Toy of Steel – 75 Years of Superman


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Superman Museum

2013 is the 75th anniversary of
the publishing of Superman, among the most famous fictional characters ever
created and the playtime inspiration for generations of kids in bath towel
capes. The year is big for Warner Bros. and DC Comics red, yellow, and blue
hero: the record breaking $202 million debut weekend box office gross of Man of
Steel
, produced by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception) and
directed by Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead); as well as the end of
decade-long litigation between the estates of Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel
and Joe Shuster, and Warner's publishing subsidiary. The release of Man of
Steel
and the rights confirmation for Warner Bros. occurring on such an
important year for Superman can hardly be seen as coincidental. The anniversary
is just one more reminder that Warner has under exploited one of the most well
known and commercially viable entertainment brands in existence. The
promotional tagline for Christopher Reeves' 1979 Superman: The Movie claimed "you'll
believe a man can fly" but perhaps the generational wonderment surrounding
the character is better summed up playetically as "imagine if you could
fly!" Red bath towel optional.



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It was a Christmas morning when I
was 5-years-old, one of my absolute favorite memories, and my brother and I
received yet another duo of long and flat boxes with shapes that screamed
"clothing." But upon tearing open the wrappings we each discovered
our very own pair of Superman pajamas, complete with Velcro-on capes. All other
toys and paraphernalia were immediately forgotten and my (older) brother
concocted an elaborate and revisionist performance of the Superman mythology in
which the all-powerful hero was accompanied by his less-powerful, more-giggly
sidekick Superboy. It's the lot of the younger sibling. Marc was Batman, I was
Robin. Mark was Luke, I was Han. Marc was Aragorn, I was Legolas (or, if he
chose, Samwise Gamgee). Marc was Superman, I was Jimmy Olson playing dress up.
But playing Superman hits upon some key themes: power and alienation. There is
a good reason Superman doesn't have a sidekick -he doesn't need one. Every kid
has times he truly believes he doesn't need his parents and family and can do
it on his own (my theories regarding common "Orphan Fantasies" are a
bit deep to dive into here and now). Every kid encounters tangible and
intangible developmental challenges that the powers of Superman could remove
painlessly.

There are a number of fantastic
books documenting the 1938 creation of the Superman character and its impact on
us lowly humans (Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones and SuperGods by Grant
Morrison most enlightening among them). Their creation was barely held together
by blue and red thread, a combination of contemporary popular entertainment
elements. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Ohio boys of no significance, fame, or
prestige, collaborated to create a character based on various science fiction
premises. Both were nerds and avid readers (nary an author or journalist fails
to describe the boys as "more Clark Kent than Superman."). They spent
some time trying to garner interest from newspaper syndicates, which held the
allure of greater distribution, acclaim, and pay rates. Siegel and Shuster's
fumbling attempts at sequential storytelling held no interest for the papers,
seeking more mature or sophisticated work like Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy,
and Prince Valiant. But at least one publisher saw $ signs instead of S's.
Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, owner of National Allied Publishing (later renamed
DC Comics), was experimenting with folding tabloid paper one more time to
produce affordable comics magazines. Yep, the American comic book was born for
no other reason than one more fold and the associated cost reductions. Superman
would become the first major hit for the new medium, perhaps defining
"superhero" stories as the ultimate modern morality tales. Siegel and
Shuster signed on for a meager $130 paycheck, agreeing to consider Superman a
work made for hire.

I can only imagine the reaction of
millions of American kids stumbling sleepily past news stands on the way to
school, eyes drawn to the science fiction magazines and newspaper funnies.
There, on a four-color comic book cover, a circus strong man in a cape was
wielding an automobile overhead like a weapon, smashing the vehicle to bits
while three normal men fled in terror. In his first appearances, Superman could
only leap instead of fly, and the wonderment of his initial outings betrayed
little benevolence. This strong man was putting up a fight, but that was all
the reader could infer. Remember that pulp heroes like The Shadow, Flash
Gordon, Zorro, The Green Hornet, and The Phantom had already premiered, but
these were more variations on noir, western or Sci-Fi trappings than
prototypical superhero adventures. Kids could not tell from the cover of Action
Comics
#1 that the inside pages were dedicated to superhero stories…the term
had not yet been invented. The success of Superman would quickly be followed by
thousands of other superheroes by hundreds of publishers (chief among them DC
Comics and Timely which would later be called Marvel).


