Talking Comics with Tim: Michael J. Hayde

When Mark Waid concedes someone knows more than he does on a subject (in this case the 1940s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN radio program), it gets my attention. Both at his BOOM! blog, as well as a review at Amazon, Waid wrote in praise of Michael J. Hayde's 536-page book, Flights of Fantasy: The Unauthorized but True Story of Radio & TV's Adventures of Superman. So I tracked Hayde (a self-described "writer and researcher of radio & television history") down to discuss his book in an email interview. In the interview, we also discuss his upcoming interview (tomorrow [August 28] at 11:30 PM [EST]) with Howard Margolin for Margolin's show Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction over WUSB-FM.

Tim O'Shea: How satisfying was it when Mark Waid (popular comics writer and current EIC of BOOM Comics) wrote: "I’m as big a fan and student of the 1940s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN radio program as anyone alive, and I thought I was the expert. I was wrong. Added bonus: I learned GOBS from Flights of Fantasy about the 1950s television show...The book is well-written, well put-together, detailed without being mind-numbing (YMMV), and a testament to stupendous research."

Michael J. Hayde: That was a HUGE thrill! I didn’t know Mark personally, but people who did were plugging the book simply because he liked it. He wrote in his review for Amazon.com that he’d been researching the “Superman” radio show for 30 years. That’s about 27 years more than me. That I was able to uncover things he didn’t know doesn’t speak badly about his research, but about the sorry state of accessible information about the radio show. Very little material was available, so some bad guesses were made by a few historians and authors over the years. Anthony Tollin, the historian for Radio Spirits, tried to correct some of these myths in the booklets that accompanied the audio box sets back in the late 1990’s, but they didn’t reach a wide audience. Just last year, a radio-themed book mentioned a “limited regional run” of “Superman” radio shows during 1939. That’s a myth. The four episodes that have been cited as “evidence” of such a run were audition recordings that never aired. Superman’s radio debut was during the week of February 12, 1940, period.

O'Shea: What were some of the hardest aspects of the history to research?

Hayde: Certainly the lengthiest part was gathering information about the radio series. Fortunately, I had help from one of the finest old-time radio historians alive: Elizabeth McLeod. She sent me a list of “must-see” publications, most of which were available at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland, College Park. One of their archivists, Michael Henry, steered me to other appropriate resources.

O'Shea: In your research, what do you consider to be some of the more obscure gems of historical information you were able to uncover?

Hayde: There were a lot of these. I guess, aside from the unused scenes from the TV scripts, my favorite was unearthing the details behind Kellogg’s exit from the radio show in 1947. That was one of the biggest mysteries, because the show was still one of the highest-rated juvenile programs. It won its time slot every day and had a large adult audience to boot.

O'Shea: Have you been a fan of the radio shows since childhood, or did your appreciation take root in a more recent period?

Hayde: I was a fan of the George Reeves TV show from early childhood. My appreciation of the radio series came while I was researching the book.

O'Shea: Out of the various folks involved with the shows' history, who do you most wish you could have interviewed but were unable to (due to them no-longer being alive or other less permanent logistical obstacles)?

Hayde: Undoubtedly that would be producer Robert Maxwell, who died in 1971. As near as I can tell, he gave no interviews during the “Superman” years and precious few afterwards. Another would be writer Ben Peter Freeman. He lived until 1991, and that he apparently was never interviewed about his years as a “Superman” scribe for both radio and TV astonishes me.

O'Shea: You call the book "the Unauthorized, but True Story"--did you try to get the book to be authorized at some point, or is that more of a marketing device to get potential readers attention?

Hayde: It’s mostly a marketing device, but I also wanted the freedom to write without a corporate entity like DC Comics looking over my shoulder. Not that I was going to say anything that would trash their property, but I think they could have treated some of their people better – beginning with Siegel & Shuster, naturally – and I wanted to say so.

O'Shea: The book features "'Deleted scenes' direct from TV scripts"--how did you get access to the TV scripts?

Hayde: They were at the Library of Congress! National Comics (DC’s then-corporate name) had each one registered for copyright, as well as the episode films themselves. Most production companies only registered the completed films. Being a publisher, National had the scripts registered as well. Only two were missing: “The Monkey Mystery,” which was apparently overlooked as the Library has no record of it, and “Crime Wave,” which was checked out in 1984 by somebody and never returned.

