Last week I was lucky enough to get a chance to speak with the phenomenally talented Larry Tye, former journalist for the Boston Globe and current author of several books about various topics of American history. His credits include the biography “Satchel: The Life and Times of An American Legend” on Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige, “Homelands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora,” and “Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.”
Most recently, Larry wrote the wonderful “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” a history/biography of the character which explores Superman’s origins as well as his impact on the culture and times he inhabits. Maybe the best examination of Superman I’ve ever read, I found Larry’s book to be incredibly refreshing and fun, looking at Superman as a modern myth and sociological expression while at the same time showing a great love for the character and what he represents.
Amidst his many deadlines, Larry was kind enough to fit a brief interview with yours truly. Thanks Larry!
Father Niko: Is it safe to say that you’re a student of Americana?
Larry: It’s safe to say that I’m a journalist, I know how to ask questions. I’m not much of a student of anything, but I love Americana and I’ve written a number of books about topics that I consider Americana. So yeah, not a scholar in, but a student of, sure.
FN: Do you have a favorite Superman story?
Larry: My favorite Superman story is the first one. That was when Jerry [Siegel] and Joe [Shuster], who were so critical to the shapes that Superman took over the next seventy-five years, when they were at their most childlike and uncensored. I love just how simple the drawings were, and how simple the story idea was. I still see Superman as a story of bullied Jerry Siegel trying to fight back against the bullies. That came across to me in the first story and the thirteen [part] set of the first stories that came out.
FN: I loved all that you put in about Jerry Siegel and all the backstory. There was so much of that I didn’t know. One part of Jerry Siegel you talk about in your book is his Jewish background: growing up in Cleveland, the immigrant mentality, I loved all that stuff. You talked about how the Christopher Reeve movies made Superman take on more of a Christ metaphor, even though that wasn’t the original intent. Is there anything you see in the character that still identifies him as Siegel had imagined him originally?
Larry: Honestly, I see the character as appealing to just about every religion. If I wanted to look even today for Jewish clues, I could find them. If I wanted to look for Christian ones, etc. I think what he represents more than anything is a clear notion of good and bad. I think the sense of morality is what’s most appealing about every religion. I think Superman works for everyone. I’ve interviewed priests who use it everywhere from when they’re delivering sermons to when they’re teaching Sunday School. I’ve talked to people who use it in Jewish Sunday schools, atheists who say “Jeez, it’s all about morality, it’s not necessary to have any religion as part of it.” I think Jerry would have loved this debate and would have said more power to everybody in terms of having a character who wasn’t dark, wasn’t angst-ridden, who just knew right and wrong and just generally did the right thing.
FN: Do you think he’s still a role model?
Larry: Well I think I just turned sixty and he’s a role model for me. I can only speak for myself but he ought to be a role model. He’s a role model for me, for my daughter as well as my son. Independent of gender or anything else, he’s a pretty compelling role model.
FN: I totally agree with you and wish they would depict him a little bit more that way. You wrote the book in 2012. Man of Steel came out afterwards, and now there’s another movie on the horizon they’ve released trailers for and everything. What are your thoughts on the depictions in these new movies?
Larry: I think it’s good but not as good as it could be and I hope it gets better. There was a whole lot of feedback after the last movie on things that lots of fans thought they got wrong. I hope that they change that. Most important to me, I don’t care about the little things, I care about the idea that, for instance, when they’re having their classic battles between Superman and whoever the bad guys are, one of the things that Superman always stood for is no collateral damage. The idea of people being tossed in busses and being crushed under whatever is not what Superman was supposed to be all about. He cared about doing it right in a way that preserved the little people around him. The spirit of all the inviolate rules that people followed for seventy-five years were bent if not broken in the last movie and I think, from the people I talked to at Warner Bros., they got the point.
FN: That’s really good news because I totally agree with you on that one. Where do you think the character is going to be in the next seventy-five years?
Larry: Wherever we are. The brilliant thing about Superman is half of his success in surviving for the last seventy-five years and what gives me confidence that he’ll be out there at the end of the next seventy-five is his inviolate nature. The idea that there are these rules of right and wrong that he’s lived by that haven’t changed in seventy-five years. The other is his ability to adjust. If it means growing his hair a little bit longer, if it means quitting the newspaper and going to work for TV, then going back to the newspaper and becoming a blogger, whatever it takes he’s done to update himself at the same time he remains true to the underlying ideals. That’s what religion to me is all about. Understanding how, as you I presume do every day, to reach your congregation in what seems like both a contemporary and a time-tested sense of what matters.
FN: Thank you so much and thanks for all you’re doing with your career.
Larry: Thank you.