Suspended Animation #325
The Fantastic Four was a Marvel comic book created by writer Stan Lee and artist/co-plotter Jack Kirby in 1961 and became a huge success prompting their appearance on radio, merchandise and later live action movies.
These four fantastic characters gained their superpowers after exposure to cosmic rays during a mission in outer space. Reed Richards, the scientific genius and leader of the group, was Mister Fantastic who could stretch his body to incredible lengths and shapes.
Sue Storm was the Invisible Woman who could render herself invisible and project invisible force fields. Her younger brother Johnny Storm was the Human Torch who could generate flames and fly. Ben Grimm, their grumpy friend, was The Thing who possessed tremendous strength because of his stone-like flesh.
Over the decades there have been four distinct animated television series trying to translate these characters and their stories to animation.
• Fantastic Four (1967-1968) produced by Hanna-Barbera ran for one season comprising 20 episodes. The show featured character designs by Alex Toth.
• The New Fantastic Four (1978) produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises ran for one season comprising 13 episodes. The Human Torch was replaced with a robot named H.E.R.B.I.E. (Humanoid Experimental Robot, B-type, Integrated Electronics). Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Jack Kirby were involved with the series.
• Fred and Barney Meet the Thing (1979) was an animated programming block which incorporated two TV shows: The New Fred and Barney Show (a Flintstones spin-off) and The Thing. The Thing ran for twenty-six 11-minute episodes and told the story of teenager Benjy Grimm living in contemporary times, who had a pair of magic Thing-rings which could transform him into the Thing when he put them together and said “Thing-ring, do your thing!” No other members of the Fantastic Four appeared or were mentioned in this series and the character never actually met Fred and Barney except in short comedic interstitials.
• Fantastic Four: The Animated Series (1994 – 1996) originally aired as part of The Marvel Action Hour – an hour-long programming block that paired the FF show up with Iron Man: The Animated Series. Fantastic Four: The Animated Series ran for 26 episodes across two seasons, with the characters also appearing as guest stars in The Incredible Hulk: The Animated Series and Spider-Man: The Animated Series which aired during the 1990s.
• Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes (2006) was an American-Canadian-French production which ran for one season totalling 26 episodes. During its initial run its schedule was erratic with only the first eight episodes airing. All the episodes finally aired in 2009 when the show moved to Nicktoons.
The Fantastic Four were originally going to be part of the 1966 Grantray Lawrence Marvel Super Heroes syndicated animation series but wisely, Marvel decided not to allow it. The X-Men and the Avengers did appear in episodes.
The original Hanna-Barbera version of the quartet did not meet the expectations of Marvel fans who felt it missed the magic of the comic book with too simple, action filled stories that looked no different than any of the other H-B superhero shows of the time and none of the clever dialog. The episodes were a mixture of watered-down adaptations of the comics and original stories.
Almost a decade later in 1978, Marvel partnered with DePatie-Freleng (most famous for its Pink Panther cartoons) to co-produce a new animated television series of the quartet. Later in 1981 Marvel purchased the DFE company and renamed it Marvel Productions to produce its own animated series.
In order to get back the animation rights to the characters, Marvel had to give up its rights to Godzilla to Hanna-Barbera.
NBC bought the new Fantastic Four series for Saturday morning on the understanding that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would be involved with the writing and storyboards.
Kirby who was living in Southern California agreed to work on the series because it would count toward the number of pages still left on his contract with Marvel that needed to be completed before he could leave the company. He had little if any direct contact with Lee even though several episodes were based on classic comic book stories the two had created together.
Writer Roy Thomas explained why The Human Torch (who at the time was seperately trademarked from The Fantastic Four) was not used. Thomas said, “Universal Studios bought him for a live action series of his own, like The Hulk, and planned to use him as a trouble-shooting race car driver. The flames turned out to be a very expensive proposition to create.
“A story started circulating that somebody, somewhere was worried that kids might start setting themselves on fire to emulate him. That story has been around since Hanna-Barbera put out the first series of FF cartoons. As a result, if the Human Torch had been available, NBC would have felt uncomfortable with using him.
“In the beginning the robot character was going to be called Z-Z-1-2-3 and then CHX RL-3 or Charlie but they found out some other licensed robot had that name. For me, H.E.R.B.I.E. unbalances the eseential structure with Reed being the brains, Sue being the emotion, the Thing being brute force and the Torch being undisciplined brash ego. With H.E.R.B.I.E. as a mini-computer, Reed is redundant and we had no hot-head making foolish mistakes for plot hooks.”
Although Lee wrote the majority of the episodes, Thomas who had written comic books for Marvel including The Fantastic Four was responsible for four of them. As Lee’s request, Thomas came up with ten plots based on some of the elements in Lee’s old comic book stories. The stories were not straight adaptations of the original stories but were modified to fit into the limited time and the network’s guidelines.
Thomas said, “The Thing cannot hit anyone, man beast or monster. In The Phantom of the City I had the Thing punch a robot and that was cut. I did a little bit that involved the Skrulls popping out of the shadows with ray-guns, very clearly explaining that they were only Star Trek stun weapons and the word came down: ‘No guns of any kind!’ They didn’t like the way the Thing was threatening to tear apart Herbie and equated it with sibling rivalry so we had to tone that down into ‘good natured teasing’.”
Thomas wrote The Phantom of Film City (“using Stan’s old idea about the FF going broke and making a movie. Someone at NBC suggested a Phantom of the Opera type character instead of the Sub-Mariner and I used the Skrulls.”), Calamity on the Campus with Dragon Man, The Olympics of Space (“turned it into a type of Skrull war of gladiators with the Thing fighting Torgo”), and The Impossible Man (“switched to a scene where he inadvertantly falls into the bad company of a bunch of crooks and that influences him. I thought it gave him a slightly more villainous aspect.”).
Thomas added, “There were financial limitations. The Thing used to be a quarry of orange lumps and Jack drew him that way on the storyboards but in the animation, he’s down to three or four slab masses. I wanted to do a fight with a shark but DFE told me Universal was already upset with their Misterjaw series so I changed the shark to an octopus. But the viewer will only see it as a head and two tentacles above water because underwater scenes are tough to do and eight arms are much too expensive and difficult to animate.
“The bottom line is that even if the show fails miserably, it will reach more people than the comic book does in an entire year.”