A glance at recent box-office receipts proves that superheroes, even old creaky ones, are more than alive and well. “The Avengers” is sitting pretty atop this year’s list of big money earners. Fresh bat- and arachnid-themed films are coming later this summer. These Spandex- and armor-clad heroes are stand-ins for our better selves. Modernity marches on, and they still fight crime, rocket over tall buildings, and crush foes with their fists. They still net our hearts, hopes, and imaginations.
But we mustn’t forget the demigod who beat all these heroes to the punch: The Man of Steel. Big Blue. Superman. “Supes.”
The Last Son of Krypton essentially invented the superhero genre.
“Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero” gives us the backstory, front-story, inside dirt, and more. The author, Larry Tye, treats Superman as a biography-worthy superstar icon. Most comic book characters fizzle after a decade or two. Superman, born in 1938, celebrates his 75th birthday next year, when he will get yet another Hollywood makeover. “Heroes, understandably, are woven into their time and seldom last far beyond it,” Tye writes in his preface. “How had Superman broken the mold?”
Tye is the author of a half-dozen books; his last was “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend” about the Negro League baseball hero Satchel Paige. In “Superman,” he sets his sites on Supes’s longevity. His hypothesis is that each generation of writers, artists, readers, and viewers has shaped him to fit their image and applied him to the challenges of their times. “The fact that he is ethereal lets us fill in our image of Superman from our own imaginations. Our longest-lasting champion,” Tye writes, “offers a singular lens into our deep-rooted fears and our enduring hopes.”
The story begins with introverted writer Jerry Siegel, son of Jewish immigrants. Growing up in Cleveland, he is taunted in school and tortured at recess. Siegel is “devastated” when his father dies during a robbery at his clothing store. The young writer’s co-conspirator: Another Jewish boy named Joe Shuster, a budding artist with vision problems. “Both wore glasses, were petrified of girls, and preferred to stay indoors reading when everyone else their age was in the park playing ball.” Thus is born the uber-nerd narrative: Life lets you down, so you create a better one, born of distant planets and saved by do-gooding heroes. “With the real world offering no solace, he [Siegel] created one built around fantasies.”
(Also born was the “original sin” of the comic book creator-publisher relationship. Siegel and Shuster reaped a tiny fraction of the vast fortune their superhero begot. Much of Tye’s book tracks their largely futile efforts to sue DC Comics, Time Warner, and other entities for the millions the franchise earned.)
The main narrative charts Superman’s rise during the Golden Age of comics, a time when between comic books and newspapers Superman had as many as 30 million readers. As each new medium is born — radio, movie serials, cartoons, TV, feature films, graphic novels, video games — what Superman fights for, “truth, justice and the American way,” changes as the 20th century progresses. At first, he’s a social activist combating wife-beaters and petty criminals. Later, in the popular radio broadcasts of the 1940s, Superman exposes bigotry and the Ku Klux Klan when it was unfashionable to do so. During World War II, he takes on Stalin and Hitler — even if, later, the comic book scare of the 1950s accuses the comic of “the Superman complex”: encouraging vigilantism, delinquency, and delusions of fascist grandeur. “[W]ith the big S on his uniform,” Tye says, quoting one prominent psychiatrist of the day, “we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an SS.”
Superman’s enemies become more arch and apt. “In the 1980s, the bad guys were corporate raiders who wore Ralph Lauren suits and ID badges to the stock exchange.” To revive the franchise in the 1990s, the makers kill him off. Plotlines and back stories are endlessly tweaked. Do Lois Lane and Clark Kent tie the knot, or not? One story says “I do”; a later episode says no. Consistency of the Superman universe drives comic book nerds nuts. TV Superman George Reeves commits suicide; movie star Christopher Reeve becomes paralyzed and dies. Superman survives.
What Tye’s book lacks in overarching drama or pizzazz is made up for by an exhaustive reporting effort that would impress Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and their “Daily Planet” boss, Perry White. Tye interviewed more than 200 people, including historians, psychologists, artists, publishers, and filmmakers. Sad to say, though, the book lags in its last third, when it has little new to offer. Tye reverts to recounting each movie, TV spinoff (”Smallville,” “Lois & Clark”), and Broadway play, how each fared financially and critically, the merchandise that was spawned. Tye also stumbles when awkwardly shoehorning in testimonials from average folk. An extended portrait of a superfan or two might have been more effective.
Tye’s book is best when linking loose threads in the Superman story. One: Many associated with the Man of Steel franchise — from Siegel, to actor Reeves, to publisher Jack Liebowitz — lost their fathers at young ages. In a bit of armchair psychoanalysis, Tye offers, “Who better to create the ultimate childhood fantasy figure than men whose childhoods had been stolen from them?” Up, up and away, with grief.
Also: Just like his creators Siegel and Shuster (and other great comic book writers such as Stan Lee, Will Eisner, and Jack Kirby), Superman’s roots appear distinctively Jewish.
Jews are well-versed in stories of exiles. They carry secret identities. Even Kal-El, Superman’s name on Krypton, seems to suggest Hebrew ties. “The Jewish writers were outsiders by birth. They were conflicted, with one foot in their parents’ shtetl and another in their brave new universe of opportunity. They gave life and shape to heroes whose very names, from Batman to Captain America, reflected their creators’ reach for the otherworldly and the all-American,” Tye writes. “A last rule of thumb: When a name ends in ‘man,’ the bearer is Jewish, a superhero, or both.”Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,’’ can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com. Follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.