Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsSuperman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring HeroSuperman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye

It’s hard to imagine that there is anything more to say about Superman than has already been covered in the slew of books published on the topic. But, since I’ve not read many of those books (though I have read a lot dealing with superheroes in general), I’m not the one to say how much new material Larry Tye covers in his retrospective entitled Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (2012). But for someone like me, without an encyclopedic knowledge of Superman beyond simple cultural experience and the aforementioned superhero books, I can say that this book does a great job of following the Man of Steel from creation to his “death,” then on to his resurrection and into the current decade, including lengthy discussions of his media appearances beyond the comic book world.

The book mostly moves in strict chronological order, though there is some weaving back and forth as Tye follows one track, say the TV shows Smallville or Lois and Clark through to their closing, then needs to cycle back to where he’d picked up with the shows to see what was going on in the print or film media at that time. Sometimes these back-and-forths were a little jarring, but not too often and it never took long to reorient oneself in the correct time.

One storyline that runs throughout the entire work is the long-running battle between Superman’s creators — Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel — and Superman’s corporate owners over appropriate payment. (The battle continues with their heirs.) I’d always had the impression that they had been mistreated, but Tye offers up what seems to be a well-balanced history that puts things in less of an emotional context and shows both sides pretty fairly. Some might wish for less of the legal wrangling or fewer monetary details, but I found it to be an interesting morality tale as well as a historically informative one.

There were several other surprises beyond the more balanced treatment of the rights issue. I wasn’t aware, for example, that kryptonite, which I’d always believed sprang wholly out of the radio show, had a precursor in a 1940 idea for K-Metal that never was published. There were more than enough of those new facts, along with the fill-in-the-details-of-what-I-generally-knew information, to keep me engaged throughout the text.

I thoroughly enjoyed, for instance, the details of the constraints Joe Shuster began operating under once he and Siegel had bosses: “His [Superman’s] forelocks couldn’t be too curly, his arms should be shorter and less ‘ape-like,’ and Joe should get rid of his hero’s ‘nice fat bottom.’ The latter especially made Superman look too ‘lah-de-dah.’” And I was shocked by the cavalier way the bosses complained about Lois Lane’s plumpness: “Murray suggest that you arrange for her to have an abortion or the baby and get it over with so that her figure can return to something a little more like the tasty dish she is supposed to be.”

Another welcome bit of freshness is the extended look at the non-print aspects. Tye moves through the various radio shows, cartoons, movie serials, full-length movies, and television shows with an appropriate level of detail, taking us right up to the last film release and a bit of information (not much) on the planned 2013 movie. This was the aspect of the history I was least familiar with and I appreciated the time Tye took in running through the way the various media versions developed, changed over time, then eventually died out, usually to be quickly replaced by the next form, as when TV killed off the radio and movie serials. There is simply so much material that one can’t be encyclopedic (one could write an entire book simply on the George Reeves TV show), but I didn’t feel shortchanged with regard to any of these elements save one: the video/computer game world. As this is such a big business nowadays, I would have expected some larger mention of Superman’s infiltration (or not) of this media.

As I’ve found is often the case in these sorts of cultural histories, the language sometimes goes a bit far, or various aspects feel somewhat exaggerated. Some examples here are Superman’s popularity through various decades (especially as this was at times directly contradicted when one of the quoted figures would say how they took this or that job despite knowing “nothing” about Superman), the religious overtones, various connections to 9/11, and so on. Not to say the core of what he’s saying isn’t correct, just that at times the language felt a bit un-cautious, so to speak.

That said, the book is clearly well researched, with quotes from interviews, court documents, personal letters, memoirs, etc. sprinkled liberally throughout the text; the book never feels anything but substantive. The prose is smooth and effortless from start to finish, more than pedestrian but never drawing attention to itself or distracting from the information. It feels thoroughly researched but doesn’t read like a research paper, nor does it employ that false breezy kind of dumbed-down voice I so hate in some pop culture works.

In the end, Superman was not simply informative, but also highly enjoyable to read from beginning to end. I’d certainly recommend it and would look forward to a similar treatment by Tye of any other superhero.

Published in 2012. Seventy-five years after he came to life, Superman remains one of America’s most adored and enduring heroes. Now Larry Tye, the prize-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author of Satchel, has written the first full-fledged history not just of the Man of Steel but of the creators, designers, owners, and performers who made him the icon he is today. Legions of fans from Boston to Buenos Aires can recite the story of the child born Kal-El, scion of the doomed planet Krypton, who was rocketed to Earth as an infant, raised by humble Kansas farmers, and rechristened Clark Kent. Known to law-abiders and evildoers alike as Superman, he was destined to become the invincible champion of all that is good and just—and a star in every medium from comic books and comic strips to radio, TV, and film. But behind the high-flying legend lies a true-to-life saga every bit as compelling, one that begins not in the far reaches of outer space but in the middle of America’s heartland. During the depths of the Great Depression, Jerry Siegel was a shy, awkward teenager in Cleveland. Raised on adventure tales and robbed of his father at a young age, Jerry dreamed of a hero for a boy and a world that desperately needed one. Together with neighborhood chum and kindred spirit Joe Shuster, young Siegel conjured a human-sized god who was everything his creators yearned to be: handsome, stalwart, and brave, able to protect the innocent, punish the wicked, save the day, and win the girl. It was on Superman’s muscle-bound back that the comic book and the very idea of the superhero took flight. Tye chronicles the adventures of the men and women who kept Siegel and Shuster’s “Man of Tomorrow” aloft and vitally alive through seven decades and counting. Here are the savvy publishers and visionary writers and artists of comics’ Golden Age who ushered the red-and-blue-clad titan through changing eras and evolving incarnations; and the actors—including George Reeves and Christopher Reeve—who brought the Man of Steel to life on screen, only to succumb themselves to all-too-human tragedy in the mortal world. Here too is the poignant and compelling history of Siegel and Shuster’s lifelong struggle for the recognition and rewards rightly due to the architects of a genuine cultural phenomenon. From two-fisted crimebuster to über-patriot, social crusader to spiritual savior, Superman—perhaps like no other mythical character before or since—has evolved in a way that offers a Rorschach test of his times and our aspirations. In this deftly realized appreciation, Larry Tye reveals a portrait of America over seventy years through the lens of that otherworldly hero who continues to embody our best selves.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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