Superman has the name recognition and approval rating that politicians would kill for, plus the income. All this, even as recent incarnations of the Man of Steel tend toward the blandness of comparably universal brands like McDonald's and Walmart.
It's been almost 80 years since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the first Superman comic. Superman has been a marketable hero ever since, such a good-versus-evil icon that he's been a parodists' punch line for almost as long. He's been eclipsed in wisecracking irony by Spider-Man and the X-Men, out-camped by Batman and given a reality check by Homer Simpson.
In "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero," Larry Tye is in thrall to a character who, for all the good that he's done, has as much humanity as the Oscar statuette. Tye suggests that Superman is the hero that we all want to be, and insists that the man intights has been on the right side of every battle since nerdy kids in the 1930s drew him.
Tye is a fervent, unashamed Superman fan. The former Boston Globe reporter's homage reads like a marathon newspaper article fueled by sustained ardor for a boyhood love. If you share Tye's fervor, you'll stay with him for a long, earnest 300 pages. If you don't, you'll interrupt your reading to search the Internet for kryptonite.
Tye's chronicle follows two parallel lines - the evolution of the Superman character, and the fortunes of the men (they were mostly men) who created the superhero and sold him to the masses.
Superman, true to form, weathers every shift to a new medium as if it's a costume change - from comics, to ingenious animation by Max and Dave Fleischer, to radio, to television's wooden George Reeves, back to comics, to camp on Broadway, to cinema, to television again and to film sequel after film sequel. Each generation churned out licensed products.
But the human side of the Superman story, even in the hands of a celebrant like Tye, is a sober reality check.
The young Clevelanders who conceived Superman on their kitchen tables had a fling with early success, but sold the character to publishers for next to nothing. Later they sued repeatedly for a share of the profits and managed to get lifetime incomes out of the corporate owners of the franchise, but that battle only compounded their misery.
We learn that Reeves, who retired young from television, committed suicide (or might have been murdered). Christopher Reeve of "Superman" (1978) flew in three sequels, but ended up paralyzed after his horse failed to jump. Shuster, who drew the original, died in an apartment cluttered with gadgets that he could never afford as a kid.
The factoids hurtle at you like meteorites in "Superman," which suggests a staff of Google-happy researchers. Superman, Tye insists, was Jewish, because of his Jewish creators, and Lois Lane was inspired by a Jewish girl, Jolan Kovacs (later Joanne Carter), who eventually married Siegel and fought "the suits" to compensate him and Shuster for some of Superman's fortune.
We also learn that the producer of "Superman," Alexander Salkind, wanted Roman Polanski to direct. Robert Redford turned down the part. So did Clint Eastwood, who was too busy.
Superman looks appealingly wholesome today, silhouetted against entertainment greed. Yet his blue suit seemed drab, as comics from the 1950s on explored more real and more frightening worlds than anything the Man of Steel faced, into Mad magazine spoofs, R. Crumb's satire of raw sex and repression, the Holocaust horrors of Art Spiegelman's "Maus," and Marjane Satrapi's memoir of coming of age in theocratic Tehran. Next to these daring leaps into the medium, Superman seems earthbound.
Like it or not, fervent fans like Larry Tye are true to their heroes. Those fans will hold a special place in their hearts for an author who has chronicled Superman's legacy and the misfits who made it.