I know I’ve been promising a return to the Black Widow history, but I’ve been running into repeated encounters with what Marvel used to call the Dreaded Deadline Doom. Meaning it’s either new Black Widow columns now, or new STAR TREK comics on the shelves in the summer.
So, to hold you over until next week, here’s a long-lost installment of the original Movie Poop Shoot Comics 101 columns, as originally appeared August 4, 2004. Enjoy:
It’s been an embarrassment of riches for the superhero fan at the video store in recent weeks, as three long-awaited, much-demanded comic-book animated series finally made their debut on DVD. Were they worth the wait? Let’s take a look.
SPIDER-MAN: THE ’67 COLLECTION
After being off the air and unavailable for decades, the 1967 SPIDER-MAN animated series has finally seen release on DVD, and with the entire series complete in a single box set no less, a pleasant surprise in comparison to the stingy manner in which Buena Vista Home Video has been doling out the more recent Marvel cartoon series, three or four episodes at a time every couple years.
The physical production itself is well done, with the six discs arriving in a flashy red book package, and a suitably “PopArt” design for the disc graphics and package decoration. However, the set is shockingly free of extra features. No featurettes, no commentary, not even a text-only history or credits section. This was disappointing, as there’s much about the series I would have liked to hear. I’ve never been clear about the switch in animation studios halfway through production, and I would have liked to have seen profiles of the voice cast. Why not some commentaries from animation historians or Spider-Man fans? And you’re telling me they couldn’t get Stan Lee to sit down for half an hour and talk about the cartoon? (Stan does provide a written introduction, but I’d hardly consider that a “bonus feature.”)
Enough bellyaching, you ask, how are the episodes themselves? The series has never looked better. I doubt if it looked this good when it was brand-new. The digital restoration is so exquisite that sometimes you can actually see the edges of the animation cels moving across the screen with the characters, which admittedly isn’t necessarily a good thing. As I mentioned earlier, these cartoons haven’t really been in release for quite a few years, so I hadn’t seen or heard one in quite some time, which made for an interesting discovery when I watched the first episode and listened to Peter Parker speak.
“That sounds like Herbie, the elf who wants to be a dentist!”
I was even more surprised when J. Jonah Jameson opened his mouth and the voice of Comet, the jerk reindeer coach who refuses to let Rudolph play any of the reindeer games came out. At this point, I was half-expecting the Green Goblin to be played by Burl Ives. As it turns out, the cast of actors for SPIDER-MAN was the same cast of actors who performed in the Rankin-Bass classic RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER. This is the kind of thing that would’ve been interesting to discover on any sort of supplemental material, but no dice. Luckily, writer/comics and animation historian Mark Evanier came to the rescue with this discovery he recently posted on his weblog: Wallopin’ Websnappers.com, an excellent site put together by Paul Soles, the man behind the voice of Peter Parker and Spidey, which provides all kinds of biographical information on SPIDER-MAN’s talented voice cast.
Watching the episodes now, it’s remarkable how much of the appeal of the show was tied up in the score. The animation was at best average, and often worse than that, with certain web-swinging sequences repeated ad nauseum in order to save money, and frequently the only thing that salvaged the mediocre scripts was the hilarious delivery and timing of the actors. Still, put it all together with that cool, jazzy, head-bopping score, and I’ll sit there and watch it for hours.
It was also a surprise to discover how much of a difference there was in the series when the animation studio changed. The first 20 episodes from Grantray-Lawrence have a very sleek, streamlined design, particularly in the character models for Peter and Jameson. Also, some shots look to be directly lifted from the original Ditko artwork, particularly in close-ups of the Goblin and other characters. As for the stories themselves, they’re by and large faithful to the comics, utilizing many of Spidey’s classic villains. Even when they venture out into new villains and threats, the tone of the series at least seems to stay close to the comic’s sensibilities.