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Superman was quickly translated
into other media including prose, film serials, animation, and of course, toys.
Merchandise started off quaint with a Supermen of America club button, but by
1940, when Superman comics were already selling millions of copies a month,
youngsters could find paper dolls, trading cards, puzzles, and small figurines
(wood or metal by Ideal Novelty and Toy Company and before the popularization
of plastic). By 1970, superheroes were big business and tiny figurine sets by
Ideal and others were replaced by dolls by Mego Corporation, who also produced
an abundant supply of other DC Comics and Marvel character dolls. Mego supplied
a variety of Superman playthings, some associated with the comic incarnation
and others based on Christopher Reeves in Superman: The Movie, dominating the
then still-emerging action figure category until 1984.

From there, Kenner Products took
over to release the Super Powers Collection, including 12 Superman characters
like Clark Kent (mail-away), Lex Luthor, and Brainiac. Super Powers was
supported by a renamed and revamped Super Friends, then already in its eleventh
year on ABC. Kenner briefly lost their DC Comics master license to ToyBiz
following the 1986 cancellation of Super Powers (there, the release of Tim
Burton's blockbuster Batman motion picture and its associated merchandise
eclipsed Superman's prominence). Back to Kenner after a single year at ToyBiz
(the only products released utilized Kenner moulds), the Superman license took
a hiatus from toy aisle shelves, apart from some die cast and PVC figurines
from Ertle and Applause.


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Why did Superman lose his peg
space? Surely alienation and power fantasies are perpetual? Perhaps it was the
success of Burton and Joel Schumacher's Batman films that made manufacturers
and retailers decide the world's most recognizable superhero was irrelevant.
Perhaps it was declining sales of Superman comics or the waning popularity of
the Christopher Reeves Superman film series. Both likely played a factor, but
my personal belief is that as time passed the character sometimes failed to
grow and change with it. By 1970 Superman comic books and entertainment were
already feeling the effects of creative individuals not only familiar with
Superman, but raised on the character's mythos. Fans, many of whom became
creative people with the intention of innovation, told new Superman stories
that often merely captured the same essence and elements they themselves had
loved in their youths. The character became anachronistic, a "big blue
Boyscout." Other characters like Batman seemed less holy, reinvented for
new audience tastes but retaining the classic themes. Marvel Comics, during its
rapid 1960s expansion, brought more approachable and human-like characters to
market, like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, as well as anti heroes like Wolverine
and The Punisher. It wasn't so much that Superman was outmoded, his themes
remained totally relevant, but perhaps the character was too rigidly
controlled, too untouchable like a corporate logo or Greek statue. Maybe that
tends to happen when a character is continuously featured in stories on a
near-weekly basis for decades.

The ramification of irrelevant
storytelling was translating into trouble in the toy aisle. Some time ago a
close friend and former Kenner product designer told me about a play testing
session that enlightened the problems that had developed when Warner and DC
Comics froze their character's status quo. A 7-year-old boy picked and chose a
number of action figure characters in order to stage a big battle on the
carpet. He happened to have been just the latest to go out of his way not to
grab Superman. When asked why he didn't want to play with Superman he
responded, "if Superman is there the battle is over and you're done
playing."

