It’s the first Saturday after Labor Day, the traditional start of the new Saturday morning cartoon season — when there was such a thing!
By CHRIS FRANKLIN
For kids of the ’60s through the ’80s, Saturday morning was the greatest time of the week. There was no school, and all three networks (yes, sonny, there were really only three options back then, pre-cable) had decided sometime in the 1960s that Saturday mornings were blocked off for kiddie-fare only. We didn’t have 24-hour, kid-centric channels and streaming services to distract us whenever we felt like it. We had to cram a week’s worth of entertainment into a four-hour block every weekend! OK, we had the afternoons too, especially on the locally owned, independent syndicated channels. But up until the advent of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and the Reagan administration’s deregulation of children’s programming (which allowed afternoons to be filled with half-hour long toy commercials like He-Man) most afternoon shows were reruns of old Saturday morning shows, anyhow!
Every Autumn, the networks would announce their new line-ups. You would often see ads detailing the new roster in your parents’ TV Guide digest. And if you happened to be at home the Friday night before that first new Saturday of shows, you might even catch a special sneak peek, hosted by some network star, contractually roped into showing some clips of the new season of Scooby and Scrappy-Doo, etc. But the real litmus test for determining which shows a kid was going to pledge eternal allegiance to was the Saturday Morning comic book ads! These ads, placed in the pages of mostly Marvel and DC Comics, were sometimes double-page spreads, other times just a single page, but they were packed with exciting (if sometimes off-model) art and descriptions for every new and returning show! Plus, they often offered you a chance to see the Distinguished Competition in their rivals’ books! Since this is 13th Dimension, we’re more concerned with long underwear types than Smurfs and Shirt Tales, so let’s take a look at some fun ads announcing the arrival of our favorite superheroes on our small, square TV screens — in chronological order!
1966 – CBS
1966 was the year of the superhero, thanks to the insanely popular Batman live-action series, which had debuted in January on ABC in primetime. Kidvid producers took notice, and animation stalwarts Hanna-Barbera produced a bevy of homegrown heroes to appease the masses. Comics master Alex Toth contributed the primary designs for Space Ghost and his team of sidekicks (although the artwork here is pretty inaccurate), paired in the same half-hour with the largely forgotten Dino Boy. A more comedic take on superheroics came a half-hour earlier with HB’s Frankenstein Jr. and The Impossibles. The Impossibles also played into Beatlemania somewhat, being a mop-topped group of rockers in their spare time.
Parents were no doubt pleased to see familiar heroes from their youth, such as The Lone Ranger, and the Man of Steel himself, in The New Adventures of Superman. Fledgling animation studio Filmation basically tricked DC Comics into giving them a license but produced an exciting half-hour that reunited much of the cast of radio’s Adventures of Superman. The stories mined the comic book mythos like no adaptation before it, including segments from the Metropolis Marvel’s past, starring Superboy and Krypto. This relationship between DC and Filmation would prove fruitful for decades of Saturday mornings to come.
1967 – CBS
The Last Son of Krypton returned the following year, and he brought nearly the entire DC Universe with him! The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure added not only the exploits of Aquaman and Aqualad, but also shorts featuring a bevy of Justice Leaguers, and the Teen Titans! Filmation’s selection of Aquaman as the second lead gave the character a boost that he still benefits from today. DC ran a house ad late in 1966 that promised the coming of Wonder Woman, Metamorpho and Plastic Man to the line-up, but sadly that wasn’t meant to be. The rest of CBS’ offerings were provided by HB, with more superheroes from the drawing desk of Alex Toth, like Mighty Mightor and The Herculoids. Doug Wildey’s fantastic Jonny Quest was just reruns of the previous primetime series, but I doubt the kids minded!
