Ron Briley: Review of Larry Tye's "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero (New York: Random House, 2012)


Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Superheroes continue to dominate the lucrative summer movie box office.  Record crowds thrilled to the assembling of Marvel Comic heroes to save the earth from destruction in The Avengers.  While struggling to cast his web over Broadway, Spiderman captured film audiences with new stars in the title roles of the popular film series. The Dark Knight is also back in the final installment of director Christopher Nolan’s and actor Christian Bale’s Batman.  Missing from the fray, however, is the superhero granddaddy of them all—Superman.  Although The Man of Steel is scheduled to reappear on the big screen next summer, his last film Superman Returns (2006) failed to attain blockbuster status.  While the WB network television series Smallville (2001-2011), focusing upon the teen years of Clark Kent discovering his super powers, was a hit among teens and gained a cult following, Superman has been largely absent in the popular culture of the twenty-first century with comic book sales dwindling.  But in his history of Superman as a cultural icon, Larry Tye, a journalist who has written for the Boston Globe and published a fine biography of baseball legend Satchel Paige, asserts that Superman is America’s most enduring hero and efforts to bury him are premature.  It is difficult to argue with Tye’s basic assumption that Superman continues to resonate with many Americans, but the popular culture landscape has changed considerably since Superman burst upon the scene in the 1930s.  Superman must now share the stage with a plethora of superheroes, and the more absolutist assertions of good and evil in Superman, who never seems to exhibit the more human foibles which plague many Marvel Comic heroes, do not always seem to reflect the complexities of the modern world.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Tye’s book is the account of Superman’s origins in the mind of writer Jerry Siegel and his artist friend Joe Shuster, who during the Great Depression were socially awkward young Jewish boys whose families struggled economically to make ends meet.  Siegel did poorly with girls, sports, and academics, suffering a terrible family tragedy when his father collapsed and died from a heart attack during a robbery of the family tailor shop.  Superman was the type of hero Jerry aspired to be and believed he was on the inside if people would only take the time to get to know him.  In other words, Jerry Siegel was Clark Kent who was really Superman.  Similar aspirations were held by Shuster, an artist with poor eye sight.  Tye convincingly argues that Superman is a Jewish hero who shared the outsider status of his creators.  And a hero was needed with the rising threat of Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic regime in Nazi Germany.  Thus, Tye observes that many comic creators in the 1930s were Jewish, but what set Superman apart were his universal qualities.  Tye writes, “In the end, his appeal was universality along with his particularity, which ensured his stories would live on the way most parables do.  Here was an exemplar, one of the few, who was embraced with equal ardor by Jews and gentiles, believers and agnostics, and everyone in search of a hero” (80).

This attraction, however, was not so obvious to many editors who passed on the Superman story submitted by Spiegel and Shuster.  Their fate changed in 1938 when Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, also Jewish, of Detective Comics agreed to publish Superman which became an immediate hit.  The collaboration between the creators and publishers was a troubled one as for $130; Donenfeld and Liebowitz purchased the rights to Superman.  Comparing the acquisition of Superman to the Dutch West India Company’s 1626 purchase of Manhattan Island from Native Americans for twenty-four dollars, Tye asserts, “. . . Jack and Harry were buying not merely the thirteen pages of that first Superman comic, but the right to do what they would with the character.  They could clip his power or his hair, bring him to life in new media or kill him outright, or do whatever else they wanted.  Harry and Jack were the honchos now, the boys mere hirelings.  Jerry and Joe’s deal with the publishing house was for five years; Superman’s was forever” (29).  Tye, nevertheless, acknowledges that the publishers also played a crucial role in bringing Superman to the public, and the temperamental artists were not always easy collaborators with which to work.  Accordingly, in 1951, a financial settlement was made between the publisher and Spiegel and Shuster which terminated their relationship with Detective Comics.  With some additional compensation tacked on to the original package for the creators, this agreement was reaffirmed in 1975.  With new copyright laws in place, the heirs of the Spiegel and Shuster estates are now in litigation with Warner Communication who possesses the rights to Superman.  Tye expresses concern that in seeking to redress previous wrongs, the litigation could destroy the popular Superman franchise.

