In 2014, about four or five years ago I’d been in Canada for a long time. I hadn’t left the country since about 2009. My passport had long since expired, along with my formerly independent student life, and I ended up living at home with my parents again. At the time, I didn’t really have an excuse to travel. I had few others that wanted me to visit at that point in time, and those that did were in other places in their lives entirely. I basically had no reason to go anywhere.
That changed in 2014. For the first time in about six years, I had an excuse to visit the United States. I went through all the ridiculousness of filling out a whole new passport, including going back to the office, and having to explain to them that I needed it sooner so I’d have it for my trip. That began the first of my four year Greyhound commuting trips: from Canada to the United States. And, you know what? I was happy. I was happy to see the windmills, the grass, even horses, the change from Canadian to American streetlights, and even the feeling of relief of getting through the usual customs routine. Hell, I was lucky back then in that I didn’t miss my connecting bus: that hell would happen later.
When I was there, amongst many other things that first time in six years in the United States, I went to a place called the Dawn Treader Book Shop, in Ann Arbor. In it where so many different vintage science-fiction and fantasy books: so much so they crowded the aisles in, well, piles. I remember that day well. I’d eaten a really good lunch, and here I was browsing these different books. It was a warm, sunny summer afternoon, and anything felt possible. Life was still complicated, and I knew I’d have to go back home eventually and all that entailed, but I was there, and I was happy: possibly for the first time in almost two years at that point.
I almost didn’t get anything at that Shop. I tend not to buy much of anything for myself when I travel. Part of it is because I always try to limit my baggage to carry-on luggage, because I don’t need more complication in my life. Another is, really, I can get most of what I want online or through the mail. But then, before I left, I found that the place also had other media. Namely, there were DVDs. And while most of them didn’t interest me, I found this.
And I couldn’t resist. The old 1940s Fleischer cartoons of Superman: a series created by two Canadians who came to the United States to make something new for themselves, and ended up creating a legend. There was something, I don’t know, auspicious about that. I like Superman. I’ve mentioned it before. I suppose some people who know me might be surprised that I like his character. I mean, many might tag me as a Marvel child, or a Batman fanatic. Certainly, these days and when I grew up, I grew to appreciate Wonder Woman.
But Superman had been with me since my earliest childhood. I had a poster of him on my old closet door, and I Am A Super Kid frame with the younger version of myself on it. Maybe I’d felt like, on some level, finding this was all about feeling reborn in a way. Like I was beginning some kind of new life, and the vistas were not dark and gritty like a lot of Revisionist comics out there, but golden like the Reconstructionist comics afterwards: stories that drew from the original creative well, but brought a whole new level of maturity and heart to them. Like something you love growing up with you: a thing I think a lot of jaded, more cynical people do not completely understand beyond deriding a sense of nostalgia.
I thought I found an artifact of freedom, perhaps. I kept it in its Dawn Treader paper bag, and took it home with me. It was easier getting back home through Customs than going through, and when I eventually came to Toronto again and its convoluted mess of city-roads, I went to the Silver Snail and picked up Brian K. Vaughan, Steve Skroce, and Matt Hollingworth’s We Stand on Guard.
Basically, the premise of this is that in the future America would go to war against Canada for its supply of fresh water in our ice. I thought it was ridiculous, in that it didn’t quite capture my own experience of being a Canadian citizen — whatever the hell that is given how diverse we all are — but I was entertained, and the characters were believable. But what attracted me to this comic, initially, was one of the rebels talking about the tattoo he had of Superman. The other rebels hated the Canadian that wore it, thinking they were a traitor for wearing an American icon. But he explained that Superman had not only become an international symbol of hope, optimism, and inspiration but he had been made by Canadians. Hell Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel’s creative partner, was the relative of Frank Shuster who had been the comedy partner of my cousin the Canadian comedian Johnny Wayne. Degrees of separation, I know, but it struck a chord with me, and I got the first issue just for this tenuous connection alone.
I remember, on the subway ride back from Dundas Street East, reading this issue and recalling how uncomfortable I’d felt under the scrutiny of the American border agents, and the feeling — having traveled to America for the first time by myself as an adult — of it actually being another country. It wasn’t Canada. It wasn’t where I grew up. No matter how much television I’d seen about it, or visited it as a child, I would never be American. The closest I’d be would be North American, and what does that ultimately mean in the end? But I kept thinking: America and Canada being enemies like the nations had been in the past, during the Colonial and Victorian eras? It was silly. And yet … I couldn’t really shake that feeling: that what if our longtime friend became something else for other, unforeseen purposes? Was it conceivable that such a friend could become a stranger or, worse, an enemy? And what would we do? What would I do?