1967 – ABC
Although they had Batman in primetime, crosstown rivals ABC were True Believers facing front, siding with Marvel on Saturday mornings! Hanna-Barbera provided the first adaptation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four, which also featured character designs by Toth. Not sure why the Human Torch is facing away from the camera in this shot, though! The FF series is still fondly remembered, but its legacy pales in comparison to the Grantray-Lawrence Spider-Man animated series that aired a half-hour later! The theme song composed by Paul Francis Webster and Bob Harris refuses to die, being more closely associated with the wall-crawler than anything even Hollywood’s greatest composers have conceived. Before he was a pointing meme, the ’67 Spider-Man series cemented Peter Parker as one of the most popular fictional characters in the world. Although in this ad, the John Romita-like Spidey looks like he’s a bit caught off guard! Not to be outdone, Harvey Comics got in on the action with Casper the Friendly Ghost and his friends too.
1968 – CBS
By 1968, the superhero boom was on its last legs. The live-action Batman series had burned brightly, but quickly. That didn’t stop Filmation from nabbing the animation rights to Batman, and CBS adding the Dynamic Duo to their Batman/Superman Hour of Adventure series, sending Aquaman and the others off to rerun land on Sunday. Sadly, Batman never got to join his teammates in the Justice League shorts, and Robin never got to lead the Teen Titans. Even more bizarre, they NEVER crossed over into actual episode stories with their longtime World’s Finest comic mate, Superman. This despite them speaking in unison for this ad! Also of interest to comic fans is the arrival of Filmation’s initial Archie series. This would spawn not only a series of sequels and spin-offs over the next several years, but some legitimate hit songs, like the immortal ear worm, “Sugar, Sugar.”
1974 – CBS
With one magic word, CBS and Filmation changed the Saturday Morning landscape again, with the “live in person” series, Shazam! Recently rescued from limbo by DC Comics, the very company that put him out of business, the original Captain Marvel had made a (somewhat) triumphant return to comics a year earlier. But his TV adventures were a massive hit with kids everywhere, thanks in large part to the earnest portrayals of Michael Gray as Billy Batson and Jackson Bostwick (initially) as Captain Marvel. The series would kick off a bevy of live-action adventure shows on Saturday Morning that briefly rivaled the number of animated offerings.
The year prior, Hanna-Barbera had given us the first season of Super Friends on ABC, but unfortunately, there’s no comic ad for that! But superheroes were back in; they just had to be a bit more inspirational, and less violent, after parent groups pressured the networks into toning down the adventure shows of the late ’60s. The venerable Archie continued, this time trying to educate along the way.
1975 – CBS
This 1975 ad features the return of Captain Marvel (portrayed for most of this season and all episodes after by John Davey), but now he’s part of the Shazam!/Isis Hour, introducing Joanna Cameron as Filmation’s home-grown superheroine. Isis was a big deal in the ’70s, receiving her own 8” Mego action figure in their World’s Greatest Super Heroes line, and a comic from DC (which also crossed over with Shazam!). Her costume was far less colorful than what’s depicted here, however! Filmation had a pretty tight lock on CBS, with their live-action Ghostbusters series (nearly a decade before the more famous Ivan Reitman film), starring former F-Troop stars Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch and the evergreen Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Just think how we used to hang on the morals Bill Cosby would dish out every episode. Sigh. At least the whole lineup looked fantastic, with the art in this ad coming from none other than Neal Adams and the folks at Continuity Studios, who would continue to illustrate the CBS ads for the next several years, as we shall see. I wonder how many kids followed the tiny instructions at the bottom of the ad, and ruined their comic.
1977 – CBS
Continuity Studios brought another winning ad in 1977, which gave Adams a chance to draw one of his signature characters. Filmation’s New Adventures of Batman debuted, introducing a generation of kids to the previously forgotten Bat-Mite. Many fans still bemoan his rather annoying appearance in every episode, and the grating voice provided by Filmation founder Lou Scheimer. But that is mostly forgiven, since the series also featured the return of Adam West and Burt Ward as the voices of Batman and Robin. (Filmation’s original Batman and Robin, Olan Soule and Casey Kasem, were busy voicing the heroes over on ABC’s Super Friends). The Dynamic Duo were paired with Filmation’s previous hit Tarzan for an hour of adventure.
Filmation’s live-action efforts continued with Space Academy and reruns of The Secrets of Isis, although Captain Marvel had left for the Rock of Eternity. Hanna-Barbera wasn’t through with superheroes on CBS, giving us the adventures of The Robonic Stooges, animated versions of the Three Stooges, appealing to fans of both standard superheroes, and the popular primetime shows The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman.
