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More vintage cartoons: Filmation’s Lone Ranger and Zorro

Lately I’ve been revisiting two more animated shows from my youth, Filmation’s The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger from 1980 andThe New Adventures of Zorro from 1981, which aired as part of The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour.  Both are available on a combined DVD set (on alternate discs); however, Netflix only has the second Lone Ranger disc in stock at this time, so I’m having to settle for only seeing half the series. These shows date from the two years just after Filmation’s classic Flash Gordon, when their production values became more sophisticated.  They, along with Blackstar, were the final adventure series produced by Filmation under producers Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott together; after 1981, Prescott left and Scheimer continued alone.

As you can see from the titles mentioned above, Filmation at this point was heavily into adaptations of classic adventure heroes, and both Lone Ranger and Zorro were fairly faithful interpretations. The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger starred actor/announcer William Conrad (star of the TV series Cannon) as the voice of the Lone Ranger and the announcer of the opening titles, which faithfully recreated the narration from the original radio and TV shows, and used the standard William Tell Overture as the theme music.  According to the special features, Conrad did the role out of love for the Lone Ranger but didn’t want to be credited by name (perhaps because he was a big star by then and didn’t want to be associated with kidvid, or perhaps as a more benevolent gesture so Filmation didn’t have to pay him as much as his name was worth), so he was billed pseudonymously as J. Darnoc — just his surname in reverse, with the “J.” probably an homage to Jay Ward, producer of shows such as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right, which Conrad narrated. (At least that’s what I’ve always assumed; one of the people interviewed in the bonus features said it was Conrad’s middle initial. In fact his real name was John William Cann, Jr., so it would’ve been his first initial.)  Tonto was played by Native American actor Ivan Naranjo; Filmation was generally pretty good at inclusive casting, making sure that “ethnic” characters were played by actors of the same ethnicity.  The rest of the cast was… variable.  Again, I’ve only gotten the second half of the series, but in the first few episodes on the disc, all the male voices other than the Ranger and Tonto are by Scheimer himself, and the female voices are by his wife Lane and his daughter Erika.  All the Scheimers often did supporting voices in Filmation shows, but Scheimer was no Mel Blanc; he had a relatively wide repertoire of character voices, but they weren’t different enough that he could really carry an entire cast all by himself, so it quickly grew tiresome.  And the female Scheimers simply weren’t very good actresses, especially the shrill-voiced Erika.  Fortunately, the great Frank Welker took over as the main male “guest” voice after a while — a bit surprising, really, since the prolific Welker didn’t do much work with Filmation over the course of his career, except for a brief period from about 1979-81.  Another few uncredited voices showed up here and there, including Alan Oppenheimer (Ming on Flash Gordon, Skeletor and Man-at-Arms on He-Man).  Some of the Native American characters had a voice I recognize from the ’70s show Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, an actor who played a regular Native American character on that show; IMDb credits Hal Harvey in that role, but I’m not sure how much I trust that attribution.  And there’s one guest role whose voice I’m almost certain belonged to Mission: Impossible star Greg Morris!

Anyway, Ranger followed a formula that probably wasn’t too different from the original television series, with the Ranger and Tonto travelling the West and nonviolently helping people in danger.  The Ranger carried his gun and used his silver bullets, but only for precision shooting of ropes, branches, playing cards, and other inanimate objects.  (In fact, silver bullets would be terrible for precision shots; the soft metal deforms easily and the bullets tend to spin or fragment.)  He’d usually catch bad guys with his lasso.  And the bad guys were often exceptionally bad for Filmation; usually Filmation antagonists tended to be misunderstood and readily reformed when shown a little kindness, but these were unrepentant scoundrels.  In one episode, a pair of cattle rustlers/land thieves get their lives saved by the homesteader they were trying to rip off, and I expected them to apologize and repent their sins, but instead they remained the same lily-livered varmints they’d always been.

