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"Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!"

- W.J. Flywheel, Webporium Curator



The Fleischer Superman Cartoons are a series of animated short films released in Technicolor by Paramount Pictures and based upon the comic book character Superman, and making it his first animated appearance.

A total of seventeen shorts were produced. They were originally produced by Fleischer Studios, releasing the pilot and eight cartoons in 1941 and 1942 before being taken over in May by Famous Studios, a successor company, who produced eight more in 1942 and 1943. Superman was the final animated series by Fleischer Studios, before Famous Studios officially took over production.

Although all entries are in the public domain, ancillary rights such as merchandising contract rights, as well as the original 35mm master elements, are owned today by Warner Bros. Entertainment. Warner has owned Superman publisher DC Comics since 1969.

Only the first nine cartoons were produced by Fleischer Studios; nonetheless, all 17 episodes are collectively known as "the Fleischer Superman cartoons". In 1942, Fleischer Studios was dissolved and reorganized as Famous Studios, which produced the final eight shorts.

These cartoons are seen as some of the finest quality (and certainly, the most lavishly budgeted) animated cartoons produced during The Golden Age of American animation. In 1994, the first entry in the series was voted #33 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by members of the animation field.

By mid-1941, brothers Max and Dave Fleischer were running their own animation studio, and had recently finished their first animated feature film, Gulliver's Travels; they were also well into production on their second, Mister Bug Goes to Town. Not wanting to risk becoming overworked (which could compromise the quality of each project), the Fleischers were strongly (but quietly) opposed to the idea of committing themselves to another major project, when approached by their studio's distributor and majority owner since May 1941, Paramount Pictures. Paramount was interested in financially exploiting the phenomenal popularity of the then-new Superman comic books, by producing a series of theatrical cartoons based upon the character.

The Fleischers, looking for a way to reject the project without appearing uncooperative, agreed to do the series, but only at a (intentionally inflated) per-episode-budget number so exorbitantly high that Paramount would have to reject them. They told Paramount that producing such a conceptually and technically complex series of cartoons would cost about $100,000 (in 1940s dollars) per short; this was about four times the typical budget of a six-minute episode of the Fleischers' popular Popeye the Sailor cartoons of that period. To the Fleischers' shock, instead of withdrawing its request, Paramount entered into negotiations with them, and got the per-episode budget lowered to $50,000. Now the Fleischers were committed to a project they never wanted to do, but with more financial and marketing support than they had ever received for any of the projects they had done.

The first cartoon in the series, simply titled Superman, a.k.a. The Mad Scientist, was released on September 26th, 1941, and was nominated for the 1941 Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. It lost to Lend a Paw, a Pluto cartoon from Walt Disney Productions and RKO Pictures.

The voice of Superman for the series was initially provided by Bud Collyer, who also performed the lead character's voice during the Superman radio series. Joan Alexander was the voice of Lois Lane, a role she also portrayed on radio alongside Collyer. Music for the series was composed by Sammy Timberg, the Fleischers' long-time musical collaborator.

Rotoscoping, the process of tracing animation drawings from live-action footage, was used minimally to lend realism to the character's bodily movements. Many of Superman's actions, however, could not be rotoscoped (such as flying, lifting very large objects, etc.). In these cases, the Fleischers' lead animators, many of whom lacked training in figure drawing, animated "roughly" and depended upon their assistants (many of whom were inexperienced animators, but trained figure-drawers) to keep Superman "on model" during his action sequences.

The Fleischer cartoons were also responsible for giving Superman perhaps his most singular superpower: flight. When the Fleischers started work on the series, in the comic books, Superman could only leap from place to place (hence the classic phrase, "able to leap tall buildings in a single bound"). After seeing the leaping fully animated, however, the Fleischers deemed it "silly looking", and asked Action Comics' (which would later become DC Comics) permission to have him fly instead; the publisher agreed, and wrote the flight ability into the comics from then on.

The Fleischers produced nine classic cartoons in the Superman series before Paramount took over the Fleischer Studios facility in Miami and ousted Max and Dave Fleischer. By the end of 1941, the brothers were no longer able to cooperate with each other, and the studio's co-owner Dave Fleischer had left Florida for California, where he would eventually become the new head of Columbia Pictures' Screen Gems studio. After the Fleischers were removed from the company, Paramount renamed the organization Famous Studios, placing Seymour Kneitel, Isadore Sparber, Sam Buchwald, and Dan Gordon in charge of production. The sleek look of the series continued, but there was a noticeable change in the storylines of the later shorts of the series. The first nine cartoons had more of a science fiction aspect to them, as they involved the Man of Steel fighting robots, giant dinosaurs, meteors from outer space, and other perils. The later eight cartoons in the series, which were all Famous Studios productions, dealt more with World War II propaganda stories, such as in Eleventh Hour, which finds Superman going to Japan to commit acts of sabotage in order to reduce the morale of the enemy; in another episode an angered Adolf Hitler had a cameo role at the end of Jungle Drums after Superman foiled another Nazi plot.

