Monday, 25 January 2016

Captain America: Cartoon Star of the Small Screen

BACK WHEN I was a kid, very few television or movie producers would have dreamed of looking to comic books for source material. Certainly, the old poverty row studios, poor in ideas and budgets, might have occasionally turned to comic book and comic strip characters, but that was about it.

For obvious reasons, comic strip characters made it onto the screen first. Original comic book characters didn't really kick off in a big way until Superman showed just how viable heroes created specifically for comic books could be.

The earliest live-action comic strip movie I have is Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). I know Tarzan wasn't originally a comic strip character, but I'd argue that the success of the Hal Foster daily comic strip running in hundreds of newspapers in the USA from January 1929 was almost certainly what caught the attention of the the great MGM Studios.

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) was a major movie from a Hollywood's biggest and most successful studio MGM. Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller was cast in the lead and the production revelled in presenting the star's perfect physique. Hal Foster's art on the newspaper strip was every bit as beautiful as the production values of the movie version.
Other strip characters would soon follow, notably Palooka (1934), an adaptation of Ham Fisher's boxing strip Joe Palooka, and Blondie (1938) based on the Chic Young comedy strip. But it was in the weekly movie serials where comic characters would really come into their own.

In rapid succession, comic strip characters paraded across the screen in low-budget serial chapterplays: Flash Gordon (1936), Dick Tracy (1937), Jungle Jim (1937), Secret Agent X-9 (1937), Buck Rogers (1939), Mandrake the Magician (1939), Terry and the Pirates (1940) and The Phantom (1943).

DC Comics were a bit prima donna-ish about allowing Hollywood to film their star character Superman, so many other companies' superheroes appeared on screen first, like Fawcett Comics' Captain Midnight (1942).
Pretty soon, they were joined by bona-fide comic book characters: Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Captain Midnight (1942), Spy Smasher (1942), Batman (1943), Vigilante (1947), Superman (1948), Congo Bill (1948), Blackhawk (1952) and Captain America (1944).

Even back in the 1940s, movie studios seemed to have nothing but contempt for the characters they licensed from the comic book companies. How many errors can you spot here in the appearance of the serial Captain America compared to the comic book version?
Sadly, Republic's serial version of Captain America bore very little resemblance to the dynamic artwork of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby that appeared in Timely's Captain America Comics. I think once the character was licensed to the movie studio, then the producers would just do whatever they wanted. Much as I enjoyed seeing the Captain America serial at Saturday morning pictures all those decades ago it was evident, even to my ten year old sensibilities, that the character on the screen didn't have much to do with the Lee and Kirby Marvel Comics I was reading.

For a start, this Captain America didn't have a shield. That's right, serial producer William O'Sullivan decided to ignore the character's unique selling point. Then he changed Cap's civilian identity from Steve Rogers to Grant Gardner, District Attorney. Finally, to pile insult on top of injury, he gave Cap a gun with which to shoot the bad guys. I hardly even noticed the missing wings on the sides of Cap's mask ...

That said, I still think this is still one of the great serials. The action is non-stop and the stunt players put everything they have into the many, many fight scenes. I won't dwell on it further here, but I wrote a review of this serial a while back for IMDB. So follow the link if you want see what I said.

After that, Captain America wouldn't appear on screen for another 22 years, and when he did, it wasn't a great deal better.


Towards the end of 1966, Stan Lee started running teasers at the foot of random pages in the various Marvel titles promising that Marvel Heroes were going to be on television.

These little banners started showing up in assorted Marvel titles towards the end of 1966.
Then the following month, full-page ads started appearing. It seemed that Marvel had licensed some of their top characters for tv cartoons. Even as an ever-optimistic twelve year old, I had no illusions that we'd ever see these shows on UK television. I was still reeling from the outrage that was 20th Century-Fox's abominable Batman tv show.

Pretty quickly, full page ads started showing up revealing the line-up of the Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon show. Front and centre was Captain America.
It didn't occur to me at the time, but it was apparent that Marvel had sold the rights to the heroes appearing in their anthology titles to tv. Thor was the star of Journey into Mystery. The Sub-Mariner and The Hulk were sharing Tales to Astonish and Captain America and Iron Man were appearing in Tales of Suspense. For whatever reason, the television people didn't seem interested in S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dr Strange from Strange Tales. And my guess is that Marvel publisher Marty Goodman was holding back his big guns - Spider-Man and Fantastic Four - until he saw how the cartoon folks handled the B-team characters.

As it turns out, I wouldn't see any of these cartoons until many years later. Fifty years later to be precise - when I finally got round to buying DVDs of the Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon shows last year. 

