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While there’s a lot to be said for getting there first, is the fact that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman was the first superhero, the character that created a unique and endlessly tweakable template and founded an increasingly pervasive genre, the only reason the Man of Steel occupies the unique place he does in our culture?
In his new book Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, Larry Tye pens a biography of sorts of the character, biographies being something Tye has more than a little experience writing (his previous works include biographies of Satchel Paige and Edward L. Bernays). Given that focus, Tye doesn’t really set about answering the question of why Superman is our most enduring hero, a question that seems particularly relevant as Supes has ceded the title of most popular hero to his one-time imitator Batman in a lot of the most pertinent metrics (comic book sales and box office earnings, for example).
Tye naturally alights on some of the most oft-cited reasons, including the psychological appeal of the incredible amount of wish-fulfillment Siegel and Shuster imbued their hero with — from being stronger than everyone else and able to fly to successfully leading a double life in which one persona is as accepted as the other persona dreams of being to the character’s unique relationship with the woman of his dreams — and the way the hero almost literally wrapped himself in the American flag and made himself synonymous with his home country.
While recounting the history of Superman, however, Tye reveals another obvious but less obsessed over reason. By a mixture of luck and his owners’ relentless pursuit of profits, Superman has managed to experiment with and conquer emerging media almost as immediately as they became viable — from the brand-new comic books of the late 1930s he segued easily into comic strips, and his was an early and huge hit radio program. He was in movie theaters with both cartoons and serials. He was on television in the 1950s, and between reruns and new shows, he never really left — live-action or animation or both at once, Superman is and always has been a television mainstay. Then, of course, there were feature films — Hollywood is riding a still-cresting wave of superhero blockbusters, and the next Superman feature is due next year, but there were Superman movies a full decade before there were superhero movies.
In other words, while Superman may have gotten his start in the comic books, he’s not really a comic book superhero as much as he is a superhero, one that works and has been eagerly adapted to any conceivable media, up to an including prose, musical theater and video games, (although naturally he soars higher in some of those media than in others).
Tye begins his story of the life of Superman with the story of Superman’s fathers, Siegel and Shuster, and in what strikes me as a remarkably thorough and balanced portrayal of Superman’s origins and early years—a surprisingly still contentious period that court cases are still being fought over—Tye demonstrates that the Superman that eventually came to be was the work not only of Siegel and Shuster, but also publishers Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz.
That Siegel and Shuster created Superman seems beyond obvious, as he existed in several different forms long, long before the story that appeared in Action Comics #1 was ever purchased and published, and that the pair didn’t formally transformer ownership of the character and future rights to exploit him at the time of that sale also seems pretty obvious (rather, Donenfeld and Liebowitz basically just asserted that right). That deal has been called comics’ original sin — and Tye refers to it as such at one point in the book — but the portraits the writer draws of all four men is a lot more complex than the binary, white hat/black hat, good guy/bad guy dichotomy usually drawn. All four emerge as real people, with strengths and weaknesses, talents and flaws, attributes and deficiencies and, for better or worse (usually better for the publishers and worse for the creators), all four are responsible for what quickly became a character informed my an ever-widening circle of creators, from other artists and writers to a novelist and ad men to directors and editors and so on.
All four men are also remarkably colorful characters, with various un-Superman-like traits about them, and all four seem like they’d be just as capable of supporting a fascinating biography as their hero was. Their stories are the threads Tye keeps returning to as his history ping-pongs from different iterations of Superman in various media. Another thread running through the book is the idea of “a Superman curse,” in which those who seem to benefit most from their fictional associate eventually come to suffer greatly — Shuster and Siegel’s roller-coaster fortunes being among the more obvious to those in the know, although the mysterious suicide of original TV Superman George Reeves (the subject of the film Hollywoodland) and the paralysis of the movie Superman Christopher Reeve being the best known.
In picking and choosing what to focus on, Tye gives the most attention to the first four decades of Superman’s comics career, to his original television show (although each of the following shows gets some attention, with the various television cartoons receiving the least) and the Reeve cycle of films, the making of which features a plot at least as epic and fantastic as what ended up on the screen (honestly, a documentary on the production of 1978’s Superman: The Movie should have been what they made instead of Superman III or IV or Returns).
Tye follows Superman’s career right up until last year, even mentioning the New 52 reboot of the character, although as he approaches the present, accounts begin to get less detailed, perhaps in large part because the closer we get to the present, the less conventional wisdom there is regarding the subject matter.
In discussing Superman comics, after Mort Weiseniger’s reign as Superman’s editor waned, Tye mostly just checks in with the biggest of the big events, like the John Byrne reboot (which sure sounds a lot more well thought-out than the New 52-boot that replaced it, although it was apparently at least as controversial), the death of Superman and the marriage to Lois Lane, with some attention also paid to the advent of Steel and the interface between race and Superman the character’s appearance opens up (with a few killer quotes from Christopher Priest), Kingdom Come, Red Son, Birthright and even that goofy back-up story about Superman renouncing his citizenship that a few newspapers picked up on last year.
Other seemingly significant stories from the comics are either ignored (like Lex Luthor’s time spent as President of the United States, or Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, the Joe Kelly-written milestone story “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?”) or barely mentioned even in passing (like Superman’s brief period as the blue-suited energy being referred to as “Electro-Supes,” to which Tye has only a single, slightly-off reference to).
Also mostly ignored is Superman’s slide down the comic book totem pole, so that Batman and a great deal of Marvel’s superheroes have surpassed him in popularity, as has even longtime B-lister Green Lantern.
These are, of course, omissions only to those of us who live and breathe the medium; Superman, as Tye so thoroughly and compellingly demonstrates, is a lot bigger than comic books, and has been for a good 70 years or so now. Something he demonstrates not only in the text of his book, but by his book’s very existence. There isn’t a similar history of Green Lantern or Wolverine or Spider-Man on the bookshelves at the moment, after all.
Tye closes by asking whether “the twentieth century’s longest-lasting hero” will “endure deep into the new century and millennium,” and answering his question by restating some of the basic reasons for Superman’s appeal — those I mentioned above, as well as his incorruptible virtue—noting that it is ultimately up to “us” as a society. He also points out that if Superman “thrived in the hands of a couple of Jewish kids from the ghetto, he should flourish when backed by the muscle of one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates, which would be mad to let its billion-dollar franchise languish.”
Close watchers of DC Comics and DC Entertainment, the sections of that media conglomerate that handles Superman, may occasionally question the sanity of those involved, of course, but for all the questionable decisions they might make , and it sure seems like they’ve made a lot recently (Kryptonian armor, rebooting decades of continuity with what seems to have been only a long weekend’s forethought, super-annulments, a more brutal and violent Superman in comics and video games, etc.), they’re not letting the character languish, so it’s unlikely he’ll be going anywhere any time soon. His biography, therefore, will probably never have a proper ending, and if that’s not a sign of how enduring a hero is, I can’t imagine what would be.
Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye, Random House, 409 pages, $27