Between the vast imagination of Hanna-Barbera and the twin super-hero mines of DC and Marvel, there were hit shows enough to go around. CBS, thanks to Fred Silverman’s instincts and ambition, had most of them, but a few nuggets dropped into the line-ups of NBC and ABC, as well. Still, television is a bandwagon industry; when something proves to be a hit, everybody else is eager to jump on. And many times, in that eagerness, some things get on the air that probably didn’t get thought all the way through.
Timing counts, too. It’s a matter of figuring out just what the next viewers’ fad will be and then jumping on right at the crest of it. Too soon, and a show risks missing the audience completely; too late, and it gets buried amid a throng of carbon-copies.
This time around, I’m going to talk about the super-hero cartoons of 1966-8 that floundered and then foundered, some because of a matter of poor timing, others because of poor execution, and at least one with a concept too stupid to live. Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of them. Trust me, they were on the air. Honest.
The Mighty Heroes, CBS, 1966-7. Even before that magic year of 1966, Saturday-morning television had featured adventures of funny-animal-type super-heroes, with NBC’s Underdog and Atom Ant. However, CBS could lay claim to the grand-daddy of all anthropomorphic crime-busters---Mighty Mouse! Created by Paul Terry, founder and head of Terrytoons, Mighty Mouse debuted in 1942, in the theatrical short Mouse of Tomorrow. (Originally, Terry named his rodent star “Super-Mouse”, but changed it after discovering that DC had spun off a character of the same name, based on you-know-who.)
While never a box-office smash, like Bugs Bunny or Tom and Jerry, Mighty Mouse continued to appear in a number of theatrical cartoons every year, and he was Terrytoon’s most popular character. It took television, though, to turn the Mouse of Tomorrow into a cultural icon. In 1955, Paul Terry sold Terrytoons to CBS, and in the fall of that year, The Mighty Mouse Playhouse debuted on Saturday mornings. Throughout 1959-61, Terrytoons cranked out a handful of new Mighty Mouse cartoons for the show, but primarily CBS relied upon the inventory of the character’s theatrical shorts to keep the kiddies entertained.
By 1966, though, the endless repeats were running out of gas, so CBS, following Fred Silverman’s direction, decided to pump up the franchise. The network jettisoned all of the cartoons featuring Terrytoon’s other characters and replaced them with new cartoons featuring a group of super-heroes called, unimaginatively, “the Mighty Heroes”. The name of the show was changed to Mighty Mouse & the Mighty Heroes, with the Mighty Heroes cartoons occupying the first and last spots on the bill, sandwiching the Mighty Mouse reruns between.
The Mighty Heroes were the brain-children of Ralph Bakshi, then a youthful animator for Terrytoons. As the story goes, at a 1966 meeting between CBS and Terrytoons to determine what would be put on the air in the upcoming fall, the network rejected every series proposal prepared by Terrytoons staffers. When asked if the animation company had any more ideas, Bakshi, who had been invited to sit in on the meeting, improvised the idea of the Mighty Heroes on the spot and sold CBS on it.
Truth to tell, the name of the group was the only thing unimaginative about it. The Mighty Heroes was a team of crime-fighters that operated in the city of Good Haven. Whenever evil threatened, the police would set off a fireworks display to summon them. Responding to the call would be Strong Man, the Superman send-up, a good-ol’-boy mechanic in civilian life who possessed the strength of an ox and the intellect to match; Tornado Man, a television weatherman who could spin himself into a whirlwind; Rope Man, a too-talkative deckhand whose super-hero persona seemed to be constructed out of rope, capable of stretching great lengths or converting into nets; Cuckoo Man, a bird-shop owner whose powers were bird-based, but the only one he ever used much was his ability to fly and he had trouble doing that; and Diaper Man, a toddler, but one who was (without explanation) mentally articulate. He was the brains of the group.
As if you couldn’t tell, “The Mighty Heroes” was written as a spoof. Drawn in a bigfoot style, the heroes were accident-prone misfits who more often found themselves in worse trouble as a result of their bumbling than from the super-villains they went up against. It wasn’t quite as lame as it sounded, though. The verbal gags, while not Rocky-and-Bullwinkle sharp, were pretty good, and their misadventures developed logically. Like a good parody will do, it adhered to its internal logic and rarely, if ever, tossed in a non sequitur bit just for the sake of getting a laugh. Another nice touch about the Mighty Heroes was the way Bakshi went against convention in the depiction of his crime-fighters. Only Strong Man conformed to the tall, muscular, handsome genotype. Tornado Man was bald and portly. Cuckoo Man was spindly and on the far side of fifty. And of course, the inexplicably mature Diaper Man was a chubby-cheeked tyke who had to burst out of his crib in order to answer the fireworks call.
