When Larry Tye closes his eyes and thinks of Superman, he sees George Reeves.
As the author of "Superman," a comprehensive history of the high-flying hero, Mr. Tye would have plenty of faces swirling around his head. But, while growing up in Massachusetts, he watched Reeves on TV, often as a reward after grammar school and just before dinner.
"Everybody relates to the first Superman they fell in love with. People who grew up in the '70s think of Christopher Reeve, but definitely George Reeves for me."
The 58-year-old is a former Boston Globe reporter who sandwiched the study of Superman between books about pitcher Satchel Paige and, still to come, Robert F. Kennedy.
Mr. Tye has been promoting the trade paperback edition of his book (Random House, $17), arriving as Superman turns 75 and "Man of Steel" opens in theaters. (See review in Thursday's Weekend Mag.) He suggests the reboot could give the reigning kings of the box office a run for their money.
"I think Superman's going to prove to be bigger than last summer's Batman, than the 'Avengers' movie," he said in a recent phone call. "Warner Bros. won't consider it a success unless it makes north of a billion dollars," around the world.
This time, though, Mr. Tye points to a series of smart moves coming in the wake of perceived 2006 blunders. Not only does the studio have the right lead in Henry Cavill but Christopher Nolan shares story credit, is one of the film's producers and is a "genius at doing this stuff."
"Warner Bros. really blew it in 2006 -- they only made half a billion dollars, which they thought of as a failure, so they fired Bryan Singer and Brandon Routh who were the director and actor then."
Beyond that, though, the time is ripe for a return of the hero created by the late Clevelanders Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
"I think the circumstances in the country are more similar to 1938 when Superman first came out and touched a nerve," he said, citing economic doldrums, unwelcome foreign entanglements and angst.
He was convinced summer 2012 was the perfect period for superheroes to resonate with the country but suspects summer 2013 could be even better. "Part of it depends on the mood in the country but much more important is whether it's a good movie."
At the time of the interview, he had yet to see the film although he had seen ads papering New York subway trains and stations along with marketing campaigns piggybacking on the release.
Walmart, for instance, is selling tickets to an advance screening along with T-shirts, action figures, other toys and bedding, some with a bonus cape, while Gillette asked how Superman shaves (a question fraught with complications thanks to longtime comic book readers).
Stephen Colbert kept the fires stoked by railing about Mr. Cavill being British, for starters.
"Excuse me, English? Superman is an American from Krypton. Read your Constitution," he fumed on TV, tongue firmly in cheek before addressing the missing red underwear or what he called Reeves' "belted granny panties."
As for the latest actor to inherit the cape, Mr. Tye first was skeptical but then saw the advantages.
"The idea of him being an unknown Brit, I thought this is really unlikely. We're always talking about Superman being a global figure but I didn't think it was going to work."
However, Mr. Cavill doesn't use his native accent and none other than Richard Donner, director of 1978's "Superman," proved the only way a movie would work was if the star was an unknown and Christopher Reeve fit the bill.
"He said if they'd had a famous actor, people would have thought of that famous actor and wouldn't have bought into the notion of this guy being Superman," Mr. Tye said.
In his book, he reports that European film producer Alexander Salkind's first choice in the 1970s was Robert Redford who said no. So did Paul Newman.
"Nearly 200 other actors were considered, including Sylvester Stallone (too Italian), Arnold Schwarzenegger (too Aryan), Muhammad Ali (too black), James Caan (too greedy), Bruce Jenner (too little talent) and Clint Eastwood (too busy)," Mr. Tye writes.
The elder Salkind and his son, Ilya, co-produced the first three "Superman" films with Reeve, initially hired for $250,000, less than a 10th of what Marlon Brando earned to portray Jor-El.
Conducting interviews and plowing through 200 books on Superman, countless comics and other written materials plus radio and TV shows along with films, turned Mr. Tye into an expert. But he acknowledges missing the days of being a naive fan.
Kids in the 1940s or '50s, for instance, didn't know that creators Siegel and Shuster signed away their rights to Superman for $130 although they later took their case to the courts and the public to secure a (tiny) share of the bounty.
"What's really tragic is that Jerry and Joe both died embittered, and that Jerry's wife -- who could've had a settlement that would have given her more than a million dollars a year for the rest of her life -- died within the last year without any of that settlement because she was so determined to press for more."
Not only that but Siegel had been motivated, in part, by being bullied as a boy and, at 17, losing his father to a massive heart attack after a theft at his Cleveland clothing store. The death motivated him to refashion an evil Super-man character he developed into a hero who swooped in to save a man (who resembled his dad) from being robbed.
"I see this is a bereft, bullied boy's attempt to come up with a hero who can help him out in his life, and I think enough of us are either bullied or bereft ... that he tapped into a vein that has really worked all these years."
As what led Mr. Tye to tug on Superman's cape, he says, "I was intrigued by previous books that I'd done on why America embraces the heroes that it does." He thought looking at the longest-lived hero of the past century "would tell us something not just about him but about us and who we think ought to be a hero."
The other reason?
"I wanted to be 10 years old again, and doing this book made me feel like it. If you can call it work, to come back and watch every old episode of the George Reeves series and read thousands of comic books, it was incredibly fun.
"I had never, as a journalist or an author, done something that was as fun as this."