The Best Adaption of the Fantastic Four Happened Nearly 50 Years Ago

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Fantastic_Four_Hanna_Barbera_2776 (170x125)After the already-dreaded Fantastic Four came out and landed in theatres with a thud so hard in August that its own director disowned it, a school of thought emerged: maybe it’s just impossible to bring the Fantastic Four to life onscreen. The body of evidence they pointed to—which includes two other majorly-derided big-budget films, a Roger Corman-produced, low budget 1994 film that was only made as a copyright-keeping measure and the 2006 cartoon Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes a stiff, over-stylized mess which was so ill-received that it bounced across three different networks—it’s hard not to agree with them.

Yet to omit the Marvel Universe’s First Family seems a huge waste. If the FF’s 1961 debut hadn’t worked so well, Marvel, the comics industry and pop culture as a whole would be in a very different place. Furthermore, Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing have so much to them that to not properly explore that in the modern superhero media landscape feels wrong. And if future adaptations need a guiding light, the 1967 Hanna-Barbera cartoon Fantastic Four is a fine, if really dated, example.

Over 20 episodes, the show proves itself equal to the better-known Spider-Man from the same era. Like that show, it has stiff, cheap animation saved by expressive voice acting, captivating visuals (legendary cartoonist Alex Toth provided the character designs) and pulpy scripts that to varying degrees capture the brilliance of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s work.

Fantastic4 Interestingly, the show starts off with the team already established and Reed & Sue Richards already married (the FF and Doctor Doom’s origins are given in the series’ third episode, “The Way It All Began”). The latter was probably done to appease executives but not starting with the origin helps establish the team as superheroes and adventurers up for anything with that uniquely early-60s Space Race optimism and derring-do.

Bringing this world to life are an impressive cast who sell everything they’re given, no matter how lame it is. Gerald Mohr, a former member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, makes Mr. Fantastic the voice of authority and reason. Jac Flounders gives Johnny Storm the same hotheaded confidence (pardon the pun) that Lee & Kirby did. Jo Ann Pflug, who later appeared in Robert Altman’s original MASH film, elevates the rather thankless part of Sue Storm (still called the Invisible Girl and frequently, annoyingly damseled). Paul Frees, the legendary voice of Boris Badenov, Ludwig Von Drake and many more, is quite possibly the best Thing ever put onscreen. He perfectly captures Ben Grimm’s gruffness and enthusiasm and he’s a huge treat to watch.

Frees also voices Uatu the Watcher with crisp stentorian tones that are a little undermined by Uatu’s more humanlike face. He’s not the only redesigned character in the show. The Red Ghost, a Soviet supervillain with super-powered monkeys (comics everybody!), sees his costume changed from red to green. The two most notable redesigns are for the FF’s greatest foes: Galactus and Doctor Doom.

drdoom67While Doom is memorably played by Joseph Sirola, the Latverian monarch’s look hinders his menace quite a bit. His mask is much more simplistic-looking—a victim of the show’s low budget—with his eyes clearly visible and no hint of his famous metal scowl. It severely diminishes his visual impact although Sirola mostly compensates for it.

But it’s Galactus who has the oddest overhaul. On the page, the “Devourer of Worlds” is huge, dwarfing every other character he interacts with (particularly in the three-issue “Galactus Trilogy” story of Fantastic Four that introduced him in 1966, a year before the cartoon aired). Yet here, he’s given blue armor and green skin and isn’t depicted that much larger than anything else. This is rather pedantic, admittedly, but the wielder of the Power Cosmic really does feel puny.

ff galactusEach episode of this show is stand-alone, what with this being a 1960s children’s cartoon. For the most part, this structure allows the show’s writers to not only faithfully adapt the original Lee/Kirby work but pace it well enough to last for an episode’s runtime. It’s not always perfect, though; more often than not, the show comes across as slow and occasionally downright dull.

The show also omits a lot of the team’s world for budget’s sake. In one case, it’s due to legal matters. The episode “Demon in the Deep” is essentially Fantastic Four # 4 but without Namor the Sub-Mariner, as he was part of the syndicated weekday TV show The Marvel Super-Heroes from Grantray-Lawrence animation that had begun the year before (and had such a low budget it literally copied the original comic art). Instead, he’s replaced by the original villain Gamma Ray who, despite a game performance from Vic Perrin (a recurring actor on this, Star Trek and many other things), is just not interesting. Characters like Alicia Masters, a blind sculptor and love interest of both the Thing and Johnny Storm, and her evil stepfather the Puppet Master are also omitted.

Hanna-Barbera’s team also changes the order of the story or the events of it to better fill time. “Prisoners on Planet X” is one example. In the original story, the FF are driven to help the people of Planet X after its ruler, Kurrgo, directs his robot to spread a hate ray over the earth to make everyone hate the heroes. The episode omits that with Kurrgo (voiced by Don “Scooby Doo” Messick) simply having the team captured. This is one of the omissions that make sense for pacing purposes. But a lot of others don’t.

The most egregious offender is “Galactus” which has the unenviable task of cramming a packed three-part story into one half-hour of TV. It works but aside from how the title villain is handled, a lot of the source material’s substance is lost. Most notably, the Silver Surfer (Perrin), Galactus’ herald, has very few lines so his shifting alliance feels somewhat forced. It doesn’t help that Ted “Lurch” Cassidy doesn’t really get a handle on Galactus’ voice until the episode is almost over, although he does nail his final speech.

Classic Hanna-Barbera being what it is, there’s some animation errors, the funniest of which is Thing at one point being drawn without pants (a weird foreshadowing of the recent film). The low budget also leads to many Scooby-Doo style chase scenes through repeated backgrounds and Mr. Fantastic’s stretching powers mostly ignored.

All this griping aside, there’s a lot to like. The actors are always generally enjoyable and Toth’s work here is a small sampling of his tremendous talent. Like The Flintstones, the musical score by Ted Nichols is interesting and varied enough to uplift the limited animation along with the voices. The show also has an irrepressible sense of fun. Like many other shows of the era, it’s rife with adventure and always ends on an upbeat note.

Sadly, this show has fallen through the cracks over the decades and it’s unlikely to reappear anytime soon. While Disney owns the Fantastic Four along with the rest of Marvel, Fantastic Four and all other Hanna-Barbera properties were acquired by Turner Broadcasting in 1991 meaning they’re now owned by Time Warner.

Given the two megacorporation’s rivalry, it’s unlikely that even a digital release of Fantastic Four will appear anytime soon, let alone a DVD release. Then again, Batman ’66 is legally available now so who knows? In any event, the show does have an interesting legacy. In his landmark 1999 album Operation: Doomsday legendary underground rapper MF Doom used tons of samples from the show including the theme song. It jives perfectly with the rapper’s Doctor Doom-derived persona and helps sell that album’s unique atmosphere.

The bulk of Fantastic Four is on YouTube and it’s worth seeking out. It’s a time capsule of both 1960s animation and the Fantastic Four at the height of their popularity. Hopefully, it’ll provide some sort of template for future ways of bringing one of the most important teams in superhero comics to broader pop culture.

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Tom Speelman is a contributor to The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, Loser City and Sequart Organization. He’ll have an essay in a 2016 book on Star Wars comics and yells about comics & music on Twitter @tomtificate. Hire him to write your thing by emailing tomspeelman@att.net.

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