Super Friends 50th Anniversary

A couple months back, a Saturday morning favorite of mine celebrated the golden jubilee of its debut as Super Friends premiered on the ABC television network on September 8, 1973. (Fun Fact: the original Star Trek also debuted on this same date, September 8, seven years earlier in 1966—a Thursday, for the record.) While I’m a couple months late here, I still wanted to celebrate the Super Friends 50th anniversary with a look back at both their television and comic book histories.

Dawn of the Super Friends

That first season of Super Friends consisted of sixteen episodes, all of which were aired by the end of the calendar year of 1973; reruns then ran for the remainder of that ’73–’74 television season. The main team was comprised of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Robin, and Aquaman, plus the “junior” Super Friends, Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog. All character designs were by the legendary Alex Toth, one of the most talented comic artists to ever pick up a pen or pencil.

Plastic Man, The Flash, and Green Arrow also made guest appearances this season, in episodes 3 (“Professor Goodfellow’s G.E.E.C.”), 7 (“Too Hot to Handle”), and 14 (“Gulliver’s Gigantic Goof”), respectively.

The show must have been something of a hit, as it was brought back the following season, though there were no new episodes, just the same reruns. These sixteen episodes would then apparently continue to be rerun intermittently in succeeding seasons. I say “apparently” because I can’t seem to find any definitive evidence on this as to precisely when, but I do know firsthand that I was watching Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman on television with Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog during my earliest years in grade school, sometime beyond 1974.

A kindergarten masterpiece of mine depicting the (male) Super Friends. I only drew the male heroes because girls were still “icky” to me at the time. (Or so I told everyone. I actually had my first big crush in kindergarten.)

In hindsight, it’s surprising that DC didn’t do more to capitalize on the television exposure they got from the show. They plastered “Here Come TV’s Super-Friends!” on a few of their covers for Justice League of America that first season and that was it. It would take years before the figurative light bulb flashed over someone’s head in the DC offices and they finally put out the Super Friends treasury, Limited Collectors’ Edition #C-41, dated January 1976. Behind that Alex Toth cover, it was mostly reprints of Justice League of America, but there were a few pages of new stuff in there by Toth, too.

Later this same year, near the end of the summer, an ongoing series of Super Friends comics finally began with Super Friends #1 (Nov. 1976). This comic series featured the full television line-up of characters, including the juniors, Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog. (Their inclusion might be further evidence that the original sixteen episodes were still being rerun on ABC’s Saturday morning schedule as late as the fall of ’76, when the comic finally got its start.)

The issue’s writer was E. Nelson Bridwell, with pencils by Ric Estrada and Joe Orlando and inks by Vince Colletta. Ramona Fradon came aboard on issue #3 (Feb. 1977), and would become the primary artist on the title for the bulk of its run thereafter, with Bridwell serving as primary writer. And the title’s run was a substantial one, ending with issue #47 (Aug. 1981), so just about half a decade.

I always recognized that Super Friends was a “kiddie” comic along the lines of Spidey Super Stories and not a “serious” superhero comic. But it was also clear that Friends was at least a bit more complex than Spidey. The latter had no real connection to the larger comics continuity and only resembled the more “grown up” comics in surface details. Nothing that happened in Spidey ever had any bearing on what was going on those other comics, nor vice versa.

While this was largely true with Friends as well, it wasn’t nearly as oversimplified as Spidey, as Friends would refer back to the main continuity far more often. Many footnotes referenced the regular continuity and long-time, established characters would pop up often as well. (When you learn that Bridwell was considered DC’s “continuity cop,” it makes sense that maintaining some continuity would be a concern of his.) One good example would be when Bridwell had a whole bunch of doppelgangers resembling DC’s horror-themed characters show up for the Super Friends Halloween issue in 1979.

Bridwell also created several new characters during his tenure on Super Friends, something that only ever happened in one issue of Spidey Super Stories during its entire run. Additionally, there were times when Super Friends would have stories continue into the next issue, which Spidey never did. (In fact, the focus of today’s post is a three-parter.)

I didn’t buy that very first issue of Super Friends at the time it was first published, but I did pick it up a short time later via a swap with my friend next door. (I recall getting it for almost nothing because the cover had been torn off.) I wouldn’t read another issue until I got around to buying one for myself, which was Super Friends #7 (Oct. 1977). As it happened, I was so pleased with it that I would go on to buy every issue of the (relatively important) three-part storyline it had kicked off.