O'Shea: The book exceeds 500 pages. Were you able to fit everything you wanted to in the book?

Hayde: The great thing about my publisher, BearManor Media, was that I could have all the space I wanted. A fellow author advised me to split the work in two: one book for radio and one for TV. I rejected that because I specifically wanted the TV show fans to learn about the radio series and vice-versa. They’re both closely intertwined and comprise a single, fascinating story.

O'Shea: You wrote in the book: "Had Superman on radio failed to capture a mass audience, there would have been no Superman cartoons, no Superman movie serials, no novels, no TV series, no feature film franchise... and the Superman comic books would probably have perished." Was this something you believed before embarking upon the book, or is this a belief you reached in the process of researching it?

Hayde: This thesis emerged during the course of writing. Of course, Action Comics was a phenomenon, and its success led to the “Superman” newspaper strip. But the cultural graveyard is packed with comic books and strips that didn’t stand the test of time, and more than a few that were popular were “taken down” when critics like Frederic Wertham were given a wide forum. “Superman” came to radio about a year after the newspaper strip debuted and almost immediately out-performed its competition. Its players voiced the earliest Max Fleischer “Superman” cartoons. The cartoons only lasted two years. Would the comic strip’s popularity also diminished if the radio show wasn’t still drawing a big audience? The ratings suggest “Adventures of Superman” was being heard by many more people than those who purchased comic books, especially adult women. Then, in 1946, the radio show began airing stories pitting Superman against racism, religious persecution and juvenile delinquency. The goodwill that this generated from civic organizations and the press helped protect the character when Wertham first rose to prominence two years later. Additionally, both of the Kirk Alyn “Superman” serials were based on radio storylines. So radio’s “Superman” had a direct impact on all of the character’s film adaptations until the first Christopher Reeve movie.

O'Shea: Did you intentionally release the book the same year that marked the 50th anniversary of George Reeves' death or was the timing merely coincidental?

Hayde: I originally hoped to have it finished in time for Superman’s 70th anniversary in 2008. That proved to be an unreachable goal. The Reeves anniversary was, I guess, fortuitous but Flights of Fantasy speaks very little to his unfortunate death. I focused much more on his accomplishments and changing attitude toward portraying Superman.

O'Shea: Have you gotten feedback from anyone involved in the shows from that era or from their families?

Hayde: Not yet, but hopefully that will come.

O'Shea: Your website mentions a few documentaries and DVD extras you've contributed to, thanks to your knowledge--do you have any upcoming appearances folks might want to keep an eye out for?

Hayde: Yes! On August 28, I’ll be interviewed by Howard Margolin for his show Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction over WUSB-FM. This is one of the longest-running radio shows devoted to sci-fi, and Howard has had several prominent guests over the years, including various “Superman” writers and artists. I’m honored to have been invited to appear, and it was pretty much on the strength of Mark Waid’s comments. Your readers can listen at WUSB-FM.

O'Shea: Touring in support of the book, you've gotten to meet some interesting folks, can you tell us a little bit about meeting Ms. Noel Neill (the movies' first Lois Lane) and radio & TV legend Joe Franklin?

Hayde: I’ve met Noel several times over the years; she’s a delight. Of course her book “Truth, Justice and the American Way” was one of my primary resources in compiling the history of the TV show. It was a joy to see her again in Metropolis. That was my first visit to “Superman’s Home Town,” and they really do treat her like the First Lady, and rightfully so. She’s got a lot of charm and tells some great stories.

Joe Franklin is a treasure. I loved his “Memory Lane” show when I was growing up in the New York metro area. I think I was the only kid on my block that was happy when the Mets were rained out, because it meant that WOR would put Joe on, and he’d play old movies or records, or just tell great stories. I was interviewed by phone on his radio show for my first book (My Name’s Friday: The Unauthorized but True Story of ‘Dragnet’ and the Films of Jack Webb), and it was a thrill to meet him.

O'Shea: Are you already at work on another book or have plans for one in the near term?

Hayde: My immediate goal is to do all I can to make Flights of Fantasy a success. Maybe in a year or two I’ll be ready to tackle another book, if I can find a subject that interests me, and which hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

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