In television, as in all other fields of endeavour, relative status is seldom above dispute. However, one of those rare exceptions has to be the studio created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, who became the dominant producers of television animation throughout the last half of the 20th century. Hanna and Barbera certainly had the pedigrees to earn that distinction. They had worked as an animation team at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon studio, beginning in 1939. There, they created the famous MGM cartoon pair of Tom and Jerry, and went on to win eight Academy Awards directing the animated tussles of the cat-and-mouse duo.
After MGM closed its cartoon studio in 1957, the pair, now established as Hanna-Barbera Enterprises, hired most of the MGM animators, and turned its sights toward the largely untapped medium of television animation. It was an effort which almost died a-borning. Hanna and Barbera discovered that, unlike the movies, television didn’t have the time or the money to produce theatrical-level work. As Joe Barbera once explained, MGM provided the funding for him and Hanna to produce five or six two-reel Tom and Jerry cartoons per year, at $40,000 a pop, while television required a five-minute cartoon to be produced every two weeks and provided less than a tenth of the MGM budget. H-B Enterprises had made a deal with Screen Gems, the television division of Columbia Pictures. “We received about $2,700 instead of $40,000,” said Barbera, “and that was after great negotiating and pleading.”
Hanna and Barbera were faced with the dilemma of either producing cartoons economically or going out of business. Necessity resulted in their development of limited animation, the mechanics of which I described back in Part One. This made producing cartoons at television’s pace and budget practical. H-B’s first cartoon series was The Ruff ‘n’ Ready Show, which debuted in 1957. While not a runaway hit, it was successful enough to follow it up with The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958. Huck Hound was H-B’s first genuine triumph, validated by winning of the 1960 Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Children’s Programming. The Huckleberry Hound Show also produced the first television cartoon spin-off, when Yogi Bear, who had occupied the third slot on Huck’s show, graduated to a show of his own in 1961.
Huck and Yogi and H-B’s next entry, Quick Draw McGraw, were syndicated and usually occupied that afternoon “children’s hour” from 4-to-5 p.m. The animation, of course, was inferior to the movie cartoons of the ‘40’s and early ‘50’s, which forced the elimination of many of the clever sight gags that inspired belly laughs in theatre audiences. Nor was the writing of the TV cartoons as piquant or laced with adult-level wisecracks as its movie brethren. Still, the TV cartoon material was clever enough to overcome the limited animation. Hanna and Barbera managed to infuse varying levels of gags and punchlines so that they appealed to small fry and older youngsters alike. And every once in a while, a grown-up would sneak a peek or two.
As H-B refined both the quality of its writing and its mastery of limited animation, it gained enough clout to break into prime-time. It scored a television first by establishing the first prime-time television cartoon, The Flintstones, in 1960. It would also prove to be the team’s greatest evening success, running for six years and generating a never-ending run of spin-offs, commercials, and merchandising.
One would had to have spent the entire decade of the 1950’s living in a cave someplace not to recognise that The Flintstones was a dressed-up version of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners, but somehow, Hanna and Barbera managed to develop the show in such a fashion that it avoided the carbon-copy association and established its own identity. The cleverness in depicting the conveniences of “modern” Stone-Age life helped. Also contributing to The Flintstones’ uniqueness was the show’s willingness to actually evolve. Fred and Wilma produced a child, Pebbles, and we saw them go through the trials and adjustments of early parenthood. A season later, neighbours Barney and Betty adopted a foundling, Bamm-Bamm.
With the success of The Flintstones, more H-B cartoons saw their way into the networks’ evening schedules---The Jetsons, Top Cat, and, quite probably the most well-crafted “kids’ cartoon” of all time, Jonny Quest. Despite employing good scripts and top-notch voice talent, Hanna-Barbera could not get away from the derivative nature of their shows. The Jetsons was a futuristic redux of The Life of Riley; Top Cat was an anthropomorphic version of Sergeant Bilko; and Jonny Quest took its premise from radio’s Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy. None of these follow-on programmes lasted more than a year in their original forms.
The law of diminishing returns had kicked in. The novelty of The Flintstones as a prime-time animated series did not sustain in the H-B’s other prime-time cartoons. The adults looked for other fare, leaving only the kids enjoying them
Consequently, H-B sought more fertile ground and found it in Saturday morning, which had become the province of children’s cartoons. After failing in their prime-time venues, both Top Cat and The Jetsons found slots in the Saturday morning schedule and among the kid-centric audience, garnered healthy ratings. Hanna and Barbera knew then it had found a new home.
I have already discussed how, in 1965, CBS vice-president of daytime programming, Fred Silverman, had taken an active control of the network’s drifting Saturday-morning schedule, giving it the same attention to detail as the nighttime line-up. A year later, as The Flintstones was winding down to its last prime-time season, Silverman was energising Saturday mornings by latching onto the Batmania sweeping the nation. The ABC network had a lock on Batman, so Silverman grabbed up Superman. But it wasn’t enough; he still had a few more Saturday-morning hours to fill.
