Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Larry Tye, 2012)

Superman-bookLook. Up in the air. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s one of the most iconic characters ever created. It’s Superman.

This latest entry into the history of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic creation has everything you’d expect. Starting from his humble roots in a Baltimore bedroom from the then teenage creators, to becoming the first real comic book mega star, before moving onto all other forms of media from TV to movies. This book chronicles both sides of the printed page, the major milestones in the creators lives and the development and dispersion of the character in all media.

The first few chapters goes into detail how the boys finally got publisher DC comics to buy their little piece of the super character long before his origins, powers and weaknesses were fully developed. Even his strength varied greatly over the years, from the simplistic “Faster than a speeding locomotive and able to leap tall buildings” (yes, he could not even really fly in those early days) to having the almost insuperable power to move planets and suns to eventually having to tone down his powers in order to make some things challengeable and have more interesting stories.

Interest in the character himself alone would quickly fizzle out were it not for the many other secondary characters surrounding him including his parents (both adoptive and birth), friends, and lovers, naturally with emphasis on Lois Lane who dominates the Superman pages second only to the man himself, and these are covered in detail as well.

When it came to the early years of Superman, the original TV series starring George Reeves was almost as influential as the comics themselves and in some ways more so. The mysterious circumstances of the actors death is just a small part of the drama before and behind the camera lens that are discussed, conspiracy theories and all.

Fact is, Superman, the supporting characters, and all the events they lived through on the printed pare were rarely consistent because of the many writers who helmed all the comics. But this book doesn’t only do a great job of pointing out these deviations. When DC decided it was high time to make things ‘correct’ not only in the Superman universe but all the other comic characters in it’s stable it came up with the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries that not only described the many parallel universes it devised to explain the inconsistencies, but created a cataclysmic solution to collapsing it all into one definitive universe. This book does helps sort out the end state for Superman as a result of Crisis. After Crisis, the next big ‘change’ in the Superman story was another ‘reset’ with the new Man of Steel series created by John Byrne in 1986, which, for a while at least, redefined Superman.

Of course the series of Superman movies starring Christopher Reeves are here as are the more recent Lois and Clark and Smallville TV shows. Some of the more interesting aspects of these not only include the constraints placed on the show makers, but how one of the shows haphazardly ended up having Superman killed off in the comics (in as much as a fictitious character can really die in a comic anyway).

Of course, along with success comes controversy and ultimately friction. Those familiar with the comics are probably also familiar with the many legal and moral battles Siegel and Shuster (and then their families after they themselves passed on) launched against DC comics almost as soon as the honeymoon years were over and the treasure trove that the character became was fully realised.  While most of it is well captured here, even a book published only two years ago was not able to fully envelop the lawsuits that continue to snake through the courts even today. Sadly, one cannot escape the fact that the only thing more American that Superman and apple pie is a never ending lawsuit.

But Superman (like the lawsuits) will live on and so will books like these.

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