Filmation vs. Hanna-Barbera: the Golden Age of DC Comics Animation by Jerry Whitworth
With hits like The Flintstones, Jonny Quest, and the Yogi Bear franchise grown from series like The Ruff and Reddy Show and The Huckleberry Hound Show, Hanna-Barbera was a powerhouse in the burgeoning animated television series market. As shows like Atom Ant, Sinbad Jr. and his Magic Belt, Space Ghost, and Frankenstein Jr. and The Impossibles reached airwaves, the studio was quickly making superheroes a popular sight on Saturday mornings. DC Comics, who had previously seen its most popular character Superman animated for theaters in the 1940s and was about to take the nation by storm with the Batman television series, looked to edge into the lucrative market. In the 1950s, Adventures of Superman was a cultural phenomenon derailed by the untimely demise of its star George Reeves. A planned spin-off in the Adventures of Superboy never made it past the pilot but animation looked to be new ground to tread with the brand. Mort Weisinger, Superman editor for DC Comics and story editor for Adventures of Superman, approached young studio Filmation to tackle the project.
Very nearly closing the doors on their business, Filmation was approached to produce a Superman animated series at about 3/4 the price of what Hanna-Barbera cost to produce. Having transitioned largely to commercial advertisement animation, executives from DC Comics were brought in to see Filmation’s operation. Well aware they lacked the staff at the time to tackle such a large job, friends and family of Filmation employees arrived to create a larger faux studio that fooled the visitors from DC to award the company the contract. New Adventures of Superman aired on Saturday mornings in 1966 featuring several voice actors from the popular Adventures of Superman radio series of the 1940s reprising their roles. The series was a bonafide hit and not only was a second season fast tracked, a virtual universe of DC characters were cast for the following year.
1967’s The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure was a programming block that included both the second season of New Adventures of Superman but another show entirely in Aquaman. Further, as Superman featured shorts entitled The Adventures of Superboy, the Hour of Adventure featured segments including the Atom, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Justice League of America (teaming the four aforementioned heroes with Superman and Aquaman), and the Teen Titans (with Aqualad and Kid Flash appearing in the team as well as their mentors’ respective segments). This latest installment proved to be another favorite of the Saturday morning audience and Filmation was decidedly in the animated superhero business.
Filmation quickly went to work on a third season of Superman and second season of Aquaman with plans for even more heroes. Metamorpho was the next character they became heavily invested in producing, reportedly animating a pilot, seeing a theme song recorded, and several scripts written for series. It’s also claimed Plastic Man was in early development as animation cels appear to show the Blackhawks were intended to appear in Aquaman to set-up their own spin-off. The Doom Patrol, B’wana Beast, and the Metal Men were reportedly also on Filmation’s radar for new shows. However, everything changed with the cancellation of Batman in 1967.
Another cultural phenomenon in DC Comics’ history with television, Batman burned bright and fast as rushed production along with stars that arguably grew too big, too fast saw the show end with three seasons within two years. Very nearly continuing for a fourth season on another network, NBC’s loss became CBS’ gain when Filmation snagged the television rights for the brand and quickly shifted gears to crank out the Adventures of Batman. Considering the time crunch, Metamorpho and assorted other series were dropped so as to pump out The Batman/Superman Hour programming block and standalone Aquaman series (featuring past segments re-branded together) in time for the fall of 1968. Yet again, Filmation struck gold as the studio went into the following year with the standalone New Adventures of Superman series for a fourth season, standalone Aquaman series for a third season (again, with past episodes re-branded together), and the Adventures of Batman series re-branded with past episodes as the standalone Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder. Doing well as essentially re-runs, Filmation looked to test the waters with Wonder Woman by having her appear in an episode of their The Brady Kids series based on The Brady Bunch in 1972 (an earlier episode also featured Superman). Sadly, Filmation’s attempt was for naught.
