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"Super Friends: The Lost Episodes" – We All Did Love Them Once, Not Without Cause

by on August 21, 2009

SUP-er Friends!!Super Friends, cartoon fans, countrymen…lend me your ears.

In his autobiography, Hanna-Barbera’s Iwao Takamoto states that Super Friends was an attempt to do for DC Comics’ Justice League what the Adam West Batman TV show had done for Batman: approach the material with “all that underlying humor and sense of the ridiculous.” According to Takamoto, the show was a big hit with all audiences except one: the crew at DC Comics, who took their jobs pretty seriously. Takamoto states that several DC writers sent numerous venom-laced missives to Hanna-Barbera about how their characters were being so egregiously mishandled, but since the show was a major hit from the moment it debuted in 1973, the Hanna-Barbera writing staff’s response to DC was an unprintable, often-suggested reproductive impossibility.

However, by 1983, when the episodes on the newly released DVD set Super Friends: The Lost Episodes were made, changes were afoot that would fundamentally change the playing field for Super Friends. A new breed of toy-based cartoons were beginning production on syndicated networks with much looser Broadcast Standards and Practices, meaning they could take advantage of massive cross-marketing initiatives and pack in much more action (and violence) than a show like Super Friends. While shows like G.I. Joe or The Transformers still sugar-coated their violent acts, it was quite a shock to see Cobra soldiers getting socked in the kisser or Decepticons getting blasted by lasers when the Super Friends still couldn’t throw punches at the Legion of Doom. In the world of comic books, Frank Miller and Alan Moore were beginning to stretch their creative muscles at DC, which would result in The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in 1986. Those works approached superheroes with an underlying seriousness that was growing in the genre, but were so successful that they (somewhat unintentionally) changed the prevailing thinking among superhero fans: not only could you take superheroes seriously, but you had to take them seriously. With incredible speed, Super Friends went from being a beloved TV icon to looking stale and staid, not to mention reviled and relentlessly mocked among the newly-serious fans of the superhero genre. It took 20 years before the Teen Titans cartoon would lighten up superheroes without using a purely comedic approach, and another 5 before Batman: The Brave and the Bold could thrive with an audience that would accept a more light-hearted approach as the norm.

What all this context adds up to is that I’m no longer sure how to take Super Friends any more. The reflexive mocking of these cartoons as silly or incoherent doesn’t seem to make much sense knowing that this was precisely what the writers were trying to be. It doesn’t make sense to mock if they were apparently hitting exactly what they were aiming at. At the same time, the writing still isn’t strong enough to overlook the technical mistakes or the storytelling conventions that have since been rightly put out to pasture. It is also undeniable that Super Friends introduced an entire generation of kids to the iconic DC Comics superheroes. I am old enough to remember the love I had for these cartoons that led to watching the assorted Super Friends TV shows religiously after school and on Saturday mornings, but not so blinded by nostalgia that I can’t or won’t see their deep and non-trivial flaws.

The episodes on Super Friends: The Lost Episodes seem pretty typical for the show, and not significantly better or worse than any other episodes I’ve seen recently. They were originally created between 1983-1984, but apparently never aired in the United States as part of the usual Super Friends syndication packages. The Lost Episodes utilize the extended Super Friends lineup, complete with ethnic stereotype characters El Dorado, Samurai, and Apache Chief, and with the Wonder Twins rather than Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog. However, these episodes break up each half-hour into 3 chapters, each of which stars 2-3 superheroes per chapter with the middle story reserved for a Wonder Twins adventure. It is also noteworthy that the “Return of the Phantoms” episode on disc 2 seems completely unedited, showing and naming Superboy in spite of the ongoing court case between the Siegel estate and DC Comics over the character.

These cartoons are not terribly good on a technical level, with the generally excellent character designs hampered by extremely limited animation. It’s somewhat surprising to see that Hanna-Barbera had been doing Super Friends cartoons for nearly 10 years but still inverted the colors of Batman’s chest insignia as often as they do in these episodes. The writing on Super Friends was concerned almost solely with story, powered by a pure, unadulterated “and then what happened?” drive that left little to no room for characterization, or sometimes even logic. This is not a criticism but a statement of fact, and such thinking was still common in the superhero comics of the age as well, even though it was losing popularity rapidly. As characters, the Super Friends are still almost entirely interchangeable, with little or nothing to distinguish one from another except their powers and costumes. Other than the verbal tics and catch phrases, dialogue can be re-assigned to nearly any other character on the show and it will still work. The show’s heavy emphasis on story at the cost of nearly everything else also leads to moments like those in “The Krypton Syndrome,” where Superman not only witnesses but ends up directly causing the destruction of Krypton, and delivers his one line of regret as though he were reading a weather report. Finally, I’m sure that Super Friends truly meant well with characters like El Dorado and Apache Chief, but they’re almost impossible to take with a straight face today.

Look out! It's still mad about the Celine Dion thing!What Super Friends has going for it is a wild-eyed, uninhibited sense of creativity that’s rather exhilarating. There must be some respect for a show that’s willing to raise the Titanic as a lighthouse-eating monster, pit the Super Friends against gigantic alien children who treat the Earth as their personal playground, launch an invasion of extra-terrestrial robot dolls who are defeated when their batteries run down, or neutralize Superman and Wonder Woman by turning them into living crystal statues. The show flings weird around almost fast enough to keep you from noticing the inconsistencies or lazy writing. This sense of “anything goes” creativity is alive and well in Batman: The Brave and the Bold and is one reason why the show is such a delight, but this just means that there’s probably a lot less separating the two shows than one might like to admit. The Brave and the Bold may seem to exhibit a bit more self-awareness than Super Friends, but Takamoto’s comments on the writers’ approach to the show is enough to make one think that the Super Friends writers just demonstrated their self-awareness a bit differently. However, even taking that attitude into account, there are still plenty of Super Friends episodes that can be rightly criticized for being poorly written or almost completely non-sensical in a bad way.

Super Friends: The Lost Episodes is billed as packing 24 episodes on 2 discs, but since each half-hour’s worth of television consisted of 3 episodes as they’re defined on this disc, there are only 8 TV episodes worth of content on this set. The quality of the cartoons is about as good as can be expected, since the source material probably wasn’t that high-grade to begin with. The episodes are all in their original full-frame format, with mono soundtracks in English and Portuguese and subtitles in English, French, and Portuguese. The dual Portuguese tracks make me wonder if there’s a notable Super Friends fandom in either Portugal or Brazil that bristles at the mocking Super Friends generally receives. There are sensible chapter stops within each collection of 3 episodes. The only extra on the entire set is a downloadable PDF of a Super Friends comic book, loaded with retro charm thanks to E. Nelson Bridwell’s writing and the artwork by Ramona Fradon and Alex Toth.

In the end, I come to praise Super Friends, not bury it. It is undeniably ridiculous and decidedly a product of its time, but it is also hard to ignore its insane creativity and good intentions. If you are a pre-existing fan, Super Friends: The Lost Episodes is a foregone conclusion; if you aren’t, then there isn’t a lot to be found here that will change your mind. The Lost Episodes turn out to be a capstone of sorts for this particular brand of superhero genre stories, but it’s not hard to argue that modern superhero stories would do better to borrow some of Super Friends‘ lightheartedness. Laugh if you must (and the show gives you plenty of reasons to), but I suspect that the crew that created the show would probably be laughing with you, and for many of the same reasons.

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