Show Business: Up, Up and Awaaay!!!

America's favorite hero turns 50, ever changing but indestructible

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Despite the success of the TV series, which is still being syndicated to this day, Superman had some bad times during the '50s and '60s. For all his superpowers, he proved quite helpless against the onslaughts of Dr. Fredric Wertham, onetime senior psychiatrist for New York City's department of hospitals and author of a widely read anticomics diatribe, Seduction of the Innocent (1953). Though much of Wertham's crusade was a commendable attack on the sadism in crime and horror comics, he denounced Superman before legislative committees on rather dubious political grounds. He attached weighty significance to the derivation of the name from Nietzsche, and to Nietzsche's supposed popularity among the Nazis. Wrote Wertham: "Superman (with a big S on his uniform -- we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an SS) needs an endless stream of new submen, criminals and 'foreign- looking' people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible."

The publishers responded to such attacks with a code, guaranteeing in effect that all comics would henceforth be as mild as milk toast. But just as the publishers promised sweetness and light, the '60s began to demand "relevance." What had Superman's crime fighting ever done about civil rights or Viet Nam? Youthful eyes turned to the work of "underground" comic artists like R. Crumb, whose heroes used and acted out words that would have shocked the irremediably respectable man of steel. Even in the swinging '60s, Superman's idea of a really strong expletive was "Great Scott!"

Then came, out of nowhere, nostalgia -- including nostalgia for things the nostalgia lovers were too young to know. That mood gave rise to the first of the feature films in 1978, and suddenly Superman was soaring again. And this time, when Christopher Reeve waved his arms and pointed his heroic chin upward, he really seemed to take off over Metropolis. "Honest to God, I was disappointed by the flying," Reeve says of the TV version that he had seen as a boy. "I remember thinking, 'He's got to be lying on a glass table.' I wanted him to really fly." Reeve did his flights on an elaborate series of wires suspended from ceiling rails. These shots were then superimposed on footage taken from a helicopter. With such special effects, the film reportedly cost Warner's a then record $40 million, but it earned $245 million in the theaters.

Bay-bee, I can fly like a bird

When you touch me with your eye.

Flying through the sky,

I never felt the same.

But I am not a bird,

And I am not a plane.

I am Superman.

It's easy when you love me . . .

-- Barbra Streisand

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