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Cartoon Universe: Something Old, Something New, Something Ruby, Something Supes

by on February 19, 2010

Ruby-Spears Superman, despite its short run, is an important show in the history of DC animation. 

It’s not a good show, mind you.  All of the shortcomings of 1980s television animation are painfully present here.  The character models are too complicated and the overseas animation studio clearly has trouble animating them.  The casting veers too close to older interpretations of the character, undermining the move towards a more human Superman.  The plots are episodic and feature strict, black-and-white characterization.  It’s average, perhaps below that, for a 1988 television series.

That said, it made a surprising number of forward-thinking innovations.  It was the first outside media incarnation of Superman to use the
Christopher Reeve movies as inspiration.  It was the first to represent
the major revisions made to the character in the comics.  It was the only DC cartoon to directly use a movie as its source material.  It was the
first – and last – DC animated cartoon produced by Ruby-Spears
Enterprises.  More significantly, it was the last DC cartoon to be
produced outside of Warner Bros.

The end result is a curious mixture of past and future.  Does it compare to the later Superman: The Animated Series?  Well, no.  Is it worth seeking out and watching at least once?  Yes.

As the title indicates, Ruby-Spears Superman was produced by Ruby-Spears Enterprises.  This studio was headed by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, former Hanna-Barbera animators who deserve credit (or blame, depending on who you ask) for developing Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!  They split to form their own studio in the late 1970s, but in 1981 the studio was purchased by Hanna-Barbera’s parent Taft Broadcasting.  Taft kept the studio running alongside H-B, but it was clear who the favorite child was – H-B tended to get the bigger budgets, better licenses, and focused on exploiting its large pool of characters.  Ruby-Spears was saddled with the lower-budgeted cartoons and the more questionable licenses. 

To be honest, if Ruby-Spears wasn’t the worst cartoon studio of the 1980s, it was pretty close to it.  This, after all, was the studio that made such gems as Rubik The Amazing Cube, Chuck Norris’ Karate Commandos, Turbo Teen, Police Academy: The Series, Rambo and the Forces of Freedom, and Lazer Tag Academy.  
It’s like the studio purposely tried to find the least appropriate license for a cartoon or the dumbest concept they could think of.  Sometimes both.  Turbo Teen was little more than Knight Rider with creepy transformation sequences.

With a resume like that, it’s actually amazing that Ruby-Spears Superman turned out watchable.

On the other side of the equation, there was DC.  The company had turned 50 in 1985.  Superman was turning 50 in 1988.  The company decided to use these festivities to get the company and its characters into the public eye, meaning movies and television.  The Superman live-action rights were tied up by the Salkinds and Cannon Films, so DC decided to give Superman a new animated series.  As Warner had no in-house animation studio as of yet, the only option was to outsource: Ruby-Spears was awarded the rights for what is rumored to be an exorbitant license fee.

Ruby-Spears had a specific version of the character in mind for its series:  it wanted to produce the movie Superman.  This was a fairly smart bet, as the public image of the character was drawn from the Christopher Reeve movies.  It may well have been a direct adaptation had it not been for the show’s serendipitous choice of story editor: Marv Wolfman.  Wolfman was hired for his work on Garbage Pail Kids, with his extensive comic book writing considered a bonus.

Little did they know that the man they picked was one of the architects of the new Superman.

DC’s celebrations were far greater than just animated series and movies.  The company was using its anniversaries to redefine its history and characters.  A major comics event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, streamlined the company’s history into one coherent time line.  Many of its characters got major history revisions, or in some cases, a brand new history altogether. 

Superman arguably received the most major revamp.  Marv Wolfman and John Byrne were considered the chief architects of this new direction for DC’s flagship superhero.  Many of the changes took their inspiration from the movie: Krypton was a cold, ice world.  Supergirl, Krypto, and the fanciful elements of the Silver Age were excised.  Superman’s powers developed gradually over his childhood; Clark Kent did not don his tights until adulthood, eliminating Superboy.  Lois Lane was a hard-edged reporter, and no longer a woman whose only goal was to marry Superman.

However, the reboot diverged considerably from the movie in many areas.  While Reeve opted to play Clark Kent as a bumbling oaf, the new Clark was portrayed as a more assertive reporter with little visible meekness.  Essentially, Clark Kent was no longer a disguise but simply Superman out of costume.  Clark would now have the support of his parents, who had both survived to his adulthood: in the original comics and movies, one or both of them died. The most significant change was Lex Luthor, portrayed as a comedy figure in the movies, was now a ruthless corporate tycoon and the most public figure of Metropolis.

With Marv Wolfman in place, these innovations from the comics found their way to the animated series, notably the presence of both Kents and the businessman Lex Luthor.  Moreover, the series’ most unique element served as an introduction to the new mythology of Superman.  Each episode would conclude with a short “Superman’s Family Album” segment; essentially, a chronological retelling of Superman’s history from adoption to his move to Metropolis. These shorts were very simplistic in nature and contained quite a few oddities – such as the fact that Ma and Pa Kent are apparently permanently stuck at age 65.

Still, despite these innovations, the show is still patterned much closer to the movies than any comic book or cartoon incarnation of the character.  It’s clear from the opening sequence, which boasts the John Williams Superman March, the only Superman cartoon to do so.  Clark and Lois’ character designs have more than a hint of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in them.  And even though Lex Luthor is the CEO of his own company, it’s essentially the Gene Hackman Lex Luthor, not the cold tyrant in the new comics.

There are also, confusingly, some nods to earlier adaptations of Superman that don’t quite fit in.  The voice casting is chief amongst these.  While the movies strove to present the character as sort of an everyman, the cartoon follows the lead of the previous animated incarnations and casts an announcer as Superman’s voice.  If the goal was to stay true to the “man” half of the character, they failed in this aspect.  Also, Michael Bell’s high-pitched, whining voice is all wrong for Lex
Luthor, especially if they were going for the sinister corporate type.

You might have also noticed I didn’t mention the animation.  This series does not have stellar animation.  Characters seem to have slightly different facial designs from one scene to the next.  Poor Wonder Woman, who guest stars in one episode, seems to gain and lose weight from one drawing to the next.  It’s the type of animated series that reinforces Bruce Timm’s decision to go with ultra-stylized character designs.  These people have so many lines, curves, and definitions that it’s hard to keep the proportions straight from scene to scene, especially if they’re not using the best overseas studios.

Ruby-Spears Superman didn’t last beyond those 13 episodes.  Ruby-Spears didn’t last for much longer after this show.  Taft Broadcasting was bought out, and the new management sold the animation side over to Ted Turner.  There’s some question as to when Ruby-Spears Enterprises shut down production, but Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were working elsewhere by the 1990s as independent producers.  The archive is now part of Warner Bros., lumped in with the rest of the Hanna-Barbera series.

It’s hard to believe this series predates Batman: The Animated Series by just four years.  It feels like much longer, simply due to the tremendous progression made in the animation industry between those two series.  And it is because of that the Ruby-Spears version of Superman deserves a second look.

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