It wasn’t Space Ghost, but it wasn’t that bad, either. Yet, the Mighty Heroes lasted only twenty episodes. By the time the summer of 1967 rolled around, CBS had given up on Mighty Mouse, and after twenty-five years of faithful service, handed him his pink slip. The title of the show was changed, then, to simply The Mighty Heroes. But it didn’t help, and the show was gone before fall. It would be the first casualty of the 1966-8 Saturday-morning super-hero boom. And an early one, too. I’ve never come across anything that explained why, but my guess is CBS’ mistake was tacking the Mighty Heroes onto the Mighty Mouse show. By 1966, the kids had grown bored with the endless Mighty Mouse reruns and were already changing the channel at nine a.m. before they knew that something new had been added.
The Super 6, NBC, 1966-9. The Super 6, another super-hero parody, was The Mighty Heroes done wrong. This was the first attempt at a Saturday-morning cartoon by the animation company DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, and based on the founders’ backgrounds (both David DePatie and Friz Freleng had produced theatrical shorts for Warners Brothers, before WB got out of the animation business), the show should have been much better. As it was, there were some glimpses of cleverness, but mostly the show was bad. Capital “B” bad.
As super-hero spoofs go, the establishing premise was a decent one. The Super 6 were a half-dozen heroes who worked for an outcall agency. Every episode, which featured one of the heroes, the cranky old dispatcher for Super Services, Incorporated, would take a request for help over the telephone and then assign the call to one of the six primary heroes. (Various super-heroes would be seen sitting around, reading the newspaper or playing cards, waiting for an assignment.)
The six heroes-for-hire were: Elevator Man, a safari-suited Peter Gunn knock-off who wore a large belt with two buttons---one would cause him to grow to giant size; the other would shrink him to the size of an ant; Granite Man, an ambulatory, sentient Græco-Roman statue who possessed the natural indestructibility of his stoney structure and super-strength, to boot; Magneto Man, whose hands were incredibly powerful magnets and who spoke in a Cary Grant impersonation that made Goober Pyle’s rendition sound like Rich Little; Super Scuba, a phlegmatic, carelessly confident hero whose only power seemed to be that he could swim underwater without scuba gear; Captain Zammo, who wore a military uniform that looked like it had been designed by Gilbert and Sullivan and besides the requisite great strength and endurance, could travel back in time to historical events.
And then there was Super Bwoing. Oh, god. Super Bwoing, gangly, clumsy, and naїvely dull-witted; he was Gilligan in a red helmet with winglets. He got around by standing on a jet-propelled guitar which he steered (applying the term loosely) by holding the strings as reins. His primary super-power was the ability to emit laser beams from his eyes. Nevermind that. The viewers were supposed to laugh over his ineptness, stupidity, and screechy voice. If he only had been Gilligan, there might have been a chance for that. Instead, he was supremely UNfunny. Even kids can tell the difference between loveably inept and annoyingly useless. But DePatie-Freleng must not have, since more cartoons were given over to Super Bwoing than the rest of the Super 6 combined.
Because the six did not team up but appeared in solo adventures, most were given their own supporting casts. Super Scuba was assisted by his mermaid secretary, Bubbles (not as much of a hot proposition as it sounds, since her “upper regions” were demurely covered by a halter top). Cockney Magneto Man was ably supported by boy genius Cal, who supplied all the brain power. Captain Zammo had Private Hammo to do the grunt work, and Granite Man moonlighted as a statue in the city park until summoned into action by his companion, a talking messenger pigeon named Percy.
Except for Super Bwoing, whose stumbling and bumbling was intended to provide the yuks, and Elevator Man, who was played relatively straight, most of the humour was supposed to come from the interaction between hero and sidekick. The operative word in that sentence was “supposed”. Actually, each hero-assistant team played pretty much the same note: the assistant did all the work and the hero took all the credit. To varying degrees, the senior partner was somewhat competent; Granite Man and Super Scuba probably would have at least survived most of their cases without their partners. But Magneto Man would’ve drowned in a summer shower, if Cal hadn’t been there to pull him out of the rain. And Captain Zammo was just plain lazy. It’s not that he couldn’t do it---it’s just that he wouldn’t; it was easier to order poor Private Hammo to stick his neck out.
