Saturday-Morning Supervillains

Saturday-Morning Supervillains

(pop culture)
In the era before 24/7 cable television and ondemand videos and DVDs—the 1950s through the 1970s—Saturday morning was a magical time when kids ruled the airwaves. Aside from tantalizing commercials for sugar-coated cereals and the newest toy that must be added to every child's Christmas wish list, only one thing disrupted the lives of TV's beloved animated heroes: supervillains. This criminal ilk attacked indiscriminately— whether you were a superhero, a wacky racer, or a moose or a squirrel, you'd never know when a bad guy would show up! A popular cartoon supervillain archetype was rooted in, of all places, Uncle Tom's Cabin, abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel that introduced readers to the abusive slave owner Simon Legree. From Legree sprung an archetype of patently corrupt villains, often clad in black capes, that snarled onto screen in the silent films of the early twentieth century, chewing scenery in wildly exaggerated performances to clearly convey evil to a then-naive viewing audience. Snidley Whiplash, arch-foe of the befuddled Royal Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right (a staple of 1960s and early 1970s TV), best exemplifies this type of villain, with his handlebar mustache, ebon top hat, and propensity for tying the kidnap-prone Nell Fenwick to railroad tracks. Whiplash, wonderfully but sinisterly voiced by Hans Conried in animation, was brought to life in the live-action comedy Dudley Do- Right (1999) by none other than Alfred Molina, whose better-known supervillain movie role was Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2 (2004). Paul Winchell was the voice of the similarly nasty Dick Dastardly, an inept, Wile E. Coyote–inspired troublemaker whose machinations always went awry, much to the amusement of his snickering canine sidekick Muttley (Don Messick). Dastardly was first seen in 1968 in Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races, which earned him a 1969 spin-off, Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines. Dastardly is not to be confused with the money-grabbing Sylvester Sneekly, aka the Hooded Claw, from a second Wacky Races spin-off, 1969's The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. Sneekly/Claw was performed by Paul Lynde, who declined a screen credit reportedly due to his belief that TV toons were beneath him. Other dark and diabolical cartoon criminals in this vein are long-time cartoon favorite Mighty Mouse's enemy Oil Can Harry, and Dishonest John, who roiled the waters for Beany and Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent in their 1960s show. An old-style brute whose infamy has achieved supervillain status is the bully Bluto, sometimes called Brutus, arch-enemy of Popeye the Sailor Man (who has also been bothered by the sorceress Sea Hag). And could any black-clad cold-war spies be more devious than Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale? The brain-children of animator Jay Ward (who also created Dudley Do-Right and several other eccentric cartoons), the pint-sized Boris and his slinky accomplice Natasha, hailing from the spiteful nation of Pottsylvania, were dispatched by their Fearless Leader on democracy-busting missions in the U.S. Luckily, their plans were always thwarted by offbeat heroes Rocket J. Squirrel, aka Rocky the flying squirrel, and his dopey friend Bullwinkle J. Moose. Ward's characters premiered in 1959 in the syndicated Rocky and His Friends before segueing to network TV with Bullwinkle usurping the show's title for a lengthy run, through 1973. The thick-accented Boris and Natasha were voiced by Paul Frees and June Foray (Foray was also the voice of Rocky), and were twice adapted to the live-action screen: Dave Thomas and Sally Kellerman played the pair in Boris and Natasha (1992), as did Jason Alexander and Rene Russo in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000, which also featured Robert DeNiro as Fearless Leader). Mad scientists, the reliable villainous archetype from early movies, pulp magazines, and comic books, migrated to Saturday-morning TV in huge numbers. Felix the Cat (“the wonderful, wonderful cat,” beginning a long syndicated run in 1960) held tight his magic bag of tricks, as it was coveted by the bushy-mustached mastermind called the Professor, whose bulldog lackey Rock Bottom could be relied upon for muscle. Simon Bar Sinister was the evil genius who was the bane of the existence of Underdog in the floppy-eared superhero's 1964–1973 series. Allen Swift played Bar Sinister, master of dangerous superweapons like the shrinking ray (a favorite of mad scientists), who announced his attacks by uttering, “Simon Says.” Swift also voiced Underdog's other major adversary, canine crime boss Riff Raff. A summer 2005 announcement that Walt Disney Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment would bring Underdog to the big screen in 2007 in a live-action movie, starring a CGI-enhanced real dog, bodes well for Simon Bar Sinister making his movie debut. No mad scientist is madder than Lex Luthor, Superman's most persistent enemy, who was a regular nemesis in episodes of Filmation's The New Adventures of Superman, which started on CBS in 1966 and endured several seasons and two title changes. Joining Luthor on TV were comicbook transplants Brainiac, Toyman, Mr. Mxyzptlk, the Parasite, and the Prankster, as well as all-new (but uninspired) villains created for the series like Merlin, the Sorcerer, the Warlock, Satana and her Plasto-men, the fire-breathing Robot of