1969’s Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! proved to be another hit for Hanna-Barbera from the minds of Joe Ruby and Ken Spears meant to appease parent watch groups who opposed the violence of superhero cartoons. However, after three seasons, the show evolved into The New Scooby-Doo Movies in 1972 which featured guest-stars such as the Addams Family, Don Knotts, Phyllis Diller, Three Stooges, and Harlem Globetrotters. But for two episodes of the show’s first season, they saw Batman, Robin, Joker, and Penguin appear with the Filmation voice actors returning to those roles. It’s commonly believed that the appearance of the Dynamic Duo in the series was something of a backdoor pilot for Hanna-Barbera’s adaptation of the Justice League the following year.
Super Friends debuted from Hanna-Barbera in 1973 and featured Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Robin as the Justice League of America (with guest-appearances by the Flash, Plastic Man, and Green Arrow) that mentored a junior-Justice League with Wendy Harris, Marvin White, and Wonder Dog (undoubtedly a nod to Scooby-Doo). The format was decidedly different from Filmation’s approach as physical altercations were significantly toned down where mad scientists and alien threats were generally convinced to change their ways. These changes affected the type of stories told with these characters previously, especially Aquaman who had sustained a popular television series for three seasons (two of which were essentially re-runs) reduced to a non-character viewed as useless by the general public for over four decades (this concept heavily parodied in the stop motion series Robot Chicken). The change in direction was not a welcome one to the viewing public and the series did not return the following year.
With the failure of Super Friends, Filmation was free to explore DC’s properties again this time producing a live action series based on Captain Marvel called Shazam! The show proved so popular that when it returned for a second season, it was paired with an original live action superhero series developed by Filmation in the same vein as Shazam! called The Secrets of Isis. Their programming block dubbed The Shazam!/Isis Hour, the characters crossed over into three episodes of each other’s separate shows. Filmation also took the opportunity to develop a new Batman animated series in The New Adventures of Batman. However, the studio was forced to share the characters.
In 1975, Wonder Woman hit television airwaves and, while it performed well, the cost to produce the series outweighed the ratings. Fortunately, CBS picked up the show and re-branded it The New Adventures of Wonder Woman set in the modern day becoming yet another hit for DC Comics’ live action television offerings. The popularity of the series prompted the publisher to try and resurrect its animated production, approaching Hanna-Barbera to bring back the Super Friends concept but with more action. The result was 1977’s The All-New Super Friends Hour bringing back the core Justice League with a significantly expanded roster of guest-stars including the obscure Rima the Jungle Girl, original characters Apache Chief and Samurai, and a thinly-veiled copy of Black Lightning in Black Vulcan as the original character’s inclusion would have seen creator Tony Isabella compensated for his use. Gone was the junior-Justice League and in their place super-powered alien teens the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna, with their pet alien monkey Gleek. The series also included actual supervillains in Black Manta (referred to as simply “Manta” with an altered color palette) and Gentleman Ghost as “Gentleman Jim Craddock.” The series was a hit and the staff behind the brand wanted to go even bigger the subsequent season.
Rather than a core Justice League with rotating guest-stars versus the occasional supervillain, the team at Hanna-Barbera wanted the Justice League to go head-to-head with a group of villains. Dubbed Battle of the Superheroes, the series was going to feature the addition of Captain Marvel to the League prompting Marvel’s nemesis Dr. Sivana to found the League of Evil in response. Largely composed of Marvel, Batman, and Flash villains, the League of Evil was to be headquartered in a portable dome in the likeness of Star Wars’ Darth Vader’s helmet. However, the creative team was unaware Filmation still yet had the rights to Captain Marvel and Batman (where Batman and Robin’s addition in the Super Friends was an exemption). The format was retooled where the League of Evil became the Legion of Doom, headed by Lex Luthor and predominantly featured Superman villains as the Joker, Penguin, and Poison Ivy were dropped for the Riddler and the Scarecrow whom the company gained permission to employ (prompting Filmation to alter the Riddler’s color palette in the opening animation of The New Adventures of Batman). Dubbed the Challenge of the Super Friends, the season was a massive success but Hanna-Barbera was not in a position to capitalize upon it.
