As difficult as it may be for some of you youngsters out there to believe, there was a time when Marvel Comics wasn’t the overwhelming, cross-media monolith of the comics industry. In the early and mid-1960’s, Marvel was the Avis of comics publishers---number two and trying harder. After struggling along on shoestring budgets throughout the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Marvel was just beginning to capture a healthy share of the comics market. It was gaining on DC, the heavyweight of the industry, and naturally, that’s where Martin Goodman and Stan Lee (Marvel’s publisher and editor-in-chief, respectively) concentrated company resources. Consequently, there was little funding left over for forays into other media.
But if there was one thing Stan Lee knew, it was how to promote a product. His bombastic, all-head-full promotion of Marvel was as responsible as anything else for the success of its comics line. He saw the overwhelming success of The New Adventures of Superman on Saturday mornings; more important, he saw how the cartoon had translated into higher sales for DC’s comics line. Television, realised Stan, was a way of putting Marvel’s super-heroes into every home in America.
But leave it to Stan and Marvel to do things the unconventional way. While Superman and a mob of other super-heroes were taking over Saturday morning TV, Marvel-based cartoons planted their flag in untapped territory: late weekday afternoons.
Once upon a time in America, local television stations devoted late weekday afternoon---four-to-five-thirty p.m.---to kids’ programming. The usual format was to have a live host (generally, one of the station personalities decked out as an avuncular character) present admixtures of cartoons, Our Gang and Three Stooges shorts, and even some silent-film comedies packaged with voice-overs. In the Cleveland area where I grew up, WEWS’ Captain Penny and KYW’s Barnaby (an adult-sized “leprechaun” who wasn’t beyond slipping in an adult-sized one-liner once in awhile) ruled the late-afternoon slots. This after-school audience Stan Lee could target without the competition he would face from the networks on Saturday morning.
In 1966, Martin Goodman approached Canadian-based Grantray-Lawrence Animation to produce a series of cartoons. Grantray-Lawrence had been formed in 1954 by former MGM animators Grant Simmons and Ray Patterson, in partnership with New York commercial producer Robert Lawrence. Like Filmation, Grantray-Lawrence had survived by cranking out animated television commercials. The animation company’s most attractive quality, as far as Goodman was concerned, was that it could produce the cartoons within the whisker-thin budget that Marvel provided.
In the fall of 1966, the final product, Marvel Super Heroes, made its debut. Marvel Super Heroes was an umbrella title for five Marvel characters---Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and the Sub-Mariner---each of which were given thirteen episodes, with each episode consisting of three “chapters”. The cartoons were put into syndication, which meant that Marvel sold them to various local television stations to fill their late weekday afternoon, kid-heavy slots. The structure of one episode divided into three parts was perfect for syndication. A station could run one complete episode of given hero on each day, with each of the five heroes assigned to a particular day of the week. This was the way the show was originally packaged by most affiliates. Or a single day’s show could be composed using one part from three heroes’ episodes, creating cliffhangers to bring the fans back the next day.
Marvel Super Heroes is best remembered to-day for its poor quality. Grantray-Lawrence didn’t just cut corners; it slashed them smooth. The scripts were lifted, word for word, from the stories in the comics, thus saving the animation company the cost of writers. As for the animation, Marvel Super Heroes made other limited animation look like a Max Fleischer two-reeler. Grantray-Lawrence used a process called xerography. Images from the actual comics would be photocopied (sometimes entire panels) and then manipulated across the screen. This minimised the need for any actual animation.
Each cartoon was essentially a series of static panels, in each of which, a figure would be swooped across the screen, or only an arm or a leg would move. Sometimes, the eerie process of Syncro-Vox would be used to simulate moving lips when a character talked. Often, even those measures were avoided. In those instances, camera tricks, such as a swift pan across the panel or a rapid zoom-in, were used to simulate motion.
The initial syndication period for Marvel Super Heroes ended on 01 December 1966. Despite heavy advertising for the show in the Marvel comics themselves, it didn’t make nearly the impact that the Saturday-morning super-heroes did. The basic problem was insufficient exposure. The show hadn’t sold to enough outlets to make it truly nationwide. And without the power of network advertising pushing it, the only way most young viewers even knew that Marvel Super Heroes existed was if they read about it in Marvel comics. If one wasn’t a Marvel fan, he most likely didn’t know about the cartoon. If one was a Marvel fan, he was often frustrated because none of the stations in his area carried it. If Marvel was going to benefit from the super-hero-cartoon boom, it was going to have to squeeze into a slot on Saturdays.
And that brings us back to Fred Silverman and also to the Beatles. Yeah, the “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” guys. Those Beatles.
