Saturday Morning Marvel
If you ask most people in their 30s and 40s about super heroes on Saturday morning cartoons, odds are you’ll hear quite a lot about “Superfriends,” which was based on the most famous DC characters. And not for no reason. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and friends took up an hour of prime Saturday morning real estate for many years throughout the 70s and into the 80s. But DC’s prime competitor in the super hero books business, Marvel, also had some offerings for action-minded kids.
Believe it or not, there were quite a few Marvel-based cartoons out there in the late 60s, even if most of them were pretty embarrassing in quality. As Marvel exploded in popularity on the newsstands, the company took to referring to the present day (whether in the mid 60s or even decades later) as “The Marvel Age.” This was the sort of self-promoting hyperbole which Stan Lee has always excelled at. But there was some reality to it. Superman and Batman were generally considered to be a little hokey and old-fashioned in comparison to Marvel’s more relatable and human characters who were set in a world more closely resembling reality. Yes, it was a world which included teenagers with fantastic powers and giant men who ate planets, but they mostly inhabited places like New York City and Westchester. They dealt with personal problems and significant personality defects. For every idealized hero like Captain America, there was always a couple of outright jerks who just happened to fight on the side of good like Hawkeye and Hank Pym of Avengers fame. The books reflected the national anxieties attached to the atomic age and the cold war while keeping many of its characters’ personal lives in flux. Also, when a hero tried to pick up a building it fell apart in chunks rather than being lifted in one piece like a cube.
In general, the Marvel brand was believed to signify quality in super hero books. But until later years this sure didn’t hold up anytime the company licensed its characters for TV or movies. Take a look at these segment intros from Marvel’s late 60s television offering “The Marvel Super Heroes.”
As a kid catching these in re-runs during the late 70s I remember getting the feeling that they had just taken pictures of their comic books and made the mouths and arms move when they needed to. As it turns out, that’s exactly what had happened. I had never heard the word “xerography” at that age, but even I knew what I was seeing was something a little short of an actual cartoon.
The whole project was done on the cheap, with original Kirby, Heck, and Ditko artwork lifted straight from the comic books along with the stories. When asked about the series, Stan Lee had limited memory of the work he put in on it, but expressed admiration for the short songs which introduced each segment. Take, for example, this explanation of the Iron Man character –
Well yeah, that pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Tony Stark was one of the icons of swingin’ 60s masculinity for those of us who got that sort of thing from comic books.
Stan the man is right to single out these little songs for praise. There’s not much else to recommend “The Marvel Super Heroes” for. Captain America’s theme song in particular stuck in my brain and I went around singing it for a few weeks after I first encountered it on WCCB during a visit with my grandparents.
Are you singing along yet?
Okay, an admission here: “The Marvel Super Heroes” actually debuted during evening hours on its first run instead of on Saturday morning. But my experiences with these in re-runs were mostly finding them on cable stations as counter-programming once the major broadcast stations were showing stuff like American Bandstand or whatever else came between cartoons and afternoon baseball. For me they became an extension of the Saturday morning cartoon day. Apparently nobody was much more impressed than I had been and “The Marvel Super Heroes” was cancelled after just a few months on the air.
The next year, Marvel teamed again with Grantray-Lawrence Animation for a television show based on its big breakout star, Spider-Man. Although “Spider-Man,” which aired on ABC at 10 o’ clock Saturday mornings, was arguably a step up in animation from “The Marvel Super Heroes,” you really can’t watch it today without shaking your head at the terribly slipshod production. Xerography was again the rule of the day and Spidey’s costume was comically inaccurate. The artists on the show apparently decided drawing all of those web lines on his costume was too much work, so they were left off of his chest. Even more ridiculous was the depiction of the spiders on his costume: they had six legs instead of eight. This last error was corrected in later seasons, but that appeared to take up most of the show’s budget after Grantray-Lawrence went out of business and animation legend Ralph Bakshi took over. Animation from previous episodes got reused more and more often, including an entire episode from a completely different show. Yet again, the only thing you can really point to with pleasure is the show’s theme song.
