The Super Seventies – Animated!

challenge of the SuperFriends title card

Since the Live-action portion of this retrospective got so long (so much bad TV, so many boneheaded choices, so many heroes, so little budget!) I split off the animated section into a separate post, so here we are. As usual, most of the links here are going to point to Amazon; if you buy one of these things, or anything else while logged in through my affiliate code, I’ll get a little piece of the action, which I will spend on guns and booze and a car that can outrun the Highway Patrol. Or not.

There was something of a lull in the animated superhero world between the debut of Super Chicken in 1967 and the beginning of Super Friends in 1973, with only occasional re-runs of various shows showing up here and there. The 1973 version of Super Friends seemed to jump-start the phenomenon again. Hanna -Barbera was first to follow up on their success by mashing up the genre with the then-popular kung fu fad for 1974’s Hong Kong Phooey.

The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour appeared on NBC in 1976. Dynomutt is a robot dog (imagine a cross between Inspector Gadget and Scooby Doo) who acts as sidekick to The Blue Falcon, a Batmanesque hero with incredible patience.

There was the ill-fated attempt to revive the Fantastic Four sans Human Torch in 1978, but for several years, it was really all about the Super Friends.

We could do a whole series of posts just on the Super Friends (sometimes labeled Superfriends or SuperFriends), but the condensed version goes like this: Hanna-Barbera got the rights to the Justice League, rebranding the team with what they thought was a more “kid friendly” name. The Super Friends series premiered in 1973, featuring Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, along with “teen superheroes in training” (though they had no superpowers, unless being an idiot is a superpower) Wendy and Marvin and their pet, Wonder Dog, along with occasional appearances by the Flash, Plastic Man and Green Arrow. 16 one-hour episodes were produced and the series ended in 1974. Weirdly, at the same time Super Friends was on ABC, there was another Batman show airing on CBS.

It was revived in 1976 with what were essentially reruns, the original hour-long series edited into 32 half-hour installments. Meanwhile, production geared up on the All-New Super Friends Hour, which premiered in 1977. This series gave Marvin, Wendy and Wonderdog the boot and brought in the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna, and their space-monkey Gleek. This season also gave us a great trivia question to stump your less-than-hardcore-geek friends: What DC Comics character appears in three episodes of All-New Super Friends Hour AND was portrayed on film by Audrey Hepburn in 1959? Put your answer in the comments. NO GOOGLING!

In 1978, they switched it up again, changing the title to Challenge of the Super Friends and adding Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and three new characters primarily intended to make things a little less pasty white; Apache Chief, Samurai and Black Vulcan, a character that they swear was not a blatant attempt to avoid paying Tony Isabella a royalty. (Since Isabella and the new powers-that-be at DC have made nice and are working together on new Black Lightning material, we’ll leave that alone.) Interesting side-note: none of the “diversity hires” got to wear long pants; why is that?

1979 saw a back-to-basics move; The World’s Greatest Super Friends now featured just the original five plus the Wonder Twins and Gleek.

In 1980, the name was shortened back to Super Friends, and the format changed again, each one-hour episode consisting of a re-run of one of the previous half-hour segments and three new seven-minute short episodes. The shorts featured the five core heroes, the Wonder Twins, and guest stars drawn from the Challenge of the Super Friends season, as well as another new character, the Mexican hero El Dorado, a guy with an accent and vaguely defined powers who dressed like a luchadore, continuing the Super Friends tradition of cringeworthy stereotypes intended to represent cultural diversity.

The 1982-83 season was made up of re-runs drawn from all the previous seasons except the seven-minute shorts.

In 1983, the show went into syndication, so ABC dropped it. In a complicated financial arrangement, ABC continued to pay for production of new episodes that were not aired in the US. They were shown in Australia, and most of them eventually aired in the US.

The Super Friends returned to ABC in 1984 as Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show, a new half-hour program, with each episode having two 11-minute stories. Three of the episodes from the Australian series made it into the season. The big change this season was the addition of Firestorm. The words “Super Powers” were crammed in to make it a promotion for the then-current line of action figures. (Side-note: Paul Levitz, publisher of DC at the time, hired Jack Kirby to do the model sheets for the DC Super Powers line of toys just so he could pay him a royalty on the toys, since Kirby didn’t get any profit participation for creating the New Gods comic (or anything else in his long and prolific career). When the comic started, DC didn’t have a creator royalty program like they do now, and Levitz wanted to do something right for Jack.)

In 1985, the name changed again, this time to The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians. The team got bigger, now featuring Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, Firestorm, Hawkman, Green Lantern, and Samurai. Flash is shown in the title graphic, but only appears once.

While all these Super Friends shenanigans were going on at ABC, CBS was doing their own Superhero La Ronde. It starts in 1976 with Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, which was followed in early 1977 by The New Adventures of Batman, featuring the return of Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo. This was the series that featured Bat-Mite as the ever-present bane of Batman’s existence, wreaking havoc while trying to be helpful. By fall of 1977 the two shows were bundled to become The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour.

