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Cartoon Brew TV #18: Superman’s Secret Cartoon History

This week we open the Brew Vaults to examine the various ways the world’s first super-hero was animated, portrayed and even lampooned in the years between his comic book inception (1938) and prior to the iconic live-action TV show of the 1950s.

Jerry Beck first provides a running audio commentary over scenes from the classic Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, then uses rare film clips to trace how the character was interpreted by other Hollywood animators–some authorized, others unauthorized.

Superman was one of the most famous American creations of the 20th Century. The first true comic book super-star and a cultural icon, the caped character quickly leapt from ten cent comic books to daily newspaper stardom and a popular radio show. Then Hollywood called. Republic Pictures tried to license him for a twelve chapter serial, but Paramount placed a higher bid and the Man of Steel became a cartoon pioneer–the first science fiction adventure cartoon, setting the bar for all action animation to come.

Naturally, Warner Bros. was the first studio to spoof Superman. Bob Clampett painted him as a buffoon in Goofy Groceries (released March 29th 1941), a Merrie Melodies cartoon. Terrytoons came up with a parody, casting our superhero as a mouse in The Mouse of Tomorrow (1942). This proved so popular several sequels were produced, leading to a full-fledged series of Mighty Mouse cartoons. Chuck Jones kidded the Superman legend using Bugs Bunny as his Super Rabbit (Warner Bros.) in 1943.

Paramount, the studio who paid handsomely for the rights to Superman, used the character in trio of animated shorts after the 17 Fleischer/Famous Studio masterpieces. First, they created a classic Popeye cartoon, She Sick Sailors (1944), which cast a star struck Olive Oyl, smitten with the Man of Steel, as the object of affection between her rival Supermen, Popeye and Bluto. Next they allowed George Pal to use the famed red & blue costume and shield in a Puppetoon short–A Hatful Of Dreams (1945)–as little Punchy dreams himself as Superman to win the heart of beautiful Judy. Finally, a strange combination of two comic strip legends, as Little Lulu defeats a fairy tale giant as Super Lulu (1947), a cartoon directed by the legendary Bill Tytla.

In 1948, Superman was personified in a weekly live action movie serial by actor Kirk Alyn. The Sam Katzman chapterplays (Superman in 1948, Atom Man Vs. Superman in 1950) were produced on the cheap. Unable to come up with a low cost way to make his actor fly, Katzman turned to cartoon animation. Director Howard Swift (Fantasia) set up his own commercial animation studio shortly after the Screen Gems studio shut down (Swift was a director there) and was brought in to add several shots of Superman in flight. You decide whether he succeeded or not; it didn’t fool any of the kids in the audience.

These odds & ends of super-minutiae from the 1940s reflect the fame and popularity of the character’s early years. Superman has been a TV hero, a movie star and a staple of animation programming almost continuously since his creation, as this episode from the Brew Vaults aptly demonstrates.

(Thanks to Steve Stanchfield for recording the commentary track, and Randall Kaplan for sound and picture editing.)

  • Bob Lindstrom

    Very nice piece, Jerry. Thanks.

  • Robert Barker

    Very entertaining, thanks Jerry.

  • zavkram

    That was great! I had never seen the George Pal or Lulu clips before and I wasn’t even aware of the Columbia serial (although I do know that Columbia also had produced a “Batman” serial).

  • Mark H.

    I didn’t know about the Puppetoons or Little Lulu appearances. There was no mention of the Daffy Duck parody Stupor Duck.

  • Andrew Laubacher

    Gee, I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t include a clip of Daffy as Stupor-Duck! That was a brilliant, short parody of the SUPERMAN cartoons.

  • Don’t forget the Popeye cartoon “Nix On Hypnotricks” in which the “S” from the spinach can detaches and lands on Popeye’s chest, transforming him into a Superman type. Popeye then flies through the air to Olive’s rescue. This cartoon was released Dec. 19th, 1941 a mere three months after the first “Superman” cartoon. Fleischer was doing a parody of their own cartoons! Of course Bob Clampett’s “Goofy Groceries” skooped ’em all, released March 29th, 1941.

