Unpacking the Superman 75th anniversary short

Feature Rob Smedley 17 Oct 2013 - 06:44

Rob unpacks Zack Snyder and Bruce Timm's wonderful Superman 75th anniversary animated short to see the bizarre highlights that lie within...

Superman! For seventy-five years now he's confused birdwatchers and air traffic controllers alike as he's zoomed around battling evil and falling in love with women who have alliterative names starting with 'L'. Like Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lori Lemaris... Llllovely.

Yes, it's been a busy three quarters of a century for the Last Son of Krypton, and to celebrate it Zach Snyder (Man of Steel) and Bruce Timm (Superman: TAS) produced a two-minute flypast of Superman's history. It went down rather well when it premiered at New York Comic Con last week and no wonder. It's a beautiful salute to Supes, but also to the artists and actors who've brought him to life across the decades, as the animation style seamlessly changes to match the eras and moods.

It's also packed with little details that, perhaps without meaning to, act as a catalogue of just how damnably weird some of Superman's adventures have been over the years. There's not enough space to unpack the complete history that the short condenses so well, but we'll give you the (often bizarre) highlights.

 

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a fortune!

Action Comics #1. That's where it all started. Not just Superman, but the whole super-hero genre. Ten cents worth of paper and ink that today is worth in excess of $2 million to the right collector. And yet you only get thirteen pages of the Man of Steel for your moolah: the story 'Superman' was one of eleven features within the anthology. Thank goodness it was popular, or you might instead be reading about 'The Adventures of Marco Polo' or the curiously named thief 'Sticky-Mitt Stimson' and complaining that Joseph Gordon Levitt wasn't cast as him in the Sticky-Mitts movie.

 

Metal Menace

Robots! As regular readers know, Superman has spent his seventy-five years waging a one man war of terror on mechanoids onscreen and in comics. This piece of robot wrecking is a nod to The Mechanical Monsters; the very first episode of the classic 1940s Fleischer Studios cartoon series The Adventures of Superman. Even today it still looks good enough to butter on toast. In The Mechanical Monsters a mad scientist uses metal men to rob banks, presumably to pay off building all those buglarious bots in the first place. Classic villainsmanship. But Superman is having none of it and breaks them apart with the merry abandon of a toddler in a china shop. So commences a lifetime of blatant robophobia.

 

Jimmy Olsen's Gigantic Jackassery

Starting in 1954 and running for twenty years, the comic series 'Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen' featured stories so mad, you get the feeling you're reading a series of escalating dares over who could create the most outrageous tale. Notable issue covers include Superman forcing Jimmy to marry a monkey, Jimmy becoming a human porcupine, Jimmy becoming a Middle Eastern popstar in the year 1000BC, and Superman 'teaching a lesson' by burning a smoking jacket Jimmy bought him as a gift.

This one here, from Issue #53, is actually one of the less bizarre instalments. Jimmy finds a growth ray in a chest washed up on the beach (as you do) and, in an accident involving a misplaced turtle, is transformed into a giant turtle man commanded by an evil Atlantean. Remember, I did say 'less bizarre'.

 

Lex Luth-Hair

Despite being Superman's chief antagonist, you'll notice Lex Luthor barely gets a look-in in the short. That's him getting his ass handed to him in his first ever appearance on Action Comics' cover. Not exactly a flattering image, especially as you can only tell it's him from his shiny pate. These days everyone knows Luthor as a bald megalomaniac, but in his first appearance in Superman #4 he had a fine crop of red hair. Less than a year later in Issue #10 artist Leo Nowak mistook one of Luthor's bald minions for Lex himself and drew him as bald. It was an error that, unlike Luthor's hair, stuck.

 

Beppo the Super Monkey! Wait, what?

A Superman needs SuperPets: Krypto the Super Dog, Streaky the Super Cat and, best of all, Beppo the Super Monkey. It's just a shame that Superman's magic, talking, shape-shifting steed, Comet the Super Horse isn't also included. Although that could be because – I kid you not - Supergirl once snogged him while he was disguised as a man (1963's Action Comics #301) and they still feel weird about it. You should see them if they ever bump into each other at Starbucks. Awk-ward...

