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Committed: Hanna-Barbera Made Me Like This

On Saturday I went to a rather inappropriately fancy screening of the one-hour live action show Legends of the Super Heroes: The Challenge at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. I’m a huge fan of the incongruous lauding of trashy pop culture that seems to be prevalent in Los Angeles and this did not disappoint. Part of an exhibition of the Warner Archive Collection, this low-budget Hanna-Barbera production was introduced by actor Garret Craig, who played Captain Marvel, who I should note was pretty clear that what we were about to see was as ridiculous to film as it was to watch. Amongst the other stars of the show were the original TV Batman; Adam West, his customary Robin; Burt Ward, as well as their familiar foe; Frank Gorshin as the Riddler. That was pretty much as far as it went in terms of recognizable faces, and although the piece had a sort of earnest joy about it, it was wonderfully terrible.

The story is that a team of mismatched super villians attempt to destroy the world from a secret hideout, then they let the super heroes know about it and give them a series of hints as to where to find them. I’m not sure why they would, but this is what they were doing.

Adults in spandex wasn’t considered a ridiculous enough premise, so a meager attempt at comedy was injected. No story or plot to speak of, but wacky, super-low budget adventures (I mean low, low budget. You know, worse than the cosplayers we see at local comic conventions. Much worse. It seems like the writers were strongly influenced by the Hanna-Barbera cartoon – Super Friends (or Challenge of the Super Friends), which is possibly the most ill-advised influence a writer ever chose. I’m not slamming the Super Friends cartoon, since for the time it was made it wasn’t that bad, but I am saying that the simplistic dialogue and vague attempts at plot did not translate to a live action show. The men wore uncomfortably visible sports cups, an afro-adorned Huntress seemed only to have the power of wearing pink, and although Black Canary had her scream, her extremely low-cut top was more disturbing. For some reason Hawkman’s wings were clearly made of fur, and Robin was looking positively middle-aged. It was all pretty hysterical and that was before they started moving around and talking. The entirely random grouping of characters, both good and evil, the nonsensical settings, the clunky dialogue, and of course the worryingly bad effects (what there was of them) all colluded to create this excellently kitschy experience.

Campy, silly, funny… these aren’t adjectives that I want to associate with my super hero fiction now, but these are exactly the things that I loved about American super hero cartoons when I was under 10 years old. I loved the ridiculous hyperbole, couldn’t get enough of it.

Not having grown up in America, I have missed a lot of the American superhero cartoons that were on television. I think the closest we ever came was something called Banana Man – a 1980’s send up of superheroes, Banana Man was (of course) quite hopeless. He did however instill a strong belief in the healthy properties of bananas, much like spinach did for Popeye. Later came Dangermouse, another ridiculous character, with the delusional qualities of mice like Pinky and the Brain (well the Brain), just a decade before the Animaniacs existed. For me these self-aware British parody heroes were a pale shadow of the happily blustering bravado of the simple American superheroes so dominant on American Tv in the ’70’s and ’80’s. Visiting America every year or so I ought to have more memories of the family I was ostensibly visiting, but all I can really remember are the truly awesome toy commercials and cartoons, mysteriously energetic and upbeat. British children’s superhero fodder (what little there was of it on TV) was more in the arena of overtly lampooning the superhero, while the American school of humor appears to have veered more into the arena of straight slapstick. I have to wonder how this affects the British attitude to superheroes and the trappings of overt displays of power. Perhaps this is why the British comic book writers are so adept at dismantling the genre. Maybe it is my own visits across the pond which influenced my early love of those bold, bright, flamboyant superheroes.

It wasn’t just fun to spend part of my evening watching Legends of the Super Heroes on a big screen, but it felt good to take the trip back to a different time when I used to eat up any tiny bit of American superhero and villain interplay that I could find. It was a healthy reminder of why adults love the genre so much – because we were brainwashed! From infancy we were spoon fed these fantastic characters in a simplified form. Even if it isn’t what I watch anymore, I’m glad I got to see it again because it reminded me that I have a responsibility to the kids around me to share the love. With that in mind, today I sent my 3 year old cousin the Fisher Price Wonder Woman Invisible Jet and the first season of Justice League cartoon. The cartoon could be a little old for her, but it is a good quality cartoon with a great representation of some of my favorite DC superheroes working together. I would have liked to have sent her the DC feature length Wonder Woman cartoon that came out a couple of years ago, but with the gore and double entendre jokes, it felt inappropriate to buy for someone else’s child.

