In 1973 Hanna-Barbera joined forces with DC Comics to bring their popular superheroes to life. This wouldn’t be a first for DC. Superman appeared on his own in shorts by Fleischer (later renamed Famous) Studios and a Justice League Of America TV series has been created by Filmation after their own successful series with the Man Of Steel. According to the Superfriends fan wiki (because of course there’s one) there was concern by HB that Justice League Of America, the title of the team book of DC’s biggest heroes at the time created by Gardner Fox, was too (and this is the wiki’s term) “jingoistic” after the Vietnam War. Don’t ask me, I wasn’t even a year old at the time…and I probably still would have thought that was dumb. ABC, the network that would be adding the show to their Saturday Morning line-up, still had to deal with parent groups (how many were actually parents or even had kids is up for debate with these groups) and thus the violence had to be toned down. So the series would get the name it’s been known by for better or worse–Super Friends, later changed to the one-word Superfriends.
This week, as I deal with more medical “fun” I decided to do something I could hopefully set up before I go off the grid again, so since I’ve already looked at intros for the animated Batman and Superman over the years (apparently I did Superman more than once and forgot while the Batman link is part one of two) but didn’t review the team-up shows I’m devoting this week to looking at the show that helped me become a DC Comics fan and how it did so. If I can get to it before the week’s over I’ll also look at the other team-up series. It thus makes sense to start at the beginning with the first three shows in this series.
Season one of Super Friends has issues and even a defender like myself can’t ignore them and call myself an honest critic. The villains never came from the comics and were always of the same variety…well-meaning extremists who more often than not saw the error of their ways by the end of the preaching episodes, covering all the various social concerns of the time…except to the target audience of kids. It was to make them more socially aware, and to that end added three relatively normal kids whose only explanation for being there came from tie-in media and not the show itself thus I still proclaim no actual reason was given. Wendy, Marvin, and Wonderdog’s part in the show felt like a different show while the Super Friends spent most of their time dealing with the crisis in the “other show”. This was also an hour and while not the worst animation to come out of Hanna-Barbera (unless I missed something I sadly still give that to The New Scooby-Doo Movies, where all the budget seemed to go to the celebrity guest-stars) it was still the worst of the series.
Hanna-Barbera brought in Ted Knight, who had served as narrator for many of the Filmation DC cartoons, to be the narrator for season one, and since he was changed in season two for the guy who would serve as narrator for the rest of the run until the “Super Powers” period it always feels off to me. Knight does a good job and he certainly had the experience but nostalgia prevails on this one. The theme song is okay but it always feels less epic than what was to come. It’s only the first season and the show would get a major overhaul thanks to the success of other superhero shows on TV convincing ABC to give it another chance but the intro always feels as weak as the season itself. So I guess in that regard it fits the show just right.
This is also our introduction to the designs of Alex Toth, one of the greatest superhero designers Hanna-Barbera ever had and someone who doesn’t get enough recognition for his talents. His designs would continue to be used until the final season, where they went with something closer to the comics, and while I’m on board with that it’s the Toth designs that make this show. Seeing parodies make fun of it by making it even more goofy always disappoints me.
Suffice it to say the show didn’t do well. Plastic Man, Green Arrow, The Flash, and the Atom all made appearances but it seems liked only these five (poor Robin would have to wait to be acknowledged in the intro) were the only members of the Super Friends. The show still referred to various Justice League gear and the League itself, so I like to think that the Super Friends were maybe the public face of the Justice League Of America, to better connect to the people they protected. The show took inspirations from the Silver Age but to a lesser extent the then incoming Bronze Age (this would really take hold in the final season) had a few influence as well.
So what changes were made? The show would alter it’s format, becoming The All-New Super Friends Hour in 1977 for its second season. It would still be an hour but the updates were quite welcome. Gone were the kids that didn’t fit in and in came superheroes in training for those kids who liked seeing other kids (yes, they existed even if you weren’t one of them so shut up already about “kids didn’t want to hang with the superheroes”–that’s bullcrap and I was exhibit A because the superheroes were the ones being shoved into death traps all the time). Zan, Jayna, and of course we still needed a mascot character so we got Gleek the space monkey, would get their own segment as well as being shown learning from the heroes when we had to give some lesson to the kids. That wasn’t the only change to the format, but first, the intro.
