Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Exhaustive Super bio suffers from kryptonite

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ANY book that aims to tell the whole story of Superman should soar, not feel like it's suffering from kryptonite.

In this exhaustive bio of the enduring pop-culture icon who changes to fit the needs of his audience, Larry Tye may have bitten off more than he can chew.

Tye, a former journalist with the Boston Globe, tackled biography in his 2009 bestseller Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend. He's also written books on electroconvulsive therapy, the Jewish diaspora and public relations.

Tye chronicles Superman's origins in the minds of his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. The character debuted in 1938 with Action Comics No. 1. He also looks at the magnates of pulps (and less respectable publications), who played a huge part in getting Superman to the masses -- a history told in greater detail in Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow (2004).

Later embellishments saw Siegel enlarging Superman's alien origins and toning down his vigilantism. To appeal to a given audience characters were added (junior sidekick Jimmy Olsen for kid-friendly radio in the 1940s), or plot elements played up (gritty crime for adult-oriented TV in the 1950s).

However, Tye weakens his case throughout by conflating things that are, at best, off-topic. In discussing DC Comics' years-long lawsuit against Fawcett, beginning in 1941, in which DC alleged Fawcett's Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman, Tye drags in the entire superhero genre of the 1940s.

Questionably, he claims since other heroes were basically also "knockoffs (from Captain America to Plastic Man, Doll Man and Minute-Man) or purposefully un-Superman-like (Spider-Man), their creators disguised and denied any ties." Considering Spider-Man first appeared in 1962, that comparison would have served better in a discussion of that era of comics, marked by Marvel Comics' very different take on superheroes.

He also implies Superman was the main target of the 1950s backlash against comic books led by Dr. Frederick Wertham, when it was actually the low-hanging fruit of horror and crime comics that bore the brunt of censorship.

Some chapters seem written in different decades. When looking back at the radio serial -- available publicly in various media for decades now -- Tye writes, "Because tapes of the old shows became available only recently, the radio Adventures of Superman hasn't gotten the attention from historians and fans that his exploits on TV and film have."

One of the book's saving graces is Tye pays as much attention to the business of Superman as the myth. He shows one reason DC Comics survived the 1950s was that it owned distribution company Independent News. When stodgy Supes saw sales competition from Marvel Comics' brash new 1960s heroes such as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Independent simply limited Marvel's distribution to 12 titles a month, a third of its peak output, as Tye notes.

Later successes, such as the Superman: The Movie in 1978, and the long-running Smallville TV series of the 21st century, make it clear the character's long-term success has been built on getting him into other media, especially considering the last time sales really spiked for Superman comics was when DC killed him in 1992.

Overall, there are some interesting stories, but not much new information for serious aficionados, or analysis of what makes Superman an enduring character for the casual reader.


Free Press copy editor David Jón Fuller can thank Christopher Reeve for making him believe a man could fly.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 J9

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