The Filmation DC Super Hero Shorts
Welcome back to another installment of Panels to Popcorn, a series of articles I’ve been working on here at Ghosts of the Stratosphere that deals directly with movies and TV shows that have been pretty much directly adapted from comic books. And when I use that term, “adapted”, I really do mean it in the truest sense of the word. Some comic book related media properties use the characters or similar situations as to what you might find in the original comic book source material, but in these articles, I really try to focus on those properties that have direct correlation to actual comics that you can pick up and read today.
While browsing through the soon to be defunct DC Streaming Services app a month or so ago, I stumbled upon a series of older DC related cartoon shorts that I had not seen in years. You see, it seems everyone remembers “The Super Friends”, Hanna-Barbera’s classic Saturday morning adaptation of the Justice League which ran for a decade plus on ABC over the course of the 70s and 80s.
But what some folks don’t remember was that there was Saturday morning cartoon that predated that series on CBS in the late 60s. It was that series that was for many DC characters other than Superman, the first time fans got to see them in animated form. I’m talking about the Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure that appeared from 1967 to 1968 on the TV sets of young children all across America.
This show was actually the culmination of previous cartoon shows that the animation powerhouse, Filmation, had created for DC Comics to showcase their characters starting in 1966 with The New Adventures of Superman. However, the Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure was really in some ways the crown jewel of these Filmation attempts because in addition to airing the previously created 6 minute adventures about the Man of Steel, with the Hour of Adventure, we got animated shorts featuring a whole slew of characters, including Green Lantern, The Flash, The Atom, Hawkman, and even the original line up of the Teen Titans (minus Robin).
Of course, Aquaman got the lion share of the new cartoons made for this show with a whopping 36 stories created featuring the defender of the deep, but that was in part because it was his name along with Supes that sold the show to fans. It’s still extremely surprising to me that Aquaman was that intensely popular back in the day that he not only co-headlined a cartoon show with Superman but was one of the founding members of the Superfriends as well. Nowadays, the guy is pretty much a walking meme joke, but I guess folks in the 60s were down with his blonde hair and ability to talk to sea cucumbers.
Anyways, the rest of the heroes I mentioned all got 3 cartoon adventures a piece which would be rotated in with the Supes/Aquaman shorts to make up the totality of the TV show. But the most exciting part for me at least was that Filmation made 3 additional shorts which they deemed The Justice League of America in which all of the various heroes they had introduced in their own separate stories would get together and like in the comics battle intergalactic threats that were too big to tackle individually.
Although the roster for this version of the JLA was definitely sexist in that it contained none of the terrific female characters we have come to love from DC, such as Wonder Woman, it also gives fans of this legendary comic team a more diverse line up than we would see later on the Super Friends.
In fact, it’s not until the Challenge of the Super Friends series that ran in 1978 that we would see such Justice League mainstays as Flash and Green Lantern on the illustrious team again, so from a historical perspective, it’s important that we have these stories. Plus, this version of the cartoon JLA also includes the Atom whom very infrequently got to make Super Friends appearances, which I think is a neat little touch.
The cartoon series was highly successful though, and Filmation did have plans to expand the line up of characters that would appear in future seasons of the show as they intended on pivoting it away from being Superman centric to more of a cavalcade of DC’s most famous heroes. A pilot episode was produced to introduce Metamorph, The Element Man, as well as plans had been drawn up to create pilot episodes for both Wonder Woman and Plastic Man. In addition, there were concept drawings being floated around for folks like the robotic powerhouses The Metal Men and the high flying aerial adventures of The Blackhawks.
But personally, I feel the biggest regret comes from the fact that they also had plans to create shorts surrounding the original Doom Patrol, which could have been one of the best 60s cartoon ever, with Elasta Girl, Robot Man, and Mr. Negative all visualized in that classic Filmation style facing off against Monsieur Mallah and the Brain! How great would that have been?!?
However, the plans for all of these additional super heroes were scrapped when CBS got the rights do to the animated version of Batman, and in order to cash in on the success of the 60s Batman TV show that was burning up the airways at that time, they called for Filmation to transform the the 1968-69 season of the show into the Batman/Superman Hour. Still though, it did provide the first animated version of the Caped Crusader as well as many of his most famous members of his rogue’s gallery like The Riddler, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Catwoman, and of course the Crown Price of Crime, The Joker.
This I gotta say was somewhat of important thing given besides Superman and Aquaman, many of the other DC super heroes from the Filmation series didn’t get to fight their arch enemies from the comics. There was no animated version of Sinestro , Professor Zoom, Mirror Master, Star Sapphire, Weather Wizard or countless others. Instead Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and the rest were forced to face off against more generic villainous jabronis like Blue Bolt and Sirena, Empress of Evil.
Well, I guess that’s not completely true. Green Lantern does get an episode fighting against Evil Star, who was created by Gardener Fox and Gil Kane for the silver age Green Lantern book, and there is an episode of the Atom’s cartoon that features a villain called the Plant Master, although it is not the same character that Swamp Thing fans know nowadays as The Floronic Man aka Jason Woodrue.
This is surprising though given the fact that many of the episodes for these cartoon shorts were written by folks working at DC Comics at the time. Both Bob Haney and George Kashdan who worked on a variety of silver age DC books, co creating the original Teen Titans series as well as characters like the previously mentioned Metamorpho and Eclipso, penned a great deal of these animated adventures including pretty much all of the non Superman/Aquaman tales. Why they decided to fill the very few stories they had with these non de-script baddies instead of the classic rogues is beyond me, but they also gave Green Lantern and Hawkman weird sidekicks which never appeared in the comics either so your guess is as good as mine.
