History of Hanna-Barbera: 'Birdman & The Galaxy Trio'
The year was 1967, one year after Space Ghost & Dino Boy made its debut and helped usher in the real start of Saturday morning cartoons as a viable business venue. With a boom in demand for programming in these timeslots, Hanna-Barbera was commissioned to develop a whopping six series that year (the most they had done at once up to that point), all of which would use Space Ghost artist Alex Toth as character designer. Three would run next to Space Ghost over on CBS (“Herculoids”, “Moby Dick & Mighty Mightor”, and Shazzan), one going to ABC (Fantastic Four), and two airing on NBC: a General Mills-sponsored series called “Young Samson & Goliath”, and perhaps NBC’s own answer to Space Ghost: “Birdman & the Galaxy Trio”.
Birdman & The Galaxy Trio
September 9, 1967 – January 20, 1968
“Birdman” saw the adventures of the titular Birdman (voiced by Keith Andes), a winged superhero who draws his powers from the sun. Through this solar absorption, he can fly and shoot solar rays from his fists. Though this comes at the cost of Birdman only being able to use a limited amount of power a time before needing to recharge via sunlight, a weakness his enemies continually try to exploit against him (whether by attacking him at night or blocking his access to sunlight).
While it’s never directly addressed in the series itself, Alex Toth had written a detailed backstory for the character. In actuality, Birdman was Raymond “Ray” Randall, an ordinary human who was one day granted his powers by the Egyptian sun god Ra. After becoming a crime fighter, he was eventually recruited by a top secret organization known as Inter-National Security. Toth had largely based Birdman on DC’s own superhero, Hawkman, who was incidentally appearing in cartoons on CBS that same broadcast season,
Birdman is allied with his eagle sidekick Avenger, and regularly receives missions from an eyepatch-wearing man known only as Falcon 7 (Don Messick) who is his contact at Inter-National Security. Halfway through the series, he’s joined by sidekick Birdboy (Dick Beals), a young boy found adrift at sea and suffering from amnesia; Birdman gifts him a portion of his power to recover, which results in the boy gaining the same solar powers as Birdman (minus the flight, as he must wear mechanical wings).
Birdman’s cast of villains was mostly one-shot criminals, though he also had several recurring villains who generally appeared twice, such as the vulture-themed Vulturo (Don Messick), who acts as a sort of evil counterpart to Birdman’s powers, or Dr. Millenium (Hal Smith), who uses a device to manipulate and travel through time. That isn’t to say the one-shot villains weren’t memorable themselves, like the mind-controlling Mentok (Don Messick) who briefly controlled the mind of Birdman in an attempt to start a world war, or Reducto (John Stephenson), a mad scientist who invented a shrink-ray and threatened the US government with it until Birdman tricked him into shrinking himself down to microscopic size
There is also the organization known as FEAR, a group whose goal is to (what else) strike fear and terrorize the citizens of the world, which appear throughout the series, either directly antagonizing Birdman or assisting his enemies. FEAR’s leader, a bearded man known as Number One, is Birdman’s “number one” enemy, and is certainly the most frequent villain to appear, though he only directly fights Birdman twice (once ending in the apparent destruction of FEAR, and the next ending in his own supposed death).
Just like Space Ghost, each half hour of Birdman featured a middle segment that was essentially a separate program: “The Galaxy Trio”. This segment, set in the future as opposed to Birdman’s present day exploits, followed the adventures of a trio of heroes working for the Galaxy Patrol, travelling from planet to planet to defend the galaxy from numerous villains.
The blue-skinned member of the trio was Vapor Man (voiced by Don Messick), from the planet Vaporus, who could turn his body into a gaseous state either as defense or as an attack. Gravity Girl (Virginia Eiler), a princess of the planet Gravitas, had the power to fly and manipulate gravity, such as lifting heavy objects. Then there was Meteor Man (Ted Cassidy), who possessed super-strength and the ability to increase the size of his body, as tall as a skyscraper if needed.
In a lot of ways, while Birdman adapted the masked superhero aspect of Space Ghost, The Galaxy Trio was more tonally in line with the sci-fi plots of that series. Much like “Space Ghost & Dino Boy”, the casts of the two shows would never meet except for a bridging animation between segments, though Birdman would occasionally team up with the Galaxy Trio in comic book adventures released by Gold Key during 1968.
“Birdman & the Galaxy Trio”, while lasting a season of 20 episodes (the same amount as “Space Ghost & Dino Boy”), wasn’t exactly the comparable hit that NBC wanted and additional episodes were not ordered. While repeats did initially run in the 1968 broadcast season (cartoons were typically contracted to run two years whether a second season was ordered or not), 1968 also saw the rise of parental groups concerned about the explosion of violence on children’s television, their gaze primarily focused on the superhero shows from Hanna-Barbera.
As a response to the complaints, NBC pulled reruns of Birdman after December 1968, replacing it mid-season with a Saturday morning spinoff of the Hollywood Squares game show titled “The Storybook Squares”.
Birdman Becomes a Lawyer
For the next few decades, the legacy of “Birdman & the Galaxy Trio” was much like that of most of the other Alex Toth series that aired during that same time. The series returned to the public consciousness ten years later in 1978’s “Hanna-Barbera’s World of Super Adventure”, a syndicated rotating block which included both the Birdman and Galaxy Trio segments. Unlike Space Ghost and the Herculoids, neither would be revived in 1981’s “Space Stars” show, and would again remain dormant until the advent of Cartoon Network, which aired it from launch as part of the “Super Adventures” block. It’d eventually make its way to the eventual successor to that block, “Toonami”, as part of yet another rotating program called “Cartoon Roulette”, which saw both segments included.
During the late 90’s, Birdman would see attention yet again via “Space Ghost Coast to Coast”. He appeared a few times during the series, starting with the season 4 episode “Pilot”, which showed a supposed pilot to the show featuring Birdman as the host instead of Space Ghost. In the season 6 episode “Sequel”, Space Ghost would be arrested and lead to Birdman filling in for him. This brought a good amount of awareness to the dormant character, sparking the idea at Cartoon Network to give him his own show as they had with Space Ghost.
On December 30, 2000, Cartoon Network aired a pilot for “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law”, a pseudo-sequel series which recast Birdman (now voiced by Gary Cole) as a defense attorney, helping to solve cases for a multitude of Hanna-Barbera characters from the 60’s and 70’s. This included Peter Potamus, Birdman’s co-worker, and several villains from the original series, as well as Gravity Girl. Unlike “Coast to Coast”, which made heavy use of recycled animation from the original cartoons, “Attorney at Law” was largely original animation (albeit on a low budget).
The series was picked up the following year as part of the launch lineup for Adult Swim, and would run for four seasons until it concluded in July 2007, which concluded the series with Birdman’s death. However, it was later revived in October 2018 with the special “Harvey Birdman: Attorney General”, and a new spin-off series centered around the Birdgirl character is currently in the works.
Both Birdman and the Galaxy Trio have also made appearances in comics published by DC. First were in “Cartoon Network Presents”, an anthology series featuring a different Cartoon Network series in each issue. Issues 5 and 9 had Birdman stories, while issue 17 had a Galaxy Trio; Each of these issues also included a Herculoids story, as well as linking pages featuring Moltar from Space Ghost, in the context of his role as host of Toonami. The characters more recently appeared in Future Quest, a 12 issue limited series that teamed up most of the 60’s Hanna-Barbera superheroes along with Jonny Quest.
Birdman may not have had quite the vivid history of its predecessor Space Ghost, but on his own flight path, he’s soared to his own heights.