Book Review: “Superman” by Larry Tye

Or “The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero

2012, Random House, 409 pages, with photos, appendix, notes, bibliography and index, US $27.00

'Superman' Comic Book Cover
Cover art for the ‘Superman’ comic book, 1930s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A scholarly work examining the two men who created the “Man of Tomorrow”, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, their own life stories and cultural backgrounds and how these factors influenced the mythos behind the character who became the first and foremost superhero of them all.

In the hands of New York Times bestselling author Larry Tye, Siegel and Shuster’s story is nearly as thrilling as the icon they created. Tye finds the bonds they had in common as immigrants from Eastern Europe, as adolescents and Depression-era nerds.

With equal deftness, Tye also examines the ways in which these two men differed and the cultural forces that shaped their sensibilities.

Superman Comic Early Summer Issue

Here are a few of the opening lines taken from the book’s Preface:

“The most enduring American hero of the last century is someone who lived half his life in disguise and the other half as the world’s most recognizable man. He is not Jack Kennedy or Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, Batman or Jerry Seinfeld, although all of them were inspired by him. It was on his muscle-bound back that the iconic comic book took flight and the very idea of the superhero was born. He appeared on more radio broadcasts than Ellery Queen and in more movies than Marlon Brando, who once pretended to be his father.”

From the crucible of Seigel and Shuster’s personalities and their commonality of time, place and culture, sprang a character who set a genuine precedent. The “Man of Steel” became a mega-industry at a time when such were hard to find.

Furthermore, Krypton’s most famous son has successfully transitioned from newspaper comic strip to comic book to literary novel to radio adventure series to the television series that helped nurture that medium’s popularity to the motion picture franchise that continues to the present day.

Does Tye read too much into all of this?

Maybe, but there can be no disputing the longevity of Kal-El / Clark Kent / Superman, all of whom are swiftly (“faster than a speeding bullet…”) approaching the 80th anniversary of the saga’s origin.

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 Let’s look at a few examples of the nuggets Tye mines from the facts at hand and a dollop of imagination:  In the previous paragraph there’s a mention of Kal-El, Clark Kent and Superman all in one phrase.

Now do we see a representation of three identities into one persona anywhere else in Western thinking? Oh yes, Tye says, and points to the psychological concepts of the Id, the Ego and the Super-ego (Coincidence?)

And then there’s the Trinity…

Tye also dips into the Hebrew language with which Seigel and Shuster were familiar to discover that the names of Superman’s father (“Jor-El”) and the infant Superman (“Kal-El”) have translated equivalents in English. I’ll be content to let you discover them for yourself.

Tye even stretches his imagination enough to postulate that since both of Superman’s creators were Jewish, it therefore follows that Supes himself must be regarded as a Member of the Tribe.

Superman-Shiurv4

Then there are all the other lives that were touched and radically altered by this epic figure.

George Reeves as Superman

George Reeves became one of the earliest actors to achieve major star status in the televised “Adventures of Superman” TV show. Prior to donning the tights and cape, his most high-profile work was a brief supporting role in “Gone With the Wind”.

Actress Noell Neal became so identified with the role of Lois Lane in the 1950s she merited a non-speaking cameo role more than 20 years later in the late-1970s theatrical motion picture “Superman: The Movie.”

Christopher Reeve, a one-time classmate of Robin Williams at Julliard Academy, accomplished his breakout performance in that film, as did Margot Kidder.

margot kidder and christopher reeve

And as I write these words, the passing of Jack Larson was less than six months previously.  He accomplished a wide range of achievements in the field of Entertainment, but what was the nearly unanimous choice of headline or lead sentence?

George Reeves and Jack Larson

That almost 70 years earlier he had portrayed cub reporter Jimmy Olsen of “The Daily Planet” on “The Adventures of Superman”. He even had his own featured line of comic books, billed as “Superman’s Best Friend”.

And that brings us to another point: Superman spun off supporting characters into their own lines of comic books like some sort of literary centrifuge.  Jimmy Olson, Lois Lane, Superboy, Supergirl…

superman-jerry-lewis

And so we come to another point: Superman, as his name implied, was an absolutely unprecedented sales juggernaut for his publishers, but not for his creators…

They sold the rights to their creation, either wittingly or unwittingly, (it depends on whose version you choose to believe) for a relatively paltry sum, even by the economically distressed standards of the 1938 American economy: $130 US.

Superman 10th Anniversary Cover

And this is where the “Bad Guys” come in… Many may be incensed to learn that Superman’s first publisher was in fact a hustling, corner-cutting, hard-nosed businessman with a background in many fields, including pornography (“Man of Steel” indeed!)

Action Comics Super Maid

This book is almost Herculean in its size, range, scope and the sheer effort that obviously went into it. Most books of this variety normally lack a bibliography and notes; Tye has obviously done his homework.

The closest thing I could find to a drawback in this effort is, ironically, a consequence of its subject’s continuing popularity: it’s publication four years previously means that the most recent iterations of the mythos are necessarily absent from its pages. A revised edition, one assumes, will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future.

Action Comics The Lady & The Lion

Meanwhile, the book makes for remarkably enjoyable reading, whether you are into Superman as a form of escapism or a subject for serious study.

Super-recommended! (4.85 out of 5 stars)

Here are a few “fun facts” gleaned from the book…

  • Early editors and publishers were concerned Superman’s rear end was too big.

  • Superman’s origin backstory wasn’t wasn’t fully sketched out from the beginning, rather it was published only after the character had been in print for almost a decade.

  • Same thing with Kryptonite: the idea of some alien mineral that could deprive Supes of his powers and invulnerability came only after sales of his stories began to level off after WWII.

  • Did you know that at one point there were about a dozen different varieties of Kryptonite? Depending on the color, it could rob Superman of selected powers or all but one or all of them altogether. Writers and editors eventually abandoned this part of the story because it sometimes made the stories too complicated and many devoted readers found it too convenient as a plot device.

  • The phrase “Up, up and away!” didn’t come into use until actor Bud Collyer portrayed the title role in the Superman radio series; it helped the audience “see” the action in their imaginations when Superman took flight.

  • Collyer spoke as a tenor when he was in character as Clark Kent, but dropped into his baritone range as Superman, thereby nailing the job for himself by saving the producers from having to hire two different actors for the role(s).

  • Similarly, the familiar litany of Superman’s attributes (Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…) was another wrinkle that was added when the character made the transition to Radio.  It allowed for the addition of sound effects that heightened the experience for the imaginative audience.

  • Originally, Supes didn’t fly, he lept, hence the bit about leaping over tall buildings.

  • On the “Adventures of Superman” television series, actor George Reeves took flight by jumping on a trampoline or springboard and the film editors took matters from there.  So he did leap.

  • By a similar process, he “landed” by swinging into the camera shot from a trapeze or suspended swing.

  • Clark Kent may have started as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter for “The Daily Planet”, but he has since been employed as a cable television news anchorman and, more recently, as a reporter for an online streaming news website. (See what you miss if you don’t keep up with the latest issue?)

 

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About jaypochapin

Married adult human male, father, brother, son, writer, voiceover actor and humorist. Frequently funny, sometimes snarky, occasionally profound. Beatles, Stones, Who, Python, Firesign Theatre, Shakespeare, Bogart/Bacall, Marx Brothers, Alice Cooper and more besides. Have worked as many things: traffic reporter, disc jockey, newscaster, interviewer, producer, copywriter, voice over talent, teacher, emcee, housekeeper, janitor, uniformed security officer, bagel baker's assistant and more, but don't let the uniform fool you, baby! I ... AM ... THE WRITER!

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