1978 – NBC
Despite the lack of Adams art, NBC gave us one of the most exciting Saturday Morning ads in 1978 with SATURDAY MORNING FEVER (and provided the title for the Fire and Water Podcast Network’s own Saturday Morning-centric show), a play on the previous year’s huge motion picture hit of a similar name. The NEW Fantastic Four was the big draw, infamously replacing the Human Torch with H.E.R.B.I.E. the robot. This was due to licensing issues, and NOT because parent groups believed kids would light themselves on fire, despite the rumors you may have heard. The series unfortunately contributed to the trope of annoying cute sidekicks that animation studios and networks thought kids actually liked (Bat-Mite, Scrappy-Doo, Orko, Snarf, etc.), but it did feature some of Jack Kirby’s last contributions to his co-creation, as he was a storyboard artist on the show. Depatie-Freling, which produced the show, would soon morph into Marvel Productions and give us several popular animated comic and toy adaptations in the years to come.
A weird aside: Next year, the Thing would stay on NBC, but switch back to Hanna-Barbera studios, and be part of the truly bizarre Flintstones revival Fred and Barney Meet The Thing. Turns out, they only met in the opening credits. Even more mind-boggling, in the Thing segments, Ben Grimm was turned into a scrawny teenager who could resume his rocky, super heroic form by touching two rings on each hand together and shouting “Thing rings do your thing!” You can’t make this stuff up.
Oh, and even Godzilla, the King of the Monsters wasn’t strong enough to fight off the cutesy add-on, with his HB show foisting Godzooky upon us.
1978 – CBS
Adams and Continuity were back for at least the lower half of this ad, giving the comics master another shot at Batman and Tarzan, as well as their new show mates, The Super Seven. These Filmation-created characters proved quite controversial, with both DC and Marvel taking legal action against Filmation for perceived infringement on their existing IPs, such as Aquaman, Plastic Man and Spider-Woman. Legend has it that the early development of Web Woman may have led to Marvel Comics hastily creating their own Spider-Woman earlier in ’77 (more on her later). The Super Seven designs used here seemed to be based on earlier versions of many of the characters. The live-action Jason of Star Command segment tied into the previous year’s Space Academy and gave us one of the first examples of Star Wars influencing later sci-fi productions. Also of note is Ark II, reruns of a live-action post-apocalyptic Filmation series from a few years back that featured cool vehicles and footage of a real working jetpack!
1979 – ABC
Finally, ABC gets back in the Saturday Morning comic ad game, after airing Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends off-and-on for six years. The Justice League (or “League of Justice”) tops the ad for their World’s Greatest Super Friends season, which featured a bevy of literary adaptations, and the GREATEST sci-fi episode ever, “Universe of Evil.” Well, in my opinion, anyway. Reruns of the fan-favorite Challenge of the Super Friends episodes (with the Legion of Doom) from the previous year filled out the hour. I have always wondered why Aquaman is shown but not mentioned, and why Wonder Twin Zan looks so intense and accusatory!
ABC wasn’t done with DC on Saturdays, however. After making his animated debut in a one-off appearance in Super Friends Season 1, Plastic Man (voiced by Michael Bell, also the aforementioned Zan on Super Friends) received his own show via Ruby-Spears Productions, The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show. Strangely, this series replaced Plas’ long-time comic relief sidekick Woozy Winks with the culturally insensitive Hula-Hula. Plas also got a regular girlfriend in Penny, which will prove fruitful next season. As previously mentioned, studios loved packing disparate shows together in a bundle for networks at the time, so Plas shares his TWO-HOUR BLOCK (!) with Mightyman and Yukk, Rickety Rocket, and Fangface, who had his own show in 1978.
But ABC had room for one more superhero and gave us DePatie-Freling’s Spider-Woman series. Having only debuted in the comics two years prior, Jessica Drew must have one of the fastest comics-to-TV turnarounds in history. The production took some liberties with the concept, making Jessica the publisher of Justice Magazine, and giving her a new supporting cast, as well as more super powers than ever before. The series only lasted one season, but this production feels like the beginning of the style Marvel Productions would use to great effect in the coming decade.
