Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Weirdo Super-Hero: TV Guide 1968

The “Weirdo Superhero” was  the topic of an article from TV Guide in 1968.  It pits, so to speak, the Bugs Bunny cartoons against the super-hero ones, in a competition to get on the air.  There is a great picture of the Marvel Super-Heroes, led by the Thing, approaching, combating, Mickey Mouse.  Who knew that in 40 years they would be related.
      This was also a time that the FCC was cracking down on TV violence and the cartoons had to adapt.  Fredrick Wertham had changed his target to TV, but here is able to get in a double header, going after both TV and comics.

This was also a time that the FCC was cracking down on TV violence and the cartoons had to adapt.  Fredrick Wertham had changed his target to TV, but here is able to get in a double header, going after both TV and comics.

   A special thanks to M.M.M.S. member Jack Martin for pointing out who the cover artist was.

Cover by Bernie Fuchs

Bugs Bunny has been relegated to another day. You’ll find neither hide nor hare of him around TV’s Saturday morning cartoon ghetto. And the old carrot-cruncher—a Saturday superstar since TV’s salad days—was shifted with nary an answer from the networks to his final pleading, “What’s up, Doc?” The networks could have told Bugs what was up, though. And in two words: Weirdo Superhero.

The Weirdo Superhero is the new look in cartoon characters. Super-king-size in brawn and just about as freakish as anything you’ll find on a sci-fi dust jacket, the weirdies have virtually taken over Saturday morning network television. And Saturday’s cartoon-loving child seems to be gobbling up the ghoulies like M & M’s.

In case you haven’t toured the weekend-morning dial lately, here are portraits of a few of the new breed of Weirdo Superheroes.

The Fantastic Four are led by scientist Reed Richards, who stretches like taffy. The queer quartet includes Reed’s wife, Sue, who keeps vanishing into thin air; teen-ager Johnny, who flames up like a can of Sterno; and The Thing. The Thing’s thing is to be ugly, which, since he resembles a demolished Edsel, isn’t hard.

Illustration by Wally Wood

Spider-Man is a born loser named Peter Parker. Beset with job worries and usually bedded down with a cold, Peter nevertheless is compelled to slip into a grotesque spider suit to polish off villains.

Birdman resembles a tarred and feathered Charles Atlas with wings. Saved from a fiery death by a sun god, Birdman flies around, pulverizing the baddies with solar power.

Space Ghost, the only bona-fide spook in the crowd, is a space-cruising crime fighter. But thanks to a magic belt which renders him invisible, this animated apparition is out of sight a lot of the time.

Super President is a gas—that is, when he’s not transforming himself into solid rock or something. But whatever shape the chief executive is in, he has a dandy way of dealing with villains. He just zooms off and beats the tar out of them.

Those are just a few of the weirdies. There are plenty more. Practically three-quarters of the cartoons being aired on all three networks fall into the Weirdo Superhero category.

And co-starring with the Weirdo Superheroes, you’ll find an equally spooky bunch of Supervillains. There’s Professor Stacordo, for instance, who looks like Fu Manchu and careens around on a flying monster, yelling “Kill! Kill!” Later on you’re apt to run into a demented midget and his army of menacing Lilliputians or a platoon of crazed, hyperthyroid beasts of every species. Then there’s always Spider Woman (no relation to Spider-Man). She gets her jollies slicing up people, aided by an army of garden-shear mechanical spiders.

The Weirdos—Superheroes and Supervillains alike—have catapulted TV cartoons into a multimillion-dollar business. The top-rated shows can pull in as many as 14,000,000 kids, making it very attractive to sponsors, who happily pay up to $9750 a minute to sell their wares. The networks expect to take in over $50,000,000 this year, while the cartoon factories haven’t had so much work on their hands since the heyday of the movie-house cartoon. For instance, Hanna-Barbera, the cartoonery which grinds out more than half of these shows, keeps 300 employees working year-round. Saturday morning has become a Grand Guignol gold mine.

To understand how the networks got on this weird kick, you must realize that Saturday morning TV wasn’t always the bonanza it is today. Two years ago, in fact, the networks were filling the morning with reruns of shows like Lassie and Dennis the Menace in addition to cartoons such as Mighty Mouse and Alvin. The cartoons were grabbing most of the kids, so the networks decided to capitalize on them. The cartoons in stock—most of them made for movie theaters—were getting low. They needed something new. Only what?