In addition to this fascinating story of Superman’s origins, although earth bound rather than based on Krypton, Tye recounts the Superman saga as portrayed in comics, radio, television, animation, and the movies from the 1930s into the twenty-first century.  Tye notes that in the original comics provided by Spiegel and Shuster, Superman was an activist New Deal hero who battled slum lords and fought for social justice, but publishers Donenfeld and Liebowitz toned down the violence and social crusading.  In fact, during World War II in which Spiegel was drafted, Superman sat on the sidelines and did not directly participate in the war against fascism.  The publishers feared that with his extraordinary powers, Superman could too easily defeat the Axis powers; undermining the sacrifices that mere mortals were making in the global struggle.  In a similar vein, the Superman comics tended to avoid the Cold War, but the plots were heavily influenced by insecurities and fears arising from the atomic bomb and arms race.

Tye also devotes a fair amount of detail to the popular 1940s Superman radio show and 1950s television program.  Of special note for the radio series was a sixteen-part story entitled “Clan of the Fiery Cross” in which Superman takes on the Ku Klux Klan.  Although Superman resides in an almost exclusively white environment, the series was a powerful statement for toleration in post-World War II America.  As television began to replace radio as the primary source for home entertainment, the franchise expanded to produce The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958) starring George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent.  The first season featured Superman taking on dangerous criminals in violent encounters.  Demonstrating the extent to which the Superman franchise was always focused on the market place, the television series was toned down as sponsors such as the Kellogg’s cereal company wanted the programs geared toward children.  The villains became more bumbling and the plots more comical, while Reeves expressed discontent with being typecast.  Although Tye concedes the possibility of murder in the death of Reeves, he concludes that depression and drinking likely contributed to suicide by television’s Superman.

While Tye carries his saga of the Superman franchise into the twenty-first century, his narrative seems to lose some steam after the death of Reeves.  Perhaps this is a factor of age for Tye, who, like this reviewer, grew up with the television series.  Although Tye certainly explores the later personifications of Superman in film with Christopher Reeve and the television shows Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997), these accounts seem more encyclopedic and lack the passion developed in the first three decades of Superman’s career.  Tye also notes that during the 1960s and 1970s, the Superman comic story line tended to avoid the topical issues of this turbulent era with the exception of a nod to the women’s movement by making Lois Lane a bit more assertive and career minded.  But essentially Superman remained a male and white universe.  It is somewhat surprising that Tye is not more critical of  Superman’s racial composition due to the author’s excellent work on race with his biography of Satchel Paige and history of railway porters and the making of the black middle class.

However, Tye’s biography of Superman is fundamentally an uncritical account.  The book is well written with an exhaustive bibliography, including detailed examination of sources brought to light in the litigation over control of the Superman franchise.  Tye also provides an extensive list of interview subjects from the famous to the obscure.  But there are few critiques of Superman.  For example, Tye tends to dismiss the post-World War II crusade of psychologist Frederic Wertham against the comic book industry.  Indeed, Wertham’s reasoning was often reductive and censorship of any literature may be dangerous to a democratic society.  Yet, Tye is rather quick to discount Wertham’s suggestion that the concept of a superman, with its implications of vigilantism and might makes right, may be destructive to democracy.  Tye assumes that Superman will always use his extraordinary powers on behalf of truth, justice, and the American way (to borrow the opening narration from The Adventures of Superman).  However, should any one person or nation for that matter be entrusted with absolute power? Nor does Tye raise questions of cultural imperialism when he describes the global influence of Superman.

Tye is also somewhat dismissive of the challenge to Superman from the Marvel Comic superheroes such as Spiderman and The Hulk as well as Superman’s DC Comics comrade Batman.  To support his case for Superman’s continuing relevancy, Tye points to the extraordinary sales of the 1993 “Death of Superman” comic issue.  However, Superman was soon resurrected, and the death story proved to be somewhat of a gimmick.  Tye is correct in his conclusion that Superman is alive and well in the twenty-first century, but he has competitors.  The world seems to still crave superheroes, but there also appears to be an increasing popular awareness that there is a dark side and human cost to the superhero role.    

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