Riga, Mr. Suji and his Japanese Sandman, and the mysterious Mr. Mist. Similarly, superheroes Batman and Spider- Man, each boasting enormous casts of costumed criminals, saw their rogues' galleries amplified with made-for-TV menaces. Newcomer Simon the Pieman fought Batman and Robin in their 1968 cartoon series, and when the Dynamic Duo returned to Saturday morning in 1977, Moonman, Sweet Tooth, Prof. Bubbles, and the alien Zarbor were there to fight them. On the tube Spider-Man wrestled with his comic-book enemies Dr. Octopus, the Rhino, and Green Goblin, among other popular foes, but in Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981–1984) the Fantastic Mr. Frump, Video Man, Lightwave, and the Gamesman also stirred up trouble, continuing a pattern established in Spidey's 1967 cartoon debut with Saturday-morning-only supervillains such as the Flying Dutchman, the Fifth Avenue Phantom, the Imposter, Parafino, Dr. Noah Boddy, Dr. Zap, Dr. Dumpty, and Dr. Von Schlick fighting the hero. It is widely known that in cartoon land, falling anvils and dynamite are readily available, but so were doctorate degrees for supercriminals. In addition to Spider-Man's diabolical doctors, also seen on Saturday morning were Dr. Destructo (enemy of the late 1950s space hero Colonel Bleep; another villain with the same name fought the Lone Ranger in 1966), Dr. Gizmo (Super Chicken), Dr. Flood (Johnny Cypher), Dr. Who (no relation to the British hero of the Doctor Who TV series; this Who was after King Kong in the giant ape's 1966–1969 series), Dr. Millennium and Dr. Freezoids (Birdman), and Dr. Dome (Plastic Man, who also fought a villain whose name somehow squeaked past 1979 censors: the Weed). While there was no shortage of doctors, copyright attorneys were scarce, as numerous TV heroes fought supervillains whose names, and often their powers, were lifted from established comic-book characters: Batman tussled with Electro and the Chameleon (chief executive- turned-superhero Super President, star of a 1967 series, also fought a Chameleon all his own); the Lone Ranger and Tonto tackled Western-era foes appropriating the names the Trickster, Quicksilver, Puppetmaster, Black Knight, and Queen Bee; and different villains named the Ringmaster each battled Birdman, the Impossibles, and Superstretch and Microwoman. Hanna-Barbera Productions was one of the giants of television animation, creating vast universes of superheroes that stood ready to protect planet Earth, or the universe, against myriad monsters and malcontents. In the mid-1960s, boy adventurer Jonny Quest and his family (who started in prime time in 1964 before jumping to Saturday morning) were imperiled by would-be world dominator Dr. Zin and the living mummy Anubis; the rockstar heroes the Impossibles took on the Satanic Surfer, the Sinister Speck, and the Spinner; while Frankenstein, Jr. fought the Colossal Junk Master, the Shocking Electrical Monster, and the Spyder Man, the latter of which could not have emerged in the litigious twenty-first century. Birdman flew into combat against X the Eliminator, Vulturo the Mind Taker, and Reducto, while his series mates the Galaxy Trio struggled against Computron, Titan the Titanium Man, and the Moltens of Meterous; and caped caveman Mighty Mightor was opposed by prehistoric supervillains Storm King and Tyrannor. The trend continued in the 1970s, as Lowbrow, the Queen Hornet, the Red Vulture, and the Injustice League of America were enemies of Dynomutt and Blue Falcon; and basketball heroes the Super Globetrotters slam-dunked do-badders Museum Man, the Facelift, Tattoo Man, and Bwana Bob. Not all Saturday-morning supervillains were animated. Producers Sid and Marty Krofft unleashed a spate of live-action kid shows in the 1970s featuring over-the-top rogues such as Dr. Shrinker, the cackling Witchiepoo (from the trippy 1969–1970 H. R. Pufnstuf, which inspired a 1970 Pufnstuf movie also featuring the villainess), Horatio J. Hoodoo (Lidsville), and the rogues' gallery of mid-1970s superheroines ElecraWoman and Dyna- Girl: the Spider Lady, Ali Baba, the Pharoah, the Sorcerer and Miss Dazzle, and Glitter Rock. Shazam! and Isis, two live-action superhero shows of the mid-1970s, were tailor made for supervillains but opted instead for heavy-handed morality plays featuring wayward teens and preteens. Lastly, one of the greatest supervillains of Saturday morning originated in movie theaters. Spaced-out Marvin the Martian, the diminutive intergalactic conqueror armored like the Roman god of war Mars (albeit with white sneakers), startled Bugs Bunny when the wascally wabbit stepped foot on the moon in the short Haredevil Hare (1948). Marvin and his dog K-9 appeared in four subsequent space-themed toons, the most famous of which was Duck Dodgers in the 241/2th Century (1953), in which Daffy Duck, as the Buck Rogers–parody star, warred with Marvin over Planet X. Marvin became a sleeper sensation: he wasn't named in his theatrical appearances and was ignored for years in Looney Tunes–related merchandising, but developed a cult TV following through endless cartoon repeats. The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979), a compilation of shorts, finally gave him the name “Marvin Martian” in an image gallery (“the” was added shortly thereafter), and from subsequent film and TV cartoons, Marvin the Martian became a mega-star. Marvin (along with the supervillain the Martian Queen) is the recurring adversary on the animated series Duck Dodgers (2003–present), aired on the 24-hour cable channel where it's Saturday morning every minute of every day: the Cartoon Network.