So maybe Filmation was a little less determined to be wholesome at this point, but they still strove to make the show educational, by having the Ranger and Tonto constantly get involved with real events and people from the Old West, including Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, Belle Starr, the James brothers, Matthew Brady, Nellie Bly, etc.  I actually learned a lot about history from watching this show back in the day.  The problem is that these events range from the brief run of the Pony Express in 1860-61 to the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889, and yet the Ranger, Tonto, and their horses remain ageless and unchanging over this span of nearly three decades (which is not presented in any kind of chronological order).  So in the course of teaching history, the show played a bit fast and loose with it.

Filmation’s limited animation at this point had reached the stage where they created some fluidly animated movement sequences — in this case, mainly involving riders mounting, dismounting, and riding horses, horses rearing up, etc. — and kept using them over and over and over again, often several times an episode.  The highlight here is a rather nice shot of the heroes riding away from the camera, with Silver’s and Scout’s tails sweeping in to fill the frame with white and then rather gracefully swishing away while the riders recede into the distance.  It’s a lovely bit of animation, but it does get a bit tired when you see it five times in eleven minutes.  As usual for Filmation, though, the background art is superb — lush vistas of Western landscapes and towns, rendered in a painted-line-art style that’s unusual for Filmation but is quite elegant and beautiful.  Some of the background art looks like it may have been traced from vintage photos or illustrations.

Zorro was a moderately faithful adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s creation, featuring characters from the original book — not just Don Diego/Zorro (one of the models for Batman, a masked hero who hides behind a foppish, dissolute facade), but his corrupt rival Capitan Ramon, the bumbling Sergeant Gonzalez, and his father Don Alejandro.  Although they replaced Diego’s deaf/mute servant with Miguel, who’s basically the equivalent of the Green Hornet’s Kato — a servant who fights alongside the hero and has no nickname of his own (Zorro just calls him “amigo,” leading me to wonder how many non-Spanish-speaking kids thought that Amigo was his hero name). Most of the episodes were written by Arthur Browne Jr., a veteran writer of TV Westerns for decades, including The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, and The Big Valley. They did a good job capturing a classic adventure flavor, and Zorro’s personality as a dashing gentleman thief and Errol Flynn type, though the stories could be fairly simple, and quite repetitive if watched back to back on DVD. The remaining episodes were by Robbie London, who would go on to work on many later Filmation shows (notably He-Man) but who was just starting out here. His first episode, “Fort Ramon,” is an incoherent mess: Ramon takes over a mission and somehow manages to turn it into a fort with high stone walls in a matter of hours; then Zorro and Miguel plant explosives to blow it up but are discovered and driven off, yet it never occurs to Ramon to search the fort and find the explosives in plain sight; etc. Fortunately they weren’t all that bad.

What makes this show unique in Filmation’s canon is that it wasn’t animated in the US.  This was the only time that Filmation gave into the trend of outsourcing the animation work to Asia, since the abundance of other work they had in 1981 required sharing the load. But they had the good sense to go with the best animation studio in Japan, Tokyo Movie Shinsha (who made Akira and did fine work on plenty of other US animated shows including The Real Ghostbusters, Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS, the ’90s Spider-Man, etc.).  The storyboard and layout work was still done in-house at Filmation, though, as is usually the case.  The show thus looks very different from Filmation’s usual work.  On the one hand, the animation is much more fluid and less repetitive, though it still depends heavily on stock rotoscoped animation of swordfighting moves, with different characters traced over the same set of movements in different episodes/scenes.  And it has some of those nifty little touches that make TMS work so expressive, like what I’ve come to think of as “the TMS run.”  Most animation houses give running characters a pretty basic, regular motion cycle, but when TMS characters run, they often move irregularly, flailing and off-balance, their pace syncopated and uneven, and it just gives it such a sense of character and energy and naturalism.  So overall, the animation is a great improvement on Filmation’s usual work. (It was rather amusing to hear Scheimer in the special features complaining that TMS’s work was below Filmation’s usual standard.)  Yet on the other hand, TMS’s drawing and painting style at the time was rougher and messier than Filmation’s — the lines less clean, the background paintings more impressionistic.  It doesn’t work as well for me, and it just doesn’t feel like a Filmation show.