All-New Super Friends

Back on the television side of things, after literally years of reruns, The All-New Super Friends Hour made its debut on September 10, 1977. Not only were there finally some new episodes, but also all-new characters, as Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog were replaced by the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna, and their pet space monkey, Gleek.

In that premiere episode, there wasn’t the slightest hint of an explanation offered as to why those original junior Super Friends had been replaced, where they went, or how the Wonder Twins got here. But in that seventh issue of Super Friends that I had the good fortune to stumble across, we were treated to a very thorough and entertaining explanation. Going by Mike’s Amazing World, Super Friends #7 went on sale July 14, 1977, so if you were a comics fan like me who happened to pick up the issue, you were completely prepared for the arrival of the Wonder Twins and Gleek on your television screens that September. But this wasn’t the reason these comics thrilled me so—it was the veritable avalanche of new costumed heroes from across the world we were introduced to here that most delighted me.

Super Friends #7, “The Warning of the Wonder Twins”

It all begins with the TroubAlert going off in the Hall of Justice, revealing a strange space ship entering Earth’s atmosphere. This prompts the juniors, Marvin Wendy, and Wonder Dog, to investigate. When they arrive at the scene, the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna, along with Gleek, are just emerging from the ship. At the sight of Wonder Dog, a creature they do not recognize, the twins activate their powers and prepare to defend themselves. We all remember how this worked, right?

Jayna can turn into any kind of animal while Zan can become any form of water. Unfortunately for the twins, the alien animal form Jayna assumes is a Lahtorc, a creature that has difficulty breathing in Earth’s atmosphere, so they’re forced to immediately turn right back into their normal forms. Thanks to everyone’s knowledge of the intergalactic language of Interlac, Marvin and Wendy are able to communicate with the twins and settle things down. The twins quickly explain that they’re here to bring a warning to Earth about the machinations of a four-armed, alien supervillain named Grax, who plans to destroy the planet.

Grax was the creation of a very young Jim Shooter with the very seasoned Superman artist Wayne Boring, first appearing in Action Comics #342 (Oct. 1966). The character was not quite a one-off, as he also showed up again a few years later in Action Comics 417–418 (Oct.-Nov. 1972) before returning for these issues of Super Friends. After stumbling across his secret lab, the twins overhear Grax soliloquizing: “I have planted twelve special bombs—one on each of Earth’s six visible continents—one on an unseen continent—and one each on five inhabited islands.”

The first four bombs are set to go off in less than an hour; if these bombs fail, the next five bombs go off twenty-six minutes afterward, and should they fail, the final three go off forty-seven minutes after that. The first batch of bombs destroy people’s memories of the past; the second batch wipes everyone’s minds blank altogether; and the effects of the third and final batch are unclear at first, but they are later revealed to be White Kryptonite bombs that will destroy all plant life, leaving Earth’s atmosphere unbreathable for most living things on Earth’s surface. In addition to the early lessons on climate change and photosynthesis here, it’s also quite a reach back into comics lore—it takes a pretty big Superman scholar to know White Kryptonite is even a thing at all, let alone know what it does. (A good example of how Super Friends would reach back into the regular continuity more frequently and deeply than some fans might expect from a “kiddie” comic.)

The entire roster of the Justice League of America (except, as noted by Marvin, the Phantom Stranger) gathers almost instantly aboard the JLA’s orbiting satellite to address this threat. With so many bombs spread so far across the world, even the full JLA roster will need to split up to cover the necessary ground. But the kids, Wendy and Marvin, were savvy enough to put the JLA computer to work as the heroes were being summoned and have come up with some local superheroes to pitch in. So Superman meets up with the hero steeped in Hebrew literature known as the Seraph in Israel; Elongated Man meets Godiva in London, England; the Flash meets Impala in South Africa; and Hawkman and Hawkgirl meet Owlwoman in Oklahoma.

All of them succeed in foiling the first batch of bombs to close out issue #7. One of the most laudatory things here is that despite the fact the Hawks were deactivating a bomb in the United States, where there were plenty of established, lily-white superheroes available to help them out, Bridwell still makes the effort to keep the story multicultural by creating Owlwoman, a Native-American female character, to participate. Bridwell deserves all of the gold stars for this. (This also shows that being “woke” is not some radical, new idea.)

Super Friends #8, “The Mind Killers!”

With the first part of their task completed, Super Friends #8 (Nov. 1977) has other heroes teaming up to stop the second batch of bombs, the “amnesia bombs.” The Atom teams up with the Rising Sun in Japan; Green Lantern meets Jack O’ Lantern in Ireland; Red Tornado joins Tuatara in New Zealand; Batman & Robin meet Bushmaster in Venezuela; and Black Canary teams with Thunderlord in Taiwan.

