I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that Superman is one of the most iconic characters of all time. Since his first appearance in Action Comics in 1938, stories of the Kryptonian have been presented in a variety of media including radio serials, TV shows, films and of course comic books. The release I have on hand today is an incredibly fun animated show featuring the Man of Steel, produced by Ruby-Spears Productions (of Plastic Man and Thundarr the Barbarian fame) and Warner Bros. in 1988.
Just a quick calculation shows that the Ruby-Spears Superman show came 50 years after the character's first appearance in Action Comics. This was entirely intentional since the show was intended as a love letter to the fans and what a gift it was. This 2 disc set includes all 13 episodes of the show with each episode featuring two distinct tales. The majority of each episode's running time is dedicated to Superman battling the foe of the week. The last 4 minutes of each episode are spent on short anecdotes of Clark Kent as a little boy in a segment called the Superman Family Album. These are the episodes featured on this release (Main Adventure / Superman Family Album):
1. Destroy the Defendroids / The Adoption
2. Fugitive from Space / The Supermarket
3. By the Skin of the Dragon's Teeth / At the Babysitter's
4. Cybron Strikes / The First Day at School
5. The Big Scoop / Overnight with the Scouts
6. Triple-Play / The Circus
7. The Hunter / Little Runaway
8. Superman and Wonder Woman versus the Sorceress of Time / The Birthday Party
9. Bonechill / The Driver's License
10. The Beast Beneath These Streets / First Date
11. Wildsharkk / To Play or Not To Play
12. Night of the Living Shadows / Graduation
13. The Last Time I Saw Earth / It's Superman
This show went to great lengths to incorporate a number of important and well-established aspects of the known Superman universe. This is readily apparent as each episode starts with a theme that prominently features John Williams' theme for the 1978 Christopher Reeve film. At that point, the opening narration from the Adventures of Superman series of the 1950s kicks in letting us know that Superman is both faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. If Superman fans haven't soiled themselves, giddy with joy, by this point then the comic book fans amongst them will surely appreciate how much the show embraces the mythology present in John Byrne's 1986 relaunch of the character. This is most obvious when considering the character of Lex Luthor, Superman's arch nemesis. During the 1940s, Lex was portrayed as a mad scientist attacking Superman with his devious inventions. When Byrne revamped the character, he chose to go with the ills of the day and painted Lex as the most evil creature the decade of greed could produce, a ruthless businessman. This corporate raider version of Lex shows up to wreak havoc in 4 of the show's episodes. The incredible pedigree of the show doesn't end there. It's worth noting that Marv Wolfman took on the role of head story editor and the show's character designs were created by famed comic book artist Gil Kane.
Going back to the characters, all the usual suspects of Superman's inner circle are present and accounted for. There's fiercely independent lady reporter and lady love, Lois Lane. And who can forget intrepid photographer, Jimmy Olsen or gruffly indignant boss, Perry White with his exclamations of "Great Caesar's Ghost!". Luthor even finds himself a ditzy girlfriend in the new character of Jessica Morganberry who shares more than a little DNA with Valerie Perrine's Teschmacher character from the 1978 film. Of course none of the characters would mean much if they weren't revolving around the real star of the show; Supes himself. The characterization of Clark Kent and Superman are exactly as you remember them, especially if you're a fan of what Christopher Reeve brought to the role. All of this is driven home by an excellent vocal cast. Beau Weaver brings a wonderful duality to Superman by capturing both the milquetoast-y nature of Clark Kent which is shed just in time for the assertive heroics of Superman. Ginny McSwain manages to give Lois Lane a bit of gumption despite having to repeatedly slot into the role of damsel in distress. Michael Bell's Lex Luthor was a clever mix of sociopath and carnival barker which just made me miss him even more in episodes that didn't feature him as the main villain.