Indeed, despite the fact that Zorro was the only collaboration between two of my favorite animation studios, Filmation and TMS, I’m surprised at how lukewarm I am about it.  The production values are cool, but the stories don’t grab me.  It’s a very straightforward historical series where the threats are things like pirates and floods and the oppressive policies of the greedy governor-general, and I guess that just doesn’t captivate me.  And it has the usual problem of kids’ shows built around swordfighting, in that the fights always have to be inconclusive (see also Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog).  In the show, the fights always end with Zorro or Miguel disarming their opponents — which just makes me wonder why the opponents never just pick their swords back up. Although there are a few times when they do.

And one thing strikes me as odd about Zorro, watching it so soon after the 2012 presidential election. I’ve always thought of Filmation’s shows as socially liberal in orientation — promoting racial tolerance and diversity, peace over fighting, things like that. Yet Zorro‘s narrative of the corrupt government using taxation as a tool of oppression and theft, with the heroic outlaw returning the people’s money to them, feels like kind of a right-wing propaganda message, particularly considering that the show came out right after Ronald Reagan’s massive tax cuts were signed into law. I’m not saying that was the intent, and it probably wasn’t. Scheimer just picked up the rights to Zorro because it was an established property and an easier sell to the networks than an unknown concept, as he explained in the bonus  interviews. And it certainly never occurred to me as a kid watching in ’81 to think of it in those terms. Still, watching it in a 2012 political context, it comes off a little oddly for Filmation.

Still, as with Lone Ranger, Filmation deserves credit for ethnically inclusive casting.  The principal cast here was mostly Latino, headlined by Henry Darrow as Zorro/Don Diego.  Darrow was actually the first Latino to play Zorro, and this was the first of three consecutive Zorro TV series that Darrow starred in, interestingly enough.   Two years later, in the short-lived sitcom Zorro and Son, he played an aging Don Diego trying to train his bumbling son to take his place (yes, nearly the same premise as Anthony Hopkins’s The Mask of Zorro); and in the ’90s, Darrow played Don Alejandro opposite Duncan Regehr’s Zorro in the Disney Channel Zorro.  The rest of the cast consists of people whose names I’m unfamiliar with, though Sgt. Gonzales was played by Don Diamond, who had a recurring role in the 1957 Guy Williams Zorro series as the assistant to Sgt. Garcia, the Gonzales-equivalent character in that show.  So aside from Darrow, the only voice I recognize is Scheimer, who inevitably shows up doing various bit roles.

Both these shows are also from a new era musically; from about ’79 onward, Filmation stopped reusing musical cues from its earlier ’70s shows and its composers Ray Ellis and Norm Prescott (under the pseudonyms Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael) produced lusher, richer scores.  Both LR and Z still used score libraries rather than scoring each episode individually, but each show’s library cues were written specifically for it rather than recycled from earlier shows, though a couple of Lone Ranger cues were recycled in Zorro and both shows cribbed the occasional Flash Gordon cue.  Both scores are in a classy, rich orchestral style evocative of old adventure movies and serials, and are probably the best things about both shows.  Although each show just recycles the same cues over and over (and whoever was editing Filmation’s music around 1980 liked to jump between brief fragments of different cues, which can be quite jarring), the cues themselves are really good, among my favorites of Ellis and Prescott’s work.  Both shows’ scores are very reminiscent of the gorgeous Flash Gordon score, with the flavor of ’30s or ’40s movie and adventure-serial scores, but more tailored to their genres — more Western-sounding and Copland-influenced for LR, more Latin-tinged and Errol Flynn-esque for Zorro.  Repetitive though it is, it’s gorgeous music, and I deeply wish somebody would unearth the original master tapes for all of Filmation’s music, restore and remaster it, and put it all on CD.  Sadly, it’s unclear whether those masters even still exist. And there’s no telling what kind of clearance complications there would be, with so many of the scores written for licensed productions.

