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I recently had the pleasure of rewatching The Mechanical Monsters, the 1941 animated Superman short from Fleischer Studios. I viewed it once before in the early ’90s on a cheap video tape that virtually disintegrated after just three uses. However, we’re in the new millennium now, and thanks to the dual magic of public domain and YouTube, the Fleischer cartoons are easily accessible for free in the comfort of your own home.
Do remember the “Beware the Gray Ghost” episode of Batman: The Animated Series? Bruce Wayne watches an old serial starring his childhood hero Simon Trent (voiced, in a stroke of genius, by none other than Adam West). He’s suddenly transformed into a little kid again, with all the cynicism of adulthood melting away. That was me watching the Fleischer Superman cartoons. I’d searched for these videos for analytical purposes, but instead I walked away with words like “Wow!” and “Gee whiz!” popping into my head.
Virtually every year, there’s a high-concept Eisner nominee that utterly baffles me. In 2009, it was Speak No Evil, the undocumented-immigrant parable where a guy has a hole for a mouth, and last year, it was the weird Ant Comic. This year, it’s probably going to be Brian Fies’ The Last Mechanical Monster.
It’s based on Fleischer Studios’ 1941 animated Superman short “The Mechanical Monsters,” probably best known as the first time, in any medium, Clark Kent stepped into a phone booth to change clothes. The first few pages of Fies’ comic look like screen shots of the original cartoon. After that intro, the the story picks up 60-plus years later. We’re already in some strange territory: a fan fiction is now in Eisner Award consideration. Only … this isn’t fan fiction about Superman or Lois Lane; it’s about the villain.
We’re also informed that “The Mechanical Monsters” is in the public domain (a factoid that took me back to when I first watched the cartoon, on a VHS purchased for cheap at Woolworths that stopped functioning after two viewings). That gives the comic an added layer of trickiness, but maybe this is as legit an adaptation as, say, CBS’s Elementary.