Superman has always been dieselpunk.
He may not seem like it now, but in the beginning he was probably one of the mot dieselpunk things you could think up. He was, after all, created in 1938 and became an instant smash success. Within 3 years one of the most beautiful looking series of animation shorts ever made was put out by Fleischer Studios, all of which have not only a thoroughly dieselpunk vibe (being, you know, actual sci-fi in the 1940s) but 70 years later still look unbelievably amazing.
Fleischer Studios started out as a small animation studio founded and run by brothers brothers Max and Dave Fleischer. By 1941 Fleischer Studios was second only to Walt Disney Studios in animation. They were responsible for the immensely popular Popeye cartoons as well as Betty Boop. The brothers invented the art of rotoscoping, where animators would trace drawings over actual live footage, creating incredibly lifelike animation. This technique was adopted by Disney in some of their feature length animated movies and in Russia, Stalin loved it so much he insisted all Russian animation use this method (true story).
When approached by Paramount to make a series of Superman shorts to be played before movie features, the brothers had just finished a well lauded animated Gulliver film (still around) and were anxious to begin their next feature, Mr. Bug Goes To Town. They didn’t particularly want to do Superman, so they quoted Paramount an absolutely ridiculous sum, $100,000 per short. To their shock and surprise, Paramount halved the amount to $50,000 and agreed. $50,000 was still an insane sum for an animated short, over twice what each Popeye short cost, and next they knew it, the brothers were committed.
They pulled out all the stops. The 9 cartoons they made won every award possible for animation including nomination for an Academy Award, and were enormously popular. Superman himself was a raging success, and these cartoons were made before even the Superman radio show, thus a number of Superman pop culture tropes came from these shorts.
For one thing, Superman did not fly in those days. He didn’t start out flying in the comics. You recall the line “leap tall buildings in a single bound”? Well, that’s what he did. Leap. Well, for one thing, the cartoons invented the opening: “Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” Furthermore, as the shorts progressed, the brothers didn’t like the look of the leaping and wanted Superman to simply fly. They asked permission from Detective Comics Inc (DC before it was called DC) and they allowed the Fleischers to have Superman fly. After this Superman began flying in the comics.
It also invented the catch phrase “This is a job…. for Superman!”
The Fleischers tried to rotoscope Superman as much as possible, but being the world’s first superhero, he did things a live model couldn’t do, like fly and lift ridiculous things. “In these cases, the Fleischer lead animators, many of whom were not trained in figure drawing, animated roughly and depended upon their assistants, many of whom were inexperienced with animation but were trained in figure drawing, to keep Superman “on model” during his action sequences.”
After 9 cartoons the Fleischers were self destructing. Work on the Mr. Bug cartoon had caused major financial trouble (it premiered in theaters 2 days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor) and the brothers descended into bitter personal troubles. By 1942 they could no longer work with each other. Paramount bought them out and ousted them. The studio was changed to Famous Studios and 8 more Superman shorts were produced. The sleek look remained, but the plots changed from science fiction themes to WW2 themes.
Even today, the first 9 shorts are considered mkasterpieces of animation and the height of the famed Fleischer Studios’ skill. I present all 9 here for you, dieselpunk masterpieces all. If you’ll excuse me, i’m going to call my 4 year old in here to watch them with me.