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Classic cartoons from the ’70s and ’80s: Batman, Superman, and friends

Thanks to the wonders of DVD sets, I’ve been revisiting some of the cartoons of my youth, particularly superhero-themed ones.  The first was Filmation’s The New Adventures of Batman from 1977.  This was Filmation’s second Batman series; the first ran contemporaneously with the Adam West/Burt Ward sitcom of the late ’60s and was the animation debut of Olan Soule and Casey Kasem as the Dynamic Duo.  By the ’70s, Soule and Kasem were playing Batman and Robin on Superfriends from Filmation’s chief rival studio, Hanna-Barbera.  But in ’77, Filmation brought back West and Ward to reprise their roles in a series that owed at least as much to the live-action sitcom as to Filmation’s earlier effort.  Melendy Britt (the future star of She-Ra) played Batgirl, Catwoman, and every other female role, and Lennie Weinrib played Commissioner Gordon and every male villain except Clayface, while Filmation’s co-founder/producer Lou Scheimer did uncredited voice work as Bat-Mite (in the character’s TV debut), as well as the Batcomputer, Clayface, and various minor roles.

As for the character designs, while Dick Grayson/Robin seemed to be modeled somewhat on Ward, Bruce Wayne and Batman had a very Neal Adams-y design.  Bat-Mite probably had the most changed appearance, given greenish skin and a purple and pink costume with a scrawled “M” on his chest.  This version of Bat-Mite was from an alien planet/dimension called Ergo, and had more limited magical powers than his comics counterpart, but he’s still an overenthusiastic Bat-fan who tends to cause trouble with his well-intentioned bumbling.  The series focuses rather heavily on Bat-Mite, which gets kind of annoying.  Occasionally, though, he manages to be actually funny.  Very occasionally.

While the tone of the show is not quite as campy and satirical as the ’60s live-action sitcom, it’s set in a similar world and influenced by it in a lot of ways, for instance including Batpoles and a Batphone (although for some reason the Batphone in the Batcave is an antique phone hidden in the lid of a barrel) and Robin saying “Holy (something)” every thirty seconds (along with other interjections like “Leaping lumbago!”).  But there’s no Alfred or Aunt Harriet, and Barbara is the assistant DA in this version, although that never serves any story purpose beyond giving her an excuse to be standing around in the Commissioner’s office.  Batman and Robin are aware of Batgirl’s secret identity in this show, though one episode suggested the reverse was not true.  Yet secret identities were handled carelessly; in one episode, Robin went undercover as Dick Grayson, and Batman blithely addressed him as “Dick” while the Commissioner was listening.   Meanwhile, the Batcomputer undergoes a bizarre evolution.  Initially it’s much like the sitcom version, spitting out cryptic messages on paper printouts, but then it acquires a voice (Scheimer’s voice slowed down to make it deeper) and pretty soon ends up as an inexplicably sentient AI with a jovial personality.

Adam West’s return to the role of Batman after eight years works pretty well.  He doesn’t play it as broadly as he did in the original, except in occasional moments, but it feels like it’s largely the same characterization, and West’s performance is more expressive and convincing than a lot of ’70s cartoon voiceover work.  In a couple of early episodes, West even brings back his practice of giving Bruce Wayne a more laid-back, soft-spoken delivery than the more intense Batman, though it’s inconsistent.  Ward, meanwhile, is simply terrible.  He delivers almost every line in the same labored tone.  It’s like he’s trying to recapture the intensity of his original performance, but isn’t able to muster up the same energy or even talk as fast because he’s reading from a script.  Between that and the way his voice changed in the intervening years, it occurred to me that it might’ve worked better if they’d sped up the tape a bit.  The other performers are simply workmanlike, though Weinrib’s pretty good at doing a wide range of voices, and Britt’s Catwoman has a bit of a Julie Newmar quality that’s nice to hear.  (By the way, I’m pretty certain that a number of uncredited voices from the animated Star Trek were Weinrib’s, though the ’90s revision of the Star Trek Concordance indiscriminately credited them to James Doohan — even though they clearly aren’t him — and other reference sources like Memory Alpha have perpetuated that error.)

