(Not So) FANTASTIC FOUR Adaptations, Pt. 1: The Good, the Bad and the H.E.R.B.I.E.

The announcements about the new reboot of Marvel’s Fantastic Four as a feature film from director Josh Trank (Chronicle) have resulted in, well, a lot of complaining on the Internet.

Don’t get us wrong, this has been great for us! Whether it’s the cast being too young, not looking the part, Sue and Johnny Storm being adopted instead of biological siblings (and Johnny being played by African-American actor Michael B. Jordan), or concerns over statements that indicate the film won’t be a superhero story per se or that Dr. Doom will be… a hacker…named “Domashev”…really?... that means lots of new articles for us to post and all sorts of social media comments. Websites are built on this!

While withholding judgment on a film that, well, we haven’t seen one actual second of footage, we did want to reflect on the fact that fans have a reason to be so wary because, well, the Fantastic Four has been a tough nut to crack on the big or small screens.

From limited animation to limited budgets, there’ve been some noble – and not-so-noble – efforts to bring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s flagship creations, the foundation of the modern Marvel Universe, to life. Some are underrated. Some are just…well, “rated.” Some we’re not sure what the hell they were thinking. At least one unofficial one involved Tobias on Arrested Development.

Why is this? Well, as someone who has a framed copy of John Byrne’s 1984 poster depicting every character from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original FF run hanging over his computer as he types this, the answer is that the Fantastic Four represent one of the most uniquely comic-book of all comic book teams.

There’s a huge reliance on getting the look and powers of the characters correct, nailing their interactions, creating convincing character arcs for each core team member, and incorporating the mythological elements – the costumes, the Fantasticar, the numerous friends and foes – in a way that feels wondrous and not campy.

Many fine writers and artists have worked hard to capture that balance of the Lee/Kirby run, and there’s been different levels of success – John Byrne helped the characters mature, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo captured the family dynamic perfectly, Jonathan Hickman created an elaborate mythology that combined the extended family of characters with dark, elaborate science fiction concepts, telling an epic-length story.

The people who’ve done it best create comics where you truly care about the family, thrill at the adventures, feel your heart break when tragedy strikes, and most of all, have fun. It’s a lot to handle – plenty of great creative teams have struggled to make an impact on the regular FF book.

Now try cramming it into a two-hour movie or a 20-minute cartoon. It’s a trick.

So sit back for a special three-part journey through some of the many adaptations of the Fantastic Four – the good, the bad, and the H.E.R.B.I.E. And for this, we actually rewatched (and in at least one case, forced ourselves to watch for the first time) these different versions to judge them with fresh perspective.

Whether box-office hits, flops, never even released, not even made or just a storyline on an Emmy-winning cult comedy, we’ll look back and review some classic – and not-so-classic – takes on the Fantastic Four on film, TV and elsewhere, to help offer some perspective for this new film.

Yes, even the Roger Corman version. You owe us for this.

Fantastic Four (ABC Cartoon, 1967)

It’s not as well-remembered as the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon with the catchiest theme song ever, or the “Marvel Superheroes” afternoon cartoon with…well, pretty much the most limited animation ever (but they still brought Jack Kirby panels to the small screen!), but this 1967-1970 ABC Saturday morning is surprisingly charming.

This actually had some fairly faithful adaptations of many of the Marvel adventures, though a few where Dr. Doom or similar villains from the comics are replaced by originals such as “Dr. Gamma” and “The Imposter” (Doom himself is still in many episodes and even has an origin story that’s very faithful to the comics).

And despite the stiff animation in some scenes, there’s some nifty designs by all-time comics and animation great Alex Toth, around the same time he created Space Ghost!  Well, Galactus (voiced by Ted Cassidy, Lurch from The Addams Family) is a little short and, um, green, but you do what you can with the money you’ve got.

TRIVIA: The Thing was voiced by the voice-over great Paul Frees, whose voice you might remember coming out of such classic characters as Ludwig Von Drake and Boris Badenov.

The series has shown up occasionally on Cartoon Network and Boomerang over the years, and is available on most streaming sites. While researching this, we came across a fun fact: The Hanna-Barbera cartoons are now owned by Time Warner, which owns DC Comics. Therefore, DC’s parent company technically owns several Marvel Cartoons. Ain’t that crazy? (Editor’s Note: Plus, Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment publishes all the LEGO games, including last year’s LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. Adaptations make for strange ownership/bedfellows)

The Fantastic Four (Radio Series, 1975)

Bill Murray was the Human Torch.