In 1978, the show became Tarzan and the Super 7, a mix of animated shorts and one live-action segment. The animated segments were:

The New Adventures of Batman, rerunning the 16 episodes from the previous year.

Superstretch and Microwoman, knockoffs of DC’s Plastic Man and a gender-flipped Atom doing a riff on The Thin Man, right down to the dog companion (the big twist here is that these two are African-American).

Web Woman, originally titled “Spider-Woman,” until Marvel got wind of it, rushed a comic into production and beat Filmation to the Trademark office. Pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a gender-flipped Spider-Man ripoff, only this one gets a pink costume because she’s a girl.

Manta and Moray, shameless knockoffs of Submariner and DC’s Dolphin.

The Freedom Force, an international super-team made up of Isis (the character previously seen in live-action played by Joanna Cameron), Super-Samurai (a Captain Marvel knockoff, a young Japanese boy who turns into a giant armored warrior when he yells “Super Samurai”), Sinbad, Merlin, and Hercules (the first two are “tales from the Public Domain,” the third a leftover from the 1977 Space Sentinels. Filmation never threw anything away.)

The live-action segment was Jason of Star Command, a spin-off of the previous year’s Space Academy, a sci-fi version of every “teens in school” comedy-drama show you ever saw, from Our Miss Brooks to Girl Meets World.

In 1980, the show became Batman and the Super 7, dropping Tarzan and Jason of Star Command from the lineup; apparently they started counting Microwoman and Moray separately from their partners in order to get the seven of the title. Tarzan moved over to the Tarzan/Lone Ranger Adventure Hour. The second season added Zorro to the mix to become the Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour.

There were a few superheroes on the air in the 1979-80 season, as well as some sorta-kinda almost superheroes, comedy versions, and a bunch of genre mash-ups. 1979 brought Filmation’s revival of Flash Gordon, which was a fairly faithful adaptation of the Alex Raymond comic strip series, in an attempt to capture some of the mania for space fantasy engendered by Star Wars. There was Mighty Mouse and the All New Popeye Hour on CBS (Bill Blackbeard argues persuasively in All in Color for a Dime that Popeye is the first superhero), Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels on ABC and Casper and the Angels on NBC.

Both of those latter shows are examples of the Hanna-Barbera mash-up model, later adopted by both Filmation and Ruby Spears; if there are a couple of different fads you want to jump on, why not mash them together? Captain Caveman combines bits of the Flintstones, superheroes, Scooby-Doo and Charlie’s Angels, with a super-powered unfrozen caveman teaming up with three pretty girls to solve mysteries, while Casper plays guardian angel to a team of pretty space cops in the year 2179, melding Charlie’s Angels, CHiPs, the Jetsons and the Funky Phantom into something that wasn’t any of them. Neither of these genre salads really worked.

The other bizarre mash-ups were Super Globetrotters, which was Hanna-Barbera’s attempt to revive both the Harlem Globetrotters and The Impossibles in a single show, and The Flintstones Meet the Thing, which was nothing of the kind; the show was actually separate segments featuring Fred & Barney in the first half and a very different Ben Grimm in the second. For some reason, H-B decided that the show should be about a scrawny teenager who uses a magic ring to transform into the Thing. It is not remembered fondly, and the next year, Ben yielded his place in the title lineup to The Shmoo, in which one of Al Capp’s obsequious blob takes up residence with yet another team of teen detectives.

We could do a whole post on bizarre H-B mashups; for example, a show that started development as a revival of the Jetsons as a teen comedy starring an older Elroy Jetson, which somehow morphed into a revival of the Partridge Family set 225 years in the future.

Another superhero show from 1979 was the Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show, featuring Mighty Man and Yukk (an Atom ripoff and the world’s ugliest dog; he conceals his hideous face by wearing a miniature doghouse on his head); Fangface (a werewolf character with one big tooth in the middle of his mouth); and Rickety Rocket, which is yet another of the endless parade of teen detective gangs and the anthropomorphic vehicle they love. In this case, it’s Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder with Frankenstein Jr.’s face.

Having successfully blocked Filmation’s attempt at a Spider-Woman, Marvel rushed their own into production, with the series making its debut in 1979 on ABC. This was the last new show produced by DePatie-Freleng before Marvel’s then-parent company, Cadence Industries, bought them in 1981. The DePatie-Freleng animation studio, best known for their work on The Pink Panther, became Marvel Productions, and before too long were cranking out superhero cartoons, beginning with Spider-Man as a new series for syndication, and at about the same time, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends for NBC, in which Spidey was teamed with Iceman and a new character, Firestar. They followed up the next year with an animated version of the Incredible Hulk.