Like all Filmation shows of this era, the music is credited to Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael, pseudonyms for Ray Ellis (the composer for the classic ’60s Spider-Man cartoon) and Filmation producer Norm Prescott, and includes a mix of library cues created for the show and ones recycled from earlier shows.  This series somewhat straddles the line between Filmation’s adventure shows and comedy shows, and the original cues are much in the same style as Ellis & Prescott’s comedy scores, but the stock cues are drawn heavily from adventure shows like Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, Star Trek, and Shazam.

Like most Filmation shows, TNAoB had a brief tag at the end with the heroes talking to the audience — actually called “Bat-Message” segments in this case.  This was usually done to convey the moral of the story to the viewers, but TNAoB’s tags only conveyed morals in the first few episodes; for most of the series, they were just rather pointless jokes involving Bat-Mite.

I was pleased to discover that Hanna-Barbera’s The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians was also out on DVD.  This was the final incarnation of the Superfriends franchise based on DC’s Justice League, and a departure from previous seasons in that it was actually intelligent, well-written, and fairly authentic to the comics.  A lot of the credit for that goes to story editor Alan Burnett, who would later go on to produce Batman: The Animated Series and most of the subsequent DC Animated Universe shows and post-DCAU Batman shows/movies from Warner Bros. Animation.  Rich Fogel was also a writer on Galactic Guardians who would later be a major contributor to the DCAU.

The Super Powers Team title (also used in-story in place of “Justice League” or “Superfriends” as a team label) was a tie-in to an action figure line being released at the time.  The show also changed the character designs, replacing the Alex Toth models used in previous Superfriends seasons with new designs by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, then a major comic-book artist who also did model sheets (i.e. official character designs) for all DC’s comics at the time.  Much of the cast was a holdover from previous seasons, notably Danny Dark as Superman, Casey Kasem as Robin, Frank Welker as Darkseid and Kalibak, and Rene Auberjonois as Desaad (a role he would later reprise in Justice League Unlimited).  But Adam West replaced Olan Soule as Batman, making this the final time West reprised the role as a series regular, and the first time he played opposite Kasem’s Robin instead of Ward’s.  Actually this is apparently the second season with West and Burnett involved, but the first isn’t available on DVD, at least not at Netflix.  And the previous season was transitional, introducing Darkseid as the main villain and adding Firestorm (Mark L. Taylor) to the cast, but keeping the infamous Wonder Twins, who are mercifully absent from the Galactic Guardians season.  Instead, in this season the team is joined by Cyborg (Ernie Hudson, fresh off Ghostbusters and doing a much poorer acting job than I would’ve expected from him).  As the youngest members of the team, Firestorm and Cyborg are heavily emphasized.

Most of the eight episodes are okay, better than previous Superfriends seasons but nothing really impressive.  But there are two episodes that make this season really noteworthy, both of them either written or co-plotted by Burnett.  I’ll start with the final episode of the series, “The Death of Superman,” written by John Loy and plotted by Loy and Burnett.  Of course Superman doesn’t really die, but it’s impressive that the show was even allowed to tackle the concept of death or use the word, when so many animated shows then and subsequently (including B:TAS) were forbidden to mention it.  And despite having more modern elements like Darkseid and Firestorm, the episode feels like a classic Silver Age Superman tale, right down to the visit to the Fortress of Solitude.  It’s a lot of fun, and there’s some pretty good character work involving Firestorm’s guilt at failing to save Superman.

But the best episode by far is #4,  Burnett’s “The Fear.”  It’s noteworthy as the first time that Batman’s origin story was ever dramatized outside of the comics, and one of the only times it’s ever been depicted in animation (since B:TAS was unable to do more than indirectly allude to it due to FOX’s strict censorship on daytime TV).  Of course there was still a fair amount of censorship on ABC at the time, and “The Fear” couldn’t actually show the shootings, but it got around that very artfully by cutting to flashes of lightning and making it crystal clear from the look on young Bruce’s face what had happened.  I remember that I caught this episode on the TV in a hotel room (or maybe it was a hospital — that was around the time I was being treated for a retinal melanoma) and was very impressed by its power and intelligence, compared to what I’d come to expect from the Superfriends franchise.  I’ve never forgotten it since, and I was thrilled to be able to see it again.  It holds up pretty well, and at times it almost feels like a B:TAS pilot.

