“Oh my God, they fixed it!”
That was my immediate reaction to the opening teaser of “A Blind Man Shall Lead Them,” the second season premiere of The Fantastic Four on Marvel Action Universe (1995-96), to which I tuned in with a feeling of dread after suffering through the entire previous season.
To backtrack many years from that, I often see people on social media comic-book groups saying that the animated Fantastic Four produced by Hanna-Barbera, which debuted on ABC in 1967, is the best version of the original Marvel comic book ever done outside of comics. (There is actually an entire YouTube video that makes this claim.) That show was, in fact, my introduction to The FF. I first encountered much of the Marvel Universe a year earlier on The Marvel Super-Heroes—you know, that syndicated daily show with the unforgettable theme songs (“Tony Stark makes you feel/He’s a cool exec with a heart of steel…”) and the wretched animation, that was brilliant because it was actually a Marvel comic book on TV every afternoon. The two tentpoles of Marvel Comics, The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, were sold onto Saturday morning network TV, which is where I discovered them. I first came into the comic book (with Fantastic Four #62) after seeing the show. And I have a strong sentimental attachment to the show for that reason—in spite of the one great problem I have with it in hindsight.
The Hanna-Barbera FF, which is so rightly regarded as a classic, really suffered from just one thing: oversimplification. I don’t mean the quality of the animation, although yes, that was very simplified in the way that HB did all of its TV cartoons. I mean the stories were reduced to what was assumed to be the level of a pre-teen boy’s appreciation and understanding. The original comic books by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby weren’t like that. Classic Marvel welcomed children as fans, but they were comics by grown men writing and drawing to please themselves, catering to the hitherto-unknown market of teens, young adults, and older adults who still had a sense of wonder. (A market that no one knew existed until Marvel stumbled onto it just by Stan and Jack and company doing comics that they would actually want to read!) But in the Hanna-Barbera episodes, things were missing because they were trying to do something that they assumed would appeal to children. The most conspicuous omission: Alicia Masters.
You know Alicia: the blind sculptress who is in her own way more perceptive than sighted people, who for so many years was The Thing’s girlfriend (and in the current comics is his wife). Alicia, one of the most important Marvel supporting characters, is nowhere to be found in that first animated FF. And in certain episodes her absence is keenly felt. For instance, this series has a “Galactus” episode that very loosely adapts FF #48-50—with no Alicia to wake up the heart of The Silver Surfer! That role goes to The Invisible Girl. Likewise, in “Rama Tut,” a loose adaptation of FF #19, the motive for the trip back to ancient Egypt is that Reed thinks, after studying some hieroglyphics, that someone in that time possessed some preternatural cure for The Thing. The real motive in the original Lee/Kirby story is that Reed thought the hieroglyphics suggested a cure for blindness, and thus a way to restore Alicia’s sight.
I can only speculate that they left out Alicia because they thought the idea of a blind woman being in love with a monstrous-looking hero in spite of his appearance was too sophisticated for children and over their heads—an assumption that Lee and Kirby never once made in the original comic books! Stan sometimes talked about entertainment media underestimating the intelligence and perceptiveness of children, and the omission of Alicia from the HB Fantastic Four would be an example.
One other interesting thing left out of the first animated version of The Fantastic Four happened for legal, rather than creative reasons. In that Hanna-Barbera show there is no Sub-Mariner. The reason is that The Sub-Mariner, with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and The Hulk, was licensed out separately to the Grantray-Lawrence animation studio, which also did the Saturday morning Spider-Man. HB had no access to Prince Namor for two Fantastic Four episodes adapting landmark Sub-Mariner stories, so they had to come up with other characters to stand in for the Prince of the Deep.
“Demon of the Deep” uses the basic plot of Fantastic Four #4, in which The Sub-Mariner is revived for the modern Marvel Universe—but substitutes an original character, a mutated mad scientist who becomes an aquatic villain and ironically bears a vague resemblance to The Hulk’s foe, The Abomination! And “Danger in the Depths” is an adaptation of FF #33, in which Lady Dorma of Pacifica—yes, Pacifica, not Atlantis—seeks The Fantastic Four’s help against the invasion of her realm by Attuma. The ruler of Pacifica is a character called Prince Triton, of all things, which should amuse us when we remember that Triton is actually the sea-going member of the Royal Family of The Inhumans, who don’t appear in this show!
