Gulliver’s Travels is a cel-animated feature film in Technicolor, made in 1939, by Fleischer Studios.…
Back in the early days of moving pictures (today we call them movies) it was typical to show a cartoon and possibly a new reel before the feature film. Fleischer Studios produced seventeen such cartoons depicting Superman, the first time Superman was seen in a medium other than comics or radio shows. These shows were shown in the years between 1941 and 1943. Since Superman started out in comics and slowly moved into radio shows, his move to Superman cartoons is important. Comics were popular with children, but radio and movies made him available to the whole family. This meant the name of Superman would be know more widely.
Superman, from comics to cartoons
Superman was originally created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. He first appeared in the June 1938 Action Comics and was an immediate success. Paramount got permission to make cartoons based on the comics and contracted Max and Dave Fleischer to create them along with other cartoons that Paramount distributed. The original episode cost three times what a Popeye cartoon of the times did, a staggering $50,000. Subsequent episodes cost only $30,000 with the entire seventeen episode set costing an estimated $530,000. This was however a lot cheaper than the sum the Fleischers gave Paramount hoping to discourage them from committing to the series. They asked for $100,000 per episode or roughly six times what Popeye shorts were costing. Familiar phrases such as “faster than a speeding bullet” and “look, up in the sky” were created by the Fleischers for the cartoon.
Superman, a very elaborate cartoon series
Along with the cost that went into the cartoons was the care in animating. Produced with the same special effects department that made Gulliver’s Travels they had the luxury of pencil tests as well. The stylized backgrounds, elaborate shading, and expert cutting of the scenes made it one of the most elaborate cartoon series produced by any studio. The animation is often called more fluent and realistic to actual movement, even compared to some of the animation today. The people glide and the cape flutters, and it doesn’t look fake until you remember its just pen and ink animated. Things like the x-ray vision effect, while notably only in one episode, are done with a freshness and thought out manner. Rotoscoping was used to give the cartoons the realistic feel. Many of Superman’s actions could not be animated using this though and the animators depended on assistants who were well trained in figure drawing to keep Superman looking proper during such sequences.
Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman
The voice talent for the cartoons is noticeably sparse and the actor for Superman’s voice actually asked to not be credited least he be typecast. Bud Collyer was also the voice actor for Superman in the radio show. Listeners love him for the way he voiced the differences between the mild-mannered Clark Kent and his alter-ego Superman. Kent had a slightly higher pitched voice while Superman had a big booming voice. Joan Alexander was the third voice of Lois Lane on the radio show and actually left and came back to it before being recruited for the cartoon series. Although Lois Lane’s character had few lines Alexander made full advantage of them to make Lane sound like a witty, smart reporter instead of a shrinking violet.
Jackson Beck was the only voice talent to not start out at the radio programs. Instead he started on the cartoons and later moved back over to the radio programs. He provided the voice of the narrator as well as Perry White, the editor at the Daily Planet. Almost all other characters are thought to be voiced by one of these three actors most likely. They were already adept at working on radio programs where it was common to voice multiple characters and cartoons allowed the same anonymity.
There are many well known phrases in the Superman cartoons. These were created by artist and scriptwriter Jay Morton. It is often thought that the lines came from the comics and radio shows, but that is not true. While it was common to hear that Superman was “stronger than X” or “faster than Y” each medium had their own set of comparisons and they were not worded identically. Morton likely read the comics and listened to the radio programs and used them as the basis for his own lines. After they became the more well known lines they were adopted by the comics and radio shows creating a unity across the three mediums.
Superman cartoon series, between Science-Fiction and World War II propaganda
The first nine cartoons were produced by the Fleischer brothers before Paramount took over the studios due to issues with the brothers working together. In face Dave Fleischer had left the studio to produce Screen Gems for Columbia Pictures all the way across the country. This means the final eight cartoons were produced by a different set of people which can be seen in the change in storylines. The original nine cartoons are very science fiction with superman fighting dinosaurs and meteors, while the last eight are more World War II propaganda. These were produced by Famous Studios, the name given to Fleischer Studios after it was reorganized without the Fleischer brothers.
The Superman cartoons still amazing!
No matter why viewers love the Superman cartoons it is obvious that they continue to impress people in both their artistry and imagination. Held as one of the top cartoon series ever produced they have inspired other artsists who have gone on to produce their own acclaimed animated and non-animated work. Hayao Miyazaki used robots based on ones seen in the series for his feature length movie Castle in the Sky. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was also inspired by the series.
The Superman cartoons can be viewed on any number of VHS, DVD, laser disc or iTunes downloads as they have been released and re-released in both official and non-official sets over the years. There are also special features which include interviews about the series as well as those influenced by it, often packaged with other Superman movies or series. The Superman cartoons are in the public domain and available on CinemMovies.Video