Once Krantz Animation took over, under the supervision of Ralph Bakshi, the show had a much darker mood to it. In fact, I often wondered if Bakshi had ever even read a Spider-Man comic. When he did try to use the Spidey villains, he’d get them all wrong, such as a Rhino appearance that has the supervillain swimming out to sink ships at sea. What? Even more bewildering is Bakshi’s version of Mysterio, an inexplicably green-skinned effeminate fellow with horn-rimmed glasses and a cigarette holder. Most of the episodes put Spidey in completely out-of-character battles with monsters, aliens, demons or subterranean cavedwellers. As bad as the stories were, the animation wasn’t much better, with often sloppy action sequences and sometimes bewildering character poses that made Peter Parker look like he was more constipated than concerned.
Furthermore, it was even more obvious here that the episodes were reusing animation bits to pad out the episodes, sometimes even breaking out into the opening theme song in the middle of the episode over yet another web-slinging montage.
And still, even when it’s bad, it’s pretty good. Whether just for the nostalgia factor, to see a kind of quaint cartoon show that’s pretty dated but still delivers, or merely for the all-time classic theme song and opening sequence, SPIDER-MAN: THE ’67 COLLECTION is worth picking up.
CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS: THE FIRST SEASON
After teasing us with a couple of single-disc releases that only offered 4 episodes at a time, Warner Home Video hits a home run with this multi-disc release containing the entire “Challenge” series of SUPERFRIENDS, well remembered by most of a certain generation as just about the only kickass superhero cartoon show ever produced for Saturday morning. After several seasons of mealy-mouthed socially conscious SUPERFRIENDS cartoons, in which no direct conflict was allowed and the Superfriends found themselves repeatedly facing either natural disasters, misguided scientists, or misguided scientists creating natural disasters, the programming executives at ABC unexplainably grew a spine one season and assigned SUPERFRIENDS producers to create a cartoon show more like the comics, with real villains and real threats. And boy, did they deliver with CHALLENGE OF THE SUPERFRIENDS, under the supervision of story editor Jeffrey Scott, who put together remarkably clever scripts considering the constraints of network standards and practices at the time. Out were the cloying teen heroes like Wendy and Marvin and the Wonder Twins, and in were an all-star cast of DC’s best superheroes and supervillains.
Hanging out in the Hall of Justice were Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman, with newly created heroes Black Vulcan, Apache Chief and Samurai included to add a little much-needed ethnicity to the team, which, it must be admitted, was awful white. Their opposite numbers in the Legion of Doom included Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Bizarro, Toyman, the Riddler, Cheetah, Giganta, Captain Cold, the Scarecrow, Black Manta, Sinestro, Solomon Grundy and Gorilla Grodd. That’s a pretty strong lineup. What really made the show work was the Legion of Doom, who were really the stars when you think about it.
Every episode opened with them putting their newest scheme into action, and every episode ended with their escape. They’re motivated, proactive and work well as a team, and more often than not, the Superfriends win out by sheer happenstance as opposed to any measurable superiority of skill or desire.
Most enjoyable was the fact the Legion of Doom’s plans were always well thought-out and very effective. For example, in “Invasion of the Fearians,” the Legion of Doom embarks upon a complex scheme to get the Superfriends to slightly alter the atmosphere of the Earth, so as to make the planet hospitable for their Venusian allies, who have promised to eliminate the Superfriends as a token of goodwill. A good example of long-term thinking.
Even better was “Secret Origins of the Super Friends,” in which the Legion goes back in time to alter the origins of Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, depriving the Super Friends of their three most powerful members. In a hilarious moment, Luthor appears just as Abin Sur’s beam is about to take Hal Jordan to receive the Green Lantern power ring and battery from his fallen predecessor, and convinces Jordan to run for cover. Luthor is taken instead, and is soon sporting the GL uniform and ring himself. Heading back to the Hall of Doom, he takes his fellow villains by surprise, who naturally think they’re under attack: “Watch out! It’s the Green Lantern!”
“Wrong, fool!” replies Lex, “It’s the Green Luthor!!” Classic.
