A Job for Superman! Revisiting the 1940s Fleischer Cartoons

Julien Neaves, Editor

New animated TV series My Adventures with Superman is doing well with both fans and critics. But it is not first time the Last Son of Krypton featured in an animated series (nor likely to be the last) and for that one would have to spin the world around until we time travel to the 1940s. In 1941, just three years after he first appeared in comic form, Supes made his animated debut in a series of short films by Fleischer Studios, run by brothers Max and Dave. A total of 17 shorts were produced by Fleischer Studios and successor company Famous Studios.

I watched a couple of the episodes back in the day and really enjoyed them. So, when I saw free streaming service Tubi had all the full run I just had to check it out. With a Kryptonite-free SPOILER ALERT let’s retro review the Fleischer Superman cartoons in three punches.

Punch #1 Sights and Sounds

Truth, justice and, well, you know the rest

For a cartoon from eight decades ago the animation holds up spectacularly. The style emulates the comics of the time well, the character movements are all fluid, and the action sequences are epic. It is not as bright and glossy as modern animated efforts, but it still delivers on the superhero spectacle. And I love the look of Superman himself. He has the traditional cow lick, square jaw, broad shoulders, muscular body and the original “S” on his chest. He looks very much the hero that he is.

The triumphant music by Sammy Timberg is also quite epic and memorable. It truly pumps you up and gets you in the mood for some super powered fisticuffs. And continuing on the audio aspect, the voice work by Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander (who play Superman/Clark Kent and Lois Lane respectively) is exemplary.

Punch #2 Characters

In trouble again, Lois? What a shocking development

And speaking of characters, the episodes feature three main cast members, namely Superman and his mild-mannered reporter alter ego Clark Kent, dogged reporter Lois Lane and Daily Planet managing editor Perry White. Superman is presented as a powerful hero, but not invulnerable, which creates some much-needed tension. We see him demonstrate his super strength, flight and X-ray vision, and perform some grand feats of super heroism. Clark, on the other hand, is a humble reporter but with a very sly sense of humour. In the series, he is not found by the Kents but ends up in an orphanage. He does not appear to be maladjusted though. And it was always great to hear him utter the line “This looks like a job for Superman” before going to change into his red and blue tights.

Lois is enamoured of Supes but quite dismissive of Clark and treats him pretty poorly; on one occasion she hides his press pass so she can get a story alone. This version of Lois is quite a capable person, shown flying planes and firing weapons with ease. But she is also fearless to the point of recklessness and has to be rescued by Supes almost every episode. Perry White is just there to deliver some exposition and late addition Louis, a young Daily Planet employee, is supposed to be there for comic relief but his attempts at humour fall very flat. All other characters are episode specific and do not recur.

Punch #3 Stories

Come get some you robotic bastards!

The episodes are ten minutes long, but they manage to pack in a lot of story in that short time, especially with the narrative device of newspaper headlines. After the first short, which tells the hero’s origin story and has him battling a mad scientist, he goes up against other mad scientists, criminals, robots, a defrosted dinosaur, a circus gorilla, a race of hawk men (not Hawkman, mind you), mummies and natural disasters. His fight against a group of robots in second episode The Mechanical Monsters is 13 Flavours of Awesome Sauce and has been hugely influential on media in the decades since.

In the latter eight episodes from Famous Studios we get some war propaganda of Supes fighting Nazi agents and Japanese agents. In the episode Eleventh Hour Clark and Lois are randomly in Yokohama, Japan and Superman is just randomly sabotaging the Japanese war machine. The Japanese retaliate by attempting to execute Lois by firing squad, but she is narrowly rescued by the man of Steel. It is very weird, and I prefer the more Sci Fi approach of the earlier Fleischer episodes.

Odd propaganda episodes aside, I had a good time with these classic Superman cartoons. They are quick, fun, and full of action and adventure. And you know the famous lines from the radio series and live action series, “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” That originated with the first seven cartoons. They later changed it to “Faster than a streak of lightning! More powerful than the pounding surf! Mightier than a roaring hurricane!” but that never stuck because it’s lame. And the series legacy would live on in its influence Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series as well other media as diverse as anime and music videos. An outstanding series for its time and one that is still enjoyable to this day.

Are you a fan of the Fleischer Superman cartoons? And you can check out more from the Man of Steel below:


Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by the Cryptkeeper, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “13 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.

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