In fact, Burnett’s love of Batman comes through clearly.  In every Burnett-written episode, Batman is a major player and is the ultimate detective, always making the Holmesian deductions and staying a step ahead of the criminals.  This was the first time Adam West was called upon to play a serious version of Batman (though nowhere near as grim as Kevin Conroy’s), and it’s interesting to compare to his previous two turns in the role.  I wouldn’t say he knocks it out of the park, but he handles it pretty well, better than I recall Soule’s Batman being.  He’s still a little broad and melodramatic at times, but no more so than typical for voice acting at the time.  And he gets in some good moments of emotion in “The Fear” and when he says farewell to his old friend in “The Death of Superman.”

By this point, like most studios (except Filmation), Hanna-Barbera had outsourced its animation to Japan, so the animation on this season, while still crude by today’s standards, was an improvement on H-B’s usual TV work from the ’70s, and on previous seasons of Superfriends.  But it’s still not much to write home about.  The music is by H-B’s regular composer Hoyt Curtin and is serviceable.  I was never as fond of Curtin’s cartoon music as I was of Ellis & Prescott’s.

The third vintage DC show I’ve revisited is the 1988 Superman series from Ruby-Spears, a studio spun off from Hanna-Barbera (Joe Ruby and Ken Spears were writer/producers for a number of H-B shows).  The show ran for one 13-episode season and is on DVD under the title Ruby-Spears Superman.  But its actual title was just Superman, and it presaged the classic ’90s Batman and Superman animated series (and a few Batman and Superman movies) in having a main title sequence that never actually showed the series title onscreen, instead just using the Superman logo as a sort of ideogram for the word.  Although it did have Bill Woodson (the erstwhile Superfriends announcer) reciting the opening narration from the ’50s TV series, so the name “Superman” was heard repeatedly if never seen.  (But due to censorship, “faster than a speeding bullet” is demonstrated by animation of Superman being faster than a lightning bolt instead.)

The series was developed and story-edited by Marv Wolfman, the noted DC Comics writer and editor.  Yet the storytelling is pretty basic, without even as much sophistication as Galactic Guardians had; it’s pretty much straight action through and through, with the main cast rarely rising above one-dimensional portrayals.  This is partly because the main stories are fairly short, because the last 4-5 minutes of each episode consists of “Superman’s Family Album,” a series of vignettes (mostly written by Cherie Wilkerson) following young Clark Kent through the milestones of his formative years, from his adoption by Ma and Pa Kent in episode 1 to his debut as Superman in episode 13.  Although they spend the most time on his early childhood and only the last few segments on his teens.

Being made in 1988, shortly after DC relaunched its continuity inCrisis on Infinite Earths, it’s a hybrid of the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis versions of the character, along with some elements of the Reeve movies.  The main characters are pretty much their standard pre-Crisis selves, with Clark as a timid klutz and Lois only having eyes for Superman.  But Lex Luthor’s portrayal here is rather unique, a combination of the pre-Crisis evil genius scientist, the post-Crisis business magnate who stays above the law and never gets his crimes exposed, and the Gene Hackman-style wisecracker with a sexy henchwoman (although in this version she’s more cute than sexy, a vacuous, girlish blonde named Jessica Morganberry).  But then, as I recall, Marv Wolfman actually pitched a version of Luthor as a business magnate before John Byrne did, so perhaps this show’s Luthor reflects how Wolfman would’ve approached the character if he’d been picked to do the relaunch.  The “Family Album” segments are a more awkward blend of pre- and post-Crisis elements; like the pre-Crisis version, this show’s Clark has superpowers from infancy, but like the post-Crisis version, he’s never Superboy, only adopting the cape and tights when he first comes to Metropolis.  So basically the “Family Album” segments are about Clark using his powers to get into well-intentioned mischief (when he’s very young) or make it easier to handle mundane problems (as he gets older), and only occasionally using them to help anybody in any way (and only in minor ways).  It seems a great waste of his potential, and it seems out of character for Clark to wait until adulthood before beginning to use his abilities for heroic ends.  Although it was an interesting idea, the “Family Album” segments ended up being pretty anticlimactic and didn’t contribute much to the series.

