The 1978 Cartoon Series
The Fantastic Four
Originally Aired: 9/9/1978 - 1/9/1979
While I've been generous with the score above, it has to be said that this attempt by DePatie-Freleng really is quite poor. With the character of the Human Torch licensed to Universal (producing a myth that endures to this day about him being banned in case viewers tried to set themselves on fire) a replacement was found with the new character of HERBIE the robot. Marvel editorial instructed then-comic writer Marv Wolfman to introduce HERBIE (under protest) in issue #209 to coincide with the series, a rare example of a cartoon influencing its source material.
Unfortunately, it was cancelled after just thirteen episodes, and so HERBIE was killed off in issue #217. (There were also comic strip HERBIEs II and III, as well as similar creations like HUBERT, but let's not get into that. The initials, incidentally, stood for "Humaioid Electronic Robot B-Style"... I know, I know, but it was credited as "HERBIE" so there you go. The comics did make his initials actually fit his name, retitling him as Humanoid Experimental Robot B-Type Integrated Electronics). As pictured right, HERBIE was not immune to having the number of the beast on his readout.
Despite the writing presence of Stan Lee and Roy Thomas and storyboards from Jack Kirby, the talent involved still only produced something marginally above the 1994 version. One thing that fails it is how twee and old-hat it all is. With narration by Dick Tufeld, morals at the end of stories and dialogue like "golly!" and "Holy Hannah!" it's like the decade since the Hanna-Barbera cartoon never happened... in fact, with episodes like A Monster Among Us it's like time's stood still since the mid 30s. Even the incidental music seems from a bygone age, and not the dawn of the 1980s. Then there's the animation, which isn't that much worse than the '67 take, but undermined by the knowledge that this was made over a decade later. Things to look out for include The Thing occasionally having four fingers, characters putting their hands through solid objects, and the shameless reusing of stock animation footage from episode to episode. Other problems don't help matters, such as cartoon violence not being aired at the time, so battles either happen off-screen, by reaction shot or by a ray gun. No "Clobberin' Time" here.
But then the most obvious problem is, I admit, HERBIE himself. While I don't hate the little guy as much as most, having a deus ex machine tin robot flying around is not only incredibly lazy writing, it also destroys the chemistry between the group. It all seems very lonely without Johnny somehow, and having Ben doing his arguing schtick with a glorified toaster makes him look infantile.
Of the voices, then Ginny Tyler does very well as a lobotomised Invisible Girl, though sadly Mike Road is the blandest Mr. Fantastic of the lot. Ted Cassidy gives Ben a voice that owes itself to constipation and fifty bottles of Jack Daniels, while Frank Walker as HERBIE does, of course, fully deserve a slap. (I kid. we don't really condone violence here). Additional voice artists included Hal Smith, John Stephenson, Joan Gerber and Vic Perrin. Some unusual choices for episodes included the unpopular Impossible Man (also resurrected by Roy in the comic two years earlier, finishing his run in June 1978) and Magneto, a lesser menace as far as the FF went.
The episodes were: The Mole Man, Meet Doctor Doom, The Impossible Man, The Olympics of Space, The Menace of Magneto, Calamity on the Campus, The Phantom of Film City, Medusa and the Inhumans, The Frightful Four, The Diamond of Doom, The Final Victory of Doctor Doom, Blastarr the Living Bomb-Burst and A Monster Among Us.
Episodes averaged around 22 minutes in length, though due to the pedestrian and predictable plots, managed to succeed in seeming much, much longer. Worst episode has to be The Olympics of Space, where Ben is captured by a race of aliens to fight a giant lizard known as "Monstro" (!) Ben and Monstro become pals, and in a garishly rendered subtext of racial tension, finds the two identical groups of aliens behind the Olympics hate each other just because one group has blue eyes, the other green! Such a mind-numbing attempt at social commentary was, however, lost on the colourists, who gave one set of alien green skin to the pink of the other. The FF save the day by teaching them all about peace, love and understanding, in some of the most nauseatingly bad writing ever seen in a children's programme. Don't be fooled by the misleadingly titled Diamond of Doom, either - this isn't a Victor trilogy, but rather a diamond... that causes doom. Ahem. Best episodes are probably The Frightful Four, or The Impossible Man, which adds extra layers to the scrap of a story seen in FF #11. Yet overall, "asinine" is probably the best way to sum up this curiously soulless take on the format.
While a HERBIE model came out in 2004, the only real items of merchandise to directly try and tie in to the 1978 cartoon at the time were a colouring book by Whitman Publishing the following year, and a game by Milton Bradley. The New Fantastic Four Game Featuring HERBIE The Robot is fundamentally a dressed-up game of Ludo, so operating on the principles of a standard means it's no bad thing. The cynical might raise an eyebrow at the object of the game - rescue HERBIE from certain death at the hands of Doctor Doom - and mutter "why would I want to?" but while very cheaply made, this is an adequate if unexceptional piece of merchandise.