Make it So: Classic Marvel Animation on DVD by Jerry Whitworth
Between the DC Comics Classic Collection and Warner Archive Collection, fans of classic DC Comics programs can have almost everything the company has produced for television on DVD for their collection. If you’re a fan of Marvel on the other hand, you’re not so fortunate. While Marvel has definitely become better about releasing older material such as the much sought after 1990s X-Men animated series, fans of their animated adaptations of yesteryear have eagerly awaited even more releases (unless you live in the United Kingdom, which has been pretty lucky with getting their fix). The while, Hasbro has made lucrative sales of DVDs for classic series like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Transformers, and Jem, which was a collaborative effort with Marvel, so much so it would seem as we’ve seen DVD releases of Transformers seasons unaired in the US and of the DIC seasons of G.I. Joe. Lets take a look at some of the series Marvel fans eagerly await.
Likely the most sought after series, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends was in large part a competitive measure by NBC against ABC’s successful Super Friends franchise. The Spider-Man centered series featured Marvel’s most recognized character with two mutant heroes and a rotating cast of Marvel’s various heroes such as the X-Men, Captain America, Thor, Doctor Strange, Sub-Mariner, and Black Knight as well as introducing new heroes like Hiawatha Smith, Lightwave, and Videoman. Generally, the heroes would battle a different Spider-Man villain each week introducing a new generation to Spider-Man’s world as the hero was mostly absent from television for over a decade (while there was a live action television series in the late 1970s and Spider-Man segments on the Electric Company, they had little relation to the comic given budget restraints). While many of Marvel’s animated series today feature crossovers, Amazing Friends was largely groundbreaking in this way (Magneto vs. the Fantastic Four and Dr. Octopus vs the Hulk aside). A personal favorite episode for me is “7 Little Superheroes” featuring an amalgamation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) with a little bit of Avengers #2 (November 1963) mixed in with the Chameleon in place of the Space Phantom and more of a Defenders-like grouping than the Avengers. As for bonus features, I would love to hear about some of the behind the scenes stuff in a retrospective (maybe a little shout out to the proposed Daredevil animated series with Lightning the Super-Dog) and maybe X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men (considering the pilot was often packaged with Amazing Friends in syndication and the series’ connection to the X-Men). Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends ran for three seasons with twenty-four episodes. As with many of Marvel’s animated series of the time, it featured beautiful hand drawn animation of studios like Toei (who had a strong relationship with Marvel developing a live action Spider-Man series in Japan and Battle Fever J, loosely based on Captain America, together), <a href=”http://comicartcommunity.com/2012/04/america-japan-and-korea-a-cycle-of-animation/”>Dong Seo and MiHahn</a>.
Likely a series that will never be released on DVD falling into a similar situation as the live action Batman series, Fantastic Four was closely based on its original comic material animated by Hanna-Barbera featuring character designs by the legendary Alex Toth. Where previous series like Marvel Super Heroes featured essentially comic art with animated aspects or the 1967 Spider-Man series which used little motion in its animation, Fantastic Four featured beautiful hand drawn animation from the studio that brought Jonny Quest, Space Ghost, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, the Herculoids, and Moby Dick and Mighty Mightor to television waves prior. What makes the future of this series’ release grim is Warner Bros purchasing Hanna-Barbera’s archive and Disney buying Marvel meaning cooperation between the two rival companies would be necessary for fans to get a hold of this set. Still, with DC recently working out an agreement with Fox to produce merchandise based on the Batman television series, it generates hope that anything is possible. Though, as unlikely as Fantastic Four may be to be released, a sequel series (of sorts) in Fred and Barney Meet The Thing maybe even less unlikely. So, should the former ever be released, a cool bonus feature maybe to feature some of the Thing shorts of the latter. Fantastic Four lasted one season with twenty episodes.
The very first Marvel animated series featuring five separate series for Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, and Thor (intended for airing on weekdays with a different hero each day), Marvel Super Heroes largely featured filming comic book panels with limited animation (lips moving, change in body position for movement, etc) that may not have been impressive save for the fact many episodes featured the art of the legendary Jack “the King” Kirby. Further, as the X-Men and Avengers made guest appearances on the show, it predated the on-air introduction of the Justice League of America and Teen Titans on Filmation’s the Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure by a year making the show rather historic. As for bonus features, Captain America’s voice actor Arthur Pierce would dress up as the character to host the show in Boston and would be joined by other costumed characters like Dr. Doom, Hulk, and Bucky using scripts written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. If any of this footage could be found, it would be a real treat. Each series had thirteen episodes and aired for one season.
While five DVDs of the 1994 Spider-Man series have been released, they were non-sequential and only covered twenty-two episodes of the sixty-five episodes, five season series. What makes the series so beloved is that it was again a new Spider-Man for a new generation as the character had been absent from new television content for over a decade but more importantly adapted plots from the comics instead of just using Marvel characters in a simplistic plot to talk down to an underage audience. Though, reason enough alone to want the series on DVD is the loose adaptation of the Secret Wars and crossover with the 1992 X-Men animated series (personally speaking, the Invaders arc in the final season was also very much enjoyed). Spider-Man ran for five seasons with sixty-five episodes.