In spite of it being slanted towards what was assumed to be a child’s mentality, and the omissions in character and plot, many people point to the 1967 animated show as the best version of The Fantastic Four outside of the original comic books. And perhaps it is—in a way. Fantastic Four, beyond just being a comic book, is an attitude, a feeling, a way of thinking. In its own particular way, that old show captures the feeling of what The Fantastic Four is. After all, it was produced by the same people who did Jonny Quest (and is embellished by a lot of the same music as that show.) But perhaps for the real best adaptation of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” we’d do better to look elsewhere—and that brings us back to where we came in.
Marvel Action Universe in its first season was called The Marvel Action Hour. The show presented animated versions of both The Fantastic Four and Iron Man. I never saw any of the Iron Man stuff, but I tuned in for every episode of The Fantastic Four because it was The FF. It was thirteen weeks of some of the most embarrassing, squirm-inducing, mortifying TV viewing I have ever experienced.
I think the only good thing to come out of that season was the Fantastic Four logo that is being used on the current comic books! Otherwise, where can I start? Well, there was that awful pop-music theme song. On an outer space adventure, they were hit by cosmic rays./And the four would change forever in the most fantastic ways./No need to fear; they’re here—call the Four! Fantastic Four! (“Don’t need no more!” “That’s ungrammatical!”)
And there were just so many other things—like the the bland-looking blue-and-white costumes, the result of artists in the comic books leaving all the black out of the black-and-white John Byrne version of the original uniforms. Remember that stupid Dick Clark telethon with the clown in the retelling of The FF’s origin? Remember the character of The FF’s landlady (whose voice was Joan Lee, Stan’s wife), who was never in the comic books and had a cute little dog? Why did these animated shows feel compelled to have cute little dogs in them? Remember the “Galactus” story in which we actually see Galactus licking his chops as he prepares to consume the Earth? Every week, every episode, it was one embarrassment after another. I don’t know how the show got renewed for a second season after that, but I found myself tuning in just to see how awful it would continue to be. And I was in for a surprise!
Which brings me back to my initial reaction to that second season’s production by Larry Houston, who had previously worked on the Fox Saturday Morning versions of The X-Men and Spider-Man. It was perhaps the most startling, shocking improvement in a TV series that I’ve ever seen. “They fixed it!” I exclaimed to myself as I saw that everything was better. The drawing was better—way better. They now had Big John Buscema from the comic books on board for character designs. They got the black (with deep blue highlights) back into the FF uniforms. They got a better voice for Dr. Doom (English actor Simon Templeman, who I remembered for his recurring role in the prime time series Northern Exposure starring Rob Morrow). The opening title now had an animated montage of classic Fantastic Four covers (including FF #1, 16, and 47) set to an instrumental theme. I was thrilled.
The season opened with an adaptation of “A Blind Man Shall Lead Them,” the unforgettable story from FF #39 and 40. The story included Daredevil, as in the comic books, for the tale of a powerless Fantastic Four having to drive Dr. Doom out of the Baxter Building, and The Thing delivering Doom his most literally crushing defeat. And this time Alicia was there. They’d actually included her in the previous season, but that didn’t help matters. That part, they did not simplify; Alicia was a regular character in both seasons. All things considered, the Houston episodes generally kept the stories of The Fantastic Four as intelligent and dramatic as they had been in the comic books. They changed the details of the plots to make them work as half-hour animated stories, but there was less of a sense of watering down the material for children—except in the case of one particular episode.
“Worlds Within Worlds,” which borrowed the title of Fantastic Four #75, was based on John Byrne’s FF #278-284. These issues were the story of how Psycho-Man weaponized the emotion of hatred to attack Earth, plunged the entire island of Manhattan into a giant race riot, and changed Sue Richards, The Invisible Girl into Malice, Mistress of Hate, and sent her to murder the rest of The FF. Byrne’s original story did not go easy on the subject of bigotry and racism; in fact it contains the only instance that I can remember off the top of my head of the “N” word being used for black people in comics books! Seriously—right there in The Fantastic Four! And there are scenes of anti-Semitism as well! That story—and Malice’s kinky costume—was toned down considerably for the animated TV version. The TV episode is about Reed accidentally acquiring a sample of Psycho-Man’s power source and the villain twisting Sue into a hate-driven murderess, Malice, to get it back. It’s a rewrite, but it’s not a total dumbing down.