As an interesting side note though, the cartoon series did feature a lot of interesting voice actors of note. The Atom was voiced by Pat Harrington, Jr., who would go on to play Schneider on the sitcom One Day at a Time. Hawkman was played by Vic Perrin who would go on to voice Sinestro on the aforementioned Challenge of the Superfriends. Ted Knight, who became famous as the narrator for the Super Friends (MEANWHILE BACK AT THE HALL OF JUSTICE!) also got his start as the narrator on this show.
But of special significance is the fact that Superman was voiced for the final time on this show by Bud Collyer who has originated the voice role of the Man of Steel on both the radio show in the 40s as well as the famous Max Fleischer cartoons.
In the end though, 1969 saw this series cancelled from TV not because of poor ratings, but actually the opposite. The cartoon was so popular that it became a target of the grass roots activist group Action for Children’s Television, who claimed the show promoted violence with all the punches Supeman was throwing at the bad guys. As a result of the negative publicity, the show was cancelled and it wouldn’t be until 1973’s previously mentioned Super Friends show before DC Super heroes would grace children’s Saturday morning airways again.
In closing, although I haven’t watched anywhere near all of the episodes of this cartoon series, here are 3 episodes I have seen that I can recommend you give a gander the next time you are bored and decide you need a classic Silver Age DC comic fix. After all they are only 5-6 minutes long…
1) Bad Day on Black Mountain
As I mentioned above, one of the real treats of this series was the Justice League of America shorts as it gave an opportunity to see many of the classic members of this legendary team in that terrific Filmation style. Of the 3 episodes made of this particular show segment, Bad Day at Black Mountain is probably my favorite just simply because it’s actually got a decent villain.
Although they give zero backstory to the alien threat known simply as “Mastermind”, he’s actually done his homework in regards to a winning strategy to overcome some of the most powerful beings in existence. He initially goads the JLA into attacking him by threatening to reveal their secret identities, which results in separating the “punch first, ask questions later” Superman from the rest of the squad. Always a smart move to eliminate the powerhouse first, as he unceremoniously dumps Supes into a Kryptonite filled cage.
From there, he attacks multiple targets such as setting fire to the water surrounding Metropolis while at the same time launching a massive missile bombardment. This fractures the Justice League even further as they have to divide their forces to meet the various threats simultaneously.
Of course, Mastermind didn’t count on the combined forces of The Flash and The Atom who really do work as a tremendous team in this one. Their friendly banter and genuine camaraderie make for a wonderfully fun and exciting little story.
2) Superman Meets Brainiac
Of all the Superman foes, Brainiac, for me has always been the most interesting. The alien nature of this walking/talking super computer, his shared connection to Superman’s home planet, even his green skin which seems to conjure up visions of Kryptonite, one of the Man of Steel’s only weaknesses, makes him much more of formidable opponent than some crazy Earth scientist with an inferiority complex.
This particular episode marks Brainiac’s first television appearance, although he doesn’t have the exact same backstory as he does in the comics. In this series, Brainiac was built by a fellow named Professor Hecla, who was the lone survivor of a nuclear apocalypse that wiped out his entire planet of Mega. Hecla wanted to repopulate his dead world so he sends Brainiac to Earth to capture via a shrinking ray suitable specimens to do so. Of course to do so, Brainiac needs to collect both male and female members of each species, and thus turns his attention on Superman and Lois believing them to be examples of the human species. Of course, once on board Brainiac’s space ship, Supes manages to outwit Brainac and return he and Lois to the appropriate size again before escaping back to Earth.
Voiced by Cliff Owens, Brainac would go on to appear in several more episodes of this series, most notably teaming up with fellow Superman baddies, Lex Luthor and The Warlock, to form one of the more ridiculously named super villain groups ever in the Men from A.P.E. (short for Allied Perpetrators of Evil) I’m surprised they didn’t ask Gorilla Grood to join that group just to be thematic…
3) Evil is as Evil Does
Remember how I mentioned above that there weren’t a ton of villains from the actual DC comics that appeared in a lot of these cartoons, as most of the baddies were very generic “invaders from outer space” types. Remember also though that I pointed out there was an episode where Green Lantern battled a villain named Evil Star who has had a somewhat decent presence in the comics. I thought given it was somewhat rare to get a real DC super villain in one of these shorts, I’d take a moment to highlight this particular one.
Evil Star behaves a lot like other major Green Lantern villains like Sinestro would in that he’s an interplanetary threat that uses a weapon similar to the Power Ring to create offensive and defensive weapons out of thin air. He manages to transmute clouds in to fire, ensnare Green Lantern in tentacles made from rock formations, and levitate entire buildings off the ground. As such, he is really a good opponent for GL in that our hero has to use his creativity instead of just raw power to counter Evil Star’s attacks. As such, the episode is a pretty good match of wits between the two equally empowered combatants instead of Green Lantern just overpowering the enemy with brute strength.
Plus, Evil Star has real menace as he even threatens Green Lantern’s bosses, the Guardians on Oa, at one point. Compared to some of the other foes GL battles in the other two shorts created about him, who are particularly cheesy, this Evil Star episode does deliver on some genuine excitement which is a treat for anyone that really does love this character!