Max Fleischer, the American animator, was the subject of Chapter 3 of Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic. This was because he was a pioneer in the development of the animated cartoon, introducing such animated characters as Betty Boop and Koko the Clown. Fleischer was also responsible for a number of technological innovations such as the rotoscope, the rotograph and the “Song Car-Tune” – better known as “follow the bouncing ball.” But to me, most impressive was his introduction of hero and superhero, with the animated characters of Popeye and Superman, respectively. Both Popeye and Superman were introduced as animated movie shorts for the big screen.
Fleischer’s Popeye – or Popeye the Sailor Man – made his animated film debut in 1933, introduced in the Betty Boop short Popeye the Sailor. Popeye was considered an immediate hit, and his popularity would grow to rival Disney’s Mickey Mouse by 1935. The plot line of these animated cartoons was a simple one. A villain, usually Bluto, makes a move on Popeye’s gal-pal, Olive Oyl; the bad guy then clobbers Popeye until Popeye eats spinach, which gives him superhuman strength which he used to defeat the villain and win the day and the girl. The fundamental character of Popeye paralleled that of another Fleischer’s animated character and icon, Superman. Both these characters invoke traditional values and possess uncompromising moral standards, resorting to force only when threatened, or when he “can’t stands no more” in the case of Popeye, or when “truth, justice and the American way” are threatened in the case of Superman.
Fleischer’s Superman was more than just a landmark in superhero animation, it became the foundation for a number of Superman series that succeeded it. Fleischer created 17 Superman film shorts for theaters in 1941-42. At 10 minutes in length, each film had just enough time to run the opening credits, establish the threat, let Lois Lane rush into peril, allow Clark Kent to change to his alter ego, and have Superman save the day. A theme that holds true with Superman even today – be it in television cartoon form, or live action motion picture.
I came across an interesting confluence of Popeye and Superman, when in 1944 Paramount released a Popeye cartoon titled “She-Sick Sailors” in which Olive is more interested in her Superman comic book than in Popeye. Bluto overhears this and dresses as Superman, as you can see in the frame below. You can also take a look at this cross-over cartoon below.
Popeye the Sailor Man‘s Bluto as Superman