The voice work was pretty solid, though in the broader, more artificial vein of cartoon voice work of the era.  Superman was played by Beau Weaver, who would later cross the DC/Marvel divide and play Mister Fantastic in the ’90s Fantastic Four cartoon.  He was a fairly good Superman, with a strong, booming voice, but his Clark was too obviously a deep-voiced man trying to sound higher-pitched.  And he could get way too melodramatic when shouting was called for.  One doesn’t expect Superman’s “Great Scott!” to sound quite that panicked.  Lois was Ginny McSwain,  also the voice director for the show and for many, many other animated series since (including The Batman in the mid-2000s).  This seems to be the only show where McSwain played a series regular, but she’s a pretty good Lois (again, given the era).  Character actor Mark L. Taylor was Jimmy, and Perry White, interestingly, was played by Stanley Ralph Ross, best known as one of the chief writers of the Adam West Batman sitcom and the developer of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series.  Michael Bell, one of the top voice actors of the era (he was Duke on GI Joe, among many others), was very effective as a Hackmanesque Luthor.  Alan Oppenheimer and Tress MacNeille were the Kents, and notable guests include Howard Morris as the Prankster, Rene Auberjonois as General Zod, an uncredited but unmistakeable James Avery as the mayor of Metropolis, and Nancy Cartwright (the future Bart Simpson) as young Clark’s babysitter.  Wonder Woman guest stars in episode 8, with B. J. Ward reprising the role she’d previously taken on in Galactic Guardians.

Where this series really excels is in its production values.  The animation, produced by Toei and Dai Won Animation, is superb and gorgeous, better than most of the TV animation of the era.  The character designs are by another noted comic artist, Gil Kane, and it’s just a very good-looking show.  But my favorite part is the music by the great Ron Jones, who was also doing Star Trek: The Next Generation and Disney’s DuckTales around the same time.  Jones’s score here is like a middle ground between those two, and in some ways embodies the best of both worlds (pun intended).  The main title theme begins with a reprise of John Williams’s Superman theme, but then segues into a similar-sounding original theme by Jones which is the basis for the incidental scoring (since they only licensed the Williams theme for the main title).  But it’s a great theme, and Jones uses it very well.  His action-adventure music has always been my favorite part of his work, and this series is right in his sweet spot (except for the “Family Album” segments, which tended to call for more gentle and saccharine sounds, sometimes handled well but sometimes bordering on the insipid).  A lot of the music is original to each episode, but there’s a lot of tracked music too, which is something I always liked in old cartoons because it let me memorize a lot of my favorite cues.  A number of Jones’s cues from this show have stuck with me for decades, and it’s great to get to hear them again.  Much of the series’ score has actually been released on CD, as part of a massive box set from Film Score Monthly.  Scroll down to “Disc 7″ at the link and you can actually listen to about 26 minutes’ worth of the score, including most of my personal favorites.

If only the writing on this show had been on the level of what Galactic Guardians sometimes managed, this could’ve been one of the greats.  As it is, it’s great to look at and listen to, but it falls short in the story department.  I would’ve expected that Marv Wolfman’s involvement would’ve let the show embody more of the conceptual and character richness of the comics, much as Galactic Guardians managed to do.  But for whatever reason, that wasn’t in the cards.  So while this show is a major step forward in animation and music from previous DC shows, it’s a step backward in writing, and thus it fails to be the kind of seminal creation that Batman: The Animated Series would be just four years later.  So it’s a transitional work, more the end of one era than the beginning of the next.  (And it goes to show how important and underappreciated a role Alan Burnett played in bringing about the revolution that was the DC Animated Universe.)

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