For five years and over seven months, I never opened my Superman Adventures box. For ages, it sat on my desk in its Dawn Treader white paper bag, and I never took it out. I wanted to save watching this old cartoons for … something. For some special occasion. I just didn’t know what that might be. It was something special to me. Something golden that on some level, perhaps, I thought I could preserve forever in that crinkled paper. And I thought, I would be able to go back to the Dawn Treader one day. I’d be able to relive that moment, or have others like it.
But I never did go back to the Dawn Treader. The closest I came was watching the old BBC adaptation of the book, the third book of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, also from my childhood and part of what formed me as a person — of my heart, from YouTube while I was there. And despite everything, I was happy then. I was happy, until of course, I wasn’t.
This was a year or so after the American Elections when pretty much everything changed. That time was gone now. This was reality. All of it. That sunlight still exists somewhere as starlight, distant, in another galaxy that perhaps Superman might be able to travel to if he actually existed. But it isn’t here anymore, and it hadn’t been for a long time.
I don’t know how long Superman Adventures sat on my desk. Even the paper around it seemed unreal, as though despite what it said I could have just got it anywhere. I took the bag and put it away, where I didn’t have the heart to see it anymore. Then it sat under a bunch of other DVDs I didn’t watch. I got busy with life, and chaos, and shadows, but I knew it was still there. It was still waiting.
Finally, today — or I should say last night — having had too little sleep, I took the box out. And I realized, then, that it was time. It was time to do this on my own terms.
So I watched all seventeen episodes in one go. The discs were basic. There were no special features, and only poor attempts at titles screens on both volumes. There was no restoration, beyond perhaps the basic, or digital remastering. But I didn’t care about any of that. I had to see them. I had to see them through.
Most of the episodes were self-contained and basic. When I read up on the animation style later, I realized just how avant garde it was for the time: how they used some rotoscoping — tracing live action figures from film footage — and how animators inexperienced in drawing, and illustrators inexperienced in animating came together and made this work. The detail in the background is excellent, and you can see all the care that went into it. And the cartoon animals, still possessing anthropomorphic flare, remind me of Disney, even though I have to remember that Fleischer Studios also created Felix the Cat by that logic.
The first Volume dealt with Superman fighting mad scientists, and bank robbers. Lois Lane gets herself into a lot of trouble, and takes a lot of risk while always banking on Superman to save her, and outclass Clark Kent with her scoop while he always seems to look at the screen, breaking the fourth wall with the expression of “We all know I am the best though, right? I’m the real star here.” Volume Two, which contains episodes made after the Fleischer brothers were removed and the company making them renamed Famous Studios, has a lot of those same elements and … some unfortunate — read racist caricature stereotype — particulars that happen when you are essentially creating WWII propaganda. Nevertheless, given history — and contemporary circumstances — it is fitting that these episodes be mentioned, and not forgotten. I mean, can you just imagine the media that will be created after our time if we all survive it?
They were all, like I said, self-contained episodes, and Superman almost always rescues Lois Lane, she writes the story, and he saves the day. Patterns always repeat themselves. There is no Lex Luthor, possibly no Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White is just a person that introduces stories to his reporters. For some reason Superman was adopted by an orphanage instead of Ma and Pa Kent, and apparently the Fleischers were the ones that gave Superman actual flight instead of accelerated jumping: meaning that they first introduced it, and later DC Comics adapted it into their own comics … something I had no idea about until I read up on it.
I also read up on the fact that … all the episodes are online, and public domain. In other words, as far as I know I never needed the DVDs to see these anyway. I don’t know what that says, really, when you put it into the philosophical and retrospective context with which I had framed the whole thing. Perhaps, there isn’t any meaning at all, to any of this except for what you put into it.
I am glad I watched them, though, in the way I did. The last two days of the year, of 2018, where so much changed for me just seemed appropriate. I am definitely in a different place now than I was even a year ago. Perhaps this isn’t the New Year’s post that you were expecting. To be honest, neither was I. But sometimes, while some patterns and mythic cycles are eternal or beloved — and you can learn from them — others become tropes or stereotypes — tired and worn sentiments — from which you just need to break away. Perhaps, one day, that light will come back, or another light in another form. I haven’t gone to the United States since that time, and I do not see myself doing so in the near-future, but there are other places to go, and other things to find.
Perhaps, in the end, I should take Superman’s catch phrase — the one in this title — into account. Until then, my friends.
Whatever else, I am still a Super Kid.