The year was 1966. It had been nearly ten years since William Hanna and Joseph Barbera set out on their own to create an studio for TV animation. They had dominated the syndication market from the late 50s to the mid 60s, and helped lead the early 60’s boom of primetime animation. There was still one pillar of TV animation they had not yet broken into however, a new market that was just about to boom, and they would be right there to pave the way: Saturday mornings.
The Birth of Saturday Morning Cartoons
The idea for prioritizing Saturday mornings as a spot for animation came from CBS executive Fred Silverman. Saturday mornings, up to that point, had largely been a dumping ground for the leftovers of other programming venues; Shows that were also broadcast on weekdays like “Captain Kangaroo”, compilation shows of theatrical shorts like “The Bugs Bunny Show”, and the remnants of the earlier primetime boom like “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons”. There had been a few earlier attempts at making original content for Saturday mornings, but these were primarily done by cereal companies who’d buy the timeslot and create the cartoon without any outside input (leading to cereal mascots getting their own series), filling the commercial time with ads for their own products.
Silverman also noted that the Saturday morning landscape was almost entirely made up of what he deemed “soft” shows, that the three networks were showing, either live action or funny animals. What Silverman wanted was some “hard” shows, something harkening back to the golden age of comic books with hard hitting superhero action to get the viewer excited. He also wanted to capitalize on the public’s excitement for the space race and the rapid advancement in technology.
Hanna-Barbera, who Silverman had contracted as they were the biggest name in the business at the time, was in a bit of an awkward situation though, as nearly all of the shows they had produced up to this point were “soft” comedies. There was one exception though, as two years earlier they had experimented with doing an action-driven show with Jonny Quest, which aired in primetime on ABC in 1964. This series was very much influenced by film serials and the adventure comics of the 1950’s, and featured designs by comic book artist Doug Wildey. This would serve as a sort of blueprint for how they would go about this new project.
For their character designer, they hired Alex Toth, another comic book artist who had worked for companies such as DC, Dell, and Gold Key. Without much input to go on, he designed about 40 different versions of an unnamed superhero character, which were presented to Fred Silverman. Silverman pointed out different aspects he liked, and the resulting design was a character with a black hood, a yellow cape, and an all-white outfit. Joe Barbera came up with the name on the spot: “Space Ghost”.
Space Ghost & Dino Boy
September 10, 1966 - September 16, 1967
The series follows the interstellar adventures Space Ghost (voiced by Gary Owens), a superhero who fights villains and alien monsters with the power in his belt and wristbands, as well as his abilities of flight and invisibility. He travels from planet to planet with his two sidekicks Jan (Ginny Tyler) and Jace (Tim Matheson), who’d often get kidnapped, and their monkey Blip (Don Messick), who act as the comic relief.
The stories were very much classic comic book fare, complete with a colorful cast of villains just as iconic as the heroes. Characters such as Creature King, the galactic warlord Zorak (both voiced by Don Messick), the space conqueror Metallus (Ted Cassidy), or the witch-like Black Widow (Ginny Tyler). These villains, among several others both recurring and standalone, would always prove to be formidable adversaries for Space Ghost, but he’d always come out on top. Episodes would often end with the villain seemingly put in a position where they may have possibly perished, but with a nudge from Space Ghost saying something like “we might see them again” to remind the audience they couldn’t go that far.
Space Ghost’s stories would take up the first 1/3rd and last 1/3rd of each episode. In the middle, viewers would be treated to an unrelated segment, “Dino Boy in the Lost Valley”. As Space Ghost represented the tone of 1950’s sci-fi comics, Dino Boy embodied the adventure comics of the 50’s; The story followed the titular “Dino Boy” Todd (voiced by John David Carson), who makes a crash landing in South America, ending up in a valley that time forgot, where dinosaurs and cavemen coexist.
He quickly makes friends with a caveman named Ugh (Mike Road), who saves him from a sabertooth tiger, as well as a baby Brontosaurus named Bronty (Don Messick). The three would travel across the valley, encountering dangers each week as the valley proved to be a dangerous place.
“Space Ghost & Dino Boy” was the first of many things for Hanna-Barbera. It was the first superhero series they made and (while Jonny Quest predated it) the real turning point of their foray into more “serious” animated series, two aspects that would drive the company forward through the rest of the 60’s and even into the 70’s. As mentioned before, it was also the first series with character designs by Alex Toth, who’d play a key role in several of their upcoming series. Ironically, Gold Key (which Alex Toth had worked for) did a one issue comic based on Space Ghost, though not with Toth’s involvement.
Additionally, and easily just as important if not moreso, Space Ghost would see the first time two notable names would be brought into the spotlight: Joe Ruby and Ken Spears. The two had been working in the editing department for several years, but this would be the first time they’d be placed in a creative role by being tasked as script writers for Space Ghost. This would be an important step for them, as it put them in a position to eventually create arguably Hanna-Barbera’s biggest name ever: Scooby-Doo. In the late 70's, they'd even form their own animation studio, while still being on good terms with Hanna-Barbera.
The series premiered on September 10th, 1966 at 10:30am, on a morning of superheroes (and even advertised as such). Sandwiched between “Frankenstein Jr. & The Impossibles” (another Hanna-Barbera series with superheroes, but in a more comedic light) and “The New Adventures of Superman” (a breakout series for rival studio Filmation), the premiere scored a 55 Neilsen score, a great feat which helped to prove Fred Silverman’s belief that the future was in Saturday mornings. Despite this, however, “Space Ghost & Dino Boy” would only really last one season; Joe Barbera would ironically attribute to what they had lined up the following year: “The Herculoids”, another series with Alex Toth designs and written by the Ruby Spears duo, which so impressed Silverman that he elected to put more funding towards than give Space Ghost another season.
