superman in TV, film, animation, and even radio!
Superman’s first appearance outside of comic books and newspaper strips wasn’t in film, TV, or animation, but in radio. Less than two years after Superman debuted in 1938 in the pages of Action Comics #1, The Adventures of Superman debuted on New York’s WOR radio and syndicated nationally. The 15 minute show ran three to five times per week from 1940 to 1951 for an astounding 2068 episodes. The show aired in the late afternoons, perfect for kids who were home from school and became an enormous hit. Superman/Clark Kent was portrayed by Bud Collyer for all but the final year of the show’s run.
The Adventures of Superman was so popular in fact, that the Producers, at the urging of human rights activists, did a storyline where Superman battles the Ku Klux Klan. Reportedly, Klan leaders denounced the show and called for a boycott of Kellogg's products, the show’s sponsor. However, the story arc earned spectacular ratings, and the food company stood by its support of the show.
In 1941, Superman fans got their first chance to see the Man of Steel come to life in 1941 in a series of animated shorts which many fans (including myself) consider the pinnacle of Superman animation. A total of 17 cartoons were produced, the first nine by Fleischer Studios and the final eight by Famous Studios. Fleischer is the same animation studio the produced the Popeye cartoons. Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander who had portrayed Superman and Lois Lane on radio, reprised their roles for the cartoon series. Rotoscoping, the process of tracing animation drawings from live-action footage, was used minimally to lend realism to the human characters and Superman.
The first cartoon was simply titled “Superman”. Throughout the 17 episode series Superman didn’t battle any of his traditional villains but rather most of the antagonists were mad scientists who used Sci-Fi style technology like death rays and robots but he would also face off against monsters like a Godzilla like creature in “The Arctic Giant”; Japanese saboteurs in “The Eleventh Hour”; Nazi forces in “Jungle Drums”; a race of cavern-dwelling hawkmen in “The Underground World”; and giant mummies in “The Mummy Strikes”.
While these cartoons have received numerous DVD releases, they are all in public domain can can be viewed on sites like YouTube.
After appearing in animation and on the radio, Superman finally appeared in film in two 15 chapter film serials. Film serials were popular in the 1940s and told a story in several short chapters, usually running 15 – 20 minutes in length with theaters premiering a new chapter each week. The first serial was simply titled Superman and debuted in January, 1948. The actor with the honor of playing Superman in a live action role for the first time was Kirk Alyn.
Co-starring with Alyn was Noel Neill as Lois Lane. The serial tells Superman’s origin with the destruction of Krypton and his coming to Earth and being raised by the Kents. Later in the serial, he would battle a villain known as Spider Lady. Superman's flight sequences were animated instead of being in live action. This limitation led to Superman's take-offs being visible in the foreground, while his landings almost always occur behind objects, such as parked cars, rocks, and buildings. It was easier to shift from live footage of Alyn starting to take off, to animated footage, than it was to shift from an animated landing to live footage of the actor. Still, the series was tremendously popular and led to a second film serial in 1950.
Atom Man vs. Superman was released in 1950 and had more of a comic book feel than the first serial. Atom Man was actually arch nemesis Lex Luthor. Luthor creates a disintegration weapon to attack Metropolis and Superman has to stop him. Luthor uses a synthetic Kryptonite to thwart Superman and sends him into “The Empty Doom” which is basically the Phantom Zone. Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill returned as Superman/Clark Kent, and were joined by Lyle Talbot as Lex Luthor.
While Superman had appeared in two film serials, the first full-length film would finally come in 1951 with Superman and the Mole Men. Taking over the role of Superman was George Reeves, who was bigger and beefier than the more slender Alyn. The film actually served as a test run/promotion for the TV series that would begin in 1952.
Clark Kent and Lois Lane (played this time by Phyllis Coates) are sent to report on the opening on a new oil well. However the drillers inadvertently open a shaft to the home of an underground-dwelling race of Mole people. When the furry creatures emerge to investigate the surface the townspeople go into a panic, shooting one of them. Superman has to protect the creature from the blood-thirsty mob and then protect the townspeople when more Mole Men appear with weapons.
Having conquered film, radio, and animation, the next medium for Superman to tackle was the burgeoning world of television.
Part 2 of the Superman Timeline continues tomorrow on Mania.com!
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