1967 was a profitable year for Hanna-Barbera when it came to superhero cartoons. Following the success of Space Ghost & Dino Boy the previous year (and, to a lesser extent, Frankenstein Jr. & the Impossibles), they had six new action/adventure cartoons greenlit for the 1967-68 season across all three networks. While most of these were original characters, or based on characters in the public domain, one show stood unique among them as being based on a pre-existing superhero team. Developed for ABC to be paired with the Spider-Man cartoon that would be airing that same season, Hanna-Barbera adapted the First Family of Marvel: The Fantastic Four.
The Fantastic Four (1967)
September 9, 1967 - September 21, 1968
The Fantastic Four’s real life origin, and indeed the origin of the Marvel Universe itself, goes back to six years earlier, in 1961. Sales of superheroes had been down for over a decade following the end of World War 2, but they were on the rise again after rival publisher National Periodical Publications (later known as DC Comics) managed to spark a new interest in them, beginning with the introduction of the Barry Allen version of the Flash (the often cited beginning of the “Silver Age” of comic books). By 1961, their newest hit was the Justice League of America, a team made up of DC’s most popular heroes. The newly rebranded Marvel Comics (previously known as “Timely” in the 40s and “Atlas” in the 50s), led by publisher Martin Goodman, saw how profitable the trend was going, and decided to create their own superhero team. Goodman enlisted Stan Lee, who had been working at the company since he was a teenager in 1939, as well as Jack Kirby, an artist who had previously worked on the Captain America comics, to develop the new team.
The general thought from Lee going in was that he felt that the heroes from DC at the time were too perfect, never seeming to display any personal follies and never arguing between each other the way that real people do. Using Kirby’s earlier DC series “Challengers of the Unknown” as a basis, the two creators developed a team of four heroes given powers by gamma rays while on a test flight. Heroes who, while operating in cooperation as a family, also quarrelled between each other like a family.
There was the genius scientist Reed Richards, “Mr. Fantastic”, authoritative and with the ability to stretch his body in a way like that of Plastic Man from Quality Comics. His girlfriend, Sue Storm, “The Invisible Woman”, was given her powers because, as Lee would claim, he was inspired by Universal’s “The Invisible Man” and didn’t want Sue to be just a copy of Wonder Woman with super-strength.
Sue’s hot-headed brother, Johnny Storm, was appropriately given the ability to turn into fire as “The Human Torch”, a reimagining of an earlier Timely Comics hero. Then there was Ben Grimm, “The Thing”, a hero seeped in tragedy as he had been transformed into a powerful rock-like creature, but being unable to change back, had been robbed of a normal life.
The comic book was a hit with audiences, and boosted Marvel Comics as a legitimate competitor to DC, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby continuing to develop numerous iconic heroes throughout the 1960s. Five years after the Fantastic Four launched, the comic publisher had already made it onto television with “The Marvel Super Heroes”, a syndicated cartoon using extremely limited animation to bring Kirby’s artwork to life. However, the Fantastic Four were not part of this; Instead, the following year, the honor to animate Marvel’s first superheroes of the Silver Age would befall Hanna-Barbera, who debuted a Fantastic Four animated series in the fall of 1967 on ABC.
Whether it was intentional or just incidental, the decision to wait a year for Hanna-Barbera to make the show, rather than have the team appear on Marvel’s syndicated program, worked in their favor. While the syndicated program had such a minimal budget that what little animation it had was primarily used to move pre-drawn comic book art just enough to seem convincing, “Fantastic Four” was completely animated from the ground-up. Utilizing the production pipeline Hanna-Barbera had developed over the past ten years, as well as redesigns by artist Alex Toth (a frequent contributor to the studio’s superhero shows), the series came out looking arguably better than any of the other cartoons of the time based on comic books.
While not as direct as the syndicated program, Hanna-Barbera’s “Fantastic Four” did see many of the early memorable storylines get adapted into animated form. Some of these episodes even shared the same titles as the stories they adapted, such as episode 5b and 7 being the same as issues 13 and 29 (which featured villain Red Ghost). Through these adaptations, many of their iconic villains appeared, such as Doctor Doom, the Mole Man, Super-Skrull, Klaw, and even Blastaar (who had only made his debut in the comics a few months earlier).
Even the most iconic storyline of the comic’s first five years, “The Galactus Trilogy”, was adapted as an episode. In this appearance, Galactus (voiced by actor Ted Cassidy, who’d go on to play Ben Grimm in the unrelated Fantastic Four cartoon from the 70s) was oddly depicted with green skin. Overall, the episode was a decent attempt at condensing the three issue storyline into a 22 minute format.
On the subject of oddities, it’s worth noting about the episode “Danger in the Depths”. An important character to the early years of the Fantastic Four was Prince Namor, a character from the Golden Age of comics who was reintroduced in Fantastic Four as a sometimes-antagonist/sometimes-ally of the group. The episode adapted a story in which he had appeared in the comics (issue #33), however his role was replaced with an original character, “Prince Triton”. This was due to the face that Namor had been appearing in the syndicated “Marvel Super Heroes” show in his own segments, barring Hanna-Barbera from using him. However, his supporting cast was still allowed to appear.
The Fantastic Four cartoon saw the voice talents of actor Gerald Mohr as Reed Richards, actress Jo Ann Pflug as Sue Storm, Jac Flounders as Johnny Storm, and Paul Frees as Ben Grimm and Utau the Watcher. Additional guest voices include Joseph Sirola, Jack DeLeon, Vic Perrin, and Hal Smith.
While popular, the series only lasted one season (plus a season of reruns in 1968), as the rising tide of parental groups against violence on television made the networks gradually shied away from action cartoons. It went on to have a decent run in syndication, most notably as part of the “Hanna Barbera’s World of Super Adventure” block in 1978 alongside other series with character designs by Alex Toth. Most recently, however, the show has been tied up in company rivalry which prevent a home release, as the rights were eventually acquired Warner Bros, rival studio to Disney, who now own Marvel itself.
For the First Family of Marvel, Hanna-Barbera’s Fantastic Four was an important milestone in both proving the characters could be translated into animation well, and that the studio could handle adapting pre-existing superheroes. Hanna-Barbera did somewhat revisit the Fantastic Four again, with a series of shorts starring a boy who could transform into the Thing. But as for what they learned in working on the 1967 series, it would help them on their next big superhero project the following decade.