1980 – ABC
An animated version of Henry Winkler’s Fonzie character from Happy Days greets us with this ad, announcing the show’s cartoon spin-off. But as always, we’re more concerned with the comicS characters! The Super Friends return, in an image reinterpreted from the Alex Toth-drawn back cover of Limited Collector’s Edition #C-41. Plastic Man is also back, but I wonder how many kids quizzed their parents about the sentence “Plastic Man marries Penny and guess what! They have Plasticbaby!”? Harvey Comics’ Richie Rich (packaged with Scooby-Doo) begins a several years run on ABC, although HB updated the look of Richie and company to make them seem a bit older. Comic strip star Heathcliff got his own show as well, beating his orange cat rival Garfield to the screen by a few years.
But perhaps the biggest happening for comic fans was the coming of Thundarr the Barbarian. The Ruby-Spears production featured a darker and older-skewing storyline, involving a post-apocalyptic Earth, and the mixture of fantasy and sci-fi elements would prove a portent of huge things to come later in the decade. More importantly for comic fans is Thundarr’s pedigree, with development work on the series provided by artists Alex Toth and Jack Kirby, and scripts by series creator Steve Gerber and other writers like Martin Pasko, Roy Thomas and Mark Evanier.
1981 – NBC
The big news for this year was the debut of Marvel Animation’s Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, teaming the wall-crawler with former X-Men member Iceman and made-for-TV creation Firestar. After some early development, poor Human Torch was once again dropped from an animated series, due to rights issues. The “Spider-Friends” series featured a galaxy of Marvel guest-stars, some making their screen debuts, such as the All-New, All-Different X-Men. Later episodes featured narration by Stan Lee, no doubt helping pave the way for “The Man” to become the cultural icon he is today, even for non-comics readers.
Not to be outdone, Filmation was back in the Shazam! business, this time with a more comics-faithful animated version that featured all the Marvel Family, and many of their arch foes, such as the Sivanas. Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Bruce Timm and producer/writer Paul Dini did some of their earliest work on this series. The Shazam! episodes were part of The Kid Super Power Hour, with live-action and animated segments featuring a cast of Filmation-created characters attending Hero High. The idea was originally conceived for the Archie cast, but the deal fell through. HB provided more superheroes with their homegrown Space Stars, pairing new episodes of their classic creations Space Ghost and the Herculoids with fresh characters such as the Teen Force.
However, a seismic shift occurred with the advent of HB’s The Smurfs. Adapted from the Belgian comic strips by Peyo, Smurfs became a true cultural phenomenon, with a merchandise frenzy like no Saturday morning show before it. Animation studios and networks took note, and Saturday mornings became far more “cute” than “adventurous.”
1983 – NBC
We wrap up our journey at NBC in 1983. This ad is dominated by the massive figure of Mr. T and his famous catch phrase “We got the jazz.” (I pity the fool who thinks otherwise.) Mr. T got his own animated series this year, thanks to the popularity of NBC’s runaway hit, The A-Team. Nearly as huge as T is The Incredible Hulk, who was given his own half-hour animated series to support the “Spider-Friends” in 1982. This series is memorable for sticking closer to the comic source material than the live-action series, which had recently ended its five-season run. (Although Rick Jones became a blonde cowboy and Bruce Banner’s clothes reappeared, undamaged, when he reverted from the Hulk.) Thundarr had switched networks, although he didn’t get any new episodes. But at least he got some great real estate in the ad, and some VERY Kirbyesque art, no doubt at least partially drawn by the King himself!
To hear more on some of the ads discussed above, check out Episode 5 of the Saturday Morning Fever podcast, hosted by my Fire and Water Podcast Network mates Rob Kelly and the Irredeemable Shag!
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13th Dimension contributor Chris Franklin is a graphic designer, illustrator, writer, and podcaster, who co-hosts and produces several shows on the Fire and Water Podcast Network, including JLUCast, discussing Justice League Unlimited, and Super Mates, which will soon launch its 10th annual House of Franklin-Stein series, covering classic horror films, and comics featuring superheroes versus classic monsters. When he gets hungry, onion rings do their thing.