Comics legend Steve Gerber they came up with the post-apocalyptic fantasy Thundarr the Barbarian in 1980; initial character designs were by Alex Toth, with Jack Kirby taking over design duties later.

On the opposite of the quality spectrum, there’s 1981’s Goldie Gold and Action Jack, which we could describe this way: What if Richie Rich were a 20-year-old girl who decided to date Jimmy Olsen and fight crime together? Goldie’s super-power is that she’s filthy stinking rich. Action Jack’s is that he has no common sense.

Another super-team on Saturday mornings was 1980’s Drak Pack, in which teenage descendants of Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein’s Monster attempt to atone for their ancestors’ evil by being super heroes.

1981 brought an animated version of Shazam! to NBC as half of the Kid Super Power Hour, which paired Captain Marvel cartoons with episodes of a new series called Hero High; the latter was the same concept as Disney’s later live-action film, Sky High, adventures of teenage heroes-in-training at a superhero high school. The series also featured live-action comedy and music bits in between cartoons, including a rock band made up of actors portraying the characters from Hero High.

That year also brought Space Stars, which featured revivals of Space Ghost and the Herculoids along with two new segments, Teen Force (Kid Comet, Moleculad, and Elektra; no relation) and Astro and the Space Mutts. The first three casts sometimes crossed over, with Jan from Space Ghost apparently dating Kid Comet of the Teen Force, and in the final segment of each episode, all four teams would come together to fight evil.

Flash Gordon got a revival in 1986, teamed up with The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician for Defenders of the Earth. The supporting cast included the previously unrevealed teenage children of the heroes. The series ran 65 episodes and spawned a comic book.

Superman likewise got a new show in 1988, this version reflecting the changes introduced by John Byrne in the Man of Steel miniseries that reset many elements of the franchise. Marv Wolfman was the story editor, with Gil Kane providing the character designs.

Pretty much everything else on the air throughout the ’70s and ’80s was non-superhero, non-comics stuff, with animated remakes of TV shows (with weird stuff added, like “Laverne & Shirley join the Army and their drill instructor is a talking pig”), cartoons based on various celebrities, movies and even commercials (Mr. T got a show, as did Rambo, Robocop, Gary Coleman, and the California Raisins), and an endless parade of forgettable stuff like Kissyfur. What’s really surprising to me is how much of this stuff is readily available now, after having been pretty hard to come by for the last 30 years or so. You kids today have it so good.

9 Comments

  1. Louis Bright-Raven

    Well, the 70s and 80s had WAY, WAY more than just that, Jim.

    Science Ninja Team Gatchaman / Battle of the Planets (1972 in Japan / 1978 in the US), Godzilla (1978-1979, reruns for another two season through 1981), Mazinger Z AKA Tranzor Z [American version] (1972-74 in Japan, in syndication in US in 1985), Blackstar (1981), He-Man (1983) and She-Ra (1985), Turbo Teen (1984), the multiple Voltron series (1984-85), Mighty Orbots (1984-85), Danger Mouse (1984-86), Jayce & the Wheeled Warriors (1985), M.A.S.K. (1985-86), Thundercats (1985), Silverhawks (1986), Galtar & The Golden Lance (1985-86), The Centurions (1985-86), Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers (1986), Bravestarr (1987), Bionic Six (1987), Tigersharks (1987), TMNT (1987), C.O.P.S. (1988-89)… I’m sure I’m forgetting another 5-10 shows.

    1. Did I say it was an exhaustive list? I don’t consider most of those to be superhero shows, and most of them were not available in the US in most places. These are for the most part the shows I remember watching, and my cartoon watching dropped off a whole lot between adulthood and parenthood.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Sticking to Saturday morning, we could include Jann of the Jungle, which was paired up with Godzilla. You could make an argument for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids, in that the band was a cover for their activities as secret agents. Inch High, Private Eye could also be argued.

    Hero High actually started in development as an Archie superhero show. Captain California is Archie, Glorious Gal=Betty, Dirty Trixie=Veronica, Rex Ruthless=Reggie, Weatherman=Jughead, Miss Grimm=Miss Grundy. It was supposed to feature the Archie gang in their superhero personas (Pureheart, Capt. Hero, Evil Heart, Super Teen, etc…); but, Archie passed and Filmation retooled it.

    The character you refer to is Rima, the Jungle Girl. She appears in two team-up segments and Audrey Hepburn played her in an adaptation of The Green Mansions, the novel that introduced the character (she recently appeared in Kim Newman’s Angels of Music).

