Superman 1.90: You’ll Believe A Man Can Buy

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 is, 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

Movie list

— Danny Horn

28 thoughts on “Superman 1.90: You’ll Believe A Man Can Buy

  1. Where do I get the life sized molded plastic figure of Superman from that last photo? (Asking for a friend.)
    Another oddity of that cookie jar – – the booth has “Superman” on top, which is kind of a giveaway for that secret identity.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. That last photo is of Christopher Dennis, a Superman impersonator who owns more than one original Reeve costume and charges tourists for photos on Hollywood Boulevard. The photo is by Siri Kaur from a series he did in 2014 called This Kind of Face which focused all on celebrity impersonators. The photo was taken in Dennis’s apartment, so all of that merch is his.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Not sure if you’ve already covered this, but speaking of synergy, there’s this panel from the 1978 newspaper strip “The World’s Greatest Superheroes” by Martin Pasko, George Tuska, and Vince Colletta.

      Liked by 6 people

  3. Okay, in the eternal struggle between Art and Commerce, this time Commerce totally won. Back then, an item “Made in Japan/China” was considered inferior in design and manufacture. The irony is left as an exercise.

    The official name of the Atari 2600, on which you played that videogame, was “Video Computer System,” hence the label.

    The Morse code pen, I’d guess, is one of those things touted as “educational” but wound up annoying parents with the random buzzing. BTW in those days the Boy Scouts offered a Signaling merit badge, part of which required knowledge of Morse code. You know, in case the only means of communication you had was a telegraph.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The cookie jar may be my favorite.
    I would think a Fortress of Solitude playset would be popular. Or a Top of the Daily Planet with dangling helicopter, Lois, pilot, assorted people in that little booth, Superman and even bystanders. Eat your heart out, Cantina Scene. Or, if they could work out the mechanics, an exploding planet Krypton that launches Kal-El into space as it springs apart. There’s your answer to the Death Star right there.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. LOVE IT!! As a preteen boy, I had Micronauts and my best friend had Star Wars figures. But I’d have totally gone for any of your Super Fun suggestions! Exploding Krypton could launch the Phantom Zone criminals first, and then our baby hero in his shooting star. A fourth “lift the lid” playset, to complete your three great ideas, could be Lex’s Lair.

      “he’s also currently making a phone call, which you would think would introduce some unnecessary complexity to the quick-change process.”
      Before cell phones, this one makes sense. “Hi, I got your message, just wanted to stop in at a phone booth on the way to tell you I’ll be there in a minute. Stay put, I’ll meet you there.”

      “You’d have to be pretty close to someone if you plan on communicating with them by LiteWriter-assisted Morse code”
      You never know, there might not be a phone booth available when you need to tell your buddy you accept his Mom’s invitation to stay for dinner since you’re having so much fun with the Star Wars figures in his backyard.

      The comparison helps me appreciate that for a simple kids’ movie straight down Joseph Cambpell Lane to the two meter exhaust port, Star Wars was sure packed with a lot of clever characters. All distinctive and memorable even if only on screen for a brief moment. For all the “epic” grandeur of Superman, at least the 47 minutes before it falls apart, it sure doesn’t have that many memorable people to show for all that effort.

      “There are so many more things that I could show you”
      Oh please do!! You could slip these in whenever the flagging plot needs a little boost. Which apparently is gonna happen a lot, as we get closer to the San Andreas Fault.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Lex Luthor’s Lair Playset !
      With swimming pool, kryptonite in lead-lined box! It really glows! Miss Teschmacher action figure with unattainable bust! Have Otis lower her into the pit where the hungry beasts await their dinner! Have Lex use the mechanism to push the cop in front of the subway train! Cop sold separately.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Eve does have a certain Barbie-like quality to her. Maybe they could market it to little girls. Probably without the monsters in the pit, though. It could be her drop-in closet.

        Liked by 4 people

  5. I wonder who the models were for the Superman faces on those things. The tilted figure on the lunchbox at the top of the post looks like something a person looking at stills of Christopher Reeve drawn, but the same figure on the wastebasket further down looks remarkably like Dr Don Voyne, DDS.

    Anyway, after looking at all those 1970s lunchboxes I have to go eat a pickle loaf sandwich, a banana, and drink a miniature Thermos-full of Tang.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. That’s funny, I thought the face on the lunchbox figure looked more like John Phillip Law, who had no connection with the movie as far as I know.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The Superman merchandise that has stuck in my brain since the early 1960’s is the Superman kite. The TV commercial for it ran incessantly, but I never knew anybody who got one. The horrible jingle may have driven away customers:

    “when boys and girls look up they can
    only see the feature of Superman!”

    Both the kite and the commercial seem to have been forgotten by pop historians… and justifiably so.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. I was wondering why Danny didn’t mention the peanut butter, since that tie-in sticks out the most in my memory, but it turns out it only started in 1981, alongside the second movie.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. “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.”

    Maybe Hackman’s contract didn’t include the right to use his likeness for merchandising purposes?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I had that trash can! I can’t believe I forgot that I had it. I probably haven’t even thought of it in 40 years. And yeah, that front artwork was horrible!


  10. I had that lunch box, and for Christmas got the foot-tall Superman, Zod, Jor-El, and Luthor dolls. They went well with the foot-tall Wonder Woman and Queen Hippolyta dolls. I never did get a piece of kryptonite–my best friend had one.


    1. “Remember, don’t let your Kryptonite Rock out of your sight or Superman will DIE. Trust no one, the walls have ears, and your friends are not what they seem.”


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