A rather unique, perhaps even random, series which many people may not be aware of. Likely an attempt to take advantage of the Spider-Man franchise and generate another bankable hit for Marvel, Spider-Woman tried to tap into a growing market born from Electra Woman and Dyna Girl and the Wonder Woman television series and in many ways felt more like Supergirl with Spider-Man’s powers and several more abilities (flight, energy blasts, etc). The pilot featuring Spider-Man (with the same voice actor from the 1967 series), Spider-Woman generally battled her own original villains such as the impressive magician Great Magini but also tangled with such villains as Dormammu and Kingpin. Only lasting sixteen episodes for one season, the show would be a treat to own on DVD.
Running as a companion series to Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends featuring the solo adventures of Spider-Man, this series had the same sophisticated charm of the accompanying show but allowed viewers to get a more accurate picture of the comic book on TV. Very much in the vein of Amazing Friends, Spider-Man would team with Captain America, Ka-Zar, and Sub-Mariner while battling the likes of Doctor Doom (billed largely as the hero’s nemesis during the series), Doctor Octopus, Lizard, Black Cat, Sandman, Magneto, Mysterio, Ringmaster, Green Goblin, Kraven, Red Skull, Chameleon, Vulture, Silvermane, Hammerhead, Kingpin, and the Wizard. Spider-Man didn’t run as long as its sister series only staying on air a single season with twenty-six episodes overshadowed by Amazing Friends but certainly as deserving of being revered.
Largely replacing the solo Spider-Man series as the partnering show with Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, Incredible Hulk received a sort of pilot in the first season of Amazing Friends in the episode “Spidey Goes Hollywood” and premiered as the live action Incredible Hulk series had just come to an end. Featuring hand drawn animation from Pan Sang East in Hong Kong in the same style as Amazing Friends from Korean-based Dong Seo and MiHahn and, of course, Toei, there felt like a strong continuity across the various animated series of the time making them almost feel like a shared universe in the vein of the DC Animated Universe that came later. Though the plots were rather simplistic, it was fun seeing She-Hulk make her jump from the four color page to the small screen and watching the Hulk battle Doctor Octopus, Puppet Master, Leader, and HYDRA. Incredible Hulk lasted for one season of thirteen episodes.
A rather intriguing entry in the animated mythos of Spider-Man, Spider-Man Unlimited is a series that you either absolutely love or hate with a deep passion. Featuring character designs and themes reminiscent of Spider-Man 2099 and Batman Beyond, the series had Spider-Man trail the Venom and Carnage symbiotes to Counter-Earth (a double of Earth running parallel of its sister planet on the opposite side of the sun) using a new suit that employs nanotechnology in a bid to save J. Jonah Jameson’s astronaut son John (aka Man-Wolf). Spider-Man discovers the planet under the totalitarian rule of the High Evolutionary and his Beastials (hybrids of humans with other animals), chiefly his enforcers the Knights of Wundagore, in a dystopian future-like setting akin to Metropolis, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Fahrenheit 451. The while, John had joined a resistance against the government and Spider-Man decides to remain on the planet until High Evolutionary has been toppled and complete his rescue mission. In a move borrowing from DC Comics’ Earth-Three (where the roles of heroes and villains are switched) concept, Spider-Man is joined by Counter-analogies of his enemies Green Goblin and the Vulture (though he faces villainous counterparts of Electro and Kraven the Hunter). Despite being a loose sequel to the popular Spider-Man series that started in 1994, Unlimited was overshadowed by anime offerings of the time and only lasted for a single season of thirteen episodes.
Based on the Tomb of Dracula, Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned (aka Dracula: The Vampire Emperor of Darkness) was a Japanese animated television film produced by Toei as part of its relationship with Marvel Comics. Trying to adapt years of story between Dracula and the Nightstalkers into a 94-minute film, the work is generally universally panned as being atrocious. Combined with a terrible dubbing into English by Harmony Gold of Robotech fame, the film features terrible plot, characterization, and action. However, the film has several elements working in its favor. Following the popularity of the Blade film series and the prominence of vampires in modern culture, there’s certainly an audience for some of the things the work represents. Even more than that, it is an obscure oddity most people are completely unaware even exists (so far as its one of the few Marvel animated films that doesn’t rank a Wikipedia page, instead part of the Tomb of Dracula article) making it rather unique. But what makes it worthy of a DVD edition most of all is the prominence of bad films as seen as humorous. Consider Tommy Wiseau’s the Room and its consistent use on [adult swim] on April Fools’ Day or the following behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax. Something like Dracula could become a classic especially if you add commentary tracks as a bonus feature heckling the product. Comments from the source material’s creators like Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman moderated by someone like David Goyer (the mind behind the Blade films and television series) would be gold. Another option could be comic book geek comedians like Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, and/or Kevin Smith.