The first seven cartoons originated the classic opening line which was later adopted by the Superman radio series and in the live-action television series a decade later: "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" (The radio series also eventually used the cartoon series' theme music.) However, for the final two Fleischer-produced cartoons and the first of the eight Famous Studios-produced cartoons, the opening was changed to "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to soar higher than any plane!". For the remaining Famous Studios-produced cartoons, the opening line was changed again to "Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane!" For international prints of Superman cartoons starting with "Eleventh Hour" the opening line is "Faster than a flash of lightning! More potent than a beating surf! Faster than an active hurricane!" This series also featured a slight variation of the now-classic exclamation (also from the radio series): "Up in the sky, look! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!".


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Famous Studios ended the series after a total of seventeen shorts had been produced, replacing it with a series of shorts based upon Marge's Little Lulu. The high cost of the series kept it from continuing in the face of budgetary restrictions that were imposed after removing the Fleischers from the studio. The first cartoon had a budget of $50,000, and the other sixteen each had a budget of $30,000, bringing the total cost of the series to $530,000 (equivalent to over seven million dollars today). In addition, Paramount cited waning interest in the Superman shorts among theater exhibitors as another justification for the series' cancellation.

The rights to all seventeen cartoons eventually reverted to National Comics, who licensed TV syndication rights to Flamingo Films (distributors of the TV series Adventures of Superman). All eventually fell into the public domain, due to National failing to renew their copyrights; thus, they have been widely distributed on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. Nonetheless, Warner Bros., via parent Time Warner's ownership of DC Comics, now owns the original film elements to the cartoons.

A 1944 Famous Studios Popeye the Sailor cartoon entitled She-Sick Sailors parodied the Superman cartoons, two years after production on the cartoons had ceased. In this cartoon, Popeye's enemy Bluto dresses up as Superman to fool Olive Oyl, and he challenges Popeye to feats of super-strength that "only Superman" can do. The musical score for She-Sick Sailors includes echoes of Sammy Timberg's Fleischer/Famous Superman score.

The previous year, Merrie Melodies did a parody starring Bugs Bunny called Super-Rabbit.

In a rare move for a competing studio, Leon Schlesinger Productions, producers of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (which were distributed by WB), featured Timberg's Superman theme in Snafuperman, a 1944 Private Snafu cartoon Schlesinger produced for the U.S. Army.

Paramount's involvement in the Superman franchise did not end with the sale of the cartoons. In 1995, after being sold to Viacom, Paramount's television syndication unit absorbed Viacom Enterprises, and as a result, Paramount now held the TV rights to the third and fourth Superman films, along with the Supergirl film (which up to that point had been held by Viacom). Full rights to Superman III and Supergirl are now with WB, but Paramount still has some partial rights to Superman IV (as part of the Cannon Films library), and TV distribution is now held (on Paramount's behalf) by Trifecta Entertainment & Media.

In 1985, DC Comics named Fleischer Studios as one of the honorees in the company's 50th anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great for its work on the Superman cartoons. Writer/artist Frank Miller cited the influence of Max and Dave Fleischer, including them among a list of prominent Golden Age comics creators whose work he acknowledged at the end of his 1986 comics series, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. The series strongly influenced the creation of the acclaimed animated television series Batman: The Animated Series, as well as the similar-looking Superman: The Animated Series. Comic book artist Alex Ross has also listed the shorts among the inspiration for his take on Superman's look.

The robot robbery scene from "The Mechanical Monsters" short (above left) has been echoed by several later works. In 1980, Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki created an identical robbery with a similarly functioning robot in the last episode of the second Lupin III TV series, a robot design he used again in his feature film, Castle in the Sky. The elements of the scene were borrowed again in 1994 for "The Tick vs. Brainchild" (Season 1, Episode 9 of The Tick), with the robbery committed by Skippy, a cyborg dog. The 2004 feature-length movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (above right) kept the setting in the 1940s, but scaled up the scene from a single robot robbing a jewelry exhibition to an army of gigantic robots stealing city infrastructure. The movie gave a nod to its source following the robbery with the newspaper headline, "Mechanical Monsters Unearth Generators."

A 1988 music video for the song "Spy In The House of Love" by Chrysalis Records recording artists Was (Not Was) borrowed footage extensively from Famous' Secret Agent episode. The Paramount Superman cartoons are widely available on VHS, DVD and online.


All seventeen of the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons can be viewed by clicking the link below. The voice cast included: Bud Collyer as Superman/Clark Kent, Joan Alexander as Lois Lane, Julian Noa as Perry White, Jack Mercer as Jimmy Olsen and Perry White and Jackson Beck as the Narrator.

The first Fleischer Superman Cartoon is presented above. The other sixteen can be viewed by clicking the links below. The voice cast included: Bud Collyer as Superman/Clark Kent, Joan Alexander as Lois Lane, Julian Noa as Perry White, Jack Mercer as Jimmy Olsen and Perry White and Jackson Beck as the Narrator.

When did Lois and Superman first kiss?

Action Comics #6
Superman #3
Superman #12
Action Comics #22



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