The title card of the very first Captain America cartoon, a fairly literal transcription of the origin story from Tales of Suspense 63.
The first cartoon in the Captain America series was a panel-by-panel adaptation of the WWII-set Lee/Kirby story from Tales of Suspense 63, "The Origin of Captain America". 

Produced using very limited animation by Grantray-Lawrence the cartoons relied very heavily on artworks from the actual Marvel comics. In fact, so similar are the cartoon frames to the comic book art that I'd say that it's perfectly possible that the animators worked with stats of the original art.

Here's a comparison of the art from the key transformation scene, showing how close to the original artwork the cartoon is. There's some degradation in the detail, suggesting that the animators worked from stats or tracings of the original art.
But still, despite the tale being pretty dramatic, the animators seemed incapable of treating it that way, and dubbed in a glut of comedy sound effects that might be more appropriate in a Three Stooges short. Even stranger, the producers also thought it'd be a great idea to have on-screen lettered sound effects as well, probably believing that that was reason for the success of the Batman tv show. Add in the over-the-top delivery by the show's voice actors and it makes for an odd mixture. Judge for yourself ... you can see some of the cartoons here.

The storyline from Tales of Suspense 64 forms the mid-section of Episode One.
Episode One marches briskly through the remainder of the origin story, including the foiling of the Nazi saboteurs and the destruction of the German submarine, though the producers change the enemy from Nazis to some unnamed military foe. 

This is an inexplicable decision on the part of the show's producers. Why would anyone think that it would be a problem to depict Nazis as the bad guys in a kids' cartoon? Especially given that Cap was created solely for the purpose of fighting the Nazi ideology. Did the producers think that somehow it was a bad idea to show Nazism in a bad light to 1960s children? I guess we'll never know what the agenda was here, but it's a decision I find more than a little weird.

The second half then takes in the Sando and Omar plotline from Tales of Suspense 64, where they too were originally Nazis, then segues into the Red Skull story from ToS65.

Episode Two reveals the origin of The Red Skull from ToS 66, along with the stories from ToS 67 and 68.
Episode Two mixes up the next few Captain America stories from the comics. It kicks off with "The Sentinel and the Spy" (ToS68), then into "The Fantastic Origin of the Red Skull" (ToS66) and "Lest Tyranny Triumph" (ToS67), though in the last part, the Skull's sponsor and benefactor Adolph Hitler is replaced with an unnamed high-ranking military commander.

Episode Three adapts the three-part story from ToS 69 to 71.
Episode Three adapts the "Greymore Castle" three-parter from Tales of Suspense 69-71, which as I explained in an earlier blog entry, was never one of my favourite Captain America stories. Again the Nazis of the original comic book story have been replaced by some generic brutal military types, simply referred to as "The Enemy", thought we're given no sense of who they are.

Episode Four takes the Captain America scenes from Avengers 7 and 16 and melds them into a single story that reveals that Bucky's dead, then has Zemo die by his own hand.
Episode Four of the Captain America cartoon then flashes forward in time to the comic stories set in the present day and recounts the Captain America scenes from Avengers 7, with Cap's workout with the wrestlers, then into the plotline where Cap trails Zemo to his South American jungle hideout. Then weirdly, the story jumps forward to resolution of the Zemo storyline from Avengers 15 and finishes with Zemo buried beneath a rockfall because of his own villainy.

The fifth episode of the Captain America cartoon adapts the story from Avengers 4, telling of the revival of the WWII hero and the introduction of the Teen Brigade.
Confusingly, Episode Five then jumps back in the Marvel timeline to Avengers 4 and tells the story of how the Avengers find the frozen form of Captain America floating in the ocean off Newfoundland. Then the episode segues into the Captain America story from Tales of Suspense 59, where Cap, relaxing at the Avengers mansion, thwarts an attack by a bunch of gangsters.

Guest villains The Melter, The Black Knight and the Radioactive Man ally themselves with the mysteriously revived Zemo to tackle The Avengers and Captain America.
The confusion continues when Episode Six has Zemo and his Masters of Evil battling Captain America and the Avengers (from the story in Avengers 6) ... even though Zemo dies in Episode Four. That said, it would have been quite cool if I'd seen this cartoon back in 1966, with the two super-teams fighting in the streets of New York. And the producers also manage to fix a plot glitch from Avengers 6, where Zemo's ship is downed, he is supposedly arrested by the police only to turn up back in his South America jungle lair in Avengers 7. Here, his fleeing ship is sent who-knows-where by Thor's hammer-generated space warp. Not a massive improvement, but at least not a plot hole.

