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Hanna-Barbera Heroes


William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were pioneers of television animation. Having learned the ropes by producing Tom and Jerry theatrical cartoons for MGM in the 1940s, they adapted their craft to the small screen, devising cost- (and quality-) cutting measures to make animation affordable for mass production (having running characters repeatedly pass the same background images, for example). From the humble beginnings of The Ruff and Reddy Show (1957), the Hanna-Barbera collaboration eventually launched a pantheon of cartoon greats (and some not-so-greats) including the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Jonny Quest, Scooby-Doo, and their first superhero (not counting Quick Draw McGraw's Zorro riff El Kabong, that is)—Atom Ant.

With a battle cry of Up and at 'em, Atom Ant! this miniature muscle-mite first buzzed into action in The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show (1965). Headquartered in an anthill with a mailbox bearing his name, Atom Ant was a superhero parody, its tiny titan engaging in pun-filled clashes with menaces large (Crankenshaft's Monster) and small (Ferocious Flea). A swarm of mid-1960s Atom Ant items were produced, including a Soaky figural bubblebath container, coloring book, View-Master reel, push puppet, Gold Key comic, and plush doll. Atom Ant aired, with and without Secret Squirrel, for several years before crawling into occasional syndication, and can be seen, as of 2004, on the Cartoon Network.

Beginning in 1966, superhero mania swept America, ignited by the success of the live-action Batman television series (1966–1968). The Hanna-Barbera studios, always willing to capitalize on a trend, quickly cranked out a host of animated superhero shows all their own. Premiering on CBS in September 1966, Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles was cut from the same tongue-in-cheek cloth as Atom Ant. Frankenstein Jr. fused giant robots, monsters, and superheroes into one package: a masked and costumed computerized crime fighter who answered to his creator, trouble-prone prodigy Buzz Conroy. Appearing in the same half-hour program was another hybrid—of superheroes and rock stars—The Impossibles. The Impossibles were a trio of pop musicians who, when summoned by their boss Big D via a guitar-based TV monitor, cheered Rally-ho! and transformed into the Impossibles, a supergroup composed of Fluid Man, Coil Man, and Multi Man, who zoomed to crime scenes in their Impossicar. The Impossibles—in their musician identities—performed a token tune in each episode.

Debuting concurrently with Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles was Space Ghost and Dino Boy, also on CBS. Space Ghost, an intergalactic 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 (a staple of Hanna-Barbera adventure cartoons was the inclusion of pets for comic relief; witness Jonny Quest's pup, Bandit). 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 stone-age society that had never evolved beyond its prehistoric state. Unlike Hanna-Barbera's satirical superhero programs, 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 is now a wacky talk-show host, backed up by former foes Zorak, Moltar, and Brak, in the hilarious Space Ghost Coast to Coast program on Cartoon Network.

For the 1967–1968 television season, Hanna-Barbera released an unprecedented amount of original superhero fare, three 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 superstrong rock creature; and the malleable Gloop and Gleep. Shazzan also bowed during the 1967 season. It featured a pair of kids from the 1960s, siblings Nancy and Chuck, transplanted into the past, where they and their flying camel Kabooie found themselves in conflict with a variety of thieves and cutthroats, only to be rescued each episode by an omnipotent, sixty-foot genie named Shazzan (while certainly not a superhero show in the strictest sense, Shazzan was marketed as such). Hanna-Barbera also unveiled Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor that year. Mightor was a prehistoric superhero, an homage to the original Captain Marvel. Each of his episodes began with a boy named Tor, who, when raising a magic club into the air (while exclaiming Mightor!, not Shazam!), transmogrified into a powerful superhero. Also on the program, Herman Melville's formerly formidable great white whale became an amiable adventurer, joined by scuba-diving teens Tom and Tub (yes, he was a fat kid) and their seal, Scooby.

On NBC, Hanna-Barbera produced two shows for the 1967–1968 season. Young Samson and Goliath offered another tale of wish-fulfillment and transformation, as an ordinary teenage boy and his pet dog were upgraded into the powerful hero Samson and his fierce lion Goliath whenever the lad locked together his wrist gauntlets and proclaimed, I need Samson power! 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 with his eagle cohort Avenger. (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 mundane 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, a fondly remembered animated series that borrowed heavily from the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comics for its adventures of Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Thing, and the Human Torch.

By 1968, superheroes were falling out of vogue. While Batman and Robin twice guest starred with—of all characters—Scooby-Doo in the first season of The New Scooby-Doo Movies (1972–1974), 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, starring Superman, Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, with their junior Super Friends teenagers Wendy and Marvin (with Wonder Dog!), later replaced by the shapeshifting alien teens the Wonder Twins (with the monkey Gleek!). 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 (1974–1976), a kung-fu superhero canine. Their next effort: Dynomutt, Dog Wonder, which began a successful run in 1976. Dynomutt was a laughably clumsy robot with extending paws hero who, along with the no-nonsense, square-jawed Blue Falcon, 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 like Mightor's and a deafening battle shriek (Captain Ca-a-a-avema-a-a-an!) before being shuttled off his own series into supporting-cast status in The Flintstones Comedy Show (1980) and its offshoots. After appearing in their own Hanna-Barbera cartoon program from 1970–1973, basketball stars the Harlem Globetrotters got superpowers in the short-lived The Super Globetrotters (1979).

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, and Gold Key's Hanna-Barbera Super TV Heroes anthology (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.

Since the 1980s, reruns of the original cartoons starring Hanna-Barbera's heroes have appeared on television in syndicated anthology shows and on cable's Cartoon Network and Boomerang. With this recurring airplay, it is inevitable that these superheroes will maintain a long-lasting berth in pop culture. —ME

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