Watch ‘Superman: The Comic Strip Hero’ Documentary from 1981 [Video]
Because everything that was ever on television is either back on television or otherwise available on the Internet, we’re fortunate to have Superman: The Comic Strip Hero, an eminently watchable documentary about the Man of Steel that was somehow unearthed by our friends at iFanboy. Produced by the BBC in 1981, the one-hour film details not just the creation of Superman and his travels through various media, but also, rather cynically, what harm the character may be doing to his readers, his medium and America itself. There is also some discussion of Kryptonian sperm.
Superman: The Comic Strip Hero features revealing interviews with many notable sources including creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Joanne Siegel, Sol Harrison, Kirk Alyn, Larry Niven, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Trina Robbins, David Prowse, Frederic Wertham, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman and more.
Check after the jump to watch the film in five parts via YouTube, and to read our list of highlights.
- Jerry Siegel awoke in the middle of the night with the basic tenants of Superman and Clark Kent fully formed.
- Clark Kent was inspired by silent film star Harold Lloyd, who wore glasses and portrayed seemingly weak men who would turn the tables on their enemies.
- Superman’s physique, poses and presence was based on silent film star Douglas Fairbanks, who played adventure heroes in films like Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro.
- The model for Lois Lane, Joanne Carter posed for Joe Shuster in her late teens. She later married Jerry Siegel.
- Siegel and Shuster sold Superman to DC Comics for $130, later earning $25,000 each per year for the rest of their lives (as of 1981, anyway).
- The film documents some of the comic book production techniques of the time, including coloring by hand, lettering and logo placement, printing, and of course drawing.
- Interestingly, the BBC interviewer asks then-DC Comics President Sol Harrison whether Superman’s rocket could have landed anywhere but America and still produced the same man. One has to wonder if a little light bulb appeared over young Mark Millar’s head when he saw this documentary.
- The first actor to portray Superman on film, Kirk Alyn discusses the need to play Superman straight, as opposed to self-aware. “I didn’t dare lampoon him,” Alyn says in the film, for fear of disappointing the fans as well as his bosses. Indeed, so concerned was DC Comics with the image of Superman that Alyn was credited only for his role as Clark Kent. Superman was credited as himself.
- Lauded science fiction author Larry Niven nerds the f*ck out so hard with hilariously oblivious and protracted discussions of what damage Superman would do to the real world if he really existed: sonic booms would destroy all our windows, dangerous shockwaves would be commonplace, and human-Kryptonian mating would be nearly impossible, with Kryptonian sperm vaporizing human eggs as they blast through a human female at the speed of light.
- The Adventures of Superman actor George Reeves became so identified with the television series, he was sometimes attacked by unruly viewers who wished to test whether he was the real thing. Reeves later committed suicide, presumably because of his inability to get work after the series ended.
- Definitive Superman actor Christopher Reeve discusses the dichotomy of Superman and Clark Kent, and praises Siegel and Shuster for giving the world’s most powerful man enough of the Average Joe’s problems and pratfalls to make him relatable. Reeve also discusses the character’s transition from a ’50s macho man to a more non-threatening and generous superhero for the 1980s.
- Feminist comics icon Trina Robbins shares her disdain for Superman and the concept of the superhero itself, specifically calling out Supergirl as “dull” and representing conformity. “Maus” author Art Spiegelmen shares similar sentiments, and suggests that America’s fascination with the superhero is connected to aggressive military action around the world.
- Known as Britain’s Strongest Man, David Prowse betrays a high level of bitterness towards Richard Donner for not casting him in the title role in Superman: The Movie. Prowse claims that Donner told him he was perfect for the part, but that Superman had to be played by an American. Prowse was later aghast when he was hired to train Christopher Reeve, who at the time was 6’5″ and weighed just 180 pounds.
- Notorious “Seduction of the Innocent” author Frederic Wertham makes plain his view of Superman, which is as a man who through his own will has risen above all community, lawful and moral considerations and represents only power, force and violence. One gets the impression that the filmmakers are somewhat sympathetic to Wertham’s view, and they actually open the film with “Ride of Valkyries” by Wagner, who was one of Hitler’s favorite composers.
- The film includes a commercial George Reeves-starring commercial wherein George Reeves encourages children to invest their allowance money in U.S. savings bonds. Also included is an overtly cynical demonstration of the power of Superman merchandising on children.