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Talking Superman with Biographer Par Excellence Larry Tye

In between his best-selling Satchel, the story of famed pitcher Satchel Paige, and an upcoming biography of Robert F. Kennedy, Larry Tye decided to take on another equally iconic American, this one an immigrant: Superman. Tye’s book of the same name, which is apparently the “first full-fledged biography” of its subject, is out tomorrow, and it is aptly subtitled “The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero.” Monumental in scope and staggering in its level of detail, it’s must-read beach fare for any self-respecting geek, covering not just the fascinating editorial (and legal) ins-and-outs of comics publishing, but Superman’s place in pop culture generally… from the Golden Age of Radio and the classic Fleischer Brothers cartoons through Smallville and Zack (Watchmen) Snyder’s forthcoming Man of Steel movie.

But Tye’s book is no simple-minded  “celebration” of the character, mired in nostalgia and collecting in one place all the trivia we already kind of know. Not at all. Rather, it’s an insightful chronicle of pop culture that reveals every step of the way how a character that we often take for granted has continued to capture the imaginations of creators and audiences alike. As you might have guessed, when the author agreed to talk media and superheroes with me, I was delighted. To put it mildly.

Connect the Pop: It’s self-centered to say so, but one of the things I really like about your new book is the way it echoes a theme of this blog: how enduring pop culture characters, and superheroes specifically, change to reflect their times. But why does the general public often not perceive Superman to be as rich and interesting a character as his history reveals?

Larry Tye: You’re right in a sense. The public often sees Superman as the most white-bread of our superheroes, especially when he’s stacked up against the alluringly dark Batman and the forever-fraught Spider-Man. Superman, by contrast, seems like Dudley Do-Right—too predictable and oppressively righteous.

In another sense the public is smarter than we are. That is why Superman has stayed at the top of the popularity polls for 75 years and counting: because he is predictable and upstanding. The more jaded the era, the more we are suckered back to his clunky familiarity. You can see it now, when we all crave a hero and a sense of certainty in a world that seems upended economically and politically. Watch what happens with the new animated Superman film due out this week*: I predict it’ll do almost as well as the live-action Avengers, because Superman, after all, is our most reliable avenger of all.

Speaking of movies, the book does a great job of moving seamlessly from one medium to another. What can young people — or really anyone with an interest in pop culture — learn about media history itself by focusing on one enduring character?

A single charismatic figure like Superman lets us see what it is that makes a character work in media as disparate as comic books and radio, or as seemingly unconnected as the popular medium of afternoon children’s TV and the decidedly singular one of graphic novels. In some ways Superman had to be scripted differently for each medium and audience. What is more remarkable, however, is the way his very persona was strong enough to work whatever the setting, and however old or young, male or female, educated or not, his audience happened to be.

Superman, I think, offers the perfect lens into nearly a century of popular culture in America.

Well, certainly the scope of your research is evident on pretty much every page. Can you recommend any strategies to librarians who might want to help kids or teens research their favorite superheroes?

They should do the same thing libraries have been doing with Superman since the beginning: use him as a gateway not just into reading/literacy, but into more interesting and revealing issues like why Americans embrace the heroes we do—what that says about them and us—and what our heroes tell us about our changing mores and our enduring values.

You point out that late in 2013 Warren Peary, Joe Shuster’s nephew, will be trying to restore his uncle’s copyright. Do you think there’s any chance that Superman could ever actually fall victim to a kind of ownership gridlock?

Yes, I very much worry that he could. I suspect we’ll see a settlement of that lawsuit within the next six months, or at least before next summer’s blockbuster release. If not, I hope the federal judges overseeing the case have the wisdom of Solomon, realizing that if they continue parsing out parts of the character to each side, we’ll all be the loser.

Thanks so much for your time. Can I ask what’s next on your plate?

I will be speaking in person and via media across the country, with the appearances listed at larrytye.com. And I’m deep into the RFK bio, having a blast revisiting another hero of my youth. There it’s a race against time, trying to get to Bobby’s friends and colleagues while they still are alive (he’d be 85 now if he still were around).

*see tomorrow’s post! -PG

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Comments

  1. Nice interview, and a good pointer to an interesting-sounding book! I’d like to learn more about what America’s fascination with Superman says about us—and maybe get some insight into why my own childhood self was drawn to the relatively straightforward DC stable of superheroes rather than the more conflicted, ironic Marvel cast.

  2. This is a really interesting book it seems, and yes fits the blog exceptionally well.

  3. I love watching how characters like Superman evolve with the times – yet stay true to their own core being. I especially love how Superman and Batman interact.

    I think having students take the time to follow the changes in an iconic hero like this is a great way to learn about the time periods of the movie/book/comic. Thanks so much to Larry for taking the time to chat with us about his book and Superman!