Before Krypton: On the Origins of Superman, by Larry Tye

Christopher Reeve in 'Superman'/Photo © 1978 Warner Bros.
Christopher Reeve in 'Superman'/Photo © 1978 Warner Bros.

Editor's Note: Larry Tye was an award-winning journalist at The Boston Globe and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. A lifelong Superman fan, Tye now runs a Boston-based training program for medical journalists. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Satchel as well as The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising from the Rails, and co-author, with Kitty Dukakis, of Shock. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and is currently writing a biography of Robert F. Kennedy. His latest book is Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. Here, Tye looks back at the very beginnings of Superman - and how Superman arrived at the vision of him we hold dear to us today.

It was on Superman's muscle-bound back that the iconic comic book took flight in 1938, and barely two years later he was hurtling across the radio airwaves. His success in other media made it inevitable that Superman would find his way to the big screen. It was equally certain, as the 1930s came to a close, that America someday would produce an animated cartoon star who was not a furry animal. The two trends collided in the Miami studios of a pair of Austrian-Jewish animation geniuses, brothers Max and Dave Fleischer.

The Fleischers used a technique called Rotoscoping to make the animated figures believable by tracing real-life ones in ink, frame by frame. The plot lines - of thieving robots and rampaging dinosaurs - were familiar to fans who knew Superman in comics and on the air. So was the sound of an exploding Krypton, which was generated by amplifying the noise of an apple ripped apart by hand.

Did it work? Time magazine didn't think so, writing, "Superman looks and acts like a wooden puppet." There was precious little dialogue and the characters seemed as stiff as the comic book drawings. But that was their genius. The Fleischers brought into full-motion Superman's simple strength, which is why the American Academy of Motion Pictures nominated the first of their seventeen films for an Academy Award as Best Short Subject (Cartoon) in 1942.

Next up was the movie serial, which was less a sign of what the filmmakers could accomplish in the 1940s than what they could get away with. A serial was a short subject that theaters showed alongside the featured movie, with each of a dozen chapters playing for a week. Critics again were downbeat, but kids across America gave the serials an unambiguous thumbs-up. These were the same youngsters who, even before they could read the words, had thumbed through their Superman comic books until the pages grew ragged. Now there was a new treat: their hero, in live action, as part of the weekend matinee. Their parents dropped them at the theater thinking the attraction was Charles Dickens's penniless Oliver Twist, but the real reason they wanted to come was "Hurled to Destruction," the Superman short that ran first.

The year 1951 was no time to launch another Superman experiment. Not when critics were charging that comic books corrupted kids. Not when the medium into which he was being catapulted, television, was so callow it was unclear whether it would succeed. Yet once again it worked. TV Superman George Reeves looked not just like a guy who could make gangsters cringe, but who believed in the righteousness of his hero's cause enough to make fans believe, too. Today, when those now grown-up fans call to mind Superman, it is George Reeves they see.

The TV series died when Reeves did in June of 1939, with a self-inflicted bullet hole in his temple. While it would take thirty years for the superhero to make his way back to television in a fresh live-action series, he rebounded sooner on the big screen. His benefactors this time were an unlikely father-and-son duo. "Why don't we do Superman?" Ilya Salkind asked his father Alex over dinner at the Café de la Paix in Paris in 1974. "What's Superman?" Alex asked back. Not an auspicious beginning for the man who was about to define the Last Son of Krypton for a new generation. But what Alex lacked in appreciation of popular culture, the Russian Jew made up for with instincts telling him that a world disillusioned by Vietnam and Watergate might need a superman. Five years after their father-son dinner, the Salkinds released "Superman: The Movie," starring Christopher Reeve. It was nominated for three Oscars and was the second-highest-grossing movie of 1978. It also was the first time a comic-book hero had starred in a serious movie and it launched Superman as a film franchise, with three sequels.

Superman would go through a series of other iterations on the big screen and small - from "Superboy" to "Lois & Clark," "Smallville" to "Superman Returns." Looking back over more than seventy years, which productions stand out? That's easy: the ones starring Reeves and Reeve.