Okay, that’s just kind of awesome.

In 1975, many early FF stories were adapted into a five-day-a-week radio serial that ran in syndication across U.S. stations, narrated by Stan Lee himself. There were a few small tweaks here and there, but the programs were actually some of the most faithful adaptations of the original comics – though the production itself only lasted 13 weeks due to lack of money.

YouTube and MP3-sharing services helped rescue these shows from obscurity – and the fact that Bill Murray remains a national treasure gives them a strange sort of cult cache. You can listen to or download 10 episodes on this site.

And it’s for the best that a future superstar got to play the Torch here, because he was nowhere to be seen in the next entry on our list…

The New Fantastic Four (NBC Cartoon, 1978)

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: There was a robot. Named H.E.R.B.I.E.

Yes, in this version, only three voyagers went into space, and after gaining superpowers from cosmic rays, they hung out with a robot (voiced by animation legend Frank Welker, also the voice of Scooby-Doo, Nibbler on Futurama, and of course Megatron, among hundreds and hundreds of other credits). It sort of makes it all seem less mythological.

The urban legend is that the Human Torch wasn’t around because NBC was afraid kids would set themselves on fire imitating him. Though this fear was the basis for one of the best Torch stories ever, “Hero” in Fantastic Four #285, it wasn’t why the Torch wasn’t on the show – rather, it was because NBC’s parent company Universal was developing a live-action Torch series that, pardon the pun, never took flight.

Remember, the first version of the Torch was a solo hero in the 1940s, and there was good reason to think the solo name held recognition.

As for this series, the lack of Johnny Storm hurts – having Ben Grimm banter with a deadpan robot isn’t the same as him and Johnny pranking each other left and right. But it’s got some fun moments, and it’s also unique in that FF co-creator and “King of Comics” Jack Kirby worked on it doing storyboards.

In an odd twist, some of his storyboards were re-inked and re-edited into a backup story for Fantastic Four #236, without his permission or participation. As the episode adapted Dr. Doom’s first appearance, which Kirby drew, it’s curious as to why they didn’t just reprint that story.

Watching The New Fantastic Four now, it’s…well, kind of dumb in places (Magneto’s powers are short-circuited by…a wooden gun!), and a bit in the moment (Reed convinces a more villainous group of Inhumans not to invade the outside world by showing them, among other things, footage of grocery shoppers standing in line to buy avocadoes!) but it’s still a pretty fun little superhero cartoon.

H.E.R.B.I.E. was a joke in comics for years, but eventually made a comeback in comics form as a robo-nanny for Reed and Sue Richards’ son Franklin. All’s well that ends well…

…well, it didn’t end well for the Thing the following year.

Fred and Barney Meet the Thing (NBC Cartoon, 1979)

“Thing Ring, Do Your Thing!” 

We’ve made fun of this many, many, many times on this site. Short version: Hanna-Barbera had a habit of keeping their cartoon series alive by repeatedly retooling and pairing existing concepts with ideas that had nothing to do with the original idea.

So Yogi Bear and the Wacky Races got strangely paired into Yogi’s Space Race, and later all shoved together on a flying ark with a theme song by Sha Na Na, and Scooby Doo got weirdly paired with Scappy and then Vincent Price and oh I just can’t even.

The Flintstones got the worst of it, with Fred and Barney being paired with everything from an Addams Family knockoff to sufer-teen versions of Pebbles and Bam Bam to the Shmoo, a character from the Li’l Abner comic strip known for being delicious, who was revised into a shape-shifting Scooby Doo knockoff crimefighter. This was after the last year of the original Flintstones series had the Great Gazoo, but I digress.

Anyway, this was a bizarre mutilation of the whole concept of the Thing, a regular guy trapped in a monstrous body, with Benjy Grimm a teen with a magical “Thing Ring” that let him rock up and solve mysteries and fight the biker punks in the Yancy Street Gang and why am I still writing about this?

At least Matt Fraction and Mike Allred did a cute little homage to it in their FF run recently with “Miss Thing.”  Oh, and contrary to the title, Fred and Barney only met the Thing during the bumpers between episodes. The Thing did not also meet the Shmoo, to the best of my knowledge.

But the FF’s moment of greatest infamy was yet to come…

Next: We explain the strange history of the Roger Corman FF movie, and actually watch it. 

Also: Brian Austin Green is a rapping Human Torch. H.E.R.B.I.E. doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

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