That was another misjudgement by DePatie-Freleng. It’s one thing for the kid to bail out an incompetent adult, such as Cal did Magneto Man---heck, that’s every youngster’s secret dream. But it was quite another thing to watch Captain Zammo browbeat poor Private Hammo constantly. That bordered on the sadistic. I suspect that DePatie and Freleng did catch on, eventually. There were fewer cartoons featuring Captain Zammo than any other Super 6’ers. (Also probably contributing to that was the fact that the character was originally called “Captain Whammo”, until D-FE heard from the toy company Wham-O’s lawyers.)
Overall, where The Super 6 missed the mark was everything was played too broadly. The verbal jokes were written at a very elementary level, in order to make sure that even the youngest viewer “got it”. Nor was the plot of any episode that distinctive. They all followed the same template: one of the Super 6 is assigned to catch a super-villain on the loose, followed by a cat-and-mouse series of encounters, until finally the hero, usually thanks to the necessary assistance of his sidekick, or in the case of Super-Bwoing, pure dumb luck, catches the bad guy.
The DePatie-Freleng style of artwork, minimalist almost to the point of being abstract, didn’t work, either. It’s the kind of style that makes for quick drawing, but relies on keen, incisive writing, since it doesn’t allow for much visual nuance. Unfortunately, neither the adjective “keen” nor “incisive” applied to Super 6 scripts.
Be that as it may, The Super 6 lasted for three years (albeit in re-runs) on Saturday mornings, while The Mighty Heroes barely lasted a year. Go figure.
Super President, NBC, 1967-8. I am not making this one up! Go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait.
See? I wasn’t kidding. Of all the off-the-wall concepts ever divined for a super-hero cartoon, this has to be the whackiest. Here goes: James Norcross, the President of the United States, leads a secret life as the costumed super-hero, Super President.
I don’t really need to write anything more about this one. You, my faithful readers, are probably already conjuring up your own lists of what’s wrong with this concept without me having to say another word about it. But since I’ve got another page or two to fill, I’ll go ahead and give you my own.
This was DePatie-Freleng’s second attempt at a super-hero cartoon, and for this one, the artists used a realistic style. Nor was it a spoof (at least, not on purpose). It was done straight.
For the uninitiated, the origin of Super President was provided, if somewhat detail-less, in a voice-over by Paul Frees during the opening credits of every show:
Super President! His power was born in a cosmic storm, every molecule charged with might, power that enabled him to change his molecular structure to steel---to granite---or whatever the need requires! The great desire to serve his country has brought James Norcross to the highest office in the land---as Super President!
Garbed in a red-and-white costume, with the symbol of a stylised atom on his chest and miniature belt-jets that enabled him to fly, Super President had the power to alter his form to any substance at will. His ability extended beyond just the elements of the Periodic Table. He could convert his body to ozone or even an energy form like electricity.
When called into action, President Norcross had only to enter a secret door installed in the Oval Office and take a passage to his hidden base beneath the Executive grounds. For lengthy transportation, he had at his disposal the Omnicar, a vehicle capable of travelling on land, air, or sea, above and below.
The secret of Norcross’ dual identity was known only to Jerry Sayles, his “closest advisor”. It was never explained what actual position in government Sayles held, but he had to be pretty tight with Norcross, since he got away with calling him “Jim” every now and then. Sayles also assisted Super President on his missions, but that help was usually limited to piloting the Omnicar. One look at the portly, pipe-smoking Jerry told anyone that he was too flabby and out of shape to be much good in a fight.
It was never made clear just when Norcross’ term as President was taking place. Obviously, it was after that of the then-sitting Chief Executive, Lyndon Johnson. The fashions, cultural references, and technology weren’t too removed from 1967, though. One could even make the argument that the America defended by Super President wasn’t located on our Earth, at all. Every episode carried an establishing shot of the Executive Mansion, and it wasn’t the White House. The base structure resembled the White House, but the centre of the roof extended several storeys, and a triangular pediment supported by twin rows of Tuscan columns greeted official visitors. At least one episode indicated that it was located near the oceanfront (which explained the aquaducts beneath the complex). It was never even referred to as the White House, but always as “the Presidential Mansion”.
Super President’s opponents were nearly always aliens or monsters or mutants, those set apart from humanity. The rare occasion when a human foe threatened, the script would point out that it was a disenfranchised resident of a country otherwise friendly to America. There was never any mention of the Soviet Union, Communist China, or any other government that was hostile to the United States. (Perhaps this really was a different Earth!)
