As Buzz Aldrin once noted “second comes right after first” and the Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, seem to have been cursed to always be the Buzz Aldrin to Walt Disney’s Neil Armstrong. A mere year after Snow White, Paramount pictures released Gulliver’s Travels, the second cel-animated feature film ever, directed by Dave and produced by Max. Of course, just because Buzz Aldrin went second, does that mean he was somehow an inferior astronaut to Armstrong? Course not, but while Gulliver’s Travels was a fantastically animated feature, it just didn’t create the same sensation that Snow White did and while it certainly was a success at the box office, the Fleischer’s studio quickly found itself treading water financially. Smarting from the financial strain of Gulliver’s Travels, mired in the production hell of their second feature Mr Bug Goes to Town and with Max and Dave’s relationship having degenerated to Cain and Abel levels and with all parties coming to the realisation that animation is a demon bitch that burns alive all who dare love her, now was really not the time to take on an ambitious new project. So when Paramount approached the Fleischers asking them to make shorts featuring this new Superman character all the kids were going cuckoo over, Max and Dave told them that they could only do it with a budget of $100,000 an episode (or, around four times the cost of the most expensive Disney shorts). In 1940s dollars that was equal to “Holly Hannah! That’s a lotta scratch!” and Max and Dave expected Paramount to tell them to screw off, so they were stunned when the execs made them a counter offer of $50,000 and episode (equal to “Nice little pile. Goddamn, that’s a nice little pile”). Unable to turn down that kind of money, the Flesichers started work on what is still, adjusted for inflation, the biggest budgeted series of animated shorts ever made. And I cannot overstate how amazing these shorts are.
This series had it all, the cast of the Superman radio show doing the voices, rotoscoping used to set a new standard for realistic animation of human figures, an epic score, one of THE all-time great Lois Lanes and the art design YE GODS! There’s a reason Bruce Timm cites this as one of the major influences on Batman the Animated Series. This series is the reason that Superman flies instead of just jumping everywhere like a grasshopper.
Comic Book historians divide the history of superhero comics into “ages”. The Golden Age lasted from the late thirties to the end of the second world war. It began with the creation of Superman and saw the births of Batman, Wonder Woman, Captains America and Marvel, the original incarnations of the Green Lantern and the Flash as well as a host of others. Owing to the ongoing unpleasantness at the time, many of these characters were patriotic, Japanazi fighting do-gooders like the greatest superhero for all time, the Original Human Torch.
Also, owing to the fact that this was a brand new genre and folks were still figuring out the rules these comics tended to be absolutely batshit insane.
And then, with the war over, the superhero fad died about as quickly as it had ignited and superheroes pretty much vanished from the shelves with the exception of a few stubborn holdouts like Superman.
Now, I want you to imagine that you wake up tomorrow and everyone is playing POGs. Like, POGS are suddenly huge again. Kids are playing POGs, college students are playing POGs, journalists are writing long earnest think pieces about the cultural ramifications of the POGsurgance instead of doing actual work. This weird fad from fifteen or twenty years back suddenly comes roaring to prominence again and never leaves and before you know it movie studios are making massive-budget spectacle movies with inter-connected continuity and people are lining down the street to watch Pog versus Pog: Dawn of Pog. That’s kind of what happened with the dawn of the Silver Age of comics in the late fifties/early sixties. So what happened?
With the dawn of the space race, America became obsessed with science and its wild, stoner little sister science fiction. Whereas Golden Age heroes tended to have magical or mythical based powers, the new crop of superheroes belonged firmly in the realm of science fiction. Instead of getting his powers from an old magic lantern, the new Green Lantern was a space cop gifted with fabulous technology by a race of all powerful aliens. The new Flash was police scientist Barry Allen who eschewed the Roman mythology inspired look of his predecessor, Jay Garrick. Even the few surviving Golden Age heroes adapted to the times; I mean look at what poor Batman had to deal with for chrissakes:
Over at Marvel, the hottest new properties were Spider-man, a science student turned superhero, and the Fantastic Four, a quartet of astronauts who literally got their powers as a result of the space race.
Much like “the sixties” doesn’t simply mean the years between 1960 and 1969 but refers to an entire cultural…thing, “silver age” has come to represent a specific attitude and aesthetic in comics. The comics of this period tended to be bright, optimistic, occasionally goofy as hell and suffused with a spirit of Moon Shot era can-do. New Frontier, Darwyn Cooke’s classic 2004 love letter to that whole era, simultaneously interrogates the period in which those stories were written while simultaneously celebrating what made them great. In 2008, Cooke teamed up with his old partner Bruce Timm (Batman the Animated Series) to adapt this story as part of Warner’s line of direct to to DVD animations. Did Cooke’s work make the transition unscathed? Let’s take a look.