The mini-shopping trip made me wonder why there isn’t an ongoing comic book and cartoon for all-ages about Wonder Woman. On a larger level, it made me realize that almost every book in the “new” line of DC comics is for mature readers only, particularly the ones about women. In the past I’ve personally enjoyed both the MAX version and the regular versions of titles. It was interesting to see what different writers were able to do with the characters and more or less restrictions. I think there ought to be something similar for a popular female superhero, like Wonder Woman. I’m not talking about something aimed at little tiny kids (like the excellent Tiny Titans), just something for all-ages which is fairly action-packed, but relatively gore and sex free. DC have talked explicitly about channeling their energy into catering to an existing readership of aging adult men, but what about the next generation of super hero fans? How are we supposed to build a wider audience? I checked out the four Super Best Friends Forever shorts, (part of the DC Nation Shorts on Cartoon Network) and they seem like a good start. Maybe a little young for the kind of all-ages appeal we need to build a future audience of zealots, but at least they aren’t brooding about their significant others or splattering the screen with blood.

15 Comments

Ben Caldwell — of Wednesday Comics fame — has excelled at this with his Dare Detectives series. He also has a nearly legendary pitch for an all-ages Diana that makes me cry every time I see it and realize that for some insane reason, DC passed on it rather than adapting it in either book or animated form.

I remember watching “Legends of the Super-Heroes : the Challenge & the Roast” as a kid when it aired…and I swear it seemed like just a dream I had until the internet came around to prove I actually wasn’t insane. Same thing with the “Star Wars Holiday Special”.

Having watched it since, it certainly does fall into the “so bad that it’s the greatest” category…but as a kid, just like the Batman TV series with Mr. West & Mr. Ward and the “Shazam / Isis Power Hour”…I was head over heels.

Campy, silly, funny…these are ABSOLUTELY adjectives that I want to associate with my super hero fiction now.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold was amazing. And Super BFF’s is too.

Thank you so much for reminding me of “Banana Man”. “Danger Mouse” is somewhat known here in the US (partially thanks to the modern DJ/producer of the same name), but “Banana Man” was one of those things I thought no kid watched but me.

I definitely remember “Danger Mouse” being a staple of my Nickelodeon viewing when I was a kid, so I assume they must have been the ones who showed “Banana Man” as well. Somehow, I honestly never made the Popeye connection as a kid, but looking back as an adult it seems so damn obvious.

Maybe here is where I can find someone who watched the DM spinoff, Count Duckula, which did to Hammer horror movies what DM did to James Bond…

Duckula…COUNT Duckula!!!

Oh hells yeah, Becca!

I didn’t know Nickelodeon showed Danger Mouse, like TJ Coolguy says, but I believe I saw DM, Bananaman, and Count Duckula on the show Steampipe Alley, which I believe WPIX in NYC showed. We got a couple NYC stations here upstate, so either that or WOR had it on. Hosted by Mario Cantone. He’s been on Sex and the City and other things since, but I’ve seen something where he talked about hosting the show. Apparently, according to the imdb it was partly a game show, partly interludes of cartoons, etc, etc.

Sonia,
In the 1970s, superheroes and the genre were largely considered for kids. The Legends of the Superheroes and “The Roast” came out right after (1979) the very FIRST Christopher Reeve “Superman” movie debuted. The Linda Carter Wonder Woman TV show had been on TV since 1975 and was about to be cancelled. Spiderman and Captain America had failed pilots and short lived series that failed to capture an adult audience.

When Hanna Barbera decided to make a live action version of “The Superfriends”, Batman was still (in the media’s eyes) the property of campiness and Adam West and Burt Ward OWNED those roles in the late 60s. Since the show was still living in syndication in the 70s, recasting Batman and Robin was ludicrous -especially since neither Ward nor West had steady acting jobs after being typecast.