As I re-read my last few paragraphs, I see that I have come dangerously close to making this series sound credible. The thing is, it might have been, if DePatie-Freling had come up with a different name for its hero and a different secret identity other than the President of the United States. Any other secret identity than the President of the United States. Even as kids, we were aware enough of the day-to-day life of the President to see how absurd the whole idea of Chief Executive-as-super-hero was. You spent so much time wondering about stuff that you lost track of what was going on in the episode . . . .
If the hero’s name was “Super President”---and some of his enemies knew he called himself that; they would shout something like “Look out! It’s Super President!”---then how the hell did he manage to keep his identity secret? Did they think he was the president of General Motors or something?
How did Norcross find the time to be a super-hero? The President is a pretty busy guy. He has a government to run, speeches to make, and important people lined up to see him. He can’t even call in sick and say he can’t come in to work because he lives in the same place he works.
When Norcross sneaked out of the Oval Office to become Super President, how come nobody discovered he was missing? Sooner or later, his secretary or a staffer was going to walk in and find him gone. That would have his Secret Service detail bouncing off the walls. (“The President’s missing! Sayles is gone, too! Code Red! Code Red!”)
How did he get all that stuff---the hidden door, passage, and secret base---built under the White House . . . O.K., “Presidential Mansion” . . . without anybody finding out? And who paid for all of that? That Omnicar didn’t come cheap, either. No wonder the Republicans were griping about the ninety-per-cent tax bracket.
How come Super President didn't take out all those dirty Commies in Russia and China?
Don’t look at me . . . I don’t know, either.
The kids weren’t the only ones having trouble accepting the idea of the President of the United States as a super-powered crime-fighter. Critics and TV watchdog groups (we’ll talk a lot about those next time) took the show to task for impugning the dignity of the office of the President. With the assassination of President John F. Kennedy only four years previous, many found it as being outright tasteless. NBC finally capitulated to the pressure and removed Super President from office at the end of his first season.
Spy Shadow, NBC, 1967-8. Technically, this series shouldn’t get a listing of its own. It wasn’t a show proper, but part of the Super President programme. In every episode, a Spy Shadow cartoon served as the filler between the two Super President offerings. But I chose to break it out under its own entry because of the strength of its concept, and because it was the best of the also-ran series that snuck in over the network transom.
“Spy Shadow” was James Bond with a parahuman twist. But not the gadget-laden, vaguely amused James Bond of the films; rather, the hard-bitten, testosterone-oozing 007 of Ian Fleming’s novels. The beginning of every cartoon opened with a twenty-second prologue showing a gi-clad man standing before an elderly Tibetan lama. “Richard Vance,” intones the greybeard, “you have mastered the sacred art of concentration! Project the powers of your inner self!”
Vance shouts, “Spy Shadow, come forth!”, and the camera focuses, then fades, on his shadow on the wall behind him.
Richard Vance (always called “Vance” by friend and foe) was a field operative for the espionage agency Interspy. However, Vance had one advantage known only to himself. Whenever he was in an environment in which he cast a shadow, Vance simply had to utter the words “Spy Shadow, come forth!”, and his shadow became a sentient, independent being.
“Shadow”, as Vance called him, was a handy character to have around. He could not be touched, so thus was immune to bullets, knives, and other nasty projectiles; yet he could touch things at his discretion. Though not truly intangible---the shadow could not pass through solid objects---he could squeeze through cracks in a wall or slip under a door. His only real weakness was the lack of light. Vance had to be in the presence of enough light to cast his shadow in order to animate it, and if the shadow was caught in darkness, he faded away until Vance could summon him, again.
Most often, Vance called upon him whenever he was on a case and found himself in a pickle. However, sometimes, because the shadow was intelligent, when the need required, Vance would call it forth and they would work separate ends of a case independently.
A few write-ups on “Spy Shadow” imply that Vance was always getting into trouble on his cases (true) and always needed the help of his shadow to get out of it (untrue). As an espionage agent, Vance was resourceful, clever, and tough as nails. This was even more a part of the charm of the show than the idea of a living shadow. Vance, who spoke in a Robert Stack-like staccato, was sure of his abilities, which were considerable. His usual method of investigating a situation was to walk right into the lion’s den and confront the villain face-to-face. This inevitably resulted in a nasty battle with the villain’s henchmen, and Vance dealt with them handily on his own.