The “what” emerged soon enough. The networks and the cartoon makers had for some time been aware of the popularity of comic books in genes al and superheroes in particular. Sa is Allen Ducovny, who produces the Superman-Aquaman show: “Kids have always read comic books and played war games. It seemed natural to put superheroes into an action-adventure format.” Ed Vane, ABC’s daytime chief, conceived of a cartoon which would be “full of action and far-out,” to accommodate today’s space -conscious children. Says Vane: “Children today are highly sophisticated. They don’t suspend that sophistication on Saturday morning.”

It’s here that the influence of Marvel Comics came into play. Marvel has become champ of the comic-book game (50,000,000 books a year, with a high number of them selling to college kids) by introducing the Weirdo Superhero. “Superheroes had been around for a million years,” says Stan Lee, Marvel’s editor and art director. “We revitalized them.” For starters, they gave the heroes hang-ups. “So what if a hero is the strongest being on earth?” Lee explains. “Doesn’t he also have acne, sinus trouble and problems dating girls?” Marvel also introduced another innovation in superheroes: the ugly hero, a la “The Thing.” “People can identify with someone who’s not beautiful,” Lee thinks. “You say, ‘That guy could be me.’ But you still feel superior to him.”

The first Weirdo Superhero to make a substantial splash in the Saturday A.M. lineup was Space Ghost. That was two years ago, on CBS. According to Allen Ducovny, “It set the industry on its ear.” Predictably, NBC and ABC jumped on the Weirdo Superhero bandwagon—and the era of the weirdies began. Says Marvel Comics’ managing director, Chip Goodman: “The networks know they’re on to something big.”

The networks have also inherited 3 few unexpected headaches. There are many—parents, teachers and psychologists—who vigorously condemn the Weirdo Superhero cartoons. TV GUIDE has received a flood of protests and the networks likewise admit to receiving complaints (although they claim not many). NBC’s daytime boss, Larry White, minimizes the tempest thusly: “When we were kids, our parents had no idea what we were seeing in the movies on Saturdays. But because we go into the living room, parents are suddenly critical.”

The criticisms have been noticed by at least one sponsor—Kellogg’s, which next season will break up the networks’ Saturday morning procession of Weirdo Superheroes by sponsoring a “wholesome” weekly variety hour for children.

One of the major complaints is about the violence in the current shows. White, however, maintains, `The shows are not violent. Violence always implied. It occurs off-camera. There are no dead bodies around.” Which, to a degree, is true. The actual physical contact — i.e., a sock in the jaw, a hit on the head—is never seen. What is seen is the action immediately preceding and following the violent action. But whether omitting a few frames of film dispels any notion of violence is doubtful at best. Says Chip Goodman: “The violence is still there. It’s just tempered a bit.”

Granting, then, that the violence exists, a larger question looms. And it’s one which concerns many parents. Does a repetitious display of fictional violence have a psychological effect on children?

There are two prominent schools of thought on this issue. One is represented by Dr. Wilbur L. Schramm. Fri his study “Television in the Lives !sf Our Children,” Dr. Schramm con-eludes that “the kind of child we send to television, rather than television itself, is the chief element in delinquency.” Dr. Schramm’s study further sites: “The roots of delinquency are  much lower and broader than television. They grow from the home life, the neighborhood, and the disturbed personality. The most that television can do is to feed the malignant impulses that already exist.”

Opposing Dr. Schramm’s findings is Dr. Fredric Wertham, who for years has been warring against violence in comic books and on TV. He maintains that when an environment tolerates violence, violent behavior is apt to happen. Dr. Wertham told TV Guide: “Children want to reason. However, they need raw materials—models—on which to build their acts. Television—and its display of violence—comes to the child with adult approval. In cartoons, a child believes the matter-of-fact hitting going on is a proper course in settling differences. It’s important to realize that cartoons are not fantasies to children.”

Dr. Wertham adds: “One cannot, of course, single out TV as the sole contributor to violent behavior. Nor can one single out cartoons. Both are part of a broad spectrum which has made a fetish of violence.”

Each of the two schools of thought has its supporters. Proponents of Dr. Schramm’s theory would doubtless argue that countless generations have been nurtured on fictional violence without an appreciable number committing overt acts of violence. As for Dr. Wertham’s position, it is significant to note that at a recent meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, 401 members answered a questionnaire entitled “What Do You Think About Violence?” Eighty-one percent of the psychiatrists and 74 percent of the non-psychiatrists agreed with Dr. Wertham’s opinion that violence cannot be explained entirely by the psychology of the individual and “when the environment tolerates violence, violent behavior is apt to happen.”