If you consider the vast majority
of fictional characters made popular in the early parts of the 20th century,
few have survived and fewer have evolved. Popeye, Betty Boop, Tom & Jerry,
The Shadow, and Brenda Star are virtually unknown to modern audiences, and
thousands more are totally forgotten. Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, once huge
draws for theatrical and television animation, are now mere logos for Disney
and Warner Bros. Mickey and Bugs are still easily recognized, but Looney Tunes
is hardly essential viewing for youngsters (it should be!) and Silly Symphonies
might never even have existed. Superman and Batman are among the few 1930s
character creations that have sustained continuous popularity, even if there
was some ebb and flow. These characters have associated themes and fantasies
that are timeless and eternal. But I think Superman did come close to surrender
from believed superhero to preserved studio icon.


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Kids in the 1940s had fresh
comics, the Kellogg's Pep sponsored radio serial, and Max Fletcher's enchanting
animated shorts. 50s kids had George Reeve and his Mole Men buddies. 60s kids
had the psychedelic Mort Weisinger-era Superman Family comics. 70s and 80s kids
had Christopher Reeves. But why would 1990s kids believe a man could fly?

DC Comics' Death of Superman stunt
did briefly remind errant fans why Superman was important to them, selling over
6 million copies of the fateful issue, but the 1992 publishing event did little
to woo youngsters. It was adults that made the extra trip to a specialty comic
book store to grab the poly bagged issue. Kids knew Superman via short lived
animated series and the obligatory couple of hand-me-down comics, but kids didn't
know why they should care.

In 1994, Kenner launched Superman:
Man of Steel
, an action figure and vehicle series depicting the Superman cast
as they appeared in the Death of Superman comics. The line was reminiscent of
Kenner's Batman lines, which the company was no doubt hoping would be shelved
nearby. Kenner had a difficult job when Burton's Batman film made the caped
crusader once again relevant. Action figure brands like Star Wars, G.I. Joe,
and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles offered expansive casts of villains and heroes
ripe for articulated plastic exploration. But the filmic Batman was a loner.
Villains were great but kids wanted heroes. Kenner's inspiration came from
Batman's Bond-like ability to battle evil in its many forms all over the world.
Surely the world's greatest detective could concoct appropriate gadgets for
arctic, underwater, desert, sky, wherever. The idea of hero
"missions" wasn't exactly new. During the course of Kenner's
enormously successful Star Wars line, the manufacturer had introduced a single
Darth Vader action figure but numerous alternate costume versions of Luke,
Leia, and Han Solo. Each version wore a distinct outfit from some part of the
original Star Wars trilogy. G.I. Joe had segments like Python Patrol and
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had innumerable themed variations. Batman became a
stalwart powerhouse in the action figure aisle, mixing a few other villains and
heroes in with hundreds of themed Batmen so no kid had to go without his hero,
or a hundred different versions of him.

It turned out that Superman's
story didn't quite mesh with "missions" as well as Batman had. Kids
wondered why Superman would need various costumes. He's Superman, why would he
need a scuba tank or parachute? Kenner compensated by including Superman's pals
and enemies in the assortment (Superboy, Steel, Lex Luthor, Conduit, and
Doomsday) alongside Laser Superman and Power Flight Superman, and Full Assault
Superman. Fanboys were excited but kids failed to understand why Superman would
need a snappy new outfit if he wanted to use his lasers, flight, or
"assault" powers, all of which any kid knows Superman has anyway.
Superman: Man of Steel and the subsequent Superman: The Animated Series
products hit during the rapid expansion of ToyBiz's popular X-Men and
Spider-Man action figures. X-Men provided kids the opportunity to chose which
hero(es) embodied themes and characteristics important to them. Spider-Man was
just powerful enough to be a superhero but had the same insecurities all kids
have, along with a penchant for mission-based science. Despite all his powers,
or perhaps because of them, Superman was defeated.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s
Superman struggled in all media. Television series like Lois & Clark: The
New Adventures of Superman
and Superman: The Animated Series introduced new
audiences to the property, but success was short lived. The animated series was
a hit, but nowhere approaching the ratings-winning and Emmy award-winning
Batman: The Animated Series. Infamously, Warner Bros. tried various routes to
bring Superman back to the silver screen, including nearly launching Superman
Live
s by director Tim Burton and unlikely superhero Nicholas Cage. By 2006
Superheroes were already a hallmark of the summer box office. X-Men,
Spider-Man, The Hulk, and even a rebooted Batman film series by director
Christopher Nolan had connected with audiences hungry for the spectacle and
power fantasies only superpowered strongmen provide. That year, Superman
Returns
struck out with filmgoers. With so-so reviews and adamantly negative
word of mouth the film limped (not flew) to just under $400 million worldwide.
For many major entertainment franchises a $400 million cume would have called
for champagne and fireworks, but not for a character renowned and beloved all
over the world. Rarely does a film achieve truly universal awareness or interest,
and Superman Returns certainly did not, but Warner Bros. could be forgiven for
assuming so.

