Next to my own, of course, Mickey Mouse has the most recognizable face in the world. At his most elementary level, Mickey Mouse is just a series of circles. As am I. If you can draw a circle, you can draw Mickey Mouse, and in the early days of animation most animated characters were talking circles with four-fingered hands (easier to animate four fingers than the full inventory).
One of the fundamental principles of animation is squash and stretch—the idea that squeezing and distorting these circles in a series of consecutive drawings results in a close but exaggerated approximation of Newtonian laws. That's what put the bounce in Felix the Cat's step and why Mickey seemed to have weight, balance and heft as he moved and whistled in Steamboat Willie. That's how cartoons looked, with some refinements along the way, until the Man of Steel immigrated to our shores in the summer of 1938.
Action Comics #1 appeared that June with a cover by 23-year-old Canadian artist Joe Shuster. As our entire planet knows, that cover featured Shuster's and writer Jerry Siegel's creation, Superman. Six months later, the character began appearing in a daily newspaper strip and quickly reached an audience in the tens of millions.
Paramount Pictures bought the screen rights to the character with the intent of producing a series of animated shorts, but finding an animation studio with the skill and deft touch required to adapt the character and his world was a challenge: Superman couldn't be a series of circles squashing and stretching as he bounced along. Paramount was after a realistic approach and they found their men and women for the job in the Miami studios of Max and Dave Fleischer, home to Mickey's biggest rival in the movies: Popeye the Sailor Man.
While Walt was inventing and refining the full-length animated feature with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940), the Fleischers were scandalizing the censors at the Hays Office with Betty Boop shorts (as what she wore was often quite short) and delivering magnificent two-reel, Technicolor Popeye musicals.
Dave Fleischer didn't want anything to do with the Superman project—cartoons featured buffoons and clowns and cute little animals. The Superman shorts were going to require an entire rethinking of the very notion of what constituted an animated cartoon. Hoping to chase Paramount away without actually turning down the project, Fleischer told the studio they'd do it for $100,000 per cartoon, four times the usual budget for an animated short. To his surprise, Paramount—smartly—said yes.
The original plan was to produce five or six shorts full of action and with little dialog. Squash and stretch would be out while realism would be in. Superman would have to have all five fingers. Taking its cue from the cityscape of Manhattan, the Fleischers' Superman would take place in an Art Deco Metropolis and the general design would follow Shuster's original drawings and have the flavor of the pulp magazines of the day.
As they started work on the cartoons, WOR in New York began to broadcast a syndicated radio serial called The Adventures of Superman with future game show host Bud Collyer (Beat the Clock, To Tell the Truth) as the voice of the Last Son of Krypton. It was this show that introduced the familar "Look! Up in the sky!" intro heard in later versions of the Superman story. The Fleischers added this to their first short, Superman, and borrowed Collyer and WOR's Lois Lane, Joan Alexander, to voice their animated counterparts.
The finished one-reeler was a stunning success—it was nominated for an Oscar—and Paramount wanted more, but they also wanted Fleischer Studios.
On Friday, December 5, 1941, the Fleischers, in an effort to duplicate Disney's financial success with animated features, released Mr. Bug Goes to Town. We all know what happened the following Sunday. The financial losses were enough to allow Paramount to rush in, squash and squeeze the Fleischer brothers out, move the now-renamed studio to New York and set Superman against the Axis powers in shorts like Japoteurs.
You can see these cartoons today at BoxofficeMagazine.com, and if you've ever wanted to see what the Fleischers would have done if they'd had a few Macs and Adobe After Effects, just watch the first reel of Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It's Max and Dave's Superman without Superman.
Watch Krypton explode and Superman fend off an evil Electrothanasia Ray in this very first episode of the Fleischers' serial:
Fifty years before Jurassic Park, Superman saves Lois Lane from the jaws of a reanimated T-Rex.
Superman's spawn: The trailer for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Giovanni Ribisi and an eye-patch-wearing Angelina Jolie slinking around in steampunk digs.