Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

The Complete Fleischer Superman Cartoon Collection + Analysis

The above video is an omnibus collection containing several episodes of this classic cartoon. Featured in this collection are these episodes: "The Arctic Giant", "Billion Dollar Limited", "The Bulleteers", "Destruction Inc.", "Japoteurs", "Jungle Drums", "The Magnetic Telescope", "The Mechanical Monsters", "Volcano", and "Secret Agent"

The following films were not included in the above omnibus, but are also available for streaming:

"Superman (a.k.a. The Mad Scientist)"

"Electric Earthquake"

"Terror on the Midway"


"Eleventh Hour"

"The Mummy Strikes"

"The Underground World"

"Secret Agent"

Considered by many to be among the greatest and most influential cartoons of all time, these animated short films were produced between 1941 and 1943. Produced by Fleischer Studios (and later, Famous Studios), the studio that brought us Betty Boop and Popeye, these were created to cash in on the surging popularity of Superman during the WWII era.

The look and feel of these cartoons are pure art deco. The first things you notice are the strong angles and high-contrast gradients that are associated with art deco artwork from this period. Show one frame to someone and ask them what style of art it is, and there is no doubt, they'll say art deco.The characters move fluidly and realistically, because of rotoscoping, but are stylized just enough to sometimes enter the uncanny valley. These were some of the most expensive short-subject cartoons of the era, with a $50,000 budget for each episode.

One thing that is interesting is that you never see any of Superman's familiar supervillains in these cartoons. Not once do you see Lex Luthor. Instead, the villains are often mad scientists, monsters, robots, criminals, hidden civilizations and, since this was made during WWII, Nazis and Japanese. Unfortunately, the Japanese, and, in one episode, African natives, are portrayed in a racist manner. However, it was a different time period, and the films serve as an historical document of the attitudes of the time.

These films have had a strong influence on other productions, and I'm sure you've seen this influence, without knowing it. For example, the hugely successful 90s show, Batman: The Animated Series, took it's look and feel from the Fleischer Superman cartoons, only, of course, significantly darker. In fact, the producers came up with a new name for this style..."dark deco".

Take note of the sharp angles and high-contrast gradients. Even the characters, though not rotoscoped, are reminiscent of the Fleischer cartoons.

It all came around full-circle when Superman: the Animated Series came out in 1996.

Another influence was on the dieselpunk movie "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow". The scene where giant robots attack New York was heavily influenced by the episode "The Mechanical Monsters", as noted by the creators of the film. In fact, it's nearly identical, from the way the wings spread out of their arms, to their general design, to the way the police attack them with machine guns. Many people likely missed the reference, but comparing the two, it's fairly obvious.

"The Mechanical Monsters" was also referenced by famed Japanese animator (and one of the patron saints of steampunk and dieselpunk) Hayao Miyazaki. Robots that are very similar to those found in the Superman cartoon can be seen in the Lupin III tv episode "Farewell, My Beloved Lupin", and in his celebrated film "Laputa: Castle in the Sky".

The robot as seen in Lupin III:

The robot as seen in "Laputa: Castle in the Sky":

In the film, the robot flies similarly to the Superman and Sky Captain robots by stretching out wings from it's arms.

And there are perhaps more references in other media that I've missed. Nonetheless, enjoy these classic cartoons. I'm sure they'll have a lasting impact for years to come.

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Comment by Pilsner Panther on January 28, 2012 at 6:36am

Whenever I see a great Fleischer cartoon, it makes me want to draw like that... not only Superman, but Popeye, and some of the Betty Boops and silent "Out Of The Inkwell" cartoons with KoKo the Clown and Bimbo the Dog.

It's interesting (and sad) that after Paramount Pictures fired the Fleischer Brothers and took over their studio in 1942, most of the same people kept working there, but all the heart and soul went out of the cartoons. They became just an imitation Disney "product" that was aimed strictly at a kiddie audience. The Famous Studios cartoons still looked good, but that was all. It was obvious that the remaining Fleischer veterans were just hanging on there for the sake of their paychecks.

Comment by Cameron Henry on January 25, 2012 at 5:08pm

Dark Deco.

I love it. lol


Comment by Cap'n Tony on January 25, 2012 at 9:52am

Thanks for collecting these!  And thanks for tracing the influences.  Great article, Clinton!

Comment by Tome Wilson on January 25, 2012 at 9:40am

What were you animating before, Twizard?

Comment by Timothy W. Nieberding on January 25, 2012 at 9:27am

Excellent!   It makes me want to restart my life as an animator.  Anybody willing to pay my way through the Cleveland School of the Arts?

Comment by lord_k on January 25, 2012 at 2:08am

Thank you Clinton, the collection is fantastic in any sense of the word.

Comment by Tome Wilson on January 24, 2012 at 10:17pm

When I was growing up, Max Fleischer's episodes of Superman and Popeye were the only things on TV before the school bus came around, so I've probably seen them all a million times over (40 some episodes divided by hundreds of school days leads to a few reruns).

But even as a kid, I could appreciate the amount of care and detail they put into their animation compared to the landfill which was 1980s television.  My favorite by far was Superman vs. The Mechanical Monsters, which I later learned was a plot stolen from Norvell Page's pulp series The Spider (the story named "Satan's Murder Machines" to be exact).  When I saw those same robots stomp across the big screen in Sky Captain, my longtime crush with the genre came back in full force.

Thanks for finding these.  Without the DVD on hand, they're hard to come by, but they should not be forgotten.

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