Understandably, it is Dr. Wertham’s side of the argument which troubles the networks and cartoon makers.

But many maintain that, as Allen Ducovny puts it, “Wertham has never told us how to construct a cartoon any other way.” Most cartoons have always, of course, been built around a chase or fight situation.

Ducovny points out: “Most of those old cartoons, which people thought were so cutsie-wootsie, were far more violent than anything that’s on today.” The height of brainless clobbering was probably reached in the postwar “Tom & Jerry” cartoons, the battling cat-and-mouse sagas.

Still, there are those who maintain that a return to TV of the earlier cartoons would be preferable to the Weirdo Superhero school of violence. Yet they may not really be asking for Bugs, Mickey, et al. What the animal cartoons had—and what the majority of the Weirdo Superheroes series conspicuously lack—is comedy. As one cartoonist explains: “When people yell, ‘Bring back Mickey Mouse,’ they’re really asking us to put comedy back into the cartoons.”

Some cartoonists are trying to do just that. But at present, they aren’t making much headway. One such cartoonmaker, Jay Ward (Bullwinkle), bemoans the onslaught of Weirdo Superheroes but shrugs: “They’re getting the ratings and that’s all the networks care about.” And although all three networks keep a slim stable of comical cartoons (Ward’s George of the Jungle is one), Ward doesn’t think the number is apt to increase.

At any rate, the Weirdo Superhero—born of the desire to fill the fantasy needs of today’s “sophisticated” child —lives on amid controversy. And the networks and cartoon makers, while staunchly supporting their moneymaking animated monster, nonetheless admit to sometimes wishing he weren’t around. Says ABC’s Ed Vane: “We’d love to give the kids Reading Room or A Day at the Planetarium. We’d be applauded by many—and watched by absolutely no one.”


  1. What a great article about a transitional time in television history. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the article!

    I've never run into any villains named Stacordo on Television or any where else. Can you imagine a parent plopping his or her kid in front of the TV on a Saturday morning and leaving to make breakfast. I wonder what they thought when they suddenly hear Kill! Kill! Kill! coming from the living room!

    The number of comic books that the author (of the article) claims Marvel sold in 1968 is incorrect. Unless my reading of the number is way off. A cursory search through the internet has the number of comic books Marvel sold at 3,176,820 and not 50,000,000. I don't think that even Stan Lee would pile on the hyperbole that much as far as numbers go.

    I also found it amusing that Chip Goodman was quoted concerning children's media. This was the same editor ( owner, director?) that requested that a Western comic book have bandits wearing animal masks simply because people wearing animal masks may sell more comic books. The fact that the wearing of the masks had nothing to do with the story had little effect on his decision.

    I hope that I'm not picking on Mr. Goodman too much but If you also consider that the book in question was a reprint and that the artist had to draw the animal masks on existing art just makes the story even more ....magical? He actually paid more to have the masks added. He must have really thought he had some thing.

    I was surprised that the good Doctor Werthams's shadow reached as far as 1968. I thought Wertham's moment in the sun occurred in 1954 with the printing of his infamous book. To see that people sought out his opinion more than ten years later is impressive.

    Thanks again! Your blog is a regular stop for me!

  3. Joey thanks for the kind words. Your last sentence means a great deal to me.

    The article is correct about Marvels sales being 50 million. In fact, Spider-Man alone came close to the 3 million figure you mentioned. By 1970 Marvel will have sold 70,000,000 a year. And in a couple of years they will begin to outsell DC.

    I like the phrase Doctor Werthams's shadow. Sadly, he was a celebrity and loved it in the mid-1950s. Not only was he ostracized by his collogues for bad science; I think he began to realize that he cost a lot of people their jobs. By the way, he was a hypocrite. He specifically asked for a comic book regulator, but then sad he was against censorship.

    But as today, they always have someone on “speed dial” for these sorts of things. The one person they can always get a quote from regarding a particular subject matter.

  4. I have seen this illustration credited to Wally Wood in a few places, but it seems pretty hard to believe that Wood ever embarrassed himself like this so publicly. It doesn't seem to bear any of the earmarks of Wood's signature style, and he was certainly familiar enough with Marvel's characters to have drawn a more convincing representation of the Thing. I guess it's possible he just knocked the piece out over a weekend drinking binge, but I still have my doubts. If true, I can hardly blame him for not signing it.