Thanks to Superman

I have to confess, I’ve never been a Superman fan. I never read the comics, or waited in anticipation for the newest Smallville episode, or really cared about Bryan Singer’s 2006 reboot.

However, as part of the 18th annual Toronto Jewish Film Festival, I was lucky enough to attend the Canadian premier of Last Son,  a 60 minute documentary on the creators of Superman, artist Joe Shuster and writer Jerry Siegel.

The film, which does an excellent job tracing the origins of Superman and gives a thorough exploration of Shuster’s and Siegel’s childhoods, provided me with a newfound appreciation for the Man of Steel – for his history and for his influence on comic books and superheroes to come.

From a young age, both Joe and Jerry showed an interest in comic strips and sci-fi and fantasy pulp magazines. After meeting in highschool, the two collaborated on numerous projects, including short stories and comic strips for their school newspaper. One of their longest running strips was Slam Bradley, a detective series about a private eye who always got the girl.

Later, the two friends created “Science Fiction” – a five issue  magazine used to publish many of the duo’s comic strips and short stories. One such piece of fiction was The Reign of the Superman, a short story written by Jerry and illustrated by Joe about a man who developed special powers and called himself the “Superman.” However, unlike the Superman we grew up with, Joe and Jerry’s first rendition of the Man of Steel was a villain who aspired to world domination.

After facing constant rejection, Superman would finally appear on the cover of Action Comics #1, a 13-page comic book released in 1938. Joe and Jerry would end up selling the rights to Superman for $130 (that’s $10 per page) – consequently resulting in decades of law suits and embarrassment for both the creators and the publisher.

Despite the messy legalities, what impressed me the most about Last Son was its insight into the hero’s design. Superman’s legendary appearance – the belt, the boots, and even the iconic “S” on his chest – was influenced by the world the creators grew up in. A variety of athletes and fads from the early 20th century can been seen throughout Superman’s design.

Joe, who drew on his mother’s bread board (except on Friday’s when she made the bread),  never went to art school, so he copied Superman’s poses from the body builders and boxers in fitness magazines. Last Son attributed Superman’s build and size to the body builders that Joe aspired to as a child, and the boots and belt were also common aspects of the strong man ensemble. Surprisingly, the “S” was featured as stitching on trendy ladies’ garments.

Following the screening of Last Son, the audience was treated to three original Superman cartoons from the 1940’s. Although the cartoon was filled with clichés and predictable plot lines, I was pleasantly surprised with the depiction of Lois Lane. An independent, hard-working journalist, Lois was a real character with a personality. She did whatever it took to get her story, and in an office dominated by men, she spoke her mind and didn’t follow orders. Although her independent spirit often put her in harm’s way (allowing Superman to come to the rescue), I couldn’t help but marvel at this unconventional portrayal of a woman in the 1940’s.

And so even though Superman draws heavily on the icons of his time, so too has modern-day art and media drawn on Superman. Action Comics #1 is considered the first real comic book, and Superman our first superhero. Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel have inspired countless artists and writers, and the Man of Steel has helped shape our vision of truth, justice and heroism. So despite his pretty-boy demeanor, I can’t help but appreciate Superman and his influence on my favourite medium.

Conveniently, each 1940’s Superman cartoon ended with the same piece of dialogue: “Thanks to Superman.” I couldn’t agree more.

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8 Comments

Filed under comic books, film, film festival, Superman

8 responses to “Thanks to Superman

  1. Nice post Kyla. Superman was never up high on my favourite superheroes list. Batman (movies, cartoons.. even Adam West’s version on YTV) took up a lot of my childhood whereas the Superman movies were a little older and the cartoon later on wasn’t that great.

    Still Superman is the epitome of a superhero and he’s a respectable dude who’s only flaw is that he cares for people too much. Though cheesy there’s something about that quality that’s appealing, and that’s probably why I’ve watched Smallville for so long.

    PS. Red Son is a retelling of the story where he crashes in Soviet Russia instead of Smallville. It’s something I’ve wanted to read for a while but haven’t gotten around to it. You’d probably like it.

    Long comment done!

  2. paladinking

    Hope my commenting out of the blue doesn’t come across TOO strangely, but I saw this on Facebook, happen to write for a comics review site based off wordpress, and really can’t resist voicing my opinion on this sort of stuff.

    Anyway, you’re not alone in the prior Superman apathy. This (and probably the generation(s) after ours) firmly belong to Batman. Batman had the movies when we were kids, and he also had the better cartoon. Oh, I watched the Superman cartoon, but it was a child compared to the Dini/Timm Batman: Animated Series.

    And now, after the fairly sucky Superman movie having to be compared to Nolan’s work, it looks like we’ve got another generation of kids going for the Batman. Humorously, their doing ANOTHER Superman reboot movie, apparently.

    Even the Superman comics these days are pretty crap, especially compared to the Batman comics. Supes cannot win. Hell, even Green Lantern and the Flash are more popular than him right now.

    It’s a shame because you’re right in discussing his continuing relevance and influence. Superman means many different things to many different people, and the permutations that arise from all of these different readings and interpretations makes for a very powerful figure. Is he a paragon of truth/justice/American way/blahblah, or is he just the loneliest guy in the world? Either way (or both), he’s an interesting statement on the Western world’s ideals of the individual.

    Anyway, Superman just needs quality creators behind him again. Btw, check out J. Michael Straczynski’s short essay on what Superman means to him. I think it’s pretty relevant to your post.

    -Alex Evans (was in a bunch of your English classes at Queen’s, some involving Bongie)

    • kyla128

      Hey Alex, glad to hear from you. You’ll have to share the website that you write comic reviews for. I’d like to check it out.

      Like you, I do think that Superman could be meaningful to a new generation of comic book readers and movie-goers, but only with someone behind it who can make a connection with audiences. The dirty, grittiness of The Dark Knight was real and audiences connected with it. I wouldn’t want to see Superman corrupted and dark, but I do think that people could relate to the loneliness that you described. Who knows, maybe the next reboot will have promise…

      • paladinking

        weeklycomicbookreview.com or wcbr.wordpress.com

        I agree that dark, gritty Superman would be pretty damned horrid. It’s that “last son of a dead world” thing that I think would work.

        The big problem that a Superman film will always have is “how to have Superman punch things.” He can’t punch normal people and it’s hard, maybe impossible, to portray his non-human(oid) enemies in live action (see Smallville’s attempt at Doomsday).

        As a result, you get Superman Returns, or as I like to call it, “Superman Lifts Stuff.” Every conflict in that movie was solved by Supes lifting something. Lifts a plane. Lifts a boat. Lifts a car. Lifts an ISLAND….

  3. Pingback: Last Son Blog » Blog Archive » best spelling

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