Because of the amount of time it takes to produce an animated series (a trend Filmation bucked by consistently re-using footage and making heavy use of rotoscoping), development of Hanna-Barbera’s next season of Super Friends was underway before learning of the popularity of the Challenge season. As such, 1979’s The World’s Greatest Super Friends returned to the earlier format of limited League members and few villains: a Lex Luthor inspired by his 1978 live action film version and variations of the Crime Syndicate (as the Evil Universe Justice League) and Super Duper (as Super Monster, an altered Frankenstein’s Monster). However, an attempt was made by Hanna-Barbera to produce a live action Challenge of the Super Friends called Legends of the Superheroes.
Reuniting Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin to their earlier respective roles from Batman for the event, Legends of the Superheroes were two prime time specials. Because Wonder Woman was tied up with her television series and Superman in his film series, Legends was unable to include their characters (with an exception made for the villainess Giganta) but Hanna-Barbera managed to secure the rights for Captain Marvel leading to his inclusion as well as his nemesis Dr. Sivana (while Black Canary, whom creators wanted for Challenge but were turned down, appeared as part of the League). Where the costumes for the characters were exceptional (especially the wings and mask of Hawkman), the two specials produced decidedly had no budget to speak of. To make matters worse, the campy charm of Batman was turned up to outright silliness in Legends going as far as to employ a laugh track. The specials were abject failures and never aired on television again as no subsequent series surfaced. The same year as World’s Greatest and Legends emerged on television, Scooby-Doo’s creators tackled Plastic Man.
Following the success of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, Joe Ruby and Ken Spears founded their own production company. The first offering from the Ruby-Spears studio was Fangface in 1978 which transitioned the following year into The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show. Starring Plastic Man, the show also featured segments with Ruby-Spears original characters Fangface and Fangpuss, Mighty Man and Yukk, and Rickety Rocket. Aired on ABC as a companion piece to Super Friends, the show’s second season became The Plastic Man/Baby Plas Super Comedy Show as Plastic Man had an infant son with his first season’s co-star Penny leading to segments for the Plastic Family and Baby Plas (when running in syndication, the Plastic Man series aired with actor Mark Craig Taylor dressed as the hero to set-up segments). During this second season, ABC aired what was nearly the final season of Super Friends which coupled past episodes with new animated shorts. Moving forward, Super Friends aired as re-runs and, in 1983, some more episodes were produced for the purpose of enough volume for syndication.
As it appeared the Super Friends franchise had run its course, Filmation regained the rights to Captain Marvel and produced The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam! pairing animated segments of the Marvel Family with Filmation’s original series Hero High. The characters from both shows would make occasional guest appearances in each other’s segments as Isis from The Secrets of Isis made an appearance in Hero High (the previous year, Isis was a featured character in Filmation’s Freedom Force superhero segment of its series Tarzan and the Super 7). This new Captain Marvel animated series only lasted a single season.
With Super Friends seemingly finished, new brands were in development at Hanna-Barbera featuring DC’s extensive catalog of characters. What came closest to materializing was an animated Teen Titans series in 1983. Working with Marv Wolfman who helped make Titans the publisher’s most popular new title, Hanna-Barbera had developed character designs and production art for the series which would have featured Wonder Girl as the leader because Robin was viewed as a Super Friends character and they were looking to produce a new brand. While the series didn’t get picked up, an anti-drug animated commercial was produced featuring the Titans with funding from the Keebler company that introduced an original character called Protector in place of Robin as he was licensed to Nabisco at the time. Art has surfaced with its authenticity confirmed of a Wonder Woman and Her Wonder Girls series pitched in 1985. Images exist of a Justice Society of America series but the authenticity of its existence are up for debate. Fortunately, Super Friends would get a third resurrection due in some part to Star Wars.
