Non-Fiction Review: "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero" by Larry Tye

I've been in a bit of a superhero mood of late. This summer has seen  The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man in the movie theaters and The Dark Knight Rises is just being released to theaters at the time I'm writing this.

My introduction to superheroes was through cartoons. Being born in 1971 I used to watch reruns of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon ("Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can...") as well as The Superfriends. We used to always mock the Wonder Twins. Now that I think of it, I also used to see a very silent Spider-Man on The Electric Company television show.

1979 saw the release of Superman: The Movie. To this day it is probably the Christopher Reeve incarnation of Superman that I think of when I picture Superman.

You'll note I've not yet mentioned comic books. I began slowly discovering comic books after a bunch of us started playing TSR's Marvel Superheroes RPG. We had familiarity with the characters from shows like the aforementioned Spider-Man cartoon as well Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. But we slowly discovered the comic books. Starting out with Marvel I crossed over to the other side and also began reading DC titles, just in time for the post-Crisis universe of DC Comics, after they shook up their entire multiverse. I first began reading Superman comics in the late 80s with a storyline featuring Superman exiling himself into space.

While I listened to the unabridged audiobook of Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero I found myself thinking about my own history of superheroes. This book covers the history of Superman from the childhood of Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, to the present-day legal disputes between DC Comics and the heirs of Jerry Siegel and his collaborator Joe Shuster. It covers Superman in all of his mediums: comics, serials, radio programs, big-screen adventures, etc. It discussed how for most people their exposure to Superman was not through the comic book but rather through other forms of media such as the radio show, the movies, various television shows... And that described my introduction pretty well. I'd been exposed to Superman in Superfriends and through the Christopher Reeve incarnation long before I started reading his comic book (something I've not even come close to doing uninterrupted). 

As I mentioned above, the book casts a wide net on the history of Superman. It begins with young Jerry Siegel, not quite fitting in in tje Jewish Cleveland neighborhood in which he grew up. It talks about the impact losing his father to a robbery had on him. (No fear, I'm not going to give the full history of Superman). 

The book is organized roughly chronologically though it has chapters dedicated to topics which cover the entire history of Superman. For example, the third chapter is dedicated to religious aspects of Superman - begininning with his origin as the creation of two young Jewish men and discussing the Christ-like characteristics that are often seen on Superman - most obviously seen in Superman: The Movie with his father, Jor-El, saying "they can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."

While the author Larry Tye clearly admires Superman, I believe he succeeds in producing something more than just a work of praise. He discusses the pittance National Periodicals paid for full ownership of Superman. At the same time, he doesn't let co-creator Jerry Siegel off the hook, discussing frankly his own less pleasant characteristics. He points out low points and high points for Superman. We see how Superman and DC Comics as a whole rapidly lose ground to Marvel Comics starting in the 1960s. He discusses various efforts to reinvigorate the character for new generations, some more successful than others. And he never loses sight of the fact that Superman exists to make money for various entities.

Throughout the book we see both the creative process and a discussion of the results of the product. The history we are getting treated to is most definitely intended to be that of his history in our world - the history of his creation, his comic books, his various spin-offs, etc. but in so doing we get some discussion of various storylines, popular villains, etc. Especially enjoyable was the discussion of how Superman's radio show took on the Ku Klux Klan.

This book, being a recent publication, goes as far as the latest Superman reboot in DC's New 52. I read this in audiobook fashion, as read by Scott Brick. I've noticed that Brick has read a lot of books related to Superman - off the top of my head he also narrated Tom De Haven's It's Superman (which I previously reviewed) and Brad Meltzer's The Book of Lies. He's a great choice for these works, brining a clear enthusiasm which does not get in the way of a clear reading.


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