The Original 1940s Superman Cartoon: Watch 17 Classic Episodes Free Online

On the eve of yet anoth­er Super­man movie reboot—coming tomor­row with all the usu­al sum­mer hit fan­fare and noise—take a moment before gorg­ing your­self on pop­corn and extrav­a­gant CGI spec­ta­cles to reflect on the character’s endur­ing­ly sim­ple ori­gins. After all, this month marks the 75th anniver­sary of this most icon­ic of Amer­i­can super­heroes, who first appeared in the June 1938 Action Comics #1. The brain­child of Cleve­land high school stu­dents Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter (so mem­o­rably fic­tion­al­ized in Michael Chabon’s The Amaz­ing Adven­tures of Kava­lier & Clay), Super­man is what Neil Gaiman calls an arche­typ­al “pri­mal thing,” a char­ac­ter who can be rein­vent­ed every decade while still remain­ing unmis­tak­ably him­self.

Wit­ness, for exam­ple, the first appear­ance of Super­man on the big screen in the 1941 Fleis­ch­er car­toon (top), Super­man (or The Mad Sci­en­tist)—the first in a series of sev­en­teen shorts. On the heels of the first non-print adap­ta­tion of the char­ac­ter—the Adven­tures of Super­man radio dra­ma (lis­ten below)—the car­toon series shows us the orig­i­nal Siegel and Shus­ter hero, a rough-and-tum­ble space alien raised in an orphan­age, not by the kind­ly Kents in rur­al Amer­i­ca.

You’ll notice how­ev­er, that Superman’s resume—more pow­er­ful than a loco­mo­tive, able to leap tall build­ings… etc.—hasn’t changed a bit. But some of the character’s attrib­ut­es and ori­gins were con­sid­er­ably soft­ened after DC Comics edi­tor Whit­ney Ellsworth insti­tut­ed a code of super­hero ethics (many years before the Comics Code Author­i­ty stepped in to cen­sor the whole indus­try).

You can learn even more about Superman’s ori­gins from his cre­ators them­selves, inter­viewed in the clip above for the 1981 BBC doc­u­men­tary Super­man: The Com­ic Strip Hero. Siegel reveals how the idea for Super­man came to him dur­ing one rest­less night in which he com­posed all of the basic script for the char­ac­ter, “an entire­ly new con­cept.” The very next day, Shus­ter sat down at his draw­ing board and Super­man’s look emerged ful­ly-formed. Both cre­ators and their heirs have won and lost high-pro­file law­suits over rights to their char­ac­ters. But legal wran­gling over com­pen­sa­tion aside, there’s no deny­ing that their mad eure­ka moment left an indeli­ble cul­tur­al lega­cy no updat­ed film, logo, or con­tro­ver­sy can dimin­ish.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orig­i­nal Super­man Car­toon Series Now Online

The Mechan­i­cal Mon­sters: Sem­i­nal Super­man Ani­mat­ed Film from 1941

Free Gold­en Age Comics

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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