At the request of my pal, Jeff of Earth-J, who is hosting a thread on the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the mid-1960's, I'm re-running my 2008 seven-part series on Saturday-morning super-hero cartoons from that era. That gives me a chance to polish it and improve the information that I put out nine years ago. So if this sort of thing interests you, settle in, because it's going to be quite a ride.
If you were a kid anytime from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, Saturday-morning television held a special significance. That was your time. It was the only morning grown-ups had to sleep late (Monday through Friday were workdays; Sunday meant church). This is how network programmers saw it, and so all three channels turned their Saturday-morning schedules over to children’s fare.
(You heard me right, youngsters---three channels. Back in the olden days, we had only three networks to watch: CBS, NBC, and ABC. And most of it was in black-and-white.)
In the early years, Saturday-morning “kid-vid” was an eclectic mixture. You had educational programmes, such as The Ding Dong School and The Children’s Corner. You had puppet shows, like Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. And you had live-action shows. Lots of those. In every genre imaginable---comedy (Smilin’ Ed’s Gang, Mr. I Magination), adventure (Steve Canyon, Captain Midnight), science fiction (Captain Video, Rocky Jones, Space Patrol), western (The Roy Rogers Show, The Gene Autry Show), and kinda-sorta western (Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, Sky King).
So, right about now, you’re probably saying to yourselves, “Gee, thanks for the ancient history lesson, commander, but what does any of this have to do with comic books and the Silver Age?”
Nothing really. Not yet. Some of the kids’ shows crossed over into the comic books, sure, but there was nary a super-hero in sight on Saturday morning.
But there would be. In fact, the drought would turn into a deluge. And it would all happen in that magic year---1966.
In the earliest days of television, Saturday mornings had teachers and puppets, cowboys and spacemen. But no cartoons.
Oh, animation was considered a respectable enough form of entertainment. As lead-ins to feature films, cartoons dazzled the audiences with dynamics of art and motion. Fine detail, both in design and in movement, allowed for subtlety, while the verisimilitude of colour and shadings provided sweeping vistas. The dramatic plots inspired thrills; the witty, incisive dialogue and clever sight gags inspired laughter. It made sense that animation could similarly entertain the television audience. But that wasn’t the problem.
The problem was, as it usually is, money. Full animation entails an expensive, laborious process. It was one thing to produce a dozen two-reelers a year for theatre distribution; it was another to produce an entire season of episodes for an animated television series. Live-action programmes were cheaper.
As the ‘50’s gave way to ‘60’s, something would happen to change that assessment. Animators had learnt how to make cartoons on the cheap. The Hanna-Barbera studios, in particular, took the lead in developing corner-cutting techniques which made cartoons economically feasible for television. Instead of providing full motion, the animators had devised methods to provide the illusion of motion. Characters were drawn with a minimum of movement. If a figure spoke, only his mouth moved. If he had to grab something, only his arm moved, while the rest of him remained static. This way, the animator could use the master shot over and over, with a minimum of changes from cel to cel, rather than the painstaking work of drawing each one individually.
As a result of this limited animation, the fluidity was gone. Characters seemed stiff and there was a nagging repetitiveness about what little motion there was.
In some cases, artful writing made up for the drawbacks in the animation. Shows like The Flintstones and The Jetsons made creative use of time-honoured premises. Others, like Rocky and Bullwinkle, entertained viewers with sharp gags and witticisms that worked on more than one level. But those were the exceptions. On most animated TV series, the writing was too juvenile for adults who had grown up on the sophistication of moviehouse cartoons.
Thus, animation was increasingly seen as a medium for children (whom, it was gathered, had less demanding standards), and its scheduling migrated from prime-time to Saturday morning. At the same time, the economy of limited animation now allowed the studios to crank out a season’s worth of shows more cheaply than live-action programmes. As the 1960’s progressed, cartoons replaced shows with live actors or moved their reruns to the Phantom Zone of Sunday-morning programming. 1966 was a watershed year, in that it was the first year that all three networks broadcast blocks composed of nothing but cartoons on Saturday morning.
While still relying on old stand-bys, such as Bugs Bunny and Popeye, each network wanted new series for its kid-vid line-up. Animation studios Hanna-Barbera, DePatie-Freling, and FIlmation were the beneficiaries of the shift to all-cartoon programming, but it was one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for situations, as suddenly the animators had to fill three-to-four hours with original series. But before the first line of the new cartoons could be drawn, they had to come up with a concept. The notion of funny animals had been mined until the vein had pretty much run dry; besides, the limited-animation cartoons would be hard-pressed to compete with the full-animation re-runs of Tom and Jerry, Bugs, and the Road Runner.
They needed a new direction. Fortunately, a wildly popular national phenomenon would hand it to them on a silver platter.