I know I've praised the show's attention to detail and the fun characterization but allow me to temper my enthusiasm a little bit because there are some definite flaws on display as well. Since every episode is essentially an extended battle between Superman and the villain of the week, the individual episodes succeed or fail according to the quality of the foe. All the Luthor episodes are reliable hits but that still leaves 9 other episodes to account for. These other villains range from excellent (The Hunter in The Hunter, Morpheus in The Beast Beneath These Streets) to plain annoying (The Prankster in Triple-Play, Wildsharkk in Wildsharkk) with the rest ranging in between both extremes.
Focusing on the positive first, The Hunter and Morpheus are both excellent villains for the simple reason that they show Superman as being less than invincible and making him quite vulnerable in the process. Morpheus manages to strip Superman of his powers which brings a new dynamic to a later scene when Superman has to face off against a couple of muggers. This would have normally been a throwaway scene with Superman taking care of business without even breaking his stride. However, after being stripped of his powers he is forced to improvise which is more than I expected to see from a Saturday morning cartoon of the 80s. The Hunter is notable for the reason that it features General Zod in the Phantom Zone crafting the perfect killer. The weakest episode of the whole lot is Triple-Play. It features The Prankster manipulating Superman into leading a baseball team in the World Series against the Metropolis Metros. It's a ludicrous premise that yields an episode that's even worse than it sounds.
One final note on the Superman Family Album segments. I won't give away too much about these 4 minute long segments because they are fairly simplistic and the titles I mentioned earlier really do tell you all you need to know. Every short segment features Clark growing up in Smallville while using his powers to get into and out of some sticky situations. They are cute but fairly inconsequential although they do feature appearances by Lana Lang. The only segment that is a must-see is the very last one, It's Superman, because it manages to bring everything full circle. It shows Clark applying for a job at the daily planet, wearing his costume for the first time and his first flirtation with Lois. It's only 4 minutes long but will put a smile on any Superfan's face.
The show was presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The show is now more than 20 years old and it definitely looks it. I noticed definite print damage during the early episodes but this seemed to become less obvious as the show went on. The colors were suitably bright in the way that only 80s cartoons ever could be although I did notice some fluctuations in the black levels during some episodes. All in all, for an animated show from 1988, the image was adequate and didn't bother me enough to distract from the fun on screen.
The audio for the show fared a bit better than the visual department despite being a Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 Track. While never earth-shattering, the track was suitably clean with all the character voice work coming through loud and clear. The highlight for me was the opening theme which always shone through in all its bombastic glory before diving into Big Blue's next adventure.
Subtitles were available in English and French.
There was only one real extra on this release but it was incredibly insightful and not something I honestly expected to find here. Corporation of the Corrupt: The Rise of LexCorp is a 12 minute long featurette covering the evolution of the Lex Luthor character from the mad scientist of the 1940s to the scheming businessman of the 1980s. A number of talking head interviews draw a direct line between the era of Reaganomics and the 1980s Greed Decade while drawing parallels between Lex Luthor of the John Byrne relaunch and Gordon Gekko of Wall Street fame. Although informative, I found the segment far too brief. In addition, I would have appreciated a featurette or two dedicated to the creation of the show itself. The extras also included Trailers for Harry Potter Wizarding World Interactive Game, Secret Saturdays, Green Lantern: First Flight, Star Wars Clone Wars and Superman Batman Public Enemies.
Ruby-Spears Superman was a gift to fans in 1988 and it carries its own special charm. It's a landmark show with an incredible pedigree based on the talent involved in its production and because of how well it incorporates John Byrne's Superman mythology after the character's relaunch in 1986. Having said that, individual episodes succeed to varying degrees based on the quality of the villain of the week but there are certainly more highs than lows. The short Superman Family Album segments at the end of each episode are cute but inconsequential diversions. The video quality is lacking but the audio track is adequately punchy. The extras are minimal but insightful. If you are a fan of the character then this animated incarnation of Superman will be a must have. However with the average viewer in mind the show is Recommended.