While this would mark the end for Dino Boy, this isn’t to say Space Ghost wasn’t sent off with a bang, however. In an incredibly rare occurrence, especially for the time, Space Ghost was actually given a proper finale; With a two episode extension in 1967 and the Space Ghost segments occupying the full half hour, a story was told which featured the greatest of Space Ghost’s enemies uniting forces as the “Council of Doom”. Over the course of six segments, Space Ghost would fight each of his enemies, before facing off against them in one final showdown. This two-part finale also included cameos from the Herculoids and characters from the other Alex Toth characters appearing on CBS that season: Shazzan, Moby Dick, and Mighty Mightor.
The Spirit of Space Ghost Lives On
Of course, much like a ghost, while the Space Ghost series died, its spirit continued on. After reruns on CBS concluded in the fall of 1968, the character remained dormant for about ten years, living on in local syndication. In 1978, a syndicated block emerged called “Hanna-Barbera’s World of Adventure”, a half-hour slot which would rotate between all of the Alex Toth designed cartoons from the late 60’s, including “Birdman & the Galaxy Trio”, the 1967 “Fantastic Four” series, and of course “Space Ghost & Dino Boy”. This brought these series back into the public consciousness and proved to be very popular.
Popular enough that, in 1981, NBC revived both Space Ghost and The Herculoids as part of an hour long block called “Space Stars”, paired up with two new segments called “Teen Force” (about a trio of teenage superheroes) and “Space Ace and the Space Mutts” (about a galactic police officer and a trio of dogs, including Astro from The Jetsons). 22 new six-minute Space Ghost episodes were produced, airing two segments a week, which saw Gary Owens reprise the role of Space Ghost. All the shows in the Space Stars block explicitly shared the same universe, with characters from the other segments making guest appearances in Space Ghost episodes, as well as in a 7 minute crossover short titled “Space Stars Finale” at the end of each week.
One year later in 1982, Space Ghost (without Dino Boy) made the jump to cable as part of the launch lineup for the USA Network’s “Cartoon Express” block (the first cable block for cartoons), where both the original and “Space Stars” episodes ran for a whopping 10 years. It was removed in 1992, and that same year, Cartoon Network (run by Turner Broadcasting who had acquired the Hanna-Barbera library the year before) launched. The launch schedule featured a block called “Super Adventures”, once more featuring Space Ghost and other Alex Toth series, which ran until 1994.
It was also in 1994 then that the character saw his biggest redesign, in Cartoon Network’s first fully produced series, “Space Ghost Coast to Coast”. Using very limited animation, primarily taken from actual episodes of the original cartoon, the series recast Space Ghost (now voiced by George Lowe) as a talk show host, interviewing actual celebrities while things inevitably go wrong. He was joined by Zorak as the bandleader, and the lava man Moltar as his director, both constantly heckling and interrupting him.
This show is a long topic for another day, but it was a very important series for the history of Cartoon Network as it helped launch their line of original programs, as well as built the foundation for their highly popular Adult Swim programming block. It also led to several spinoff shows, namely “The Brak Show” (a sitcom about former villain Brak, now recast as an adolescent teenager, and his family) and “Cartoon Planet” (a half-hour variety show starring Space Ghost, Zorak, and Brak), as well as cameos in several Adult Swim series like “Robot Chicken” and “Perfect Hair Forever”. The main “Coast to Coast” series continued on in one form or another until 2008.
Space Ghost villain Moltar would also spin off into his own “show” of sorts, having the honor of being the first host of the long running “Toonami” block in 1997. This would also be yet another spot to see the original Space Ghost, airing as part of a rotating show called “Cartoon Roulette” alongside other Hanna-Barbera shows (and Fleischer’s Superman). Moltar would host the block from the Ghost Planet until 1999, before handing the reins off to an original character named TOM. In 2000, “Space Ghost & Dino Boy” moved one more time to Cartoon Network’s sister station Boomerang, where it aired off and on as part of the “Boomeraction” block until 2014.
In terms of other appearances, Space Ghost has also crossed over into the realm of DC Comics several times in the past two decades. First was a six issue miniseries in 2004, which was a darker reimagining focused on the character’s origins, including the tragic death of his family and the lead-up to his first battle with Zorak. Several years later in 2010, Space Ghost teamed up with Batman in an episode of “The Brave and the Bold” against Creature King. More recently, in 2016, both Space Ghost and Dino Boy appeared in a 12 issue ensemble comic series called “Future Quest”, which saw the gathering of all the classic 60’s Hanna Barbera heroes (including Jonny Quest) against an interdimensional creature known as Omnikron.
While he may have the motif of a ghost, it can’t be denied that Space Ghost has breathed life wherever he’s been. Whether it was in helping to launch Saturday mornings as a viable market, boosting the careers of Alex Toth and the Ruby-Spears duo, energizing both Hanna-Barbera’s action cartoon line and eventually Cartoon Network’s original programming, or leading to the creation of both Toonami and Adult Swim, Space Ghost may not get as much credit as some Hanna-Barbera creations, but he’s clearly one of its brightest stars.
© 2019 Josh Measimer