When Star Wars came to movie theaters in 1977, no one could be prepared for the impact it would have in pop culture. Certainly, no one in the toy industry knew what the franchise would mean as the license to produce toys for the film elevated the largely unknown company of Kenner into a giant of the industry. Star Wars almost single-handedly created the collector toy market as brands like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and Transformers soon followed. Seeing this boom in the industry, DC Comics wanted to capitalize and tasked Kenner with development of a series based on their characters called Super Powers. At the time, the most popular toy lines tended to have accompanying comics and cartoons which essentially advertised the toys. As such, Super Friends was resurrected at Hanna-Barbera with Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show.
This new Super Friends series abandoned Hanna-Barbera’s Alex Toth produced character designs in favor of that of José Luis García-López whose rendition of the classic characters was the company’s standard beginning in 1982 and was also the model for the toys. Adam West also returned this time to provide the voice for Batman in the series (Lynda Carter was approached to voice Wonder Woman but was too busy). Little to no collaboration existed between Hanna-Barbera and Kenner but the former was aware of the desire to push the new popular superhero Firestorm (making him a central figure of the series) as well as the presence of Darkseid’s New Gods and redesigns of Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Less was known of what figures Kenner was producing for subsequent waves so, while the second season of this new Super Friends in The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians prominently featured new hero Cyborg, there existed little to no connection to the toys. In fact, Cyborg and Samurai were the only figures of Kenner’s third wave of action figures to have a presence in the show. 1986 saw the action figure market slow in favor of electronic games which lead to the demise of both Super Powers and Super Friends. DC Comics again would tap Ruby-Spears to animate its characters.
1988 saw the debut of the Superman animated series from Ruby-Spears beautifully illustrated by Japan’s Toei Studio and was based on the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths stories of the Man of Steel that coincided with Superman’s fiftieth anniversary. However, while the series was being produced, Ruby-Spears was acquired by Hanna-Barbera’s parent company and it was finished under their studio’s roof. Sadly, Superman only lasted for a single season. Development had begun that same year at Nelvana on a Batman series but it was dropped in favor of Beetlejuice.
Superman largely meant the end of the feud between Filmation and Hanna-Barbera over DC Comics. In 1989, Filmation was sold and its studio shuttered. 1991 saw Hanna-Barbera bought by the Turner Broadcasting System where it operated on its own for a while before it was merged into Warner Bros. Animation in 1996, placing DC Comics and Hanna-Barbera under the same roof. 1992 saw Warner produce Batman: The Animated Series which is likely the most highly-regarded animated interpretation of the character giving birth to an entire universe and whose influence continues today. Elements of what Filmation and Hanna-Barbera did with the DC Comics brand persist today as well, aspects of it notably present in Robot Chicken, Young Justice, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Teen Titans Go! In the mid-2000s, Fisher-Price as part of its Imaginext brand introduced DC Super Friends, toys based on DC Comics intended for small children. This brand went on to include a comic book series from DC as well as an animated film in DC Super Friends: The Joker’s Playhouse (2010). Something of a love letter to Super Friends, the film was directed by Ciro Nieli of Teen Titans fame. DC Comics began publication of a series called Scooby-Doo! Team-Up in 2013 teaming Mystery, Inc. with characters from Hanna-Barbera and DC Comics while 2016 saw the emergence of a Hanna-Barbera brand at DC which included crossovers with their characters. Next year, a new animated series called Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? will debut on the Boomerang streaming service that will essentially be an updated version of The New Scooby-Doo Movies that will feature guest-stars including Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash.
This article was inspired in part by Marc Tyler Nobleman whose work was invaluable in gaining some of the details necessary to compose this piece. Much of the art came from Heritage Auctions where you can purchase these cels and production pieces.