The proudest achievement of the Larry Houston Fantastic Four must be “Prey of The Black Panther,” adapting one of the coolest comic books ever printed, Fantastic Four #52, and its follow-up in the next issue. With certain liberties taken (no Torch in college, and unfortunately no Wyatt Wingfoot), this episode captures on screen The FF’s journey to Wakanda to meet and battle The Black Panther, who hunts them to test his Panther powers in preparation for the attack of Klaw, Master of Sound. Of all the episodes of the animated FF, this one in particular is filled with visual callbacks to the work of Jack Kirby, as witness all that Wakanda technology, practically right from the comics. And The Panther himself is presented in all his noble African glory, and perfectly voiced by Keith David (also the voice of Goliath on Disney’s Gargoyles). I was so proud to see this episode, when my brother came to visit, I sat him down to watch my VHS copy of it. Larry Houston, an African-American himself, put special care and love into “Prey of The Black Panther,” and it shows.
There are a couple of moments when the Houston production threatens to get embarrassing. The Thing’s battle with the Ego antibodies in “To Battle the Living Planet” almost gets a little too cartoony. This episode, however, is marked by the brilliant voice performance of John Rhys Davies for the guest appearance of mighty Thor (complete with his archaic pseudo-Shakespearean Stan Lee dialect). We get to see and hear Thor again in “When Calls Galactus,” a very loose adaptation of the Frankie Raye “She-Torch” storyline and the epic from FF #242-244, which substitutes The Ghost Rider (voice of comic book fan Richard Grieco!) for Dr. Strange. The other somewhat cringe-inducing moment comes in “Nightmare in Green” with its rather too stereotypically Irish-sounding policeman. Thankfully, that’s only one line of dialogue in this semi-adaptation of Fantastic Four #25 and 26, without The Avengers and with Dr. Doom manipulating The Hulk into battling The Thing. This episode has the virtue of being the first televised Thing/Hulk battle and is fun to watch.
The low point of this season is “Hopelessly Impossible,” a clip show that is notable for bringing on The Impossible Man. In this episode, for some reason the shape-changing troublemaker is being chased by Super-Skrull—who doesn’t talk, only growls like a rabid animal. The very minimal plot is basically a framing sequence for budget-reducing clips from previous episodes.
All things considered, though, the Larry Houston season of The Fantastic Four is truly where Marvel’s best creation is best represented on screen. There are so many moments in it that were lovingly re-created from Stan Lee stories and Jack Kirby art; if you know the material, your heart just lights up inside from watching these shows. Look at the three-part “Inhumans Saga” (with the voices of Michael Dorn as Gorgon and Mark Hamill as Maximus!), “The Sentry Sinister,” and “Doomsday.” This latter one is a terrific reworking of the awesome Fantastic Four #57-60, in which Dr. Doom steals the Power Cosmic from The Silver Surfer and uses it to defeat our heroes. (Again, with no Wyatt Wingfoot to help them and witness Doom’s awful triumph. It’s a shame they couldn’t get Wyatt in there somehow.) The work of Jack Kirby comes to animated life on the screen, another testament to how much Houston loves and respects this greatest of all comics.
Unfortunately, Houston’s work couldn’t save the animated Fantastic Four from the low ratings engendered by the previous season. That season was so bad that too many people fled and never came back. The show was not picked up for a third year and we would never see any more Houston adaptations of great Fantastic Four stories. And there are so many that would have been so brilliant to see produced under Houston’s watch. Looking at the shows he did makes you want to see what he would have done with classics like “Within This Tortured Land” (FF #85-87), “A House There Was” (FF #88-89), “The Skrull Takes a Slave” (FF #90-93), and “The Trial of Reed Richards” (FF #258-282). There was so much greatness still to be presented, and Houston would surely have done brilliant work with it. But it wasn’t to be, which leaves us with nothing to do but imagine. It would have been truly Fantastic!
Fantastic Four: An Animated Look Back
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