Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's Superman!

Growing up, I fell in love with animation. The Warner Brothers Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were among my favorites, but I was also very fond of the more formal animation of Disney's movies. It wasn't until I became an adult that I discovered Max and Dave Fleischer and their animated adventures of Superman.

The infancy of the Fleischer Studios can loosely be traced back to 1914-15 while Max Fleischer was Art Editor of Popular Science Monthly. During that time, Max developed the idea for the rotoscope, a mechanical means of crafting animated films using live-action film as a guide. Working with his brother, Joe, the two perfected the machine, called upon their brother, Dave, to play the clown (who was later named Koko or Ko-Ko) in their first live-action film footage, and by 1919 the three brothers had a one-minute sample reel and eventually had a deal with John R. Bray to produce one cartoon per month. One of the early pioneers in animation, Bray used their work in Paramount Pictograph. By 1921, Max and Dave Fleischer formed a partnership, with Max as the producer and Dave as the director, and the two left the Bray studio to create their own animated films. By the mid-1990's, MIT Media Lab veteran computer scientist and animator, Bob Sabiston, developed a computer-assisted "interpolated rotoscoping" process. Director, Richard Linklater, employed the system to create the first entirely digital rotoscoped full-length feature film, A Scanner Darkly.

Fleischer Studios was a haven for innovative ideas. Ko-Ko Song Cartunes were sing-along shorts featuring the famous “Follow the Bouncing Ball.” These cartoons featured synchronized sound three years before The Jazz Singer and four years before Disney’s Steamboat Willie. They also were the first studio to make more efficient use of their master animators with the implementation of In-betweeners or assistant animators. The in-betweener would take the finished animation cell drawn by the master animator and work to progress the action so that it will fluidly connect to the next cel in the sequence drawn by the master animator. An invention that rivaled Disney’s 1933 multiplane camera was the Fleisher Studios 1934 Three-Dimensional Setback or Tabletop camera. Used to great effect in Betty Boop, Popeye, and Color Classic cartoons, the Setback camera used three-dimensional miniature sets built to the same scale of the animation artwork. The cels were placed so that multiple objects could pass in front of and behind them, and the entire scene was shot using a horizontal camera.

In addition to Ko-Ko the Clown, the Fleisher’s big name recognition came from a character that started out as a girlfriend and soon progressed into a star in her own right: Betty Boop. On August 9, 1930, Betty made her first appearance in the sixth installment of the Talkartoon series, Dizzy Dishes. In keeping with character development established at the studio, Betty started out as a French poodle. In the 1932 cartoon, Any Rags, Betty appeared for the first time as a totally human character. Her poodle ears became hoop earrings, her curly poodle fur became a bob haircut, and Betty became recognizable as the flapper girl we know today. Voice actor, Mae Questel, was not the first to give voice to Betty, but she was certainly the most distinctive. Questel last film performance as Betty Boop was for the characters cameo in the 1988 film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The Fleisher’s were also able to take characters from other mediums and perpetuate their popularity and success. They licensed E.C. Segar's comic strip character, Popeye the Sailor, for a cartoon series of his own. In 1933, Popeye made his first animated appearance in Betty Boop Meets Popeye the Sailor. Popeye eventually became the most popular series the Fleischers ever produced, rivaling that of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Created for theatrical release, the Fleischer Studios produced nine Superman cartoons (distributed through Paramount Pictures) in 1941 and 1942. Simply titled, Superman, the first short in the series, at $100,000 had one of the highest budgets for a short produced at the time, and received an Academy Award nomination. Lavishly produced in Technicolor and employing rotoscope techniques, these cartoons still stand among the most visually interesting of any series animated short films ever created. Fleischer Studios was disbanded in 1942 and changed into Famous Studios where the remaining eight shorts were produced in 1943 for a total of seventeen shorts. Bud Collyer provided the voice of Superman in both the animated series and the radio production with Joan Alexander performing as Lois Lane in the animated shorts and on the radio. In 1994, members of the animation field voted the series as #33 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time.

In the 1980's, most of the Fleischers' films and shorts became available on video, and that's when I discovered Superman. Available in department stores, supermarkets, and other low cost outlets, the poor-quality videotapes were unable to diminish the amazing craftsmanship of the originals. Having entered the public domain in the 1950's, the Superman cartoons came out in various forms and lengths, with the final eight of the seventeen episodes difficult to find. The UCLA Film and Television Archive in conjunction with animation fans have been able to restore the cartoons in high-quality editions available in a variety of forms including DVD.

At present, there are three versions containing all seventeen episodes: The Complete Superman Cartoons — Diamond Anniversary Edition (released in 2000 by Image Entertainment), the difficult to find, Superman Adventures (released in 2004 by Platinum Disc Corporation)--a third compilation using restored and remastered materials was released in November 2006 by Warner Home Video as part of their DVD box set of Superman films.






1. Superman September 26, 1941 (AKA as The Mad Scientist)

2. The Mechanical Monsters November 28, 1941

3. Billion Dollar Limited January 9, 1942

4. The Arctic Giant February 27, 1942

5. The Bulleteers March 27, 1942

6. The Magnetic Telescope April 24, 1942

7. Electric Earthquake May 15, 1942

8. Volcano July 10, 1942

9. Japoteurs September 18, 1942

10. Terror on the Midway August 28, 1942

11. Showdown October 16, 1942

12. Eleventh Hour November 20, 1942

13. Destruction Inc. December 25, 1942

14. The Mummy Strikes February 19, 1943

15. Jungle Drums March 26, 1943

16. The Underground World June 18, 1943

17. Secret Agent July 30, 1943