I can give this collection no greater praise than the following: I watched every single one of the cartoons in the set. Naturally, being a reviewer, I'm supposed to do that to be as fair and objective as possible, but I watched all of them in a day, nearly in a row. Meaning that I sat through the opening in which I was informed that Superman was more powerful than a locomotive, the surf, and a hurricane, not to mention disguised as a mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, no less than seventeen times. And I didn't get sick of it.
This set, which collects all of the original Max Fleischer cartoons produced between 1941 and 1942, gives us a rare look at the Man of Steel when his myth was still in its infancy. Here, there is no Jimmy Olsen, no kryptonite and not even a single appearance by Lex Luthor. Barely any time is given to the complex interplay of the Superman/Lois/Clark love triangle, as all of these episodes clock in at under ten minutes in length. Really, it's a pretty steady stream of Villain Appears/Lois Investigates/Lois Kidnapped/Superman Saves The Day/Lois Gets Story, only for the exact same cycle to reappear in the following week's story. There are a few subtle differences in that the villains range from mad scientists to dinosaurs to the good old Japanese ("Japoteurs", the most notoriously racist of the set, is surprising probably also the best animated and the sharpest written), but in essence it's all the same. You can count on Lois getting in trouble somehow and, if you're lucky, you'll get an unmotivated cutaway shot of a waving American flag for effect.
The most striking thing about the collection (aside from the casually racist and sexist themes if you weren't expecting them) is seeing the notion of the superhero emerge in its most raw, primal form. Having grown up in a generation where even the most mainstream of superhero representations have been colored with the post-modern demons of homage and self-reference, seeing the superhero myth in its initial American inception makes clear what a drastic sea of change Superman signaled in pop culture. All of the elements had been there previously (Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the writer and artist who created Superman, readily point to the novel Gladiator and the character Doc Savage as influences), but never had they been combined into something so profoundly American. Other cultures could be happy with heroes who did simple things like challenge empires and become wise. We needed a guy who could fly.
On that level, these cartoons are very informative, but depending on your interest in the material, they can also be extremely entertaining. As I mentioned in my Morgan Stewart's Coming Home review, it's amazing to watch something completely unburdened by angst and psychological depth. Here, no character has a motivation any deeper rooted than the immediate need to save something's hide. For that reason, it's also entirely clear just how superhero material got its reputation as a psychologically thin and vapid medium that needed to be reinterpreted by the likes of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Still, there's more than enough momentum here to keep you excited if you're willing to give in to all of the series' decidedly retrograde charms.
On the back of the box, the set is labeled as ‘not for children.' One can only assume that this is there to prevent parents from exposing their kids to the social politics of episodes like "Jungle Drums", but on another level, this makes perfect sense. You probably do have to bring a sense of maturity to appreciate something like this nowadays. The kids would very likely be bored, but if you approach this with a sense of curiosity, it will almost certainly be rewarded.
DVD Bonus Features
The set also comes with two short documentaries, "The Man, The Myth, Superman" and "First Flight: The Fleischer Superman Series", as well as a preview of the new DC animated film Green Lantern.
"Max Fleischer's Superman: 1941-1942" is on sale April 7, 2009 and is rated NR. Animation. Written and directed by Various. Starring Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander, Julian Noa.