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. EDIT: I no longer think that voice was Weinrib’s; I now suspect it was Lou Scheimer’s son Lane, though I’m not sure yet. They certainly weren’t Doohan, though.)
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 in Crisis 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.)