They didn’t use the word “synergy” for this kind of thing yet, so they just called it a “push”, as in SUPERMAN PIC GETTING WARNER COMMUNICATIONS PUSH.
“Superman is due to get a super push from Warner Communications Inc.,” said Variety in July 1978, “marking the first time a major entertainment conglomerate has marshalled virtually all of its subsidiary operations in the advertising, promotion and merchandising of a feature film.”
And congratulations, the superhero movie is born, not with a whimper but a bang. Warner Bros. has realized that they’re about to launch a feature film based on one of the most well-known characters in the world, and by now they’ve actually seen a rough cut of the film, and it’s really good. So it’s time for the Warner subsidiaries to circle the wagons, and get ready to make some Star Wars money.
In addition to the Warner Bros. movie studio, Warner Communications also owned Warner Books, Warner Television, Warner Bros. Records, Atari, Licensing Corp. of America and DC Comics, and in 1978, they all started busily selling Superman, a forty-year-old comic book character that everyone was already tired of.
Don’t get me wrong, Superman used to be a big deal, especially when it was supported by a popular radio show in the 1940s and a TV show in the 50s. But in the mid-60s, Marvel started publishing Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics, and all of a sudden Superman looked kind of square. Sales of Action Comics and Superman had been steadily dropping since 1965, and by the late 70s it really wasn’t anything special.
But now we’re going to see what a major entertainment conglomerate can accomplish, when they really put their minds to it.
Viewed in the light of a merchandising goldmine, Superman has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage is his bulletproof name recognition. You don’t have to introduce him to anyone; literally everybody in America already knows who he is, and what he can do.
The biggest disadvantage is that’s pretty much all that you have. Superman doesn’t have much of a supporting cast: everyone knows who Lois Lane exists, but people start getting hazy on Jimmy and Perry, and that’s all. The rogues’ gallery is also extremely thin in the American popular imagination: everyone knows Lex Luthor, but if you ask the average person in 1978 to name three more Superman villains, they’ll say the Green Goblin, the Riddler and the Incredible Hulk, and that’s the end of the conversation.
Superman: The Movie basically had one merchandisable character: Superman. Mego managed to squeak out a set of four dolls by including Lex Luthor, General Zod and Jor-El, but the Luthor figure was dressed in his cartoony purple and green body armor, Zod is hardly in the movie, and a figure of Marlon Brando in the wrong costume doesn’t have a hell of a lot of play value.
Meanwhile, Star Wars has a very deep bench of characters and creatures that they were only just starting to mine in 1978. Kenner’s legendary line of Star Wars action figures already had 20 characters out by Christmas 1978, and besides all the obvious figures — Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, and the droids — they also had Jawas and Sand People, plus a Cantina Adventure Set that included Greedo, Hammerhead, Snaggle Tooth and Walrus Man.
I’m trying to think of who would be the Superman: The Movie equivalents of the cantina characters, and so far I’ve come up with the football coach who tells Clark to clean up the equipment, the guy running the fruit-and-vegetable stand outside the Daily Planet building, the pimp, and the girl whose cat is stuck in a tree.
I mean, yeah, they could have done a young Ma Kent figure with an older Ma Kent variant sold with the Pa Kent funeral playset, but besides that, there’s just not a lot of merchandising potential.
Still, there were a few licensees that managed to capture the authentic flavor of the movie, including this set of five Pepsi promotional glasses — “Buy a Pepsi and keep the glass!” I’m not actually sure where these were sold. I remember this style of glasses as being a McDonalds or Burger King promotion, but as far as I know, these were just for Pepsi, with no specific restaurant affiliation.
They represent an impressive variety of movie scenes and promotional pictures —Kal-El’s starship, baby Clark lifting the truck, catching Lois, and even the train tracks repair scene, which feels like a deep cut for a Pepsi glass.
The Aladdin lunchbox is also very much on point. The 1970s were the golden age of lunchboxes, when they used to produce six different panels of original art to cover every surface on the box.
The lunchbox depicted Superman running on the front, with this incredible Daily Planet newsroom pic on the back. Around the sides, there were paintings of Jor-El sentencing the three villains, Jor-El and Lara putting the baby in the starship, the ship flying away from the exploding planet, and young Clark picking up the truck.