The DVD set includes some nice bonus features. Best is a featurette, “Saturday, Sleeping Bags & Super Friends,” which eschews a traditional “behind-the-scenes” style format in favor of what VH1 watchers might call “I Love the Superfriends,” with DC creatives looking back and cracking wise about what was clearly a favorite moment from all of their childhoods. DC writers and artists like Mark Waid, Alex Ross, Paul Dini and Geoff Johns, as well as JUSTICE LEAGUE producer James Tucker and current DC Editor-in-Chief Dan Didio, all look back on the series quite fondly, reminiscing about favorite moments and just what made this show so much cooler than anything else that was on the air at the time. A moment I really identified with was Alex Ross’s memory of hearing the opening drumbeat of the CHALLENGE theme music and getting all amped up as the Superfriends marched across the screen in step, ready to kick some Legion of Doom ass. I vividly remember getting up early on Saturday mornings and turning that dial to Channel 7, and eagerly waiting that theme song. (And yes, kids, I’m old enough that the TV in my house growing up had a dial. Even worse, it was in a wooden cabinet…)
It’s to Warner’s credit that they let the comments about some of the series’ more hilarious gaffes stay in, whether it was miscolored costumes or extra arms. My favorite blooper on the series isn’t mentioned, however. In an episode where various Superfriends, including Batman, are trapped in the past, there’s a scene where the remaining Superfriends are studying some clues to figure where they’ve gone, and Batman is in the room. Oops.
The other cool bonus included is commentary of the first and last episodes of the series from Geoff Johns and Mark Waid, who enjoy the episodes in full-on geek mode, just like the rest of us. Johns and Waid seem to particularly enjoy the secret origin of Giganta, so make sure to check that out. Waid also geeks out for the dead-on accurate retelling of Luthor’s origin, complete with loss of hair, and it’s a little stunning to hear him rattle off the issue number and date from memory when he realizes what the story is. I’m somewhat disappointed that the clips of story editor Jeffrey Scott discussing the episodes from the previous DVD releases aren’t included here, as it was nice to actually hear from someone involved in the show.
Still, a very minor complaint in what is otherwise a first-rate collection from Warner Home Video. Go buy it.
BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, VOLUME ONE
Anybody who frequents this column has already been subject to my lengthy ruminations on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, probably the single best animated series ever produced for television, so I won’t bore you again here. That being said, I have to confess to being a bit disappointed with this first box set. It just seems like a series as important as this should get more than two measly commentaries and a 12-minute featurette. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Matt Groening and company’s first-rate contributions on the SIMPSONS and FUTURAMA DVD sets, providing us not only commentaries on every single episode, but also deleted scenes, featurettes, storyboard comparisons, pencil tests and even animatics (the filmed version of the storyboards synched to the voices to give a rough conception of how the episode will look). I know all this material exists in the Warner Animation archives; I’ve seen much of it in Paul Dini’s book. Why not give us more of a taste, show us more of how much effort and work goes into every episode? I’m convinced that the series will only grow more critically acclaimed in the years to come, and to not take the opportunity to create more of a historical document on the series seems like an incredible missed opportunity. Also, with so many talented people involved in the production, why not bring in more of them for interviews or commentaries? I would have liked to have seen much more of the voice cast on the featurette and would certainly liked to have heard them on the commentary tracks.
Still, the commentaries we do have are interesting, with producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski commenting on the series pilot, “On Leather Wings,” and Timm, Radomski and writer Paul Dini on the Emmy-award-winning “Heart of Ice.” There’s also an interesting peek at the show’s inception, with the inclusion of the original demo reel that Timm and Radomski put together when pitching for the show to WB executives.
As for the meat of the release, the episodes themselves, it’s quite satisfying to at long last have such high-quality copies of these excellent cartoons at a moment’s notice. The episodes look absolutely gorgeous on DVD. For those of you who might have been wondering, the episodes are arranged here in production order, not broadcast order. This might upset some of the more die-hard fans of the show, but I actually prefer it, as it really allows you to see the production team improve from week to week (and it’s no surprise that the series’ worst episode, “The Underdwellers,” was only the sixth episode produced). Hey, if the order bothers you, that’s what the menus are for, right? Watch ’em however you want.
So to sum up, I can’t help but find this first box set somewhat below par, but hey, it’s Batman Animated on DVD. Who’s not gonna buy it?