“Legends” was NEVER meant to be serious. It was an attempt to be a superhero variety show to a certain extent. I was all of 11 years old when this came out and I couldnt wait to put myself in front of the TV to watch it and LOVE every minute of it!!! I own the DVD today and in spite of the campy humor and the thin storyline, I still love to watch this collection of heroes stumble and bumble around as Mordu and his version of the “Legion of Doom” plan the worst for earth.

If you were expecting a storyline and a serious take on these heroes, you should have done your homeowrk before you went to the screening. What you got instead was a watered down version of the 1966 Batman TV show with added jokes and fun meant for someone in 6th grade or less.

I still love this “SPECIAL” as it was called on TV at the time. I also love the old Batman TV show and SHAZAM! -But again I was 11 years old when these were on TV, and I would give anything in the world to go back and be that kid again sitting in front of the TV getting all excited hearing Bill Batson say those magic words, or hear Adam West exclaim “To the Bat poles!”
When

I loved Danger Mouse. For a kids show, it was very smart. It aired in the U.S. on Nickelodeon back in its early days. Pretty sure Danger Mouse was the beginning of my love affair with British television. I seem to recall that DM was paired up with Banana Man. Count Duckula was also really great. I have to assume a number of people in their late 20s to 30s in the U.S. remember these shows because they were on Nickelodeon, even if it was a time when not every household had cable, let alone Nickelodeon (hard to believe, I know). I must now go watch their opening themes on YouTube.

You can rent Danger Mouse and Count Duckula on Netflix. I know, because I’ve done it!

doughboy – I had the same experience watching “Legends of the Super-Heroes : the Challenge & the Roast” as a kid when it originally aired.
I partially convinced myself it was a hallucination dream from my superhero obsessed kid brain. It was an almost uncomfortable deja vu when a friend showed me the Youtube video.

Took me a while to find it — but here is a typically awesome piece by Sean McFarland for The Line it is Drawn — giving Cee Lo Green a recognizable crime-fighting partner:

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2011/11/30/the-line-it-is-drawn-68-superfy-em/

For those who don’t know what we’re on about, here are some links to UK cartoons:
Danger Mouse http://youtu.be/MEVZspYDH08
Banana Man http://youtu.be/qwRMYz1vfcQ
Count Duckula (check out his horrible, fake American accent!) http://youtu.be/njlBi8rQylE
Super Ted (not as cool as DM but pretty adorable) http://youtu.be/gyvsQBcG9OU

And here’s a link to the first Super Best Friends Forever short that I was talking about: http://youtu.be/h7ging4Nqww

Don’t forget Super Gran. It not have been animated, but she was harder and more super-er than Superman, Iceman, Spider-man, Batman and Robin too…at least according to the theme tune anyway.

[…] CBR has a good write-up of the so-bad-it’s-good campy flick if you’re interested. (via CBR)Have a nice […]

Thank You Ms. Harris for Hittin’ Me and Legends of the Super Heroes Up! But Ouch… “Ridiculous!” A little Harsher than a Bump in the Butt from LInsay Lohan’s Car in the Parking Lot on Saturday Morning. I kind’a liked it better when you were on the page with… “Campy, silly, funny…” My “Stand Up” Introduction was about how Crazy Wicked Fun it was Backstage. My Comedy story lines Weird Point was meant to show that Comedy should be like the wrinkles in an old man’s face. When he’s laughing, who cares? Only when he stops laughing… do you see how bad things look! LOTS was supposed to be like the fourth of July, strike the match and light the Caped Crusaders with Cracklin’ one-liners. Satire in satin shorts… with better hair than Richard Simmons.
Good comedy doesn’t need to have a great plot. Only Shakespeare and people who have passed on,
need to have a plot. I do so Appreciate how much you enjoy the Heart of SuperHeroes in those times… without the carnage and four letter words. Themes that Empowered Children to believe in the Best in themselves. With My Gratitude for your sentiment for Entertainment Worthy of a Better World. Garrett Craig ~ Captain Marvel I M http://www.captainmarvelim.com

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