Monday, March 30, 2015

Flashback Universe and Its Amazing Friends

Face front, true believers!  Kick back like Dennis Marks in the screencap below and enjoy a fantastic foray into the Flashback Universe!

In case you don't recognize the name, Marks was the producer on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and its lesser-remembered sister show Friendless Spider-Man.  (O.K., that show was called just Spider-Man.)  As such, he's featured alongside writer Christy Marx, animator Larry Houston, and Stan Lee in this rarely seen 1981 documentary about the making of Amazing Friends, called Spider-Man on the Move.  According to Dan "Peter Parker" Gilvezan's Facebook fans, this was a joint production of KDKA in Pittsburgh and KPIX in San Francisco — which may be why I'd never seen it until recently.  (Did it air only in those markets?)

Sadly, it's not included on the series DVD* nor available to stream, but we can enjoy it online via the magic of YouTube.  Watch for Frank Welker discussing the process of working out what Ms. Lion should sound like.  That alone is worth your time.

Intermission! Grab some popcorn and a Coke.

Did you catch Marks explaining the creation of Firestar for the series at 5:25 in the first part?  The story he tells, about the show originally being planned around a trio of Spider-Man, Iceman, and the Human Torch, has been repeated often through the years.  It's perfectly plausible, and the version I had heard was that the Torch was absent from 1978's The New Fantastic Four cartoon* (you know, with H.E.R.B.I.E.) because his licensing was tied up in the even-then-in-development Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.  That story was usually told to debunk the notion the Human Torch had been removed from the FF cartoon out of fear of kids settling themselves on fire — the same story Marks tells here about Amazing Friends!

Which got me wondering:  Did Marks's story from this very documentary special, rarely seen as it is, create the perennial kids-setting-themselves-on-fire myth?  Did it backwash from here to the earlier FF cartoon?

Apparently not.

Let's loop back and close off some rumor threads.

As it turns out, the Human Torch character was not tied up in the development of the Spider-Man/Torch/Iceman show that would later become Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.  According to Mark Evanier, whose business cards may as well read "who would know," the Torch was licensed out to Universal for a live-action TV movie that never came to fruition.  (If it had, it would have been a sibling to the Doctor Strange and Captain America telefilms starring Peter Hooten and Reb Brown, which also came out of the deal.)

Brian Cronin, of CBR's Comic Book Legends Revealed, speculates that the Torch license still lay with Universal when Amazing Friends was in development.  Given that the Strange and Cap films aired in 1978 and '79, Amazing Friends started airing in '81, and animation takes a fair while to develop for television, this seems reasonable.  (Then again, the first bit of poppycock I shared with you "seems reasonable," so take that with a grain of salt.)

He makes being on fire look so cool!
In that case, the Human Torch was likely never a serious contender for the third slot in the Spider-Friends — except perhaps during the very early concept stage, before anyone checked the availability of the characters against existing licensing agreements.  It's not impossible that Marvel, working almost in-house with a studio they had bought and turned into Marvel Productions, could have made the novice mistake of incubating a series without checking the licenses.  But even that seems unlikely — grain of salt in the "seems," remember — because the earliest concept art for the show, by John Romita for the pitch to NBC, shows Firestar (then "Heatwave") in the line-up, with no mention of the Torch.

It's also worth noting that Marvel Productions, before being bought by Marvel and given that name, had been DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, the studio that produced The New Fantastic Four back in '78.

So where did that story about kids setting themselves on fire to emulate the Human Torch come from?  Dunno.  I was excited to watch Spider-Man on the Move and hear it from Dennis Marks himself.  I thought I'd found the point where it entered the culture, but, by all accounts, Marks was repeating a story he'd heard somewhere, one that had already made the rounds about The New Fantastic Four.

Wherever it comes from, it's a proper urban legend, complete with gruesome imagery of child immolation.  It's liable to survive in some form or other.

Decades before we'd heard of creepypasta, John Byrne mined the legend's seediness and silliness in Fantastic Four #285, which reads like a cross between an ABC after-school special, Amazing Spider-Man #50, and a Jim Wynorski melodrama.  More recently, The Super Hero Squad Show enjoyed one of its high points lampooning both the rumor and its status as inside-baseball trivia in a H.E.R.B.I.E.-centric episode.

Any day now, I expect to hear Marvel let Fox hang onto the Fantastic Four movie license in order to keep their distance from any Human Torch-related incidents.

* Getcher Region 2 DVD players here, America!


Jim Shelley said...

Like a lot of Urban Legends, I suspect there was some incident which inspired the legend, but not with the exact details.

Seems like Saturday Night Live had a skit where a skeezy Halloween Costume salesman was selling dangerous costumes to kids which may have help perpetuate the myth.

Secret-HQ said...

Like most good urban legends, it always seems JUST far enough removed that you can't quite verify it. Not something you hear from a friend of a friend but from a friend of a friend of a friend ... .


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