And oh, what a theme song it is! How many TV theme songs are cool enough to be covered by The Ramones? Not many, I can tell you that. It’s a credit to the catchy tune and lyrics that the song remains fun even without the thrilling horn and drums arrangement from the original recording. The Paul Francis Webster/Bob Harris composition has long outlived the show it was written for, being recorded and parodied more than fifteen times, including by Homer Simpson. The show’s surf-inspired soundtrack is highly regarded in general, and is almost worth sitting through the show for.
The show did teach me to pronounce the mutant master of magnetism’s name as “Mag-NEAT-o” instead of “Mag-NET-o” as I’d been doing for several years as a youngster.
“Spider-Man” outlasted another Marvel animated program that premiered in 1967 featuring the super team “The Fantastic Four.” This was despite a mildly higher level of production value associated with the famous family of heroes due to production by Hanna-Barbera. The show featured voice work by the great Paul Frees as The Thing and guest appearances by folks like Don Messick and Vic Perrin. This version of the Fantastic Four lasted just one year, but Marvel tried again a decade later, with a DePatie-Freleng show called “The New Fantastic Four,” which was notable for replacing the Human Torch character with a stupid little robot called H.E.R.B.I.E. For years, the urban myth passed around amongst kids was that some moron had tried to play human torch by lighting himself on fire. Marvel encouraged this myth by referencing it in later publications and by including an altered version of it in the team’s comic book in late 1985. As it turns out, the real reason the Human Torch wasn’t available for “The New Fantastic Four” was because his rights were being fought over at the time in connection with a Universal television pilot.
It’s the same reason that a new character was created for the early 80s Saturday morning program “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.” The producers had the idea of giving Spidey partners in fighting crime who would control both fire and ice, so Firestar was put into the show later. (Really, Marvel? That’s what it took to get a girl as a hero on TV?) The character turned out to be popular enough that she was introduced in the X-Men and New Mutants comic books just a few years later. As an enthusiastic Marvel reader at the time of some of this show’s run, I remember being annoyed by some of its inaccuracies in comparison to the books. Spider-Man’s webbing, for example, was extraordinarily weak in the cartoon by comparison, and characters of just above-average strength seemed to have little trouble escaping it. Despite my nerdy pre-teen nitpicking, “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends” was a definite step in the right direction for animated offerings of the Marvel characters. The animation was at least average, and I remember being pretty excited when I found out the X-Men would be featured on an episode. Unfortunately, the “Spiderfriends” were tracked down in their alternate reality by a Morlun and killed in the comic books, which I’m sure gave everybody a good laugh.
A second show based on a Marvel character was paired with “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends,” bringing the Incredible Hulk back to the world of animated cartoons. The two programs were teamed up in various forms for a few years. I tended to switch away from the Hulk once Spider-Man was over, apparently to catch the rest of the Bugs Bunny offerings for the week.
To be fair, that opening is all kinds of crazy.
If I was excited about guest shots by the X-Men in the previous Marvel shows, you can bet the appearance of a full show dedicated to the merry mutants filled me with restrained anticipation. A pilot of the team as shown on “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends,” called “Pryde of the X-Men” hadn’t been picked up, but as the team became Marvel’s #1 selling property, a different take on the characters that was pretty faithful to the books went into production in 1991. When it showed up in October of the next year, the first two episodes were riddled with errors and held back by production delays. After Marvel threatened to fire the animation company involved, things started to go a little more smoothly. The X-Men animated series ended up being popular enough to stay on the air for 76 episodes, a record for an animated Marvel show. The show had plenty of strengths, including long story arcs from episode to episode which closely resembled well-known stories from the books and appealing action sequences. Also, the opening theme, this time an instrumental, was a curious earworm.
