The first Superman cartoon hit the big screens on Sept. 26, 1941. And nearly 80 years later, that 10-minute short, known today as "The Mad Scientist," still looks like it was made the day after tomorrow.
The bright big-screen wonder, created by animation pioneers Max and Dave Fleischer and voiced by some of the stars of the Mutual Network radio series, wasn't just groundbreaking but earthshaking. The series did far more than merely introduce audiences to the immortal phrase, "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" For the first time, a costumed hero leaped off the page and onto the screen and in the process somehow looked as human as anyone in the audience.
This was kid stuff made for the grown-ups. Art Deco by way of Action Comics. The artistry of Citizen Kane dressed up in blue tights and a red cape.
"The oblique camera angles, the extended shadows, the chiaroscuro lighting, the diagonal lines, even the freeze frame of the scientist turning into the front-page picture in the Daily Planet all seem right out of [Orson] Welles' masterpiece," Philip Skerry and Chris Lambert wrote in the book Superman at Fifty! "The technicolor hues are also gorgeous, retaining even today the vividness of the original dyes while other less stable coloring processes
are fading away on the original negative."
In all there were 17 Man of Steel cartoons released between the fall of 1941 and the summer of '43, nine with the Fleischers at the helm before the brothers went their separate ways and Paramount Pictures took control. And from that relatively small output of genius, whose influence spans every single superhero blockbuster and cartoon and comic that followed to this day, only a few key moments have survived.
The production cels from the shorts each of which cost $30,000 to produce were thought vanished. The hand-rendered graphite-made production drawings were surely lost somewhere between buyouts, break-ups and bankruptcies. And there was no reason at all to believe the sketched models of Superman and Lois Lane would ever been seen again.
Yet here they are, compiled by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions
for the Dec. 11-13 Animation Art event. More than 50 original pieces from the Fleischer's run on Superman, amassed from two separate collections never before available to the public, create the largest assemblage ever to come to auction.
Jim Lentz, Heritage's Director Animation Art, says the 28 total lots being offered in December constitute "almost everything that exists" from the Superman cartoons. Perhaps, he says, this is as much as 80-85% of all the surviving artwork enough to whet the appetites of animation scholars and collectors alike.
"To have a collection like this is a once-in-a-lifetime event," says cataloger David Tosh, Heritage's in-house expert on the Fleischers' work. "When I first saw it, I thought I must be dreaming. This material just doesn't show up. In 17 years at Heritage I've seen a few pieces, but nothing this gorgeous. It's mind-blowing to me."
Here, rather unbelievably, collectors will find the color model for Superman himself, whose stands with hands on hips while animators color-code each piece of the costume rendered in graphite. Below, Dave Fleischer's signature provides the animators with the OK to proceed. There's also a color model for Lois Lane as well, even more detailed than that of the Man of Steel.
Also included is the model sheet for Superman's head and face the square jaw, of course, topped with the spit curl dated August 1941. Its five views of Superman serve as a quintessential piece from the Fleischer Studios, as does the model sheet for Lois known as the "Head and Mouth Action Chart," which features 26 looks at the Daily Planet's star reporter in various poses.
Another model sheet featuring Lois in various poses (flying, even!), alongside Clark Kent and a rough sketch of Superman, is just as indispensable.
The animation event also features several production cel setups with the key master backgrounds including an extraordinary piece from "The Mad Scientist" in which Superman carries Lois to safety before the scientist's lair blows to bits. From the same episode comes a production cel showcasing the Man of Steel staring down the scientist's destructive "electrothanasia" ray aimed at Metropolis.
There's another production cel, as well, from the second Superman short, November 1941's "The Mechanical Monsters," showing the hero demolishing the titular villains.
The event features drawings of a swaying Daily Planet under attack in "The Mad Scientist"; Krypton's destruction from the first episode's introduction; Lois, Clark and Perry White huddled around the Daily Planet editor's desk; Superman repelling the death ray; and a detailed flyover look at the bright lights of Metropolis.
There are also several drawings from "Terror on the Midway" released in August 1942 and, sadly, the final of the nine Superman cartoons produced under the auspices of Fleischer Studios before the brothers parted company and Paramount rebranded their production company Famous Studios. There is but one piece from the final batch of cartoons: a drawing of an airplane from September 1942's "Japoteurs," when the studio turned Superman's attention from sci-fi villainy to real-world headlines.
Heritage's Animation Art event features artwork from other Fleischer projects, as well, including sketches from 1939's deeply influential Gulliver's Travels; cels and sketches and sculptures and other highly coveted ephemera from 1941's Mr. Bug Goes to Town, and rough drafts from the brothers' work on Popeye and Betty Boop.
"But the Superman collection serves as a historical document on the making of one of animation's greatest series," Lentz says. "It continues to mean so much to so many. It was a gateway to everything from the George Reeves TV series to the Christopher Reeve movies to the more recent Batman and Superman animated series to The Dark Knight Returns. And it's likely we'll never see a collection such as this one ever again."