Fred Silverman’s efforts to capitalise on the super-hero craze inspired by Batmania had attracted more than just hordes of excited youngsters; it grabbed the attention of advertisers who were funneling piles of money CBS’s way. And that sure didn’t escape the notice of the suits over at NBC and ABC. NBC had revamped its 1966 Saturday-morning line-up to include one super-hero cartoon, and it would add several more the following season.
But as far as 1966 was concerned, ABC was standing pat. That’s because it already had a monster hit and one that had nothing to do with super-heroes.
In 1965, ABC had stuck gold with a cartoon series based on the Beatles. The animated adventures of John, Paul, George, and Ringo had a frenetic zaniness (duplicated later by the live-action Monkees) yet remained true to the boys’ personalities. Much of the cartoon’s popularity came from the generous use of the real group’s songs, inserted into each episode (again, as the Monkees would later). The cartoon Beatles had caught the end of rock-and-roll’s “British Invasion” and was riding that wave all the way to the bank.
The Beatles was ABC’s first daytime-television ratings winner ever, and the network felt confident keeping its Saturday-morning schedule intact for 1966. Come the fall of that year, ABC gave only a nod to the super-hero craze, and it was barely a nod, at that, by introducing a single new show, King Kong. The animated version of the giant ape had to be modified, of course. He was friendly now, at least with the Bond family, whom he helped on their adventures.
That would prove to be a misjudgement.
For the new fall season, CBS put its new Hanna-Barbera hero, Space Ghost, up against the cartoon Fab Four, and the kids couldn’t change channels fast enough. The Beatles clung to respectable ratings, but ABC’s brief reign as King of Saturday Morning was over. Not only had the network underestimated the fervour of the super-hero fad, worse yet, it had no real super-hero cartoons in production.
ABC was in a tail-chase; CBS and NBC already had super-heroes in their schedules. ABC needed to come up with something in time for the 1967 fall season. The timing couldn’t have been better for Marvel. The comics company had wasted the first year of the craze with the weekday-afternoon Marvel Super Heroes, and it was playing catch-up, too.
Marvel had the product, but needed space on a network’s Saturday-morning schedule. ABC had the space, but needed the product. They worked it out, and on 09 September 1967, two Marvel cartoons debuted on ABC : The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.
The Fantastic Four was Marvel’s first truly animated cartoon, and not just because it aired a half-hour before Spider-Man. The FF cartoon had gone into production first. Over the summer, Marvel had put up the television rights to the Fantastic Four---its only headline feature whose TV rights were not already owned by Grantray-Lawrence---to the highest bidder. The Hanna-Barbera studios already had a lock on Saturdays with its original super-hero cartoons, and it saw the Fantastic Four, with an already-established fan base, as a sure-fire hit. And it didn’t hurt that, of the leading animation companies producing television cartoons, H-B had the deepest pockets.
Once it had gained the rights to the Fantastic Four, Hanna-Barbera made sure it delivered a grade-A product. Famed comics illustrator Alex Toth drafted the character designs, presenting a sleek and accurate depiction of the super-hero quartet. The vocal talent was equally impressive. Veteran film actor Gerald Mohr was Reed Richards, while perennial television guest-star Jo Ann Pflug voiced the Invisible Girl’s lines. The wit and syntax of Ben Grimm were as much a part of the Thing’s character as his rocky orange hide, and H-B nailed it solidly by hiring the uncannily facile talents of Paul Frees. (Over the course of his career, the versatile Frees would provide voices for nine major animation studios.)
A fan of the comic-book Fantastic Four felt completely at home watching the animated version. Many of the episodes were plotted directly from certain key issues, and while on occasion, certain liberties were taken in order to streamline the stories to fit into the half-hour running time, the details of the characters were accurate. The result was a surprisingly mature show, exhibiting little of the “dumbing down” for younger viewers seen in DC-based cartoons.
Meanwhile, the animated adventures of Spider-Man were entrusted to Grantray-Lawrence Animation, the producers of Marvel Super Heroes. It wouldn’t do to have Marvel’s most popular character suffer from the same static approach Grantray-Lawrence took with Marvel Super Heroes. So Spider-Man was given the typical limited-animation treatment. Still, the animators found ways to cut the cost further, some of which annoyed die-hard Spidey fans. The webbing on Spider-Man’s costume, the intricacy of which would have given the draftsmen migraines, was eliminated in the cartoon version, except for on his mask, gloves, and boots. Another obvious costume discrepancy was found in the spider-emblems on the Web-Slinger’s chest and back -- they bore six legs, rather than eight. Stock shots, such as Spidey swinging web-to-web across the city, were reused even more often than usual for limited animation. Grantray-Lawrence hadn’t totally abandoned xerography, either. One of the overused stock scenes was that of a photocopied Ditko Spider-Man swooping toward the viewer.
