On a Friday night in May 1942, the Shadowland Ballroom in St. Joseph, Michigan, hosted a match between Karol Krauser, a Polish wrestler, and Gorilla Grubmyer. Grubmyer was an ugly man with cauliflower ears, and he had a habit of eye-gouging. Krauser was, as the local paper noted a few weeks before, “the poor girls’ Robert Taylor in a G-string”—in other words, a gentleman-hero. “Karol is a champion, and wrestles like one. He refuses to stick his tongue out at the referee, won’t bite very hard, and deplores amateur histrionics.” He was also the model for Superman.
To be more specific, he was the model for the version of Superman that appeared in a series of cartoons made by the Fleischer Studios in Miami. It’s not clear when he posed for the studio team, but it was probably during the previous summer, when he was performing in matches at the city’s Tuttle Arena, one of them a battle royale in which he and eight other wrestlers hurled each other at a 500-pound black bear.
Krauser participated in thousands of matches over a three-decade career, but this particular match in Michigan is notable for how casually the unnamed writer who covered it interchanged the names “Krauser” and “Superman” in their reportage, taking the most famous fictional character in American history out of the comics and cartoons, off the radio, and, via kayfabe, placing him in something adjacent to the real world. The reporter describes the second round: “The Adonis-like Krauser, who palpitates female hearts … was promptly tossed into the ringside seats by the roughhouse Gorilla.” The end of round three: “Finally, Superman rallied and dished out some punishment of his own, eventually pinning the Gorilla after a ram into the ropes followed by a body slam.”
Krauser continued to wrestle throughout the 40s, billed as “Karol ‘Superman’ Krauser,” “Karol Krauser, Superman cartoon model,” and “Karol Krauser, the Polish Superman.” His wife, Zosia, a pioneer woman wrestler, sometimes appeared on the same lineup. In the 50s, he grew a beard and adopted his stage nemesis’s surname—Kalmikoff—to form a tag-team of brothers who had defected from the Soviet Union. The Fleischer cartoons were rerunning on television then, but a live-action series featuring the B-movie veteran George Reeves as Superman was more popular. Either way, it would require an impressive imagination to connect the aging wrestler with the square-jawed, clean-shaven hero that an animation studio in Florida had developed a decade earlier.
In 1941, when the Fleischer Studios began production of the Superman series, the animation short was still associated with musicals, slapstick comedy, anthropomorphized animals, and caricatures. Paramount, the studio’s financial backer and distributor, provided a budget of at least $30,000 per eight-to-ten-minute film, the amount necessary to make mini-epics that would imitate the form of a live-action adventure film, and which would star “realistic” human characters. At that point, Superman was only three years old, having made his first appearance in the comic books in 1938. The series’s first cartoon, premiering three months before America’s entrance into World War II, marked his cinematic debut.
The cartoons are masterpieces of world-building. Its hero occupies an Art Deco city, populated with sleek, five-minutes-into-the-future cars and industrialized underground lairs. The aerial shots are daunting, depicting detailed landscapes hidden behind clouds. Canted angles destabilize massive urban spaces. The soundtrack mixes textured special effects—sizzling steak was ingeniously used for a death ray—with hyper-realistic evocations of modern life, locomotion, and automation.
In photographs, the wrestler really is “Adonis-like.”
Superman is depicted as a brilliant athlete, and he treats this world like an enormous wrestling ring. In one short, he dives at the last half-second to save Lois from boiling hot lava, crouching above her, then pulling his cape up on each side to protect her. Krauser may or may not have worn a cape in his matches, but there’s a photograph of him wearing a robe, decorated with the Polish eagle, the American and Polish flags, and the words Nieche żyje Polska—“Long live Poland.” Imagine Krauser entering the Tuttle Arena in Miami, wearing that robe, and an animator or three from the Fleischer Studios observing the match, thinking, “And how would Superman wear his own cape?”
In the mid-1910s, Max Fleischer filmed his brother Dave Fleischer in a clown suit. Afterwards, he set up a drawing table connected to a projector, which allowed his artists to trace over each frame, creating semi-realistic human-like movement. The technique was called the rotoscope, and the Fleischers used it throughout the 1920s for their Out of the Inkwell series, which featured a character named Koko the Clown battling with a live-action Max Fleischer. It was one of the most important innovations in animation history.
And yet, it’s difficult to tell how much the studio used rotoscope for their take on Superman. The mundane scenes with Clark Kent and Lois Lane, which document subtle, nuanced movements from frame to frame, are apparently rotoscope, and have an uncanny, alienated noir-ish tinge. In other scenes, it appears the animators set key frames and then filled the drawings in between. That approach allows for more balletic movement, and it’s what may have been used for Superman’s leap to save Lois.
So did they rotoscope Krauser? Or did they film him and then use specific moments for key drawings? Or did he just pose for the key drawings? How much time did he spend in the studio, anyway? And for that matter, was Krauser the only model for Superman?
Collyer was a master of his craft, but the cartoons turn his voice into another piece of machinery.
No one knows. There is a picture that combines a photograph of Krauser’s face and a drawing of the Superman suit over his body, accompanied by an inscription that suggests he made at least one personal visit to the studio. A newspaper article from 1942 claims more, reporting that Krauser made periodic trips to the studio in Miami; if so, those trips disrupted a full schedule of matches throughout North America. It’s possible that the designers studied film footage of Krauser. In any case, there is one element of Krauser that designers did not utilize. In photographs, the wrestler really is “Adonis-like.” He has a bright, self-assured smile, the kind that is wholesome enough for young fans but also betrays a full awareness of his erotic power. The Fleischers’ cartoon Superman, on the other hand, is stoical, expressionless, and desexed.
