Superman 66: The Filmation Years
Two weeks ago host of the Superman podcast Digging for Kryptonite posted on twitter asking what are people’s biggest gaps in Superman fandom. I love Superman trivia (especially with other fans at the Superman Celebration) and am always looking to fill these gaps. My response was:
📺 Superfriends— Miracle Monday (@_MiracleMonday) February 8, 2022
📺 Filmation (even though I own the DVD)
📺 Never finished the last season of Superboy when the DC streaming went away
🗯 Newspaper strips (have the books just need to read them!)
🗯 The Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen comics (except for the Kirby stuff) https://t.co/xWY5wkNA4E
That second entry there, Filmation, might not be the most obvious piece of Superman media for most fans. It’s always had a special place in my heart because of the Super Powers video series in the mid-1980s. I had the VHS tape and watched those “7 exciting episodes” all the time. It was right up there with the Fleischer cartoons for me.
When the DVD was released in June 2007, Superman fans were on the tail end of a huge helping of reissues. Starting in 2005 and coinciding with Superman Returns we got releases of the theatrical serials, the Adventures of Superman boxsets, the four Lois & Clark seasons, Superboy Season 1, the three TAS box sets, and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Plus Smallville was still on the air. An embarrassment of riches if you will. So I will forgive myself for putting the DVD on the shelf and focusing on the other releases of the time.
After posting that tweet I figured it was time to finally watch these cartoons from top to bottom and use the opportunity to break my streak of no posts—I had posts planned but terrible Superman fans on the internet talking about Jon Kent really took the wind out of my sails. Here are my top 10 take aways:
- The bonus documentary does not present the show as being anything special
Mark Waid accurately describes the show as a spin off of the radio show as much as anything. Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander reprising their roles helps, but it’s really the narration that’s the kicker. As Waid accurately notes the narration and the characters tell you everything that’s happening on screen. You barely need to watch to know what is going on. This kinda works for our modern distracted viewing. I watched season one while bagging and boarding 100 old issues of Superman volume 2.
There is a great story in the documentary about the creation of the show which reminded me in part of the urban legend around the creation of the Fleischer cartoons. As legend has it, Fleischer didn’t want to do the Superman cartoons so they came up with a huge price of $1 million per episode thinking it would get rejected. But then it wasn’t. The story for Filmation was almost the opposite. Producer Lou Scheimer said they desperately wanted to get the show. So he brought in friends and family to fill the office and make it look like they were a real studio producing work.
- Curt Swan’s style was a major influence
The show was really “on model” to the Superman comics of the time. Lois is always in purple as the amazing Elizabeth Tulloch knows.
Lois purple 💜 pic.twitter.com/mc8QQ3NESK— Elizabeth Tulloch (@BitsieTulloch) May 7, 2021
It’s a classic maybe even timeless look. I certainly didn’t know the cartoons were already more than 20 years old when I watched them as a kid. Even the villains lined up with their comics counterparts. Except for some of the weirder one-off monsters like this guy:
There were moments when they didn’t get the “S” quite right. Maybe they were focused on the negative space. Maybe they knew it was an “S” and also that it needs to connect to the side so they just drew an extra line?
The art for the season one box set looks like it was taken straight from animation cells touched up a bit, but the seasons two & three box is unique. The cover art doesn’t ring any bells for me. I get a Bogdanove doing a Swan tribute vibe from it, but that’s just speculation. It might have been created just for this set, but considering all the corners they cut I’d be surprised. The second box gets a standard plastic case and has no extra features. The second set also gets some José Luis García-López Superman which is a nice call back to that Super Powers VHS. On the discs they look cheap though, with no color. A nice touch is they both use the older Superman logo with the squared off U, which was the standard until it was redone in 1983.
- My memory is pretty good
I remembered every single episode that was on my VHS from childhood. I made notes of them while watching and then when I found the VHS on eBay I was able to confirm I was right. I knew I remembered the Titano episode (TAS with it’s longer run time handles Titano a bit better), but the second Brainiac, the Parasite, the Toy Man, the Luminians, and The Prankster all stuck with me through the decades. Though considering how weird the voices are for the Luminians I’m not surprised I didn’t forget them.
