The Justice League, DC Comics’ prime superhero team, has had a long history on television. This fall, the newest incarnation, Justice League Action, will be coming to Cartoon Network and includes fan favorite actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill reprising their respective roles of Batman and Joker. As cool as that sounds, Justice League Action has some big boots to fill if it wants to follow in the footsteps of classic Justice Leagues of the small screen, such as the campy fun of Super Friends or the epic scope of Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. The Super Friends brand ran, under different names and formats, for thirteen years. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited had a relatively shorter five-year combined run but were part of the DC Animated Universe, which ran for close to 14 years. Both inspired multiple characters and events in the mainstream comic universe, and to this day have a lasting presence in people’s memories.
But not all animated iterations of the Justice League have been as successful. In fact, the very first animated adventures of the JLA are quite different and largely forgotten. That’s probably because there wasn’t much to be seen: a trio of seven-minute shorts aired after The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure from 1967 to 1968 – six years before Super Friends premiered. The Filmation-produced series alternated Aquaman, Superman and Superboy segments. To fill time, the episodes ended with shorts of several big name heroes: Green Lantern, Atom, Flash (and Kid Flash) and Hawkman. They all got three short adventures, mostly fighting generic alien bad guys. Only one hero gets to fight an adversary from the comics; Green Lantern fought Evil Star, another generic alien bad guy that at least had a name. Atom got to fight his foe Plant Master, who instead of a human was also a generic alien bad guy.
Kid Flash (who has black hair in this continuity) got his own three short episodes with the Teen Titans: Aqualad, Speedy and Wonder Girl. The sidekicks also just fight generic alien bad guys – though calling them sidekicks is a bit much, seeing as Speedy and Wonder Girl’s mentors, Green Arrow and Wonder Woman, don’t show up in the League. Batman and Robin don’t show up either. Filmation would produce two Batman animated series, The Adventures of Batman and The New Adventures of Batman, but the former started directly after The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure ended and the latter aired 10 years later.
Who’s in this forgotten animated version of the Justice League of America? The combined might and power of Superman, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Aquaman, Atom and Flash. I don’t want to humor the “Aquaman is useless” crowd, but the only part he plays in all three shorts is showing up for the opening montage. After that little cameo, he’s back to chatting with the fishes. Beyond those big names, who else will you see in these first-ever animated team-ups?
Generic alien bad guys. Sometimes, more than one race. Sometimes, different races use the exact same spaceships as the guys from the previous episode, because Filmation was a notoriously cheap production company. Footage is reused, sometimes mirrored – for example, Green Lantern (whose ring is never visible) becomes ambidextrous whilst ring-slinging, instead of having the ring firmly parked on his right hand as it is in countless comics, cartoons, and even a terrible movie. The animation is so limited that characters never do more than one thing at the same time, while others just freeze in place to watch something expensive happen offscreen. A favorite Filmation move is to have a hero talk, stop, and then do the action they just announced.
The stories in these three animated shorts have some more complexity, at least by the standards of Silver Age comic book fare. These aren’t your usual straight-up alien invasions. In “Between Two Armies,” Earth becomes entangled in a conflict between two outer space tribes and the Justice League must broker a peace between them. In “Target Earth,” the League is warned about a possible invasion by an alien rebel and defeat an armada together. And lastly, “Bad Day on Black Mountain” features an alien mastermind named (duh) Mastermind who kidnaps Superman and the rest of the League use their collective powers to stop him. It would’ve been nice if they fought, I dunno, Starro or Despero, but I guess that’s not in the budget.
Back in 1967, seeing any DC Comics cartoons was probably better than nothing, so maybe folks back then enjoyed it. For those wondering if it holds up by current standards, check out the videos above or watch the episodes on the DVD DC Super Heroes: The Filmation Adventures.