In 1966, pinchpenny Marvel Comics wasn’t ready to take the animated plunge, so Silverman started looking around for a company that could produce original super-heroes and make them saleable.
Hanna-Barbera had gotten a jump on that sort of thing with its Atom Ant cartoon, which had débuted on NBC the year before. Atom Ant was a curious blend of funny animals, super-hero derring-do, and the campy dialogue of Batman. It wasn’t a world-beater in the ratings, but it proved popular enough to persuade Silverman that Hanna and Barbera could deliver on super-heroes, too. With Silverman’s blessing, H-B came up with two more shows for the 1966 season, jam-packed with costumed crime-fighters.
Frankenstein, Jr., and the Impossibles launched on 10 September 1966. Despite the implication of the name, Frankenstein, Jr., was not related to Mary Shelley’s famous literary monster except, vaguely, in appearance. True, Frankenstein, Jr., had been assembled from parts, but not organic ones. Rather, he was a thirty-foot-tall robot constructed out of transistors, diodes, and servo-mechanisms by one Professor Conroy for his son, Buzz. When crime threatened, Buzz would activate “Franky” with a control ring, then hop onto the giant robot’s back as it flew into action.
While generally sentient and capable of independent use of some standard equipment, such as his jet-propelled astro-boots and fingertip-installed power beams, Frankenstein, Jr., largely relied on the commands of young Buzz to combat the various villains. Buzz’s ring enabled him to activate various devices concealed within the robot’s cavernous chest. Much like Batman and his utility belt, Frankenstein, Jr., almost always “just happened” to have on hand whatever gadget was needed to defeat the current threat hurled against him. Here again, Hanna-Barbera had taken a previous concept---the boy-controlling-a-giant-robot premise had come from the Japanese cartoon Gigantor---and put its own spin on it.
The other half of the show belonged to the Impossibles, a trio of super-heroes who tackled missions assigned to them by “Big D”, the head of a super-secret government agency. The three crime-fighters were Coil Man, whose limbs were constructed of springs; Fluid Man, who could convert his body to water; and the mop-topped Multi-Man, who was able to replicate himself endlessly. In civilian life, they were a rock ‘n’ roll group also named the Impossibles. Fortunately, the public seemed no more able to make the connexion between the two Impossibles trios than it could between the Green Hornet’s sidekick, Kato, and Britt Reid’s valet, Kato. Even if someone had put three and three together, it wouldn’t have mattered much, anyway; the heroes’ private careers as musicians were never expanded upon. It was simply a plot device, in hopes of further luring young viewers, by inserting some knock-off rock ‘n’ roll numbers into the action.
While not outright comedies, the adventures of both Frankenstein, Jr., and the Impossibles were light-weight. The emphasis was on simple super-hero action, punctuated by gags taken straight from Joe Miller’s Joke Book. These were romps, watered down to a child’s level, with no real sense of menace.
That was the last thing one could say about Hanna-Barbera’s other 1966 offering.
Space Ghost was ultra-serious and loaded with menace---and that was only the beginning of the things the show had going for it.
Space Ghost, the character, was an interstellar free-lance law-enforcement officer who patrolled the galaxy. Like any self-respecting super-hero, he had a variety of powers and gimmicks at his command. He possessed an unusually high degree of durability and strength, on top of which, he could survive unaided underwater and in the vacuum of space. But the most notable of all of his abilities were his power bands.
The power bands were twin wristlets equipped with three buttons each, but there seemed to be no end of capabilities in those six push-switches. Not only did they permit Space Ghost to fly and to become unseen (by activating his “inviso-power”), they emitted ray beams capable of whatever the writers could think of, and they could think of a lot of them. With a press of one of those buttons, Space Ghost could activate a magnetic ray, a force ray, a battering-ram ray, an electro-shock ray, a sonic-vibro ray, a heat ray, a freeze ray, a stun ray, a pile-driver ray, a force ray, a scatter ray, a locking ray, a laser beam, a megaton-force ray, an anti-matter ray, a destroyer ray, a reversing-force ray, a hypno ray, a force shield, or the ability to create a time warp.
Unlike most cartoon super-heroes, Space Ghost was given a particularly full mythos. His headquarters was based on the Ghost Planet, and he did his patrolling in a stylised spacecraft called the Phantom Cruiser. He was assisted in his crime-fighting by the teen-age twins Jan and Jace, outfitted in matching costumes. Also along for the ride was the monkey Blip, also decked out in the same uniform as the twins. As with most cartoon-hero pets, Blip was both unusually intelligent for his species and the source of the few bits of humour the show permitted. Space Ghost, the teens, and the monkey would all stay in touch through communicators installed in the triangular ghost-motif insignia they all wore.
While the rich background added to the character’s popularity, there was a shroud of mystery about Space Ghost which the fans found equally fascinating. Either through omission or intent, many questions were never addressed. Space Ghost’s face was never seen, nor was he ever given a real name or origin. It was presumed that he was from Earth, but that in no way was certain.