Beppo was a lab monkey on Krypton who stowed away on Kal-El's rocket and managed not to defecate on or eat the baby in-flight. When it crash-landed on Earth, Beppo hopped out and left before Ma and Pa Kent found baby Kal (“Look Martha – monkey tracks!” “Not now Jonathan, there's a boy in this rocket!”). After years living in the jungle and freaking all the other monkeys out by being able to peel a banana with lazer vision, he returned to Kansas where he and young Clark got up to all sorts of hijinks that sadly never made it into Smallville. Tom Welling and a monkey... I'd have watched that.

Beppo's current existence in the rebooted New 52 universe is as yet unknown. Someone ask Andy Serkis if he wants to mo-cap him for Man of Steel 2.

 

Art Attack

Clark Kent, Andy Warhol, and (out of shot, here) Wonder Woman in her 1960s midlife crisis Karate jumpsuit, view some art. If the gallery were in Gotham, Frank Gorshin's Riddler would have turned up in a cloud of smoke, laughed like a loon, and stolen all the pictures by now. But it's the pop art picture on the far left that they should be looking at.

It's a panel from Issue #106 of the dreadfully-titled 'Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane' which featured the controversial story 'I am Curious (Black)!', where Lois used a Kryptonian machine to transform herself into a black woman for 24 hours, so she could better understand the racism directed at Metropolis' African American community. Yeah. It's a well-meaning attempt at social relevance, but it just comes across as incredibly awkward, in the same way it would if Lex Luthor dressed in drag in order to explore LexCorp's glass ceiling.

 

There's only one way to find out...FIIIIIGHT!

It was the late seventies. Superman was popular. Muhammad Ali was popular. And in what was presumably the culmination of a pub argument that got out of hand, DC published Superman vs Muhammad Ali. Who would win? The readers, that's who.

To save the Earth, Superman and Ali had to fight each other in a boxing match that was broadcast across the galaxy. Earthlings presumably had to subscribe to Sky Sports to get it. Ali not only KO'd a de-powered Superman, but also a monstrous alien brawler, thus proving that Earth wasn't for messing with, and that Ali was indeed 'the greatest'. So, that's settled. Sadly the question 'Who'd win in a nine-hole putting contest between Batman and Jack Niklaus?' still goes unanswered by comics lore. 

 

Man of Pixels

Superman does not have a stellar reputation when it comes to computer games. This was the first, for the Atari 2600, where it appears you have to help Superman escape from the Ceefax Zone. Still better than Superman 64 however.

 

Dead...ish

In the nineties Superman died at the hands of the monster Doomsday, but then he got better and came back to life with a mullet, giving him the look of a steroid-enhanced Lovejoy. However there was no time to stop and x-ray that armoire to see if it was a genuine Chippendale - the world needed saving from villains Mongul and the Cyborg Superman, and Dean Cain needed work. Superman eventually cut his hair just before getting married to Lois, thus robbing him of his precious antiques knowledge forever.

 

Two-perman

1998 saw a story that sixties Giant Turtle Man Jimmy Olsen would be proud of. By the late nineties Superman had started to develop weird new electric powers (firing electricity bolts, sexual arousal at the sight of a pack of Duracell Ds). A trap created by the Cyborg Superman (half-robot, so no wonder Supes hated him) saw Superman split into two separate beings of pure electromagnetic energy: Superman Red and Superman Blue. Red was emotional and impulsive. Blue was logical and cold. And when dey met, it was moider! Eventually both laid down their lives to merge and become the true Superman again. And fandom cheered with relief.

 

Pantslessnessness

DC Comics rebooted the entire universe in 2011 in the story Flashpoint and, as the timelines of the universe convulsed, Superman lost his iconic red pants. But just like you or I would do, he pulled his trousers up, rolled his goggles into his towel, and pretended that nothing had happened. So yes, he's going commando beneath that la-dee-dah Kryptonian bio-reactive armour, but you'd never know it as he knocks Apokoliptian tyrant Darkseid for six during the first arc of the new 'Justice League' series. Here's to the next seventy-five years of punching!

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Great article, Rob, but get out of my head. Your spot-on jokes from my childhood are creeping me out! ;-)

Top class writing as per usual

In an issue of the phantom stranger I think 6 or 7 a character is shown eating beppo heat vision super chips. Great little Easter egg which I think proves beppos existence in the new 52.

I hate to say, but Mechanical Monsters was the second episode of the Fliescher Studios cartoons, wasn't it? Wasn't The Mad Scientist the first episode, as this sees the arrival of Superman to Earth?

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