  • Mark H. and Andrew LaubacherStupor Duck wasn’t included because, as we say in the post above, I was covering simply the animated references between Superman’s debut and the 1951 George Reeves series. Stupor Duck was from 1956.

    Mark Kausler – You got me! I did forget about that short gag from Nix on Hypnotricks. Thanks for reminding me of that one.

  • Very Informative. Thank you.

  • I always loved the Superman character, even as a kid, so this was a great retrospective!

  • This stuff is great. I’ll look forward to more. I must have missed something, I didn’t hear any mention of Snafuperman.

  • David Goehner

    Here’s another one that was missed: There was a WW2 “Private Snafu” military cartoon that Warner Bros. did called “Snafuperman”, which (if my memory is right) was a bit of a parody of the Fleischer cartoons.

  • Jerry Modene

    One nice touch in “She-sick Sailors” – when Olive is reading the Superman comic, and when Bluto makes his entrance as “Superman”, the orchestra plays the Fleischer “Superman” theme from the cartoons. Which they could do, naturally, since they owned the rights to the theme.

  • Tom Soliva

    I like the flying animation in the Serials as well.

    It gave them more options with camera angles. Showing Superman take off from a group of people and they actually watch him fly away in a single shot. Its very groundbreaking in anticipating the later use of CGI characters in live action. Its not realistic buts a fun look.

    “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” later did something similar. Using animation to show Bela Lugosi’s Dracula transform into a bat.

  • Bill Cross

    Simply Super, Jarry!


  • JP

    Excellent work, Jerry! I love the Brew Vaults!

  • John

    Just to add on to David’s post about the Snafu cartoon — not only did it parody the Paramount series, but apparently the Army got approval from Paramount for Carl Stalling to use Sammy Timberg’s Superman theme in “Snafuperman”. AFAIK, that’s the only time during the Golden Age one studio was allowed (or, would want) to use another cartoon studio’s main title music.

  • William

    That was great!!! Thanks a lot Jerry.
    By-the-way, Love your commentaries on the Popeye cartoon’s.

  • Tex Avery did at least a couple of “Superman” parodies: The turkey in “Jerky Turkey” and Uncle Tom in “Uncle Tom’s Cabana”.

  • Kevin Butler

    Dear Mr.Beck,

    Mr.Alyn did an extent in the second and last

    “Superman”movie serial:”Atom Man Vs. Superman”.

    However..”The Man Of Steel”was seen flying from the

    waist up.

    Not in full body view in some scenes in the serial flying scenes were divided between animation

    and shots of Mr.Alyn’s caped crime fighter in flight around


  • Wonderful piece!

  • This is very cool. Thanks from a Super-fan!

  • Jimbo2K7

    Not to forget one of my favorite Bob Clampett Beany and Cecil episodes featuring Super-Cecil!

  • Ahh, very enlightening. Thanks Super Jerry!

  • The shot you chose of the giant looking at Lulu in his hand is a neat parallel of Tytla’s animation of Chernobog in “Night on Bald Mountain.” I’d expect you chose it for that reason, but I can’t resist pointing it out. The shot of Clark at the end is a classic, reminding me of George Reeves and his immortal impersonation of Clark as the man who’s in on a joke nobody else in the cast suspects exists.

  • Jim Walsh

    Well done – thanks.

  • Great stuff, never new mighty mouse came to life as super mouse.

  • RDee

    Awesome post, I had no idea about incorporating animation into the live action serials, doesn’t blend well but it still looks cool.

  • Was the voice of the giant in Super-Lulu, Jackson Beck by any chance? From Super-narrator to Super-Villain.

  • Thanks Jerry for the extra information on Howard Swift. Sam Katzman was my grandfather. I still crack up when I see the animated Superman land behind a rock and Kirk Alyn pops out from behind.

  • Bruce Block

    What a great group of clips!

  • Mark Morey

    I have a very early memory of a limited animation segment on IT’S TIME FOR BEANY featuring “Stuporman,” an obvious Superman parody from the Clampett studio, but I’m not certain it predates the Reeves series. My thought is that the original BEANY puppet version is earlier than 1953, but I wasn’t exactly taking notes on c ulture at the time.

  • V.E.G.

    It seems that Super Lulu cartoon is going to be in the vaults permanently.