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Old Visitor from Another Planet

Tales from the Toon Trenches

Old Visitor from Another Planet

One of the themes of the 2013 Comic-Con, which ended last week, was the 75th anniversary of the most popular space alien of American culture: Kal-El of Krypton, a.k.a. Superman.

Superman was the first comic-book character to translate to animation, only a few years after his creation in 1938. Starting in 1941, the Fleischer studios started turning out Superman short cartoons, which at the time was revolutionary. They were not the first cartoons to feature human characters, but they were the first ones to strive for a more realistic depiction of the human figure (thanks in large part to rotoscoping). They were also essentially non-comedic, presenting mini-adventures instead of laughs, sometimes involving wartime themes.

It was the Fleischer brothers––Max and Dave––whose names were all over the cartoons, but it is likely no surprise that they were not really the hands-on creators. One of the key players in the studio’s Superman series, as writer, director and uncredited producer, was a far less-known figure in animation named Dan Gordon. While Gordon remains largely unheralded today, he was widely known within the industry at the time…and not simply for drawing. His thirst was equally legendary.

“He was a brilliant, brilliant guy, though he had a problem with alcohol and with money,” Joe Barbera once told me. “We’d go into a bar every day and talk about what a lousy boss we all worked for. We all did it. That was the indoor sport, to belittle the boss.”



Barbera would become Gordon’s boss for the last decade of his life. Iwao Takamoto, also then a fixture at Hanna-Barbera, recalled to me his experience with the artist:

“Jerry Eisenberg and I would go down after a late evening at the studio and have dinner at the old Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, and Dan would hang out there. In fact, he may have been staying at the Roosevelt. I remember sitting with him one time and talking to him about something we needed scripted, and he communicated with drawings by this time, and his hands were constantly shaking. I remember wondering, ‘How the devil is he going to draw anything?’ And he picked up a pencil, and his hand was shaking like crazy, and as soon as the tip of the pencil touched the paper, everything just solidified. The hand quit shaking, and this little idea sketch comes out.”

Gordon died in 1969 (and no one seems to have recorded his age), his brilliance unharmed by the special liquid Kryptonite he seemed to require.

Animated Superman in serial

Animated Superman in serial

As for Superman, those early Fleischer shorts were not his only 1940s appearance in animation. When Columbia Pictures was bringing the Man of Steel to live action through a 1948 serial, they couldn’t get the on-camera flying effects to work. It looked like what it was, a guy hanging from a wire. So they decided to animate the character in flight! Actor Kirk Alyn, playing Superman, would dart behind an object and hide, and then a cartoon Superman, animated by former Disney artist Howard Swift, would zoom out from behind.

Did the kids in the audience notice the difference? Probably. But what the hey…it’s Superman! Happy birthday, Supe.


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