That’s what happened on Saturday at New York Comic Con, when Warner Archive podcasters Matt Patterson and D.W. Ferranti joined comic book writer Danny Fingeroth and moderator Gary Miereanu for an animated discussion of classic action adventure cartoons from Hanna-Barbera. It was like Saturday morning in the late afternoon, without the footie pajamas and Froot Loops.
“See the action, when the most sinister villains in the universe join forces to send Space Ghost to his doom!” the narrator intoned, as the panel opened with a television promo unseen for 46 years. “With special appearances by Moby Dick, Mightor, Shazzan, and The Herculoids! The new Space Ghost on CBS!”
It’s unlikely that many of us in that basement breakout room at the Jacob K. Javits Center were in front of a TV on September 9, 1967, when CBS used the second season premiere of Space Ghost to launch three new animated series: The Herculoids, Shazzan, and Moby Dick and the Mighty Mightor. But what happened that fateful morning impacted children’s television for the next generation.
“At this point, Hanna-Barbera was known more for funny animals,” Patterson said, referring to the studio’s initial TV success with characters like Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound, after Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s 18-year tenure at MGM ended in 1957.
“This was the big changeover,” Ferranti added. “And the thing all those clips you just saw had in common was the design work of an extremely talented man named Alex Toth.”
A graduate of New York’s School of Industrial Art, Toth (rhymes with “both”) started his career as an artist at DC Comics in the late 1940s, drawing iconic characters like The Flash, Green Lantern, and the Justice Society of America. After a stint in the Army (where he wrote and drew the Jon Fury adventure strip for his base’s newspaper), Toth created comic book adaptations of popular TV shows like 77 Sunset Strip, Cheyenne, and Maverick for Dell Comics. In 1966 Joe Barbera hired him to design the characters for Space Ghost, an animated series CBS programming exec Fred Silverman ordered to capitalize on the success of an ABC primetime hit.
“Freddy’s insistence on a Batman-look for Ghost dominated his design, due to Life’s cover photo of Adam West and Burt Ward in Batman and Robin costumes,” Fingeroth said, quoting Toth. “He waved it at us all day of its release as the look he wanted. 103 doodles later, the puzzle was done – none of it to my liking.”
Toth thought the dark headgear Fred Silverman insisted upon left his creation “looking headless” against the black space backgrounds. He solved this with “strong rim lighting of Ghost’s head cowl,” because Silverman was not a man to be argued with.
If Silverman was the architect of Saturday morning, Alex Toth was its master builder, with seven series on three different networks in the 1967-68 season alone. In addition to the aforementioned CBS offerings, he also did the character designs for The Fantastic Four on ABC and Birdman and the Galaxy Trio on NBC. And his work as a layout artist and model designer was seen in CBS’s early afternoon reruns of Jonny Quest, which had originally aired on ABC in primetime during the 1964-65 season.
“His mantra was simplicity,” Patterson said. “He was able to take these more complex designs and ideas and worlds and simplify them to make them more easily translatable to the mechanics of TV animation, which was cheap and fast.”
But it was his next big assignment that changed my life, and the lives of most of my friends. In 1973, Toth served as character designer and animation supervisor for Super Friends, Hanna-Barbera’s adaptation of DC’s Justice League of America comic. His stylishly streamlined versions of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aqua Man and their (newly created) companions Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog were featured in 16 frequently rerun adventures on ABC. When the series returned in 1977 with fresh episodes and new sidekicks (Wonder Twins Zan and Jayna and Gleek the space monkey), Toth was back at the drawing board. He also added the 13 villainous members of the Legion of Doom to his repertoire with Challenge of the Super Friends in the 1978-79 season.
Toth’s accessible approach to these iconic characters defined my formative years, extending to all manner of licensed products, most of which I owned. There were toys, comics, coloring books, t-shirts, sleeping bags, lunch boxes and even underwear. To the delight of the live audience, Patterson showed two 1978 commercials for Underoos, which Toth himself storyboarded.
“As someone who owned quite a few pairs of these, I will attest to the fact that they were, and continue to be, fun to wear,” Patterson quipped.
Super Friends lacked the dark complexity of much of today’s superhero media, and that was what made it great. The stripped-down design and simple storytelling removed the barrier of entry to these characters for boys and girls too young to read. In some cases, the show attracted kids who had no interest in superhero comics – like my sister, who watched religiously in her Wonder Woman Underoos. (For the record, mine were Batman.)
Ferranti compared the series to the popular Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which is coming to Blu-ray in November.
“It’s got the same kind of spirit; you don’t have to be a superhero fan to like it,” he said. “And that’s a contemporary example of what you can do by keeping the art simple.”
Toth’s last hurrah on Saturday morning TV also drew a spontaneous cheer when Patterson played the show’s opening sequence. Created in 1980 by Steve Gerber, Thundarr the Barbarian was produced by Ruby-Spears, a production company formed by former Hanna-Barbera writers Joe Ruby and Ken Spears. Toth did the design for the title character, along with his sidekicks Princess Ariel and Ookla the Mok. Villains and secondary characters were handled by the legendary Jack Kirby.
Thundarr was “three Tothian characters moving through a Jack Kirby world,” Ferranti said.
Although Toth didn’t work on the series, his character designs featured prominently in Space Stars, a 1981-82 hour-long anthology on NBC that featured new installments of Space Ghost and The Herculoids. Warner Archive recently completed a two-year process of reassembling the eleven episodes of the series, which had been surgically separated for syndication, back into their original broadcast versions. The restored shows include segments that never aired, which also elicited wild cheers from the animation geeks in the audience, like me.
“We all love Alex Toth, so it’s a large pleasure for us to get his work out there,” Ferranti said. “It’s not throwaway stuff. It may have seemed to be because it was just Saturday morning cartoons, but it really can mean a lot to people.”