After watching Superman Returns in
theaters I tried to refamiliarize myself with the character in the context of
my growing understanding of brand storytelling and play patterns. The film
wasn’t brilliant, but I found myself consumed with understanding the power of
this archetypical hero and why Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation had
become a permanent part of world culture. After all, Siegel and Shuster only
had one hit. The duo’s subsequent creations, like Robotman, Funny Man, and The
Spectre, had varying degrees of initial success before being quickly forgotten
amidst the clutter of superheroes.

But the new film failed to deliver
a revitalized superhero. It failed to remind audiences why Superman mattered in
1938 and why the character matters today. Flashforward 7 years and Superman is
back in movie theaters and toy aisles. Man of Steel has, just weeks into its
worldwide release, earned box office receipts over $535 million worldwide.
Analysts predict that the film will wind up its run at around $750 million
before reaching even larger audiences on home media and television. Yet, again,
critics and audiences are divided on whether the new film adequately captures
the themes and essence of the Superman property. Rotten Tomatoes, the critics
review aggregate, summarized critical response as “mostly successful” with a
56% approval rating. Moviegoers gave the film an A- CinemaScore but many fans
are adamant that the film is missing some of “Superman’s essence.”

Maybe so, but it seems likely that
Superman’s universal acclaim and worldwide recognition are a blessing and
curse. Marketing 101, the property has pertinence in all four key audience
quadrants: girls and women are drawn to the romance and feminist icon Lois
Lane; boys and men respond to action and science fiction elements. Warner Bros.
handicap is that everyone who knows Superman also has firm opinions on how the
character should be portrayed. Fans complain that the character is outmoded
while attacking any changes from traditional canon. The most recent
infringement was Man of Steel director Zack Snyder’s redesign of the Superman
costume without the red trunks. Fan blogs rallied against the new design and
even mainstream media noted the change. Snyder’s logical response was that
Siegel and Shuster had based Superman’s costume on that of circus strongmen,
but today’s audiences see superhero costumes without any knowledge for the
freakshow inspiration. Strongmen wore flesh-colored leotards so that, from a
distance, they appeared to be only clothed in trunks.


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Perhaps culture’s attachment to
Superman has made the character impervious to reinterpretation. But there’s
always Kryptonite. Somehow, the world’s first superhero has persevered through
the ages and retains an invincible place in our hearts. Despite failed and
successful re-envisioning attempts, Superman keeps coming back for more. You
can’t keep a good hero down, even after 75 years. Kids will never stop playing
and imagining “what if I could fly?”    


In his roles as Digital Strategy Director of Consumer & Entertainment Brands at Manifest Digital, Co-Founder at toy invention studio Otherdoor Entertainment, and ChiTAG committee member, Brian Torney is an innovator in the play industries, kids entertainment, and product/brand initiatives. Refusing to grow up, Brian has been contributing to the play industries since the age of 15, when he worked at a Chicagoland Toys R Us store. Brian spearheads ground-breaking creative and interactive projects for industry-leading entertainment and toy companies including Cartoon Network, Fox, Nickelodeon, Step2, The Marketing Store, McDonald’s, THQ and Hasbro. He specializes in cross-platform brand storytelling. Brian also practices ancient Jedi techniques of mind control… These are not the droids you’re looking for.

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