The Marvel Super Heroes: Avengers First Assemblage in Animation
Heroes Take to the Screen
Almost since the beginning of superheroes in comics, studios were trying to figure out a way to translate the wonder and modern mythology of those heroes to the screen. Some of the earliest examples were in 1941, when Superman, just three years after his debut in Action Comics, was adapted into a theatrical cartoon series by Fleischer Studios (later by their successor, Famous Studios). That same year, Fawcett Comics saw their own superhero Captain Marvel (more commonly known these days as Shazam) get his own live-action film serial from Republic Pictures. National Comics (who later became DC Comics in 1977) followed suit and had Batman and Superman adapted as film serials between 1943 and 1950, culminating in a feature length film “Superman and the Mole Men” in 1951. By this time, television was emerging as the hot new medium, and in 1952, the previous year’s “Mole Men” film was used as the pilot for the first superhero TV series premiered, 1952’s “Adventures of Superman”.
In 1944, while National Comics and Fawcett Comics were enjoying the success of their own screen adaptations, Timely Comics, another publication company of the “Golden Age” of comics, saw their own superhero adapted. In 1944, Republic Pictures released “Captain America”, a 15 chapter film serial about the patriotic superhero (in this version a district attorney with a revolver rather than a soldier with a shield) fighting against a mad scientist known as The Scarab. The serial was the most expensive one Republic Pictures ever made, and while Timely was reportedly unhappy with the alterations made to their character, it did well enough for them.
However, with the end of World War 2, the Golden Age of superheroes was coming to a close with a sharp decline in popularity, and Timely would gradually retire Captain America as well as their other superheroes of the era, such as the Sub-Mariner. Timely would go defunct in 1950, replaced by their successor Atlas Comics for the next ten years.
Starting around 1956 with the introduction of the Barry Allen version of the Flash, superheroes began to make a comeback. However, for Atlas (now renamed Marvel Comics), it wouldn’t be until 1961 that comic book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would bring the company into the Silver Age with a team of dysfunctional heroes (something rare to see in comics at the time) known as the Fantastic Four. From this, a whole universe of comics and new heroes came forth over the following years, including Thor and the Incredible Hulk in 1962, and Iron Man in 1963. Some superheroes from Timely Comics even saw a return, such as the Sub-Mariner in the fourth issue of Fantastic Four (1962), and Captain America in the fourth issue of the team-up comic The Avengers (1964).
With 1966 approaching, a year that would see a revitalization of superheroes on the screen with the 60’s Batman TV series (and film) and Filmation’s own upcoming Superman cartoon, the time seemed right for Marvel Comics to get its first television show as well.
The Marvel Super Heroes
September - December 1966
Announced in the “Bullpen Bulletins” editorial section of Marvel’s November 1966 issues (which due to publication time were on store shelves several months earlier), The Marvel Super Heroes was an animated series centered around five heroes: Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, the Invincible Iron Man, the Mighty Thor, and Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, with each hero being in the spotlight Monday through Friday in that order. Naturally, due to the interconnected nature of the comics, occasionally the heroes would be seen appearing on other days than their own. Beyond these, various other heroes such as the X-Men and the Avengers also guest-starred, as well as numerous villains from across the early Marvel universe such as Doctor Doom.
These heroes were selected by the animation studio behind the show, Grantray-Lawrence Animation, a small production studio headed by animators Grant Simmons and Ray Patterson (who both formerly worked at Disney and MGM), as well as producer Robert L. Lawrence. Grantray-Lawrence Animation hadn’t really done a television series prior to this, with their only previous attempt being a 6 minute pilot for a cartoon titled “Planet Patrol” over half a decade earlier. Primarily, they were a studio that did commercial work and picked up outsourced work from studios like Hanna-Barbera. For distribution of the show, Krantz Films, headed by producer Steve Krantz, helped out.
Bringing the Page to Screen via Xerox
Through a combination of the studio’s inexperience at long form animation and a very low budget, The Marvel Super Heroes gained probably its most notable quality: While the intros and outro were animated from scratch, the series instead used art directly from the Marvel comics being adapted. Through the use of Xerography, the animators would make use of Xerox machines to photocopy panels from the comics and blow them up to fit on cels. Word balloons would be removed, backgrounds redrawn when necessary, but essentially the artwork drawn by artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko would be intact.
The animators would then make slight modifications to make the animation believable, such as lip flaps and arm movements, and effects like explosions. Most of the animation work for these episodes were done in Hollywood by Grantray-Lawrence Animation, but the Thor segments were outsourced to New York at Paramount Cartoon Studios (formerly Famous Studios) and directed by long-time animation veteran Shamus Culhane.
Marvel Gains Its Voices and Tunes
Voice work on the series primarily consisted of numerous Canadian actors, most notably John Vernon as Tony Stark and Prince Namor, along with Chris Wiggins as Thor and Paul Soles as Bruce Banner.
The one main exception to this was Sandy Becker, a TV personality well known in the New York City area for hosting a number of afternoon childrens programs during the 50’s and 60’s. Fittingly as the sole American on the voice cast, Becker voiced Captain America.
Besides its limited animation, The Marvel Super Heroes is perhaps best remembered for its theme songs, all written by Jacques Urbont. Not only did the opening and outro that played at the start of each episode have their own songs, but each character got their own 30 second jingle introducing them to the audience. Stan Lee himself once said in an interview “I wish I could claim to have written the lyrics, because I think they're brilliant”, and the songs became notable enough that part of the theme for Iron Man written for the show was played in the background of a scene in the 2008 “Iron Man” film.
The Marvel Super Heroes ran for 65 half hours, with three 6 ½ minute segments in each episode (totaling to 195 segments, or 13 episodes per hero). While it perhaps doesn’t hold up well today, The Marvel Super Heroes introduced a new audience to a universe of heroes that was still in its infancy, as well as providing inarguably the most accurate screen representation of the Silver Age of Marvel comics. This partnership between Marvel and Grantray-Lawrence Animation would also lead to one of the most famous Marvel cartoons of all time; As stated in an article about The Marvel Super Heroes found in issue 4 of “The World of Cartoons” (published in 1967): “G-LA is already hard at work on an even bigger series for a sixth Marvel character whose identity at this writing was still classified top secret”.
That character would end up receiving his own series in 1967: Spider-Man.