The Superman for a generation of fans was born Jan. 5, 1914.
Arlen Schumer, historian and recurring contributor to 13th Dimension, is the biggest Superman fan I know. I mean, the guy lectures in a Superman cape with enough energy to power Metropolis. So when I saw that we were coming up on the anniversary of George Reeves’ birth, Arlen was the first guy I turned to for an appreciation. He did not disappoint. — Dan
By ARLEN SCHUMER
I never liked the way George Reeves looked as Superman.
Yeah, I know that’s no way to begin an appreciation of Reeves—on his birthday, no less—but hey, if there’s one thing I did learn from his Superman, growing up on reruns of the TV series in the 1960s, it was “never lie” — because his Superman (and the comic book Superman I also grew up with) never did.
For one thing, to the visual sensibilities of this budding young artist — whose first favorite was Curt Swan, the definitive Man of Steel penciller of the Baby Boom Generation — Reeves just plain didn’t look like the comic book Superman! Where was the spit-curl, fer crissakes? Reeves’ slicked-back hair drove me nuts when I was a kid — and it was brown, not the blue-black of the comics! His build didn’t match the requisite comic-book musculature of Swan’s Superman, not to mention the even-bigger Wayne Boring barrel-chested version, as seen in reprints in those ubiquitous Superman annuals of the ’60s. And who couldn’t spot the padding in Reeves’ Super-suit?
When I later became aware of the Rock Hudson of the ’50s, flipping past those terrible movies with Doris Day that I saw on TV, I wished he could’ve played Superman instead of Reeves, because he looked exactly like the Superman of that decade, like the one that DC artist Win Mortimer drew on dozens of Action and Superman comics covers. He probably used Hudson as a model!
But what Reeves had down, what no other live-action Superman has ever quite gotten as perfectly — Christopher Reeve came closest—was Superman’s super-good nature, his yellow sun-lit personality, his very essence as a human being. We never thought of him back then as an “alien,” as is fashionable now.
Reeves played Superman as part benevolent beat cop from the neighborhood, and part stern schoolmaster, part father figure and part religious “Father” figure. As a pop culture icon, Reeves’ Superman was as much Santa Claus as Uncle Sam. His trademark cool, calm demeanor during all manner of calamity, and genuinely genial interactions with all ages and both genders, was a little bit o’ Buddha and a whole lotta Jesus. A Righteous Gentile and a Super-mensch, too!
Reeves might’ve been even better as Clark Kent than he was as Superman. His Kent wasn’t the bumbling oaf/newshound nerd that we’ve come to expect since the first Chris Reeve movie—he was as confident and resourceful as Superman. And certainly no wimp. Reeves, cutting quite the masculine figure (remember his dashing self in the beginning of Gone with the Wind?), was no doormat for Lois Lane. No one’s done Clark Kent better, in any medium. And no one’s ever done that last-shot wink-and-a-smile like Reeves patented.
Since this is Reeves’ birthday, it’s ironic that his death continues to fascinate us — not just for the JFK-like conspiracy theory that contends Reeves’ 1959 gunshot death at age 45 was a homicide, not the official finding of suicide (see the underrated 2006 film Hollywoodland for an incredibly well-done dramatic interpretation of the controversy) — but for the more meta idea that Reeves’ death, the first “Death of Superman,” came when it did, at the dawn of the new, tumultuous decade. (Plus, the urban legend persists that Reeves committed suicide by jumping off a building dressed as Superman.)
His fall ended up foreshadowing the deaths of our real-life superheroes, the Kennedy brothers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the years to come.
Reeves prepared us for the deaths of the Sixties.
Arlen’s The Silver Age of Comic Book Art is revised and back in print, a lustrously illustrated hardcover, coffee-table book. To order a signed hardcover from Arlen directly, hit up www.arlenschumer.com. There are also links to Archway Publishing (an offshoot of Simon & Schuster) for the unsigned hardcover and an e-book edition.