Just like in the comics, The Adaptoid absorbs the abilities of the Avengers - Giant Man, The Wasp, and Hawkeye - to defeat Captain America.
The seventh episode of the cartoon features the Adaptoid, a super-android created by AIM, in a re-telling of the story from Tales of Suspense 82, and features a different lineup of the Avengers, again with no explanation of who the new Giant Man and Hawkeye are. Halfway through the cartoon, the Adaptoid morphs into the Super-Adaptoid, and the story then begins to recount the events of Tales of Suspense 84.

This episode of the Captain America cartoon is a straightforward re-telling of the origin of Hawkeye and how his mentor Swordsman cheats his way into The Avengers.
Episode Eight moves back in the Marvel timeline and adapts Avengers 19 and 20, telling the story of how The Swordsman tries to join the Avengers and how the character was responsible for teaching Hawkeye his archery skills. It's interesting to see how the cartoon style changes from being drawn in the style of Jack Kirby to looking like Don Heck artwork. Hardly surprising given that Heck had taken over the art on The Avengers starting with issue 17.

Next time I'll cover the remaining episodes of the Marvel Super-Heroes Captain America show and look at the three Captain America tv movies in the 1970s and 1990s.

Next: Captain America goes live-action


  1. I bought the Thor cartoon a few years ago, but couldn't watch it because it was so awful. Even the 'animation' in Captain Pugwash was superior. And the way Odin's outfit changed from scene to scene irked me enormously. The Spider-Man cartoon popped up on Glen Michael's Cartoon Cavalcade in the '60s or '70s, but I doubt that the programme was shown outside of Scotland.

    1. Haven't got round to the Thor, Hulk, Subby or Iron Man cartoons yet. But the Captain America one has been tough sledding. For me it's more interesting from a historical point of view. It certainly shows how far we've come - both in technique and in credibility - when you compare these cartoons with, say Captain America: Winter Soldier ... and so far no one has been able to verify showings of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon outside the Glasgow area, which is where I saw it first ...

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    1. "And the way Odin's outfit changed from scene to scene irked me enormously."

      That was because the shots in any given episode (especially close-ups) were taken from several different issues of Journey into Mystery.
      It was even worse in the Iron Man cartoons, where an all-gold Jack Kirby Iron Man (but with the later red-and-gold coloring) would become a Gene Colan Iron Man with the change of a camera angle!

    2. Oh, I knew the reason for it, Britt, but that didn't make it any less irksome. As for Iron Man, we Brits had a similar situation in a comic called Fantastic back in the '60s. The IM tales were printed out of sequence, so the old costume was clumsily retouched in order to make it look like the new outfit. The results were far from successful.

  3. "look at the three Captain America movies made for tv in the 1970s and 1990s."

    The 1990s Cap movie was intended for theatrical release, but ended up going direct-to-video in America.
    I think it had a limited theatrical run overseas...

    1. Hi, Britt ... I don't remember the 1990s CA movie making theatres i the UK. Pretty sure it went straight to video here, too. (I've altered the closing wording of the above blog in line with your comment. Thanks for the heads up).

  4. The Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon was probably not my introduction to the characters since my older brother John was already collecting the comics, but to a six year old it was magical. In New York City it was shown on Channel 9 every weeknight at 6:00 or 7:00 PM. From the show I learned how to pronounce "Sub-Mariner" and particularly enjoyed the Hulk segments. I can't deny that its a crude, low-budget version of the Marvel characters, but I still enjoy some of the voices and music, and would love to have this on a DVD collection geared to fans and older folks who originally watched the show (most children would be too sophisticated to enjoy them)with commentary and interviews by the participants.

    1. Until that happens, you can find the entire series on YouTube (except the 30-second interstitials like "Origin of Cap's Shield"

  5. It took the concept of "limited animation" to an extreme. But a couple of my elementary school classmates liked it. They were hard core Marvel fans, and the TV series was a faithful adaptation. Usually.

    There were exceptions. One Sub-Mariner episode was an adaptation of Fantastic Four #6, but it substituted the Avengers for the FF, presumably because Grantray-Lawrence did not have the rights to the latter. (Conversely, Hanna-Barbera's Fantastic Four series adapted FF #33, which guest starred Namor, but they changed his name to something else for the same reason, i.e., H-B didn't have the Sub-Mariner rights.)

    I remember a Hulk episode that adapted Avengers #2, and some Captain America cartoons adapted Avengers stuff from the Kooky Quartet phase.

    And I, too, learned the correct pronunciation of "Sub-Mariner" from the TV show. :)

    1. I will get round to a detailed cataloguing of the remaining Marvel Super-Heroes cartoons, but it's difficult to take more than a few in a single sitting :-)