Other times, in a tight scrape, the lack of illumination prevented Vance from calling his shadow forth, and he had to rely on more conventional methods. Unless he wanted Shadow to do some independent investigating, Vance called on him only when he was really up against it.
For “Spy Shadow”, the D-FE artists used a curious blend of the minimalist style they used on The Super 6 and the realistic style applied to Super President. Somehow, it fit the nature of the series. “Spy Shadow” plots tended to be realistic. No aliens or monsters or fantastic devices here, but an abundance of petty dictators, terrorists, and evil scientists. Richard Vance’s cases, like Vance himself, weren’t too far removed from those of James Bond.
As you have probably gathered, “Spy Shadow” was no Sesame Street. Vance lived in a violent world, and he came prepared. He always carried a gun and used it whenever he had to. Characters were constantly getting shot, blown up, knifed, or beaten to a pulp. Punches were thrown, and Vance often got as good as he gave, taking an exceptional amount of punishment for a kid’s cartoon. At the end, you could pretty much count on the chief bad guy blowing up real good.
Objectively, the incidence of violence in “Spy Shadow” probably wasn’t any more than that of Space Ghost or Birdman or some of the other super-hero cartoons. But those shows’ fantasy aspects made the violence seem less real. The stuff done by and done to Vance was much closer to the realm of true life. Too close for the various groups concerned about the quality of children’s television and were now turning their sights toward Saturday morning.
Oddly enough, the largely forgotten characters of Super President and Spy Shadow would signify the first domino that, when pushed over, would topple the rest of the Saturday-morning super-hero line.
Interesting. Of these characters, the only ones I have much familiarity with are the Mighty Heroes, and them primarily because Bakshi used them in the New Adventures of Mighty Mouse once or twice.
Terrytoons would shut down after trying unsuccessfully to get a James Bond show about a teen-aged girl who fought crime on TV, Sally Sargent. They used to run her one episode during the Terrytoons show. She's been compared by fans as being Daphne Blake-like, despite the fact she came a year before Scooby Doo.
Richard Vance and Spy Shadow were Ted Cassidy.
It's my guess Super President influenced the designs of Captain Canuck and Marvel's Vindicator/Guardian, and that's why they look so much alike. The influence may have been subliminal.
Wow, the only ones of these I've ever heard of before were the Mighty Heroes.
I remember seeing the Mighty Heroes in the 70s as Mighty Mouse along with Heckle and Jeckle were still popular in syndication.
I heard about Super President but never seen it. The controversy about JFK's tragic passing got me wondering: was Super President inspired by JFK and how the country viewed him?
Super Six would present three cartoons: Super Bwoing, a three headed guy who had three personalities, a bad tempered guy on one side, a Chinese man who'd talk about "Confuse Says" instead of Confucius , and a coward, who fought a guy that loved to be dirty, and the third film with one of the other heroes. In between they had a handful of very bad comedy routines they'd use over and over, such as Super Bwoing tricking Elevator Man into cleaning his shoes at an unreasonably high price. EM would respond by growing into a giant just before he started. The show's these song was performed by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Apparently they paid them about the same as the song writers of the Marvel Super Heroes got paid.
Notice no three headed guy. Some characters can't even get in their own intro!
On the other hand, Super Bwoing's muscles burst when he flexes them at the beginning, but work normally at the end.
Heavens sakes. I remember all of these, but because I looked them up... not because I ever watched them. I suppose I might have once or twice, and then dropped 'em to see if the Herculoids was on...
And then, in the 70s and early 80s (if you cover those, Commander... I don't know how far you intend to go with this), there were some new super hero cartoons that also had to adhere to A.C.T. standards.
Oh, I am SO looking forward to you shredding A.C.T.! I will be glad to provide torches and pitchforks for the viewing public... :)
Like the Planet of the Apes show, where they couldn't draw hooks on pick-up trucks because hooks were offensive.
Or use guns, rifles or clubs! But they could use howitzers! Because a six-year old couldn't operate one!
Ronald Morgan said:
Like the Planet of the Apes show, where they couldn't draw hooks on pick-up trucks because hooks were offensive.
I remember one guy from G. I. Joe saying back in the 80s he was glad he was working Monday through Friday because Saturday Morning was so hard to work with.
Darnit! Now you made me watch these things on YouTube!
Super 6 is very mediocre though Elevator Man wasn't that bad besides the name of course.
The same could be said for Super President. Maybe if he was just a senator, it would have worked better.
I liked Spy Shadow the most. Good thing the Shadow Thief couldn't do that that shadow did!