In the fall of 1966 the American people invited Captain America into their living rooms every Monday for half an hour of dramatic, kapow-filled World War II nostalgia. He was out in front of The Marvel Super Heroes, an animated TV series that was initially broadcast five nights a week. It was Marvel’s first major attempt at animation and, if you don’t count the 1944 Captain America serial from the Timely Comics days, their first moving picture project. Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit rough.
Yet in its experimental shakiness The Marvel Super Heroes is an amazing little show. Episodes were built from six-minute segments which could be played as a single half-hour episode or broken up any which way. It often looks incredibly cheap. The most common shots are still images in the style of the Silver Age of Comics, in which the only animated element is the mouth of whoever is speaking. Occasionally the eyes are animated as well, an effect much eerier than intended. There’s a lot of zooming in to create the impression of movement and a lot of quick editing. It sometimes feels more like a shadow puppet show than an animated television program.
The art itself, however, is fantastic. Taking many visual ideas right from the pages of Captain America comics, the thick lines and strong figures are striking in spite of the silly animation. Cap’s early confrontations with the Third Reich in the 1940s are designed with a dark, almost film noir sensibility. Red Skull’s identity is first discovered not on the field of battle but in a Broadway theater, featuring the crowded angles of backstage hallways. The stark brutality of the villains can be found among the soldiers of the US Army as well, lending the entire series the blunt aura of a world at war.
That said, don’t take these cartoons too seriously. This is a very camp Captain America, and not just because the animation techniques are so dinky in retrospect. Cap’s earnestness continues to be his trademark in the new Marvel blockbusters, but today it’s couched in our post-ironic understanding of heroism. These cartoons, on the other hand, seem to have no idea what they’re doing. The relentless, goofy self-narration by every character is hilarious in its excessive pointlessness.
Even more campy are the panoply of homoerotic images and story lines. Cap’s love and then loss of his sidekick Bucky is borderline operatic. Later on, in his grief, he is forced to wrestle off an entire gym of scantily-clad muscle-bound thugs. Once defeated, they thank him for the work out. The all-American hero is one tune away from Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The best episode, however, might be “The Sleeper Shall Awake.” It takes place twenty years after the death of Red Skull, in the calm 1960s German countryside. The “sleepers” are enormous robots hidden in the earth by the supervillain just before his demise, waiting to blow up the planet. They finally awake, one at a time, and wreak havoc. The mass destruction caused by these Transformer-like creations also inspired the best animation work in the series. Debris flies all over the place, the camera shakes along with the earth, and there are more WHAMs and POWs than you can count. A column of purple smoke is particularly memorable. Of all 13 Captain America episodes, this one is the most self-contained, something of a very early model for the feature films we have today.