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"The Marvel Super Heroes": Classic Comics in Suspended Animation

Released on Region 2 DVD in the UK on May 21 were four-fifths of the classic The Marvel Super Heroes from Maximum Entertainment. Maximum had previously released two separate volumes of each of the four series—which focus on Captain America, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner and Thor—but they didn’t finish each series at the time. Thankfully, these four new two-disc editions represent the first time all thirteen episodes of each series have been released in a complete collection.

If you’ve never seen one of these series, the first thing you’ll note is the animation style. These were some of the very first super-hero cartoons made for television, and Marvel wanted quick exposure for their more recent characters, so in a very short space of time they had Gantray-Lawrence Animation produce 65 half-hour episodes: thirteen each of Captain America, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, The Mighty Thor, and The Hulk. Animation had to be minimal, so they literally put artwork from their contemporary comics on-screen and animated the occasional mouth or hand movements. And, as Mark Waid has observed of the contemporaneous The New Adventures of Superman, you could effectively “watch” the series without the animation, as the show’s narrator usually pops in to explain what’s going on anyway. Each story was split into three six-minute “mini-episodes”, each with their own title, though the extra title cards were usually edited out in syndication, and they’ve been edited out on the DVDs as well.

The voice work is actually pretty good considering the huge numbers of Marvel characters seen in each series. Standout performers would be the late John Vernon as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Prince Namor, and Arthur Pierce as Captain America. The narrator can be a bit dry at times, which is problematic considering his is one of the most-heard voices during each series, but the over-the-top, straight-from-Stan Lee dialogue adds some fun.

Captain America’s adventures were variously taken from issues of “Tales of Suspense” and “The Avengers”, so we get a nice spread of stories from both before and after his icy imprisonment. Cap himself is pretty straight-laced in this series, but there is an interesting melancholy feeling in most of the “modern-day” adventures, with Cap missing old, dead, friends from World War II and feeling out of date in a Space Age world.

Iron Man is much more fun, with the supporting characters—the clichéd Pepper Pots and Happy Hogan—being the only weakness. (I can see why they weren’t considered for each season of Iron Man’s 1990s series, due primarily to the weak “love triangle” they have alongside Tony Stark.) Fortunately, the rest of the series is pretty good, and I especially like the Mandarin’s gravelly voice. It’s probably worth noting that Mandarin’s portrayal here isn’t strictly a PC one, but given that he’s a super-villain, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt!

The Sub-Mariner series is easily the weakest of the bunch. While Vernon does a stellar job imbuing him with dignity, the cast of stock characters and alien setting for the show make it hard to get into. Sub-Mariner primarily had dealings with the Fantastic Four in the comics of the time, but they were off-limits, and so by extension, were most of other Marvel characters (although we do get to see the original X-Men and Dr. Doom in one adventure hacked out of an FF story). This detachment effectively makes the series the odd one out. But the main problem is that, like the Silver Surfer, Sub-Mariner works far better as a guest-star than a title character, and that’s probably why he hasn’t even had a regular ongoing comic book in over 10 years.

The Mighty Thor rounds out the last of the releases, and although better than Sub-Mariner, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Iron Man or Captain America. This series features by far the most melodramatic plots and characters, with a lot of machinations from Thor’s father Odin. Thor has some wonderful potential, and the Jack Kirby artwork on display here (and he wasn’t even at his peak yet!) is truly at its most unrestrained. Again, as in Captain America and Iron Man, there are great appearances by a hoard of pretty obscure Marvel characters.

In that regard, it’s probably worth pointing out that the series was effectively the Justice League Unlimited of its day, with many now-obscure super-heroes, super-villains, and other secondary characters putting in what to this day remain their only animated appearances in any Marvel Comics-based cartoon.

The observant among you will have noticed that I mentioned a fifth show, The Hulk, when I discussed the history of the series. Maximum Entertainment doesn’t appear to have the home video rights to that series. Disney released one episode of The Hulk to DVD awhile back, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out they likely still have the home video rights. But since their last Marvel Animated DVDs came out in 2005, it might be a while before the entire run of The Marvel Super Heroes is on DVD in any region.

Until then, these first dalliances Marvel made with animation make for a welcome addition on DVD, and while they may lack the obvious panache of better-animated cartoons, the comics-based stories more than make up for that. If you can stand the sight of static figures sliding across the screen to simulate walking, constant mismatched shots of differing artists’ work, and a death-defying deluge of delirious dialogue (although it’s not quite that bad!), then these windows into Marvel’s formative years are for you. Just make sure you can play PAL-encoded Region 2 discs first.

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