- Mr. Mxyzptlk
For a cartoon that was definitely made for kids I wish we got more than one Mxyzptlk episode. He’s well known enough to be on the art for disc one, but he only gets one appearance over three seasons (interestingly enough not on disc one). I was glad he didn’t pronounce his name like they do on Super Friends which just sounds wrong to my ears. When they said his name backwards it sounds like they actually played the tape backwards rather than saying Kltpzyxm. It was very strange. I loved Superman’s “Mix Pickle” nickname for him though.
- The music
I love theme (it’s even on my running playlist), but rest of the music is so 1960s. I think they were trying to do James Bond/Danger Man type spy guitar music, but it just made my millennial brain think of Austin Powers. Interesting to think historically that The Beatles released Rubber Soul and Sgt. Peppers when this show was new on CBS.
- Truth & Justice
The show’s intro was of course inspired by the radio show, the Fleischers, and the original Adventures of Superman, but this time it’s a never-ending battle for “truth, justice, and freedom with super powers!”. Really clicked that the VHS set (along with the famous toy line) was called Super Powers. I wonder if there was any reactionary response to freedom instead of the American Way back in the 60s or is the right better at fake moral panic, culture war stuff nowadays than ever?
- Season Three changes up the format
The first two seasons have two stories in each episode (with a Superboy cartoon in the middle that I’ll get to in a minute). For the final season each episode has one Superman story split in two. The first half ends with a Rock and Bullwinkle style cliffhanger that is resolved within seconds of part two. In one episode Clark, Lois, and Jimmy are in danger and the narrator says Superman can’t save them without revealing his identity. Part two hits and he just jumps into a bush. It’s so silly. You’d think the extended run times would give the stories more room to breathe, but they spend precious run time with things like recaps so very few of the stories benefit.
- Beanie, Dr. Heckla, & Warlock
The one original recurring villain we get is Warlock (described by Superman many times as a male witch). Very much inline with cartoon villainy of the time with a top hat. Basically Snidely Whiplash with a magic ruby. No surprise he isn’t a member of the Legion of Doom.
Brainiac may have his classic look here, but he’s just an Android controlled by Dr. Heckla. A bit of a pointless addition, but it does allow Superman to destroy the Brainiac drones, something he would not have been able to do otherwise. This was a bit I didn’t remember from the “Superman Meets Brainiac” episode on VHS. I don’t really consider Dr. Heckla a recurring villain on the same level as Warlock because he’s in consequential to Brainiac except for one moment. A puzzling decision.
During the later episodes we are introduced to a new Daily Planet employee Beanie and I cannot understand why. In some episodes he’s just a stand-in for Jimmy. In other episodes he talks to Jimmy, but he adds nothing to show. I think I’m most bothered by the strange voice the actor does to differentiate him. I assume the actor was trying to sound younger, but it’s grating. No wonder he didn’t make the transition to a full Superman Family member.
There are so many interchangeable aliens in the first season that are coded as asian it was jarring. From the eyes to the facial hair to the voices it was asian stereotypes top to bottom. Really gross. But the worst example is from the final episode “The Japanese Sandman”. Just stereotype after stereotype and it was tough to watch even for twenty minutes. Growing up with cartoons like this it’s no wonder Boomers are terrible. Almost all the original villains are various one-dimensional monsters or asian coded aliens.
- Who are you winking at?
I’m a sucker for the wink at the camera. It’s a huge part of what makes George Reeves so charming in the role. The audience is in on it with Superman. Maybe it wouldn’t work in today’s super serious media landscape, but every episode ending with a wink and a pun had me winking right back. The best wink though was in the final episode when Jimmy straight up asks Clark “Who are you winking at?” Great touch to finish off the series.
Those Superboy cartoons I mentioned? According to Wikipedia they were left off the first box set due to a legal dispute over the Superboy character. There is no mention as to why they aren’t in the second collection which was released in 2014; well after any copyright issues were cleared up and Superboy seasons 2-4 arrived from Warner Archives. Interestingly, the seasons two and three Superboy cartoons were briefly available paired with the Superman episodes when they were streaming on the DC Universe. Since the demise of that service they have not been added to HBO Max. I hope we one day get access to these episodes even if just for the nostalgia. Seasons two and three of this show are only available on DVD so it’s a big oversight in streaming and digital downloads.
Upcoming: Post-Crisis Curt Swan; Superman media currently unavailable