When I was just a wee Candice, maybe about 10 or 11, VHS tapes were starting to become widespread sources of home entertainment. While I was showered in the usual Disney movies like most children were, my mother also purchased collections of animation that didn’t play on television anymore. Even as a child, I realized that this was probably because of the sensitive content in the cartoons since most of them were created during wartimes and were not the most delicately handled. As a child, I loved the historical relevance to these cartoons and I would watch them over and over and found myself fascinated with the animation style, the metaphors for what went on in those moments when the cartoons were released, and even the saturation of gender cliches.
Yes, these things stuck to me as a child.
Max & Dave Fleischer’s Superman cartoons were always held tight to my chest and I wanted to share a few of my absolute favorites with my friends here at LockerGnome. What’s even cooler? Every single one of these are public domain and so you can easily grab them off of the Internet Movie Archive and watch them whenever you want! Note: If you want the fancy, cleaned up episodes and you have Netflix, you can watch the episodes there, too.
“Introduction to Superman / The Mad Scientist”
As you’ll see, they start this episode off with an introduction to just who Superman is and, seeing as how the episodes are generally under 11 minutes each, they didn’t want to have to do this every single episode. After a bit of backstory, you realize that Metropolis is big on handing out real estate to shoddily named villains. This one is no different as he is simply stated as a “Mad Scientist” with a bird upon his shoulder and more windy staircase shots than you’d ever deem necessary. (Note: When watching these with me, Matthew Arevalo could not get over how often they wasted time on these staircase shots.) I do, however, want you to take a few moments and realize how beautifully these were animated. The color palette was intense for the era from whence it came, and the fact it was not a large studio whatsoever still has me stunned every time I watch these cartoons. This will always be one of the most beautiful cartoon series I’ve ever watched.
“The Mechanical Monsters”
This is the start of a theme within each episode and it starts off very quickly explaining Krypton, Superman, and then diving in. Usually, this starts off with showing you the possible dangerous situation, the fact that Lois Lane wants to nose her way into it, and just how quickly Clark Kent has to shift into Superman and go save her silly rear from trouble. She will endlessly annoy you if you aren’t careful and it is because of her love of getting “the scoop” and rarely about preservation of her own life that causes most of the trouble in these episodes. In this one, specifically, a “snooty waiter” (as Matthew called him) builds a series of robots that are designed to steal a disgusting amount of jewelry piled on tables in a one-roomed building. Lois points out she’s there to get a “woman’s angle” of the exhibit, but does not shrink away from smuggling herself into the back of a robot in order to find out where it goes.
I’m sure you can figure out what happens by the end of the episode, but it tickles me that, in every episode, Clark seems surprised that Lois needs saving. You would think that the second she would start mouthing off about getting her “scoop” that he’d grab her wrist and shove her gently into the phone booth, twist the lock shut, and tell her to stay put. Does he? Never. Even when she’s screaming at the top of her lungs as the robots nearly dump her out to soar through the sky to her death — he seems calm as can be. Mere seconds later, she gets lippy with the psychopath that built the “mechanical monsters” and boldly assumes she will live long enough for this man to read about the heist in the paper tomorrow.
As I was saying, it is easy for Lois to be the most annoying aspect in any of these cartoons, but that makes it almost more intriguing to me. Back in the 1940s, this was how men viewed women: mouthy, troublesome broads who needed a man to swoop in and save them because their desire for independence was all but laughable and, every time they tried, it ended in calamity. Hell, maybe I have more in common with Lois than I thought.
These are the jokes.
Not all of the villains can have cool names and costumes, and these guys prove it in this episode. Most of the time, the episodes revolved around situations that were of discussion back in the time they were released. It was WWII and, more than ever, sensitivity to certain issues like gun control in our country, building super machines to fight our international enemy, and protecting our troops were at an all-time high. Our country was so obsessed with protecting itself from a possible invasion that showcasing what could happen by putting weapons in the hands of citizens was a common theme in programming. Most of our superheroes were built on the basis of propaganda, and Superman was no exception whatsoever as he was designed to be an all-American hero who our country needed. Nothing could stop him and he had none of the weaknesses of our citizens — least of all our villains. No bullet could stop Superman, but you saw how every other human being fled and lived, gripped in fear, by these people overrunning Metropolis simply for monetary gain.
