Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Legends of the Not-So-Dark Knight (Why Space Ghost Deserves Your Respect!)

While he may be primarily known today as a doofus talk show host, to a generation of older fanboys, Space Ghost is a true-blue superhero who, with his teenage partners Jan and Jace (and their space-monkey, Blip) tools around the universe in the Phantom Cruiser, battling the forces of evil with unmatched panache!

As Batmania swept the country in the 1960s, Hanna-Barbera Productions set out to add some animated superheroes to their Saturday morning slate. Designer Alex Toth was given the task of coming up with a “Batman in space,” resulting in the mysterious avenger who could fly, turn invisible, and by way of his forearm-gauntlet power bands, shoot various force rays that could freeze, burn, destroy or pile-drive anything in his way.

Premiering on CBS in 1966, each episode of SPACE GHOST featured two 7-minute adventures sandwiching a DINO BOY tale (about a lad in a prehistoric land). Simple kid stuff, to be sure, but Space Ghost stood apart from the legion of Saturday morning superheroes due to Toth’s sleek design, personified by the inimitable voice of future LAUGH-IN announcer Gary Owens and set to a jazzy soundtrack suitable for slaying insectoid villains.

Merchandising came quickly in the forms of coloring books, puzzles and bubble bath. In 1966, Gold Key Comics produced one issue of a SPACE GHOST comic book and the character appeared in the anthology HANNA-BARBERA SUPER TV HEROES alongside Shazzan (not to be confused with Shazam!), the Galaxy Trio and others. Those tales, however, despite being beautifully drawn, were usually as slight as their animated inspirations.

A bit more depth was found in the 1968 Big Little Book, SPACE GHOST AND THE SORCERESS OF CYBA-3, written by Don Christensen and illustrated by Dan Spiegle (who also drew most of the Gold Key comic stories). In the book, our heroes are tricked into returning the beautiful Queen Satanari (that name shoulda’ been a tip-off) to the planet from which she’d been exiled after using scientifically-enhanced magic to burn its cities and force men to battle to the death!

The growing fear of cartoon violence by hand-wringing watchdog groups put Space Ghost into limbo in 1968, but the character had made too powerful an impact to lay dormant forever.

Marvel Comics’ HANNA-BARBERA TV STARS #3 (1978) included a Space Ghost story, “Pilgreen’s Progress” about an old man flying an electric-powered flivver-ship through space in search of a low-tech world. Written by Mark Evanier (a proficient scripter for comics and TV), this charming tale was the only time Alex Toth ever drew the character in a comic book.

1981 saw Space Ghost return to Saturday mornings on NBC’s SPACE STARS, alongside the Herculoids, Teen Force and Astro and the Space Mutts (yes, the Jetsons’ dog). But the violence-neutered (and poorly-animated) superhero cartoons of that era left little room for any stylized action, and those cartoons are best left forgotten (along with the clunky redesign of SG’s spaceship).

In 1987, Evanier teamed with Toth acolyte Steve Rude to produce a deluxe SPACE GHOST one-shot for Comico in which the heroes battled all of their major adversaries. While beautifully done, it was such a slavish tribute to the original series that it ultimately felt like a wasted opportunity.

And then, in 1994, Space Ghost was resurrected for a new audience in Cartoon Network’s SPACE GHOST: COAST TO COAST, a Dadaist comedy positing the helmeted hero as a clueless talk show host. Alongside enemies / co-hosts Brak, Moltar and Zorak, Space Ghost cracked wise with celebrities, ushering in the Adult Swim era and paving the way for HARVEY BIRDMAN, ATTORNEY AT LAW and THE VENTURE BROS.

The show was a hit, but ironically had a similar effect on Space Ghost that his original inspiration, the ‘60s BATMAN TV show, had on that hero. It took decades (and Tim Burton) for the general non-GEEK populace to think of Batman as anything other than a campy caped crusader. And many old Space Ghost fans were uncomfortable with the new image. Evanier, for example, believes “as much as its makers insisted it was done out of love and respect for the original, it felt the opposite to me.”

But SG:CTC did raise the Astral Avenger’s visibility, and longtime fans could revel in the fact that there was finally a Space Ghost action figure (even if they didn’t display the accompanying talk show desk and mug). In 1997, Archie Comics published a rather forgettable one-shot SPACE GHOST comic set in the original milieu, while DC Comics dedicated numerous issues of their Cartoon Network tie-in comics to the comedic version.

And then, after almost forty years, Space Ghost was finally given a serious comic book treatment; Some say TOO serious. DC Comics’ 2005 SPACE GHOST mini-series presented a grim origin story, in which interplanetary policeman Thaddeus Bach discovers that the force is corrupt, and refuses to play ball. In a scene more suited to the Punisher, Bach’s pregnant wife is murdered and he is left for dead on a desolate planet. Bach is nursed back to health by the alien Salomon who gives him the tools that allow him to become Space Ghost and enact his revenge (begrudgingly picking up Jan and a newly-spelled Jayce along the way).

The story was written by Joe Kelly and painted by Ariel Olivetti in a steroid-infused style that’s more Tom of Finland than Alex Toth. Hyper-realist Alex Ross provided some nice covers, but the look was again at odds with the essence of the character (SG’s diaphanous cape shouldn’t look like real fabric).

The thing is, making Space Ghost angsty and realistic (Blip is nowhere to be found) is as ill-advised as a gritty Captain Marvel or Frank Miller making THE SPIRIT (you heard us). Certainly Space Ghost as a concept is loaded with potential to tell fully fleshed stories, with deeper characterization and MAYBE an origin. But it needs to be FUN, and this series was anything but. Artist / Sculptor RubĂ©n Procopio (who designed a Space Ghost bust for Cartoon Network) recalls Toth’s opinion on the new direction. “As much as I can appreciate the artistic challenge that everyone involved had, my memory of Space Ghost was as a more lighthearted, brighter character. Having gotten to know Alex, I can say that he preferred the characters in a more upbeat, less dark setting.”

So what’s the future hold for the Guardian of the Galaxies? How about a live action SPACE GHOST movie directed by Brad Bird, whose THE INCREDIBLES was a perfect balance of whimsy and superheroics? We cast Bruce Campbell as our square-jawed hero (with Jan, Jace AND BLIP by his side), battling a slinky Spider-Woman (Julianne Moore) and a CG-rendered Zorak! Maybe Gary Owens could even loop the hero’s dialogue, although the legendary voice actor has another idea. “I could play Zorak because that’s how I look in real life.”

It’s surely only a matter of time before someone else tackles the Interstellar Spectre. Mark Evanier summarizes the character’s appeal: “There’s something very primal about him. I remember watching the first episode and thinking he felt like a hero who’d been around forever with a fully developed universe and backstory.” Adds Procopio, “Not to mention those wonderful villains and secondary characters that Alex designed. The show inspired a whole generation of artists.”

In the meantime, fans of the character can geek out to both CTC and the original 1966 series on DVD (the latter of which also features a great documentary on Alex Toth, who died in 2006) and yell along with Gary Owens as he bellows the eponymous battle cry of the coolest space hero ever: SPAAAAAAACE GHOOOOOOOOST!

Sorry, it’s a written law that all articles on the character need to end that way.

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