First, we have to talk about the main title.
I mean, I could spend this entire post talking about the main title. It's tempting, but I won't. We really do have to start there, though.
Picture the following scenario in your mind. I must insist you do this because it will help you get into the proper frame of mind to best appreciate today's topic.
Okay. You are ten years old. You are beginning to get into superheroes for the first time. You've already dipped your toe into the world of Marvel Comics and are still wading in the shallow end. You've seen Superman on TV and loved it, though even at that age, you have the vague impression a superhero movie like that only comes along once in a generation. You dig Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, but even as a kid, you can sense its cheesiness. Superfriends might be better if they weren't trying to teach you a lesson all the time. Battle of the Planets rocks, but to watch it, you have to get up at 5:30 in the morning.
So one bright Saturday AM, you go into the living room with your bowl of Fruit Loops, plop down on the couch, turn on the TV, and see THIS:
WHAT ELSE ON TV CAN COMPARE TO THAT WHEN YOU ARE TEN YEARS OLD?
Even now, over thirty years later, I look at that main title sequence and I wanna put on a cape and mask and fight me some bad guys! Growing up, the overwhelming majority of cartoon show openings were preludes to frivolous, light-hearted fun. Some were more dramatic, like the 80s Incredible Hulk theme. Some, like Battle of the Planets, used voice-over narration to explain the show's premise and get you pumped. This is the only one that continues to excite me, even as an adult. After watching that opening, I don't care who you are or where you're from, man, you are ready to go wherever Hanna-Barbera's World of Super Adventure will lead you.
Sure, it was only a bunch of late-60s HB hero cartoons repackaged under one label, but I didn't know that at the time! Did I like every character? No. (You can have Shazzan, Moby Dick and Dino Boy.) It was the total package which made WSA stand out for me: an anthology series where you never knew what you were gonna get each time, but the whole, in my mind, constituted something greater - precisely because of that opening! "World" is in the title, but WSA was more like a universe, full of excitement and wonder and, well, super adventure!
Stanley Jones did that narration, a Canadian actor who did extensive voice-over work throughout his career. In thinking about what makes that opening so unique, it occurred to me that it's not unlike a radio serial. The sense of grandeur, of taking part in an adventure meant to fire up the imagination, is not unlike the introductions to old-time radio programs like The Lone Ranger, The Shadow and The Phantom. The WSA main title is very much in that same spirit.
The WSA heroes were basic yet individual, spanning various times and places. Space Ghost has become the Superman of the WSA cast of characters. DC Comics even made a graphic novel detailing his origin! He could do almost anything with those wristbands of his, and he had a sweet costume. I could have done without the kids and the monkey, though.
I probably liked Birdman a little better. Dude lived in an inert volcano, was solar powered, and had a pet eagle. Truth is, he and SG were pretty similar. Their Cartoon Network makeovers into comedy characters might have given them more personality. Mightor was like a prehistoric Birdman. Frankenstein Jr. was a light riff on Japan's Gigantor. They were fun.
As with superhero comics, I gravitated towards the teams more than the solo heroes. The Fantastic Four is my favorite super-team, so naturally, I dug their animated adventures too. The HB incarnation was pretty faithful to the original Stan Lee & Jack Kirby stories, for the most part (something I wouldn't recognize until years later). The voice actors were spot-on too, especially the Thing.
My memory of the Galaxy Trio is a little hazy for some reason, but I know I liked them. I loved the Impossibles! I thought the idea of a rock band that doubles as superheroes was wild. I imagined them as mutants, like the X-Men, for some reason. Not sure why.
The best original HB heroes, though, might have been the Herculoids: a human family in command of an army of strange, powerful beasts on a primitive jungle world. It's one part Tarzan, one part Swiss Family Robinson, and one part Island of Dr. Moreau.
Obviously, none of WSA would exist without the guiding hands of Bill Hanna & Joe Barbera and their team of animators. One day I may write a longer piece about those two titans of the field. Today, I wanna also acknowledge three other guys who helped make the WSA cartoons so memorable after all these years: Hoyt Curtin, Gary Owens and Alex Toth.
If you watched Saturday morning cartoons during the 60s, 70s or 80s, chances are Curtin provided the music, in his capacity as HB composer and musical director. Let's count off the hits: The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Superfriends, Jonny Quest, Josie and the Pussycats, The Smurfs - he even did the music for Battle of the Planets when it was imported from Japan as Gatchaman.
Curtin's music scores for the hero cartoons were more like film scores, often with a jazz tempo. The Birdman/Galaxy Trio theme, for example, isn't what you'd expect from a hero cartoon, but it works. The swinging horns and the bouncy, brassy beat set it apart. Yeah, you could argue its appropriateness, but that doesn't make it any less good.
If Space Ghost is indeed the Superman of the HB heroes, one major reason why was the voice work of the late Gary Owens, known to most as the announcer for the old variety series Laugh-In. SG debuted in 1966, the same year as the kitschy yet wildly popular Batman TV show. It's perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that Owens' approach to SG was light and faux-serious, bordering on camp, long before the character was reborn as a talk show host.
And then there's Alex Toth. A successful and versatile comics artist throughout the post-war era, he joined HB in the 60s as art director. It was he who designed many of the WSA heroes and other HB characters, including the Superfriends, Jonny Quest and Dynomutt. He is universally recognized, by professionals, creators and fans alike, as one of the all-time greats of comics and animation.
WSA doesn't hold up that well in places, but it has energy, spark and imagination aplenty. It's the kind of cartoon one can watch, and enjoy, with one's children.
Other animated series for television:
Battle of the Planets