For those of you who weren’t around at the time, there’s really no way, no matter how much I try to explain it, for you to really know how the Batman television show took the country by storm. It was the break-out hit of ABC’s 1966 “Second Season”. Ostensibly, Batman was a drama, but it was played as a spoof by the simple expedient of overplaying the usual comic-book conventions. I talked about the effects of the show’s incredible popularity in one of my columns, and that was still understating it. In a phrase, the country had gone Bat-crazy.
Every generation has its fads, but most of them belong only to certain sub-sets of America---college students, for example, or maybe pre-adolescents. But there have been only a few truly national fads, and Batman was one of them. The effect was so pronounced and wide-spread, it was given a name of its own: Batmania.
Some of the Bat-fall-out settled on the comic books from which the show had sprung. The formerly sagging sales of Batman and Detective Comics were now soaring, to the point where, for the first time in DC’s existence, comics featuring the Caped Crusader were outselling Superman. Knowing a gold mine when it found one, DC found excuses to insert Batman and Robin into as many of its titles as possible. The Masked Manhunter virtually took over Justice League of America and The Brave and the Bold.
Super-hero comics, in general, received a shot in the arm. Other comics companies, such as MLJ and Harvey and Dell---publishers that had either been long out of the super-hero business or never had been in it to begin with---sought to capitalise on the craze by introducing new super-hero titles. The new costumed characters of these also-ran publishers met with varying degrees of success, but none of them came close to the popularity of DC. Or of the “trying harder” number-two company, Marvel, that somehow resisted jumping on the camp bandwagon; it continued to grow simply by doing what it had been doing all along, only better.
There was no getting around the fact that the public, and especially the kids, had super-heroes on the brain. And those animation studios looking for a new concept for their Saturday-morning cartoons didn’t need any houses to fall on them.
Not that super-heroes were complete strangers to animation. There was the series of Superman cartoons from the ‘40’s, beautifully rendered by the Fleischer studios. And in the early ‘60’s, local TV stations imported the Japanese cartoons Astro Boy and 8th Man.
American animators toyed with the super-hero concept with such fare as Colonel Bleep and The Space Angel, but it was hard to argue that The Mighty Hercules was anything but a super-hero. Produced by Trans-Lux, The Mighty Hercules hit the airwaves in 1963. It was a reworking of the mythological hero, Hercules. While generally adhering to the known mythology, The Mighty Hercules twisted it a bit to include some typical super-hero conventions. For one thing, the show introduced the premise that Hercules lost his super-human strength whenever he travelled to Earth from his home on Mount Olympus. To compensate, his father, Zeus, had given him a magic ring which, when donned by Hercules, restored his vast might. The scene of Hercules donning his ring, which occurred at least once an episode, was one of the cartoon’s signature moments.
Hercules was also given a sidekick, an annoyingly screechy-voiced centaur named Newton, and a girlfriend, Helena. The limited animation was nothing to write home about, but the show evinced a certain style that made it memorable. The recurring villains, such as Daedalus and the Mask of Vulcan, were genuinely unnerving, and the superb voice work of Jimmy Tapp made Hercules’ often-overblown dialogue sound natural. Most memorable was the theme song, sung by Johnny Nash, which once heard was impossible to forget. A bold, brassy instrumental version would be heard at least once on the soundtrack of every episode. It was the viewer’s audio cue that Herc was about to kick the villain’s ass.
Those were syndicated cartoons, sold to local networks, but as early as 1964, the networks had dabbled in the super-hero genre. Not wanting to stray too far from the established television cartoon concepts, they relied on anthropomorphic heroes. Underdog, first broadcast by NBC in 1964, was clear parody of Superman. Whenever danger threatened, mild-mannered hound, “loveable Shoeshine Boy”, would duck into a telephone booth and become the super-powered Underdog. His girlfriend was TV reporter Sweet Polly Purebred, and his most frequent foe was Simon bar Sinister, an even uglier version of Lex Luthor.
Atom Ant debuted a year later, over at CBS. Though the insect hero boasted powers similar to Superman, the style of the show, with its melodramatic dialogue and campy situations, could have been a model for the Batman television show to come.
Though Underdog is the more fondly remembered of the two, both shows were popular enough to entertain youngsters for several years.
Hercules, Underdog, and Atom Ant were only the first trickles of Saturday-morning super-heroics. The dam was about to burst. We’ll talk about the flood of September, 1966, next time out.
One of its meanings is "son" (as in "bar mitzvah"). In "Simon bar Koseva" it's part of a patronymic. But apparently it can also mean "grain" and "pure".
There's more information on the origin of the term "bar sinister" here. Apparently "bend sinister" is more correct as in English heraldry a bar is a horizontal line, but "barre" is the French equivalent of "bend".
Actually, a bar sinister is a left handed lawyer. Simon failed out of law school, so he became a criminal... no, wait, that's probably the same thing.
I wonder who named their kid "Thug." How cruel can you be?
We got a lot of non-super stuff too. Beetle Bailey. Snuffy Smith. Krazy Kat.