Nor was the relationship between Space Ghost and the twins, Jan and Jace, certain, either. Were they his younger siblings? His own children? It was generally assumed that they were his wards, but like so many other personal details, who knew? Viewers weren’t even told if Space Ghost’s adventures took place in the present or in the future. These unanswered questions only added to the character’s mystique.
So much came together to make Space Ghost a stand-out effort. The heroes’ costumes were designed by famed comic-book artist Alex Toth, who also did the story boards for the cartoon, giving it a sleek look that made even the limited animation seem elegant. And the modulated baritone of announcer Gary Owens served as Space Ghost’s voice, contributing to much of the character’s heroic bearing.
But more than anything else, what made Space Ghost memorable was its drama. His were no light-hearted, giggle-laced, catch-the-bad-guy adventures. Fighting crime in outer space was serious business. Space Ghost was no-nonsense, approaching every situation with the attitude that the world was about to end at any minute (and in many of the plots, it was). He gave his opponents no quarter. None of this “code against killing” business that most super-heroes followed (or tried to). If Space Ghost could take out a villain with his disintegration ray, he didn’t think twice about it. Usually the chief bad guy survived to make return appearances (not from Space Ghost’s lack of effort, though), but his henchmen usually wound up melted, frozen, pulped, vapourised, or crushed under a mammoth piece of machinery.
To be fair, most of them had it coming. A Space Ghost villain was truly evil. Ordinary bank robbers and hold-up men were beneath the hero. His quarry was the world-dominator, the purveyor of mass destruction, the seeker of galactic conquest. Space Ghost’s rogues’ gallery was an array of bizarre and alien beings, with names like Brak, Mettalus, Zorak, the Spider-Woman, Moltar, Pirahnor, and Dr. Nightmare. As designed by Toth, their appearances alone would give the viewers the chills.
The villains’ plans usually included planetary take-over, widespread destruction, and/or robbery on a massive scale. Occasionally, they focused their efforts on Space Ghost directly, either through a desire for revenge or in acknowledgement that, if their plans were to succeed, they would have to take the super-hero out first. In these cases, the bad guy usually stuck at Space Ghost’s weakest point, the teens Jan and Jace. While, unlike most cartoon youngsters, Jan and Jace were intelligent and competent, they were far more vulnerable to ambush than their older brother/father/mentor/whatever. Even with the twins in peril, Space Ghost remained undaunted. No matter what the danger or disadvantage, Space Ghost was grim-facedly determined and unbending. Just about the only time the stony set of his jaw lightened into a smile was at some fade-out antic of Blip or the particularly satisfying end of a villain.
Almost lost in the majestic sweep of the galactic hero was the cartoon series sandwiched between the two Space Ghost episodes in every show. This was Dino Boy in the Lost Valley. Dino Boy was Todd, a normal American boy approximately twelve years of age (old enough to be reasonably capable, young enough to still think girls were yucky). According to the premise, told at the beginning of every episode, Todd was forced to parachute from a disabled aeroplane. He landed in the Lost Valley, an uncharted area that had inexplicably remained in the prehistoric era. There he befriended the caveman, Ugh, and they shared many adventures, usually following the formula of becoming the captives of yet another unseen tribe or race every week. Ostensibly, Dino Boy was trying to find a way out of the Lost Valley, but he never seemed too distressed at not having colour television, hi-fi, or a MacDonald’s. (Probably because he didn’t have any school, either.)
It didn’t matter. Nobody cared. Everybody tuned in to watch Space Ghost and went into the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal when Dino Boy came on.
There would be more super-heroes to come, but Hanna-Barbera had struck gold with Space Ghost. Atom Ant, the Impossibles, and Frankenstein, Jr., would be forgotten in due time, but Space Ghost was emblazoned into the brains of an entire generation of youthful viewers. Of all of the original super-heroes created for Saturday-morning cartoons, he would be the most memorable and enduring. Space Ghost was the best that Saturday-morning super-hero cartoons had to offer.
In one very critical aspect, he was also the worst. But I’m getting ‘way ahead of myself there. We have a couple more chapters to explore first.
Eric L. Sofer said:
Mrs. Quest - in non-canonical reference, the series I keep hyping, "Future Quest", shows a flashback where the Quests and the Conroys (et. al.) were working on a defense project sabotaged by F.E.A.R., and Mrs. Quest and Mr. Conroy were killed.
Which goes to the reason I stated that I would not like Future Quest. As we all know, in the real Frankenstein, Jr. series, Buzz's father, Professor Conroy, was alive and well. This change was undoubtedly made because of modern sensibilities ("This is the twenty-first century; more of the authority figures have to be female.")
This is why, when someone tries to persuade me to see or read something because "it's just like the Silver Age", I know it won't be.
Very right, my friend. It would go against at least a little of the established canon... and no, you would not like that. I get that... heck, it's kinda the way I see every new super hero movie.