The 1967 scripts were relatively simplistic; they boiled down to formula: a super-villain strikes, Spidey loses the first round with him, and then comes back to defeat the bad guy in their second encounter. The character relationships relied heavily on the triangle of Peter Parker (secretly Spider-Man), J. Jonah Jameson (his boss), and Betty Brant (his girlfriend and Jameson’s secretary). That was a misstep which nagged the comic-book Spidey fans who watched the show, since, by 1967, Betty Brant was no longer a prominent character in the comic.
Grantray-Lawrence’s Spider-Man may have been a less elegant product than Hanna-Barbera’s Fantastic Four; nevertheless, the Webhead’s cartoon would prove to be far more memorable, on the strength of what is most probably the most famous vocal theme of any cartoon. All I have to write here is: “Spider-Man! Spider-Man! _________________!” And everyone of you reading this has mentally filled in the blank. You can’t help it.
The infectious theme song was written by Bob Harris, who provided the music, and Academy Award winner Paul Francis Webster, who wrote the lyrics. The tune, with its surf-guitar bass, heavy brass lines, and jazzy scoring, has become a popular standard that continues to surface in modern-era Spider-Man productions. The first three live-action Spider-Man films of the twenty-first century included renditions of the song, either as busking in the films themselves, or to score the closing credits.
The cartoon Spider-Man would also prove to be more successful than the animated Fantastic Four by another yardstick. While only twenty episodes of The Fantastic Four were ever made, Spider-Man would go on to have three full seasons’ worth, or fifty-two episodes.
Unfortunately, the success of Spider-Man did not translate into success for Grantray-Lawrence. The animation company went bankrupt at the end of 1967. The final two seasons of Spider-Man were crafted by producer Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi jolted the show out of its mundane formula and introduced a vaguely film noir atmosphere. He also marginalised the presence of Betty Brant and Jonah Jameson, making the cartoon more palatable to the comic fans.
As with over at DC, once it got a toehold in animation, Marvel would become a regular presence in the cartoon market. Both Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four would return in updated formats. There were a couple of what-were-they-thinking? efforts, to be sure. (Fred and Barney Meet the Thing, anyone?) But mostly, Marvel was able to take advantage of the tight continuity of its universe and present an expanding list of cartoons, lush with imagination (thrilling the casual viewers) and detail (satisfying the comics purists).
The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man were badly needed successes for ABC. While neither show reached the pre-super-hero-boom heights of The Beatles, they earned competitive ratings, enabling the network to hold its own against CBS and NBC on Saturdays.
It worked both ways. The popularity of the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four cartoons raised the television fans’ interest in the heroes’ four-colour adventures, thus giving Marvel Comics another boost in its effort to overtake DC.
Interestingly, though, for all of their respective horsepower, neither Marvel nor DC could claim kid-vid supremacy. Next time, we’ll talk about the true kings of Saturday-morning super-herodom.
Ronald Morgan said:
Most of the Marvel Super Heroes is no longer on youtube. Marvel must have noticed them.
If Marvel* cares enough to take them off YouTube it would be nice to think they would care enough to put them out in a collection.
Many of the shows referenced here are ones I got to see as syndicated reruns, not first airings. I do remember actually seeing the Beatles cartoon towards the end of it's run as well as Fantastic Four and Spider-man, although I'd attribute the latter to the theme song primarily (what can I say, I was three)ed e limit.
Regarding the Marvel Super-Heroes, I remember being frustrated by the lack of a complete story. It wasn't so much the limited animation that was the problem but rather whether I could get home from school in time to catch that day's episode.
Vaguely remember these poor things except for the Beatles, which I discovered only many years later. Interesting the guy in charge of their show was the same guy that would eventually approve of Yellow Submarine.
The earlier ones had two episodes. That changed I guess when Bakshi showed up and did weird things like the alien bug man that had been on Rocket Robin Hood. I remember he also had girls in some episodes that looked identical but he'd give them different names. Except of course for Mary Jane and her "Uncle" Captain Stacy.
Right at the end of the show. The company was having trouble staying in business.
I recall seeing the Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon in '66/'67 -- it would have had to have been prior to April 1967 when we moved to Japan and I would only have been 4 years old at the time but despite the crude animation my little kid former self instantly loved them and I'm pretty sure that was my introduction to Marvel Comics characters and somehow they made a good impression on me. After we came back to the U.S. in 1970 I recall seeing both the FF & Spider-Man cartoons and loved those too and by that time I was already hooked on the comics as well.