All of this marked “X-Men” as a significant upward turn in the fortunes of Marvel animated shows. Personally, though I continued to watch the show (it was the X-Men, after all), I found some of the voice acting and dialogue a little cringe-inducing and was never a fan of the style of the animation, which reminded me of the very flat and line-heavy Japanese style which was popular at the time.
A couple of years later, Marvel went ahead with an in-house directed take on Spider-Man that was nearly as popular as the X-Men show had been. Like that show, this newest version of Spider-Man came much closer to the spirit of the original books than many previous shows and ran storylines that connected many episodes in a row. It had, by far, the most impressive list of recurring voice actors in a Marvel show yet. Names like Ed Asner, Hank Azaria, Mark Hamill, Richard Moll, and Oscar winner Martin Landau popped up with regularity in the credits. The ridiculous opening theme music, which was created by Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, was a thinly veiled ripoff of the classic 60s theme with none of its wit or charm. I don’t know why the song is so obsessed with the one line about his “radioactive blood,” but boy does it miss the point. This was a quibble though, as “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” delivered a lot of what any fan of ol’ web head would ask for. Its eventual preoccupation with the Venom and Carnage characters decreased my enthusiasm, but I generally have positive memories of the show. A series of other Spider-Man inspired shows have followed over the last 20 years, but none has really caught on and I’m not going to waste everybody’s time listing them all here, but I do know that one of them included Lisa Loeb voicing Mary Jane Watson.
A few years after the original X-Men show went off the air, a new version of the team was presented to the public, with its members shown as teenagers of various ages. This allowed them to not just fight bad guys, but to deal with everyday themes that would appeal to younger viewers and show how different personalities came to terms with realizing they were mutants. The animation of “X-Men: Evolution,” while more broadly cartoonish, was also more colorful and had a depth of field that the original X-Men series animation had sorely lacked. Opinions on the show are divided, with many fans feeling disoriented by the change in the characters and feeling that some of their personalities were under-written and cliché’. Although I cannot argue with that latter point, the improvement in the animation, the greater variety in tone, and the increased focus on personal issues left me a fan of “X-Men: Evolution.” The show survived for three years, then spawned “Wolverine and the X-Men,” produced by the same team, but not in the same story continuity, which was confusing in itself. Despite playing on the popularity of the Wolverine character, this incarnation of the X-Men never caught on and was cancelled after just a year.
The next really significant animated series based on Marvel characters showed up on Disney X D as “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” The show’s animation combined the dark lines and bold colors reminiscent of “X-Men: Evolution,” but more closely resembled the Avengers of the original source material. Many story arcs were pulled from classic Avengers tales, with the team facing notorious antagonists such as Ultron, Kang, and the Skrulls. A: EMH was paired with “Ultimate Spider-Man” and had some minor crossover, but could be easily enjoyed without ever watching that show. The difference in quality between “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” and “The Marvel Super Heroes” is pretty stunning. All it really needs is an improved theme song. Absent that, I’d say that the show gets right in part what the MCU films get wrong.
Despite widespread acclaim and general popularity, Marvel decided to discontinue the “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” program in favor of “Avengers Assemble.” A cursory look at footage from that show suggests that they wanted their cartoon to be more like their movies. That seems like a mistake.
Then in September of 2014, the Washington Post declared that Saturday morning cartoons were dead and none of this mattered any more. Okay, so that’s a reductionist message and an easy way out of this endless task I’ve given myself. To be honest, Saturday morning cartoons haven’t been what they once were for quite some time and yes, there are lots of more Marvel animated programs over the years, many of which were never on Saturday morning to begin with. Mostly this article is an excuse to post those wonderfully cheesy 60s theme songs and maybe the start of a conversation. What are we looking for in animated super heroes anyway? Should they be funny? Should they be action-packed? Do we want them to more closely resemble the original comic books or the very popular movies? What do you think?