The “Bulleteers” were a simple group of men who dressed in hooded pajamas and had a wealth of ammunition at their disposal. Their vehicle was a bullet-shaped car that could become a plane easily enough and dive through the skies to evade capture. Toward the end of the episode, Superman saves the day and Clark quietly applauds Lois on another “scoop.” You would think this woman would be a battered, emotional wreck by now because of all of the trauma she has endured, but no. Fancy that, right?
Opening up with a story about an island inhabited by a deadly volcano that lay dormant (We all know what’s going to down here, right? Good.), automatically Lois snatches up the press passes to stop Clark from getting the “scoop” that is obviously meant for her. If you didn’t hate her before this episode, “Volcano” is when you just want to throttle her for good. You watch as Clark bumbles around this town to find a press pass to replace the one that Lois purposely hid. What does this mean? This means he will not have access to save her immediately when the volcano starts spewing hatred and fireballs up into the heavens to rain down to the city below. You would think, really, toward the end that she will apologize — maybe just once — for the trouble she has caused.
Again, the animation is on point here and the colors still amaze me. Lava pours down, hungrily swallowing and destroying everything in the path toward the town. What does Superman do? Derails it toward the ocean and everything is safe again. As Lois and Clark float back to Metropolis, Lois lies to Clark once more even as he snatches up the pass that Lois hid from him.
Why do we keep letting her live?
So those are three of my favorite episodes of the 1940s Superman cartoons. I left out one episode that I find historically fascinating called “The Japoteurs” because it was released when hatred for the Japanese among Americans was at its peak. Even though it is racially insensitive, it speaks about the climate at the time and just how studios would use their beloved characters (Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Popeye, etc.) to keep morale high while spirits were low during the war. If you ever feel the need to watch and study the intricate ways in which animators displayed their patriotism in that very, very insensitive era, just YouTube “The Japoteurs” and watch the episode. There is a heavy amount of WWII propaganda animation open to the public and I always find it so interesting to see how far we’ve come through the decades.
I bet you’re thinking “Why? Why animation? Why Superman?” and it’s quite simple: This is back when animation was an expression and not a money-grabbing studio ploy. I think I will always love animation from the early part of the 1900s and on because it was art! Back during the Golden Era of Warner Brothers and Disney, animation was about entertainment, no matter the age, and it held a maturity that lasted well into our current iteration of media. Now, you have shows such as Spongebob, Phineas and Ferb, and (sigh) My Little Pony, which are brief, sugar-coated bits of hyperactivity that are meant to sell toys, illicit brightly-colored excitement, and then fade off into the ether 10 years from now. Now I’m not saying these aren’t relevant whatsoever because, even as a child I, myself, enjoyed branded cartoon series, but I hold the historical and mature animation to be my all-time favorite.
If you were to ask my child what she remembers watching when she was still in the single digits, she’d tell you that she watched Studio Ghibli films, Japanese dubbed children’s animation, and older shows like Superman, Thundercats, Walt Disney, and Warner Brothers classics and staples like Transformers and Jem. Why? Because these were either silly and brief tidbits of history, or they were animated shows that had actual storylines. Back when I was a kid, it was rare that animation talked down to us and expected us to have no attention spans whatsoever.
Try it out! For the parents out there, indulge your younger kids into episodes of television from you grew up and find out how quickly they will choose heavily scripted, episodic cartoons over the exploits of an underwater household sponge. When they end up asking for a DVD collection of Thundercats or Voltron for their birthdays, tell them Auntie Candice loves them and to brush their teeth before they can watch more Superman cartoons with their parents.
Note: All of these episodes listed were compiled by YouTube user “wilkinsongrj,” and I appreciate the high quality in which he uploaded them! Thanks so much!