Sunday, June 09, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: The Forgotten Superman

Man of Steel finally arrives this week, and having seen it last week I've got lots to say, but that'll have to wait for my review. In the meantime, let's take a look back at another artifact from Superman's long multimedia history -- one that came and went so quickly that it's largely been left by the wayside. In 1988, two years after Hanna-Barbera's long-lived Super Friends franchise aired its last episode on ABC, and one year after the last Christopher Reeve Superman flick (nuclear) bombed, DC Comics made another play at crossover glory for their biggest icon on the occasion of his 50th anniversary.

Produced by Ruby-Spears, the animation house behind this and this, 1988's Superman, which starred voice actor Beau Weaver in the title role, was the first media adaptation out the gate after comic writer-artist John Byrne's big reboot in '86, reflected on the show via Lex Luthor (voiced by Michael Bell, G.I. Joe's Duke) being depicted as an evil industrialist instead of a mad scientist. A big reason for the fidelity to the comics was thanks to story editor Marv Wolfman, a longtime DC writer who was also one of the architects of the reboot, as well as the character designs by comic artist Gil Kane.

Another major influence on the show, understandably, was the just-concluded Reeve film series, which may have flailed badly at the end, but was still the most prominent and widely-known version of the character to the masses. To make that tie more directly explicit, the Ruby-Spears folks licensed and re-orchestrated thirty seconds of the iconic John Williams title march from the films, weaving it in with an original theme by series composer Ron Jones. Here's what it looked like when Ruby-Spears' Superman premiered on CBS on September 17, 1988:

Each episode of the show contained two segments: a longer, featured story wherein Superman tackles various baddies (even teaming up with fellow Justice Leaguer Wonder Woman for one ep), and then a four-minute second segment entitled "Superman's Family Album" would depict young Clark Kent's childhood, from his adoption by the kindly Kents to his eventual journey to his superheroic destiny in Metropolis. The featured segments were always fun, but I have to say I retain a soft spot for the "Family Album" stories, which were just charming little slice-of-life one-offs. Here's an example:

1988 may have been the year of Superman, but unfortunately CBS had other ideas, scheduling the show in early morning time slots that made it nigh-impossible to find. I myself discovered it purely by accident while visiting the states in summer of '89. I loved it, but little did I know that it'd already been cancelled by the Eye after a single round of 13 episodes. Plus, the year of Superman ran smack-dab into the year of Batman, thanks to the Tim Burton flick in '89, so the Man of Steel ended up taking a backseat to the Dark Knight for the next several decades.

In 1996, Superman would return to animation on the WB network thanks to the Bruce Tim-Paul Dini team that launched Batman: The Animated Series to huge success on Fox in 1993. While the '96 cartoon ended up garnering a far greater degree of success and making much more of an impact on viewers, the Ruby-Spears Superman (which got a DVD release a few years ago, but is now out of print and rising in price) is just as integral in its own way, and remains a small, overlooked footnote in the character's history that deserves to be discovered and appreciated for what it contributed to the legend.

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