Jack O’ Lantern was probably my favorite of all the new international heroes we meet in this storyline (my having some Irish in my background may have played a part in this), but I really enjoyed all of them. As I’ve said in previous blogposts, at this age you could never give me too many superheroes in a story, and with all these new characters representing different cultures, Bridwell and Fradon (on the design side) really got to stretch their creative muscles and give us some exciting and exotic heroes. Bushmaster is a good example, as he’s got a wild and diverse power set.

As a Red Tornado fan, I also enjoyed seeing him taking the lead in his chapter and get more of a spotlight than he usually did over in Justice League of America. I also got a kick out of watching the Atom bypass Grax’s barrier by hitching a ride on a photon in a beam of light provided by Rising Sun. Once again, all our heroes succeed in their appointed tasks.

Super Friends #9, “Three Ways to Kill a World!”

The failure of these first two batches of bombs sets off the third batch, of course—the batch that will kill all plant life and destroy the world. Teaming up to prevent this are Green Arrow and Tasmanian Devil in Australia; Aquaman and the Little Mermaid over the sunken continent of Atlantis off the coast of Denmark; and Wonder Woman and the Olympian, who come up against a villain named “Colonel Conquest” in Greece. In the latter case, however, the heroes quickly realize that they beat the bad guy just a bit too easily and that there was no bomb to deactivate. Ergo, this guy had nothing to do with Grax or his plan.

Their error is educational for young readers (or at least it certainly was for me at the time). Asia and Europe had been traditionally viewed as separate continents only in terms of culture (or racial prejudice, for those less willing to give the benefit of the doubt). From a strictly scientific, geographic point of view, as a singular land mass, Europe and Asia are one continent, commonly referred to by geographers today as Eurasia. In fact, since Africa is also attached to this same land mass (albeit relatively tenuously), some refer to all of it together as Afro-Eurasia.

The bomb deactivated by Superman and Seraph in Israel already covered Eurasia; the one they missed was Antarctica. Furthermore, JLA instruments reveal the bomb here is suspended in a field of absolute zero and if anything should raise that temperature, the bomb will be set off. As luck would have it, Wendy and Marvin find another international hero via the computer called Ice Maiden from Norway, who can lower her body temperature to absolute zero. With all the Super Friends fighting off the monster guards, she is able to deactivate the bomb.

Grax is a sore loser though. He shows up at the JLA satellite to settle the score with those meddlesome Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna, who are unable to turn him back despite the super powers they possess. With their JLA training, however, Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog are able to subdue and hold Grax until the Super Friends have returned from Antarctica.

The heroes all agree that the former “junior” Super Friends have “graduated” and will be moving on to start their careers in college. Wendy and Marvin, along with Wonder Dog, have all been officially replaced by the Wonder Twins and Gleek as the new junior members (slash comedy relief) of the team.

The Global Guardians

For those unaware, the international heroes introduced in this storyline will go on to be christened the “Global Guardians.” Individual members would appear in the main stories as well as back-ups before the whole team got back together with the Super Friends in issues 45-46 (Jun.-Jul. 1981). After Super Friends, the Global Guardians would go on to appear in DC Comics Presents and Infinity Inc., solidifying their place in the regular, main DC continuity, pre-Crisis.

Sometime after the international heroes first debuted, a female superheroine from Brazil named Green Fury started showing up in Super Friends. She became a semiregular in the title and eventually joined the Global Guardians. When the Justice League of America dropped the “of” from its title post-Crisis, eventually becoming Justice League International, Green Fury and Ice Maiden would leave the Guardians for the new League, taking on the new names Fire and Ice, respectively.

The more I think about it, why stop with just the Global Guardians? Why not recognize that all of those old Super Friends stories were part of the original DC continuity? Bridwell wrote them to fit there, they disrupt nothing, so why not? As far as my own personal headcanon goes, these Super Friends stories all took place in the same universe as all the rest of the regular comics, pre-Crisis.

As mentioned earlier, the Super Friends comic ended in 1981. Bridwell died just several years later from lung cancer on January 23, 1987, at age fifty-five. As of this writing, Ramona Fradon is still going strong and will celebrate her one hundredth birthday less than three years from now, on October 2, 2026. And yes, it looks like she is still selling prints and taking commissions!