You can see the early upgrades already while still having remnants of the previous intro. The way they all stand on the logo at the end is like the first attempt but not introduced in the same way. (The old show had been rerun as a summer replacement while preparing this revamp.) The line about the Super Friends being “created from the cosmic legends of the universe” became “gathered together from the cosmic reaches of the universe”, which is a minor change but just a tad more epic. The first makes them sound fictional while the second more important. The rainbow background and one particular explosion style graphic also show up (look when the Wonder Twins are introduced) still show up. This connects the old version to the new version while still showing this was a higher quality production.
Also we have the debut of William Woodson as the narrator, and while Knight was good Woodson just nails the style the show was going for, making him a much better fit but that could just be the nostalgia talking.
Before we go on I suppose we should talk about the Wonder Twins. While Wendy and Marvin were largely forgotten until the Teen Titans books in the 2000s brought them back and made them work…only to kill Marvin and cripple Wendy with a demon version of Wonderdog…but the Twins, teen heroes from the planet Exvor, were a much better fit. Gleek still serves as comic relief like Wonderdog, but being an alien monkey it was easier to accept he could understand human speech and could help the heroes out of certain situations without being as silly a notion as a regular Earth dog who seemed almost human. Scooby-Doo lite just didn’t work here but Gleek was just fine. As for the Twins themselves, I feel sorry for Zan. Poor guy is the butt of so many jokes because his powers weren’t as thought out as his sister’s. Jayna’s ability to turn into animals was great but Zan only turned into the three forms of water–liquid, ice, and mist or clouds–and since they could only transform when in physical contact with each other and the Sat AM rules of speaking a phrase, it limited Zan heavily. Later seasons would have him turn into ice versions of things to be helpful, and while an ice slide is fine, an ice ladder is dangerous and an ice jet really pushes suspension of disbelief. They should have gone with maybe earth as an element or give him all four elements…though how Jayna could turn him back from fire is something to be discussed.
The show included shorts with some of the heroes teaming up, a Wonder Twins adventure where they had to save some dumb kids from their own stupid actions getting themselves in life-threatening danger, and a story where one of the main five (though Batman and Robin were always paired together) with a guest DC hero. Throw in some PSA and arts & crafts segments and you got a full hour. There were four other additions but as this is running long, let’s get to the addition the next season, where these segments were cut short for a full half-hour semi-spinoff that is pretty infamous itself.
This when Superfriends became one word and would stay that way until they changed the full title of the show in the final season. I don’t know why there’s a different narrator for the intro when Woodson would still narrate the actual episodes, but this is what the DC based superhero show was missing…the DC supervillains to fight them. Oh a handful showed up in the previous version and even in the new shorts before Challenge aired in the second half of the hour, but this was the villains gathering together to form a sort of super enemies, the Legion Of Doom. This group get referenced even in more recent shows, like Justice League Unlimited, and of course everyone mentions that the Hall Of Doom looks like Darth Vader’s helmet as this came out in 1978, a year after the first Star Wars movie.
The show itself would include four rather infamous other new characters introduced in All-New. With an admittedly low number of non-white heroes at the time and the creator of Black Lightning refusing to let his character be used on the show, Hanna-Barbera created Black Vulcan, Samurai, and Apache Chief. People say these names don’t really hold up under modern perspectives but I only agree when it comes to Apache Chief. We would get his origin in this series (sadly none of the other originals would get one) so he might be an Apache tribesman but you know it was only chosen because someone thought the name sounded cool. Even today there aren’t very many Native American superheroes so at least give them credit for that. Samurai’s name doesn’t really match his powers but it’s possible he did live under some form of Bushido and we do see him with a sword now and then. He mostly relies on his powers to summon a mini-tornado, turn invisible, and occasionally some bonus power the plot needed. And they did use actual Japanese for his incantations.
However I will defend Black Vulcan without apology. As I said, Black Lighting’s creator, Tony Isabella, wanted royalties and Hanna-Barbera was already paying to use the other DC heroes. So they created an original hero, gave him more powers that Black Lightning didn’t have, and he was one of my favorite Superfriends. He just had a great personality that really made him feel like a super friend, could fly and travel through time, turned into lightning…he was in the end even cooler than the character they wanted so I think they won out. Also, for those of you who care about such things, voice actor Buster Jones was black, so he was the only one of the originals who was voiced by someone of the actual race of the character. And they didn’t give him “black speak”, but did have him use a lot of electricity puns. No 70s jive, no hip slang, none of the stupid stereotypes. He’s the guy you’d expect to show up in Hollywood Shuffle and be asked if he could be “more black” by the clueless white producer. I know that’s a big deal now. So suck it, Black Vulcan is awesome!
And that was the first three version of Superfriends, the ones that defined where the series would go. Next time the schedule gets a bit more hectic for our heroes as they fight just to remain on the air.