Hanna-Barbera Heroes

Hanna-Barbera Heroes

(pop culture)

William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were pioneers of television animation. Having learned the ropes by directing Tom and Jerry theatrical cartoons for MGM in the 1940s and 1950s, they adapted their craft to the small screen, launching a pantheon of cartoon greats including the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Jonny Quest, Scooby-Doo, and their first superhero (not counting Quick Draw McGraw’s Zorro parody El Kabong, that is)—Atom Ant.

This miniature muscle-mite first buzzed into action in The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show (1965). Atom Ant (voiced by Howard Morris and Don Messick) was a tiny titan engaging in pun-filled clashes with menaces large and small. Atom Ant can now be seen on the TV network Boomerang.

Beginning in 1966, superhero mania swept America, ignited by the success of the live-action Batman television series (1966–1968). The Hanna-Barbera studios quickly cranked out a host of animated superhero shows all their own. Pre-miering on CBS in September 1966, Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles was cut from the same tongue-in-cheek cloth as Atom Ant. Frankenstein Jr. was a masked and costumed computerized crime fighter who answered to his creator, trouble-prone prodigy Buzz Conroy. The Impossibles were a trio of pop musicians who, when summoned by their boss Big D, via a guitar-based TV monitor, transformed into … the Impossibles, a supergroup composed of Fluid Man, Coil Man, and Multi Man, who zoomed to crime scenes in their Impossicar.

Debuting concurrently was Space Ghost and Dino Boy, also on CBS. Space Ghost, an inter-galactic superhero, designed by legendary comic book artist Alex Toth and voiced by Gary Owens (best known as the announcer on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In), was abetted by junior partners Jan and Jayce and their monkey Blip. Armed with ray-blasting wrist bands and his Invisibelt, Space Ghost tackled an army of alarming adversaries. Dino Boy was a contemporary kid lost in a dangerous society that had never evolved beyond its prehistoric state. Space Ghost and Dino Boy was played straight, an attitude Space Ghost maintained during a 1981 revival. Not so with the spectral hero’s 1994 comeback, however: He became a wacky talk-show host, backed up by former foes Zorak, Moltar, and Brak, in the hilarious Space Ghost Coast to Coast program, originally telecast on Cartoon Network. Space Ghost (in his original form and his Coast to Coast revamp) has materialized over the decades into comic books from several publishers (most notably a 2005 DC Comics miniseries written by Joe Kelly with painted art by Ariel Olivetti).

For the 1967-1968 television season, Hanna-Barbera released an unprecedented amount of original superhero fare, with two new shows on CBS alone. The Herculoids, another series featuring Toth’s designs, was set on the planet Quasar. It starred a family—King Zandor, Tara, and Dorno—who warded off assaulting monstrosities with the help of their unusual allies, the Herculoids: Tundro, a ten-legged rhino; Zok, a laser beam-firing flying dragon; Igoo, a super-strong rock creature; and the malleable Gloop and Gleep. The show’s human family members were not superheroes, but the Herculoids were in effect “superpets.” Hanna-Barbera also unveiled Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor that year. Mightor was a prehistoric superhero. Each of his episodes began with a boy named Tor, who, when raising a magic club into the air (while exclaiming “Mightor!”), transformed into a powerful superhero. Also on the program, Herman Melville’s great white whale became an amiable adventurer.

On NBC, Hanna-Barbera produced two shows for the 1967-1968 season. In Young Samson and Goliath an ordinary teenage boy and his pet dog were upgraded into the powerful hero Samson and his fierce lion Goliath. Prolific designer Toth was back again with Birdman and the Galaxy Trio. The lead feature was a winged superhero, who, with a cry of “Bir-r-r-rdman!”, soared into action. (Birdman, like Space Ghost, got a droll facelift in 2001 in Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim program package as Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.) Also appearing in the show was The Galaxy Trio, about a team of titans consisting of Vapor Man, Meteor Man, and Galaxy Girl. A more fascinating supergroup was adapted from Marvel Comics to ABC that year by Hanna-Barbera in The Fantastic Four.

By 1968, superheroes were falling out of vogue. Hanna-Barbera didn’t produce a superhero program again until 1973—and this time they struck gold. Super Friends, a kid-friendly version of DC Comics’ Justice League of America, began on ABC in September 1973. In a variety of incarnations, Super Friends continued well into the mid-1980s.

The success of Super Friends prompted Hanna-Barbera to try its hand at original superheroes again with Hong Kong Phooey (19741976), a kung-fu superhero canine voiced by Scatman Crothers. Dynomutt, Dog Wonder, began a successful run in 1976. Dynomutt was a laughably clumsy robot with extending paws (voiced by Frank Welker) who, along with the no-nonsense, square-jawed Blue Falcon (voiced by Gary Owens), tackled evildoers in Big City. Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (1977) featured a mumbling, diminutive (and very hairy) stone-age superhero released (by teenage Charlie’s Angels clones) into the present after a lengthy deep freeze. Captain Caveman (voiced by Mel Blanc, of Bugs Bunny fame) flew into action with a club and a deafening battle shriek (“Captain Ca-a-a-avema-a-a-an!”) Basketball stars the Harlem Globetrotters got superpowers in the short-lived The Super Globetrotters (1979).

Hanna-Barbera also co-produced The New Adventures of Captain Planet (1993–1996), the sequel to the original animated TV series Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990–1993), which had been co-produced by DIC Entertainment. Co-created by Ted Turner, the head of the Turner Broadcasting System, Captain Planet is a superhero who combats threats to Earth’s natural environment. From 1998 to 2001 Hanna-Barbera was also the original producer of a highly successful, all-female animated superhero series, Craig Mc-Cracken’s The Powerpuff Girls.

In 1991, Ted Turner’s Turner Broadcasting System bought Hanna-Barbera productions, and Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera entered semi-retirement. Time Warner bought the Turner Broadcasting System in 1996. After Bill Hanna died in 2001, Hanna-Barbera was absorbed into Warner Bros. Animation; Joe Barbera died in 2006. Warner Bros. Animation now produces new animation involving classic Hanna-Barbera characters, principally Scooby-Doo.

Many of Hanna-Barbera’s heroes have enjoyed exposure beyond their television roots. Space Ghost (in his original form and his Coast to Coast revamp) has materialized over the decades into comic books from several publishers (most notably the 2005 DC Comics miniseries written by Joe Kelly, with painted art by Ariel Olivetti), and Gold Key’s Hanna-Barbera Super TV Heroes an thology (1967–1969) spotlighted not only the Ghost but also the Herculoids and several other characters. Space Ghost, Frankenstein Jr., and Shazzan each starred in Big Little Books, and most of the company’s superheroes were merchandized in some fashion during the 1960s, from Give-a-Show projector slides, to Whitman Publishing Company coloring books, to perhaps the most unusual Hanna-Barbera collectible, the box of Space Ghost and Frankenstein Jr. “Bubble Club” bubble bath soap from Purex. Since the late 1990s, Space Ghost Coast to Coast pins, T-shirts, and coffee mugs have been available, as licensing and merchandising have become synonymous with successful animated properties. In the early twenty-first century, action-figure lines have immortalized Space Ghost and his villains; Blue Falcon and Dynomutt; and Birdman. Upscale coldcast porcelain sculptures of Space Ghost and “Harvey” Birdman were also released in 2002 and 2003. —ME, PS, & GM

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