UPDATE JANUARY 3, 2024: At ninety-seven years of age, Ramona Fradon has announced her retirement from doing commissions. Thank you for all of your wonderful contributions to comics, Ms. Fradon, and God bless.

Television’s Super Friends Go On

After a successful ’77-’78 season, Super Friends returned in the fall of ’78 with Challenge of the Super Friends, featuring a whole bunch of supervillains and superheroes from the comics. For this reason, this iteration of the show is the one of the most loved by comic book fans. Again, the show remained altogether an hour long. The first half hour had short adventures featuring the original heroes and the Wonder Twins. The second half hour, the Challenge part, had no Wonder Twins, just the superheroes going against the supervillains of the “Legion of Doom.”

For the ’79-’80 season, the show was rechristened The World’s Greatest SuperFriends (the first time “Super Friends” was stylized as one word), and featured eight new half-hour episodes plus repeats from the two prior seasons. (The only episodes not being rerun at this point were the original Marvin & Wendy ones. You’d have to look for those in syndication later on if you wanted to see them again. Or on DVD sets decades afterward.)

Next came SuperFriends. This had new, seven-minute stories mixed with reruns, a format that would last three seasons, from 1980 to 1983. By the fall of ’83, old episodes of Super Friends began getting syndicated. Even though the syndicated episodes were airing almost exclusively on weekday afternoons on local networks, the national ABC television network didn’t want to “compete” with syndication and did not renew the show for Saturday mornings for the ’83-’84 season. Strangely enough, ABC still gave approval and even provided funding for Hanna-Barbera to produce more episodes during this time. Altogether, twenty-four new short adventures were made, most of which aired in Australia. These episodes were six to seven minutes long, so three were able to fill out a standard half hour of commercial programming (which added up to eight new half-hour episodes, basically). Later, these “lost episodes” would run on the USA network in the 90s and then get packaged into their own DVD set in the 2000s.

The show would finish strong in its closing stretch, returning for the ’84-’85 season with Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. This season added Firestorm on the hero side, and Darkseid with his Apokolips cronies on the villain side, among others. The final, ’85-’86 season of the show was The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians. Even though it doesn’t say “Super Friends” in the title, it’s still effectively a Super Friends show. For this final season, the classic Alex Toth designs were abandoned in favor of the new José Luis García-López designs. Also, Cyborg joined the heroes, and Adam West replaced Olan Soule as the voice of Batman. These last two seasons also had “Super Powers” in their titles to promote the Kenner line of superhero toys then being produced. These two seasons took much more inspiration from the comic book source material than ever before, with many episodes cherished by diehard fans, particularly the fourth episode of the last season, “The Fear,” featuring Batman and the Scarecrow in a very faithful retelling of Batman’s classic comic book origin.

Today and Tomorrow

The “Super Friends” brand is still used in publishing today, mostly for juvenile, first-time readers under brands like Random House Books for Young Readers and Golden Books.

More than a decade of my professional life was spent in educational publishing and I always considered the three-part story from Super Friends 7-9 the gold standard for making literature (particularly comic-book literature) educational. The story captivated me as a grade-school kid and overflowed with information on a range of topics, from culture to science to history to geography . . . even zoology, thanks to characters like Bushmaster. I would have loved to produce a project like this, especially if I could have done so in a more traditional comic book form like Super Friends, but alas, was unable to make it happen. It’s a big regret of my professional life, at least up to this point. Maybe someday in the future, the opportunity will present itself somewhere, somehow, some way.

Meanwhile, this storyline was reprinted most recently in Super Friends Saturday Morning Comics Vol. 1, which contains reprints of the first twenty-six issues of the classic series. This book is also available in digital form via Kindle & comiXology and may possibly be found on DC Universe Infinite as well, I’m not sure. In any case, it’s a good read and I would highly recommend it, particularly if you’re looking for something to pass along to young readers to help them learn. For anyone looking to get into classic Super Friends comics, regardless of their reasons . . . that time is now!

One thought on “Super Friends 50th Anniversary”

  1. Great overview of the Super Friends show and comic, which were among my favorites as a kid. I particularly liked the introduction of the foreign heroes in #7-9. According to Wikipedia’s entries for United States network television schedules, the original show was part of the Saturday morning schedule from its debut to the premiere of the All-New Superfriends Hour, often as a summer replacement. I would have liked to have watched it then but it was scheduled later in the morning and often was pre-empted by local college football or basketball games. When All-New Superfriends aired, I was happy to get up before 8 a.m. to see it!

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