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Fleischer Superman | 80 years of a great animation classic

The 1940s cartoon series shifted the entire animation industry

In the pilot episode of the Superman & Lois series, there is a moment when the Kryptonian hero interacts with a teenager he has just saved. At the time, the young man praised his costume, with a classic look but with a shield that mixes the red S with a black colored pentagon – although similar to the one seen by old Clark in Kingdom of Tomorrow. is not the same. This is the animated version of Fleischer Studios.

In the middle of the first half of the 20th century, the entertainment industry that has grown the most is, without a doubt, the cinema. In 1927 the production The Jazz Singer brought the sound recorded with the film for the first time, the Technicolor company began to implement a new film colorization system from 1924 to compete with Britain’s Kinemacolor and in 1937 Walt Disney changed cinema with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

It was the studio’s first animated feature film, but not its first attempt at animation, as in 1928 the short film The Steam Willie was released in which Mickey Mouse’s presence was popularized (although that it was not his debut in an animation). However, in the case of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the studio has reached another level in terms of animation.

The pilot episode referred to the uniform created by the Fleischer animated series

In the feature film signed by JB Kaufman and published by the Library of Congress, written for the National Film Preservation program, it is specified which were the innovations presented by the work of Disney. “Like most ‘early’ celebrations, this wasn’t really the first animated production. However, it’s fair to say that no previous production featured the full range of technical animation that Branca de Neve showed, or that combined it with such rich colors, an addicting musical score, or a carefully crafted story.

Thus, at the dawn of the 1940s, Walt Disney Productions was the main reference in the industry in the field of animation, but that did not necessarily imply a monopoly; running outside was another company known as Fleischer Studios. Founded just before Walt Disney Production, circa 1921, the company started as Inkwell Studios, Inc. in reference to its silent animation series Out of the Inkwell (launched between 1918 and 1929).

It is this production, with all the technical innovations it brings, as well as other projects such as Popeye and Betty Boop, that have given Disney supremacy the status of official competitor; this same situation aroused the interest of Paramount Pictures, which in 1941 incorporated Fleischer into its properties. During the same period, the founding brothers of the company, Max and Dave Fleischer, were developing their new project: Gulliver’s Travels. It would be the second animated feature film produced by a studio after the Disney feat and, for Paramount, it would be the work that is expected to surpass Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Fleischer already had a household name in the industry for hits like Popeye and Betty Boop

At the same time, during this period, another cultural phenomenon spread throughout the country. A few years earlier, around 1938, Action Comics # 1 was published by the then National Periodical Publications; she who is also known as Superman’s first adventure and the first comic book with a superhero. The commercial success of the edition was such that Paramount negotiated the rights to an adaptation of the character for theatrical animation with the publisher.

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It’s important to mention that at this time there was already an adaptation for another medium involving Superman. In 1940, the WOR – AM station launched the weekly The Adventures of Superman radio program; such a spectacle was unmistakably a blockbuster.

At first, the suggestion was not well received by Fleischer Studios as as they focused on launching their next production, they knew refusing the studio’s request would not be a good tone and could complicate the relationship. That way, they thought of the following tactic: They would accept the project but, with each episode produced, they would inflate the production budget, counting that this would discourage Paramount from continuing with the idea.

“Gulliver’s Travels” was the project the company really wanted to launch at the time.

The production cost of each episode would reach US $ 100,000 (equivalent in value today to US $ 1,886,442.86) with the justification that to reach the level of quality demanded by Paramount, it would be necessary that a significant amount is invested; even though it was a figure considered four times the standard entertainment budget at the time. However, the brothers’ wishes were thwarted when Paramount did not back down from the colossal budget and decided to negotiate with them.

It was then decided that they would make available a total of $ 50,000 for the first episode and a total of $ 30,000 for the rest of the chapters; in addition to a production time much longer than normal for the season: seven months. Regarding the narrative structure, it was decided that each episode would be a closed story of no more than ten minutes that would pass in sessions before the films were shown in theaters, not deviating much from the concept of animated shorts which were very popular in the period.

Superman’s original concept for this release, presented in less than a minute through an off-line narration at the start of the first episode, stayed very true to what had been canon until then (from what was featured on the first page of Comic Book Action # 1); Krypton explodes, Jor-El sends his only son to Earth, the child is found by a driver and sent to an orphanage and then the story begins at the point where she is already Superman.

In his early adventures, Superman couldn’t fly

Much like in the first stories signed by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster the origin of the hero was not as important as counting his exploits as an adult, from that first moment there were many gaps to be filled on His origin; and therefore redesigned in the years to come.

Regardless, the stories Fleischer presented were quite straightforward and straightforward, typically featuring the villain of the time on the verge of a foul play when confronted with the protagonist and, on occasion, Lois Lane. ended up in danger and needs Superman’s help. As previously stated, this narrative was very much in line with what was offered by the comics of the time and character design as well; Not only in terms of origin but also in terms of powers, after all, in both animation and comics, he still didn’t fly and relied on super jumps to reach great heights.

The storyline was far from what made this animated series truly memorable, but rather its technical animation style. Aesthetically Fleischer drew heavily, mainly for the first nine episodes, from the look of the black films that were on the rise in the 1930s and 1940s, making a lot of use of the exaggerated use of shadows in storylines (mainly with the villainous on stage).

The use of shadow and light was well used by Fleischer in the composition of the scenarios to create a dark atmosphere.

In the article The First Onscreen Superman Was a Gorgeous Series of Animated Shorts, author Charley Parker points out how different the visual style adopted by animation was. “… All of this is portrayed in a beautiful cinematic, rendered 1940s art direction, with shaded puddles of light, figure silhouettes, long shadows against the wall, and shadows on the windows; a deep and rich color palette as well as an incredible vocation for effects such as electric arc, X-ray vision, human and flying machines, city scenes at night… ”.

Such was the acceptance of this look that, decades later, it would serve as the inspiration to compose the equally acclaimed Batman animated series. From 1941 to 1942, Fleischer’s animated series may not have achieved its original goal of dethroning Disney, but it changed the direction of the comic book industry, serving as inspiration for big names that would emerge. in the following decades as Frank Miller (who credits her with the inspiration to create The Return of the Dark Knight) and Alex Ross (whose idealization for Superman’s look in both the aforementioned Tomorrow’s Kingdom and in other of his works is based on these animations).

Fleischer Superman’s cartoons undoubtedly remain not only one of the character’s most classic visions, but also one of the most memorable examples of the golden age of animation for its achievements and innovations. In the same way that your hero was able to jump buildings in a single jump, the animation company, with a single jump, took the industry in new directions.

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