As far as I can tell, there is zero love for the movie’s Lex Luthor on any of this merch; the only thing I’ve located with Hackman on it is the trading card set. But this jigsaw puzzle from American Publishing featues a a photo of Eve in her sparkly black Bond girl cleavage dress, leaning up against the piano in Luthor’s lair while smoking a cigarette, which is just about the most eccentric choice that they could possibly have made.
I have to say, I find this entire puzzle entirely puzzling; I don’t understand most of their choices. It looks like the kid picking up the truck was instantly iconic, but the puzzle also includes photos of random Kryptonians dying in the red furnace of their exploding planet, the mugger pointing a gun at Clark and Lois, and Lois trying to dry off Clark’s wet crotch, which I just can’t imagine little kids assembling on the living room rug.
There’s some interesting art on the wastebasket produced by Chein Industries, as well, and by interesting I mean terrible. I’m not sure whether Superman is supposed to be running or flying, and the more that you look at the shape of his body parts, your day just gets worse and worse. The flip side had the kid lifting up the truck, which I guess was just fucking catnip for the youth of 1978.
There was also a lot of generic Superman merchandise that didn’t specifically tie in with the movie, like this California Originals cookie jar based on the old chestnut that Superman changes his costume in a telephone booth, which hardly ever happened except in a Fleischer Studios cartoon.
This cookie jar finds Superman mid-change, so he’s still got his jacket and tie in one hand — but he’s also currently making a phone call, which you would think would introduce some unnecessary complexity to the quick-change process.
I like this one — a Superman Talking Alarm Clock, which pictures Superman flying over a collection of oddly-shaped buildings in the Metropolis skyline. The box indicates that the alarm clock would say “Better get up or you’ll be late” and “When you get up, my mission is done”, which is not what I’m looking for in terms of snappy dialogue, but it looks terrific.
Man, there’s so much stuff. I hope it’s okay if I just show you a lot of stuff, because I’m pretty deep into it by now. Here’s the Superman LiteWriter, which lights up for night writing — try and say that a few times, if you have a spare moment.
I have a description for this item which says it’s a “Battery operated ballpoint pen with built-in light bulb and buzzing device for Morse code”, and maybe you can figure that out but I sure can’t. You’d have to be pretty close to someone if you plan on communicating with them by LiteWriter-assisted Morse code, so it would probably be easier just to tell them what your message is — or you could write it down, using the pen that’s currently in your hand. I just can’t picture the scenario. Maybe it’s me.
Then there’s the Cartoonarama cartoon paint set, which presents black-and-white animation cel-style imagery that you can paint on. To make the kit appealing to girls as well as boys, they included Supergirl and Wonder Woman, although to be honest nothing on the box looks particularly appealing for anyone. There’s a floating head of Krypto the Superdog, who looks angry on the box but is less angry inside.
If you haven’t noticed it already, I would also like to draw your attention to the phallic nature of the exploding rocket.
Along similarly immature lines, Avon’s bottle of bubble bath puts Metropolis’ skyline in a place that seems like it would be uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, Atari produced a Superman video game with the catchy title Superman Video Computer System Game Program. Apparently, in 1978, computer games were so new that they weren’t sure which words people would recognize, so they went ahead and used all of them.
There are so many more things that I could show you — beach towels and nightlights and lapel pins and necklaces and pinball games and wallpaper and yo-yos — but I don’t want to wear out my welcome, so I’m just going to present a few more favorites.
First, there’s the Super-Hopper Superman pogo stick made by Master Juvenile Products, which I think is simply magnificent.
There’s also the Kryptonite Rock!! sold by Pro Arts, which glowed in the dark after being exposed to light for five seconds. The booklet said that the United States Observatory kept an eye out for Kryptonite meteors, and then broke them into pieces so that Superman’s friends could keep them safe:
No matter how vividly a rock shines, it cannot harm Superman IF a friend of his keeps it safely out of range. This is important, because a friend of Superman can guard the deadly Kryptonite so that no enemy can ever use it against him.
Do not keep your Kryptonite Rock in the same room as one of your Super Hero Comics.
Do not lend your Kryptonite Rock to anyone, you never know whose side they are on.
Do not leave your Rock in the open when you are not at home.
And then there’s the Superman marionette by Madison Ltd, which makes very intense eye contact. Be careful not to look into its eyes for too long, or you will fall in love with it. Take it from one who knows.
Ilya admits to superdoubts in
1.91: Defining Disaster
— Danny Horn