    Sinbad only appears in one episode of Freedom Force. Space Sentinels, which you mention as the birthplace for the FF version of Hercules, featured three young heroes, originally called the Young Sentinels, who were plucked from Earth’s past, by aliens, given powers and training; and sent back to Earth to guard it. They are Hercules, Mercury (an Asian with super-speed) and Astrea (and African who can shapeshift into animals). The concept borrowed from Green Lantern (which owed more than a bit to the Lensman stories), and they fight Morpheus, an evil Sentinel, in one episode, and meet two other Sentinels in another. George DiCenzo, who played Marty McFly’s grandfather, in Back to the Future, Ubu, in Batman TAS, and Hordak, in She-Ra; was the voice of Hercules.

    Jack Kirby did character designs on The World’s greatest Super Friends.

    Not superheroes; but, genre related was the animated return to the Planet of the Apes, which featured a more technologically advanced ape society and featured design work from Doug “Jonny Quest” Wildey.

  3. Pol Rua

    One thing about watching shows like these as a kid is that the ideas were often so much better than the execution. I know the adventures that I dreamed up as a kid featuring say, The Super Friends, or SuperStretch and Microwoman were much better than the episodes as scripted.
    I always thought El Dorado was super cool (Big shock there, given my love of Lucha-Heroes!) and I dug that none of his powers were offensive (invisibility, illusion-casting, teleportation, mind reading). He kinda works as an ersatz Martian Manhunter.
    Growing up on Ron Ely, the Filmation Tarzan was my first exposure to the more outre elements of the character, and the Filmation Zorro and Lone Ranger had a large role in jump-starting my love of pulp proto-superheroes.
    The Filmation Flash Gordon was hypnotic to me. Just the idea that an American Saturday morning cartoon would have a long-form plot was a BIG deal at the time.

    Also, as weird as the premise of Goldie Gold or The Drac Pack are, I can’t fault those intros… “By Sea! By Air! By the Seat of their Pants!”
    That’s some damn fine hype, there, and I know it was enough to make me as a 10 year old boy want to watch a “girl’s cartoon”.

  4. Louis Bright-Raven

    Jeff:

    Yeah, I couldn’t remember if Janna of the Jungle was paired with Godzilla or was with something else. I also thought of Inch High, but I figured Jim wouldn’t count that (more bumbling detective than superhero, even if he is only an inch tall) so I left it off the list.
    Also, cool info on Hero High. I never knew about the Archie connection but now that you pointed it out, I can totally see that.

    Jim:

    Your live action list was fairly comprehensive / exhaustive, so pardon me for expecting a similar level of completeness on the animated side?

    As for you not considering them to be superhero shows… yes, you could fairly argue that some of them are more fantasy / SF heroes than ‘superheroes’. But you’re the one who brought up shows like FLASH GORDON and TARZAN and LONE RANGER and THUNDARR into this, so you rather shot down any legitimacy to that argument yourself.

    As for claiming they didn’t have national coverage… I named twenty-three shows, of which six were on the major networks (Blackstar – CBS, Godzilla – NBC, Turbo Teen – ABC, Mighty Orbots – ABC, TMNT – CBS, and Galtar – NBC). Nine of them (He-Man / She-Ra, Bravestarr, MASK, Jayce, Thundercats, Silverhawks, COPS, and Centurions) were aired through either Superstation TBS out of Atlanta or WGN Superstation out of Chicago, both of which were networks that were available nationally through cable, and DANGER MOUSE was Nickelodeon which AFAIK was nationally available through cable as well. So that’s 16 out of 23 shows that I’d say a fair majority of America had access to. The other seven, I really can’t say. I seem to recall the early Fox affiliates from 1986-1990 often airing them as syndicated toons, before the network launched the Fox Kids line in 1990 with Bobby’s World, X-Men, Spider-Man, The Tick and so on. But I have no idea how extensive Fox networks were available or how many stations carried such programming.

  5. The number one criteria for all these lists is simple: Did I watch this show? Was I aware of it and familiar enough with it? That’s why 95% of the shows you mentioned didn’t make the cut.

    Flash Gordon, Tarzan, and the Lone Ranger are all functionally superheroes (Lone Ranger even has the mask and secret identity), and all were in comic books or strips decades before coming to Saturday morning. Thundarr has an impeccable comics pedigree, coming from Steve Gerber, Alex Toth and Jack Kirby.

    Everything on my list was either on one of the three networks, ABC, CBS, or NBC, or syndicated on regular broadcast TV; the vast majority of it was before cable TV and home recording were widely available. That was kinda the point; when this stuff was on, you either saw it when they showed it or you missed it, seemingly forever.

    The long and short of it: there is a difference between “you could also include X” and “you should have included X.” One of these is a helpful suggestion, the other a complaint. We don’t have a complaint department here.

  6. Terrible-D

    I know it falls outside the purview of your article, but I feel like the Fantastic Four cartoon from ’67 doesn’t get much love now a days. I only ever saw a few episodes of the abomination from the 70’s, but have fond memories of scouring the television listing for reruns of the Hanna-Barbera version (when the Cartoon Network was new to our market).

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