Krauser’s name does not appear in the published recollections of the studio workers, who tend to emphasize instead the difficulty of their task. The Fleischer Studios’ most famous characters, Popeye and Betty Boop, were based on circles. For Superman, they worked with blocks and wedges for a stronger, more confident body, and not every artist had the talent or training necessary for the work. In the 90s, the widow of a studio worker told a Florida historian that her husband had served as the model. The joke here is easy—yes, we all should have such a spouse—but it’s possible that her husband and his colleagues posed and pantomimed scenes for one another, a common practice even today.
But Krauser was probably involved, in one way or another, and may have even informed those pantomimes. As such, the cartoons capture, at a remove, a method of performance that would otherwise be lost to history. They depict an idealized version of a showman, one who performed in a series of brutal matches, what contemporary reports call the “torture circuit.” This Superman is graceful, but he is not omnipotent. His body suffers as he stretches back to stop a train and his feet dig into the ground, thighs straining. As in professional wrestling, the narrative is set, but the pain is real.
Fleischer Studios showed the world how Superman ran, leapt, flew, and punched. It already knew the sound of his voice.
Krauser and Collyer escaped Superman’s shadow, and they had extraordinary second acts.
Clayton Johnson Heermance Jr. was a child of moderate privilege, a graduate of Horace Mann, Williams College, and Fordham Law School. His father was a lawyer. His mother and maternal grandfather were both accomplished stage actors, and his sister was a debutante turned Hollywood star. After a year as a law clerk, he switched to the other family business. He went by his nickname and took on his mother’s maiden name. And so, with the 1940 premiere of The Adventures of Superman, a radio series that would run until 1951, the first actor to play the Man of Steel was known as Bud Collyer.
Collyer perfected the differing registers between Clark Kent, who was polite and professional, and the authoritative Superman. A Time profile described a 6-foot tall, 165-pound man who led a conservative life of work, church, and family, and whose celebrity increased attendance of his Sunday school classes on Long Island from 700 to 1,250. He voiced Superman in the early Fleischer cartoons as well, but the anemic scripts give him only a few lines, the most famous being “This is a job… for Superman.”
Unfortunately, just as the animators failed to capture Krauser’s good looks, they also robbed Collyer’s voice of its preacherly warmth and power. The shapes of Mickey Mouse, Thumper, and Pinocchio transform and stretch with their dialogue, but Collyer’s lines have nothing to do with a single twitch of Superman’s body, and don’t register at all in the robotic mask he wears. The two exist in separate realities, and whatever wit Collyer lends his performance cannot be detected on screen. Collyer was a master of his craft, but the cartoons turn his voice into another piece of machinery in a city enjoying the wonders of modernity.
Another unknown: the name of the first actor to play Superman live in costume. He appears in footage of Superman Day, a children’s athletic competition held on July 3, 1940, at the World’s Fair in Queens. The children may have been disappointed. He has a swimmer’s frame, but the costume sags on his body, and he awkwardly clutches a rope to stay atop a float. “The mystery of the day was ‘Superman’ himself,” The New York Times reported. “No amount of inquiry could reveal his identity.” He may be the stage actor Ray Middleton, who served as one of five celebrity judges of the competition, and who provided the voice of Superman for a radio simulcast of the event; there are those who accept Middleton as the first Superman not as lore but fact. The truth is, Middleton doesn’t look at all like this Superman. And as there is something romantic about a version of Superman whose identity has been lost to history, I’m of the opinion that future detective work should be discouraged.
They gave a little of themselves to create an imperfect version of a character who inhabited the fantasy lives of millions.
But if it was Middleton, anonymity may have protected his future career. In 1948, Columbia Pictures cast Kirk Alyn as the hero in the 15-part serial Superman, making him the first actor to play the role in live-action film. Alyn was a Broadway performer who had once appeared with Ginger Rogers—his background in dance gave him the legs necessary for the role of Superman—but he didn’t have much success afterwards, on stage or on screen. “Playing Superman ruined my acting career, and I was bitter for many years about the whole thing,” he told an interviewer in 1972. “I couldn’t get another job in Hollywood.” But the world had changed, fandom was emerging as a cultural force, and Alyn built a new career visiting “nostalgia groups” and college campuses.
Krauser and Collyer escaped Superman’s shadow, and they had extraordinary second acts. After Krauser died of a heart attack in 1964, following a match in Salt Lake City, his hometown paper focused on his years as a Kalmikoff brother and his service in the Merchant Marines. When Collyer died in 1969, The New York Times celebrated his career as a pioneering television game show host in the 50s, and the sermons he wrote in verse. The paper treated his Superman work as an aside, even though, during the final years of his life, Collyer returned to the role for another animated series on television (and even though you can easily imagine Superman himself reciting the title of Collyer’s popular book, Thou Shalt Not Fear).
If Krauser and Collyer ever met, they would have discovered something familiar. The humbled, retired superhero has been a genre trope for at least 40 years. Neither man fit the archetype. They gave a little of themselves to create an imperfect version of a character who inhabited the fantasy lives of millions, and then, come middle age, they moved on. There was more to life than being the most powerful man on Earth.
Max Fleischer’s Superman, a Blu ray containing the complete Superman series, was released in May.