The early 60s were an interesting time for kids' TV. The rules hadn’t become iron clad. Kids' shows would not only run early in the weekday mornings, but would often come back on mid-weekday afternoon. Then they would go on as late as 8:00 p.m.
Even with vast libraries of Disney, Fleischer, Looney Tunes, and even Van Buren and Terrytoons theatrical shorts, not to mention new original shows from such titans as Hanna-Barbera, Jay Ward, and UPA, that was a lot of time slots to fill, especially for the independent stations. Making matters even more interesting, these slots had to be filled as cheaply as possible. That was because TV animation, especially in those days, was not considered a prestige commodity. It was just a way to fill the station with those much needed toy and breakfast cereal bucks.
In 1963, one Fred Ladd, who was working for NBC’s syndication wing NBC Enterprises, came on a fast and dirty solution for the problem. He found he could buy the rights to a hit Japanese animation series entitled Tetsuwan Atom for the price he once described as “three bowls of rice per episode.” He took the show, gave it a catchy theme song, hired the likes of Pete Fernandez and Corinne Orr to voice over a dozen characters each, and renamed the series Astro Boy.
Next thing Ladd knew, he had a hit on his hands. The market wanted more. In short order shows like Amazing 3, 8th Man, Marine Boy and more were vying for the minds of American youth, and they lapped it all up like ice cream on a hot summer day.
When you think about it, you really couldn’t blame them. Original American animation concentrated primarily on funny animal variants. Some were brilliant, such as Ward’s The (Rocky &) Bullwinkle Show or Bob Clampett’s Beanie & Cecil. Yet let’s be honest, equally as many were disposable fodder meant to fill up a time slot.
Astro Boy and his kind -remember this was waaaayyyy….before the word “anime” had hit American culture - had some truly rip-roaring adventure in the mix. They were full of super science, some violence (compared to American kids' shows) and actual scary moments, and lots and lots of action. When the competition was Peter Potamus, no red-blooded American child could resist the Mighty Tezuka’s heady creation.
As said before, the market wanted more of this wondrous junk, and Ladd himself knew money when he had it. He heard of another hit robot series over there in the land of the Rising Sun. Even better, the robot was a giant one. Best, the giant robot was controlled by a kid! He knew it was a hit before he even saw it.
So Ladd hooked up with a long time friend, Al Singer, and formed his own company, Delphi. From there he followed pretty much the same formula he used on Astro Boy, right down to hiring Fernandez to help on voices, scripting and production.
When Gigantor took off in the U.S. in 1964, it ended up the #1 weekday kids series in the land, blowing out the blow-hard Potomus by as much as 50% in each competing syndicated market.
Not that anyone who had the slightest bit of foresight couldn’t see hit written all over this giant ‘bot. Like Astro, this series started off as a highly successful manga, back in 1956, under the name Tetsujin 28-Go. The comic creator, Metsuteru Yokoyama, was no lightweight in the Japanese comic book world. Other titles of his that would eventually make it into anime included Giant Robo (which would be made into a live action Johnny Sokko), Babel II, and what many now consider the original “magical girl” creation, Little Witch Sally. When he saw the competition, aka Osamu Tezuka, making big waves with Astro, Yokoyama logically wanted some of that action, too.
The thing is, Ladd did do some major changes to the series, things way beyond just giving the characters names like Jimmy Sparx, Bob Brilliant, Inspector Blooper, and Dick Strong. In Yokoyama’s original work, Gigantor was actually created during World War II, as a super-weapon against the U.S. and its allies. The only reason the big guy didn’t tear up the U.S. Navy is Hiroshima happened first. So Gigantor’s original creators gave up, hid their project in a secret island base, and disappeared. In Ladd’s version, it’s the year 2000. The young Jimmy Sparx is the kid who now controls the monster-sized mech, and any reference to WWII is discretely forgotten about.
That didn’t bother kids though. When the series started airing in the U.S., it became the top show, pulling in highly impressive ratings of 17.5 just in New York City alone (there was no such thing as national syndication ratings in those days, not really, just a hodge-podge of local market reports). It was also reported as #1 in markets such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and many other major cities.
Now fans can see why for themselves. Koch Entertainment’s E1 DVD label has released its first volume of the original series. The four disc set includes the first 26 episodes as they were originally intended to be aired. The restoration is sharp and while the soundtrack is a little too soft on the ear, is still overall very clean. The set also comes with a CD-Rom of the six comics Antarctic Press did in the 1990s as well as an interview with the still living Ladd and anime expert Fred Patten. In all, you are getting your money’s worth in this collection, especially if you’re a fan of “golden age” anime.
Then again, what’s not to like? Say what you will, Yokoyama’s main characters were classic BESM designs. While the show itself could never really decide just how large Gigantor really was - some scenes he’s only about ten feet tall, others he’s bigger than a rocket - the silent giant had a solid, rock steady design that was both powerful yet not overpowering.
Plus the Big G, Jimmy and company had more than their share of mad scientists, greedy crime lords, and over-the-top crazed dictators to take on. Each villain had its own arsenal of super-science weapons to take over the world with, ranging from controlling all the ocean’s sea weed (no really), to supercars armed with “magnetic” force shields and “speedolium.” Jimmy himself was no joke. He was as equally adept at using a flamethrower as he was Gigantor when it came to taking down villains. Of course, the violence is highly goofball, this is the 60s, but there would occasionally come a situation where the young lad’s life truly was in danger, too.
As it would happen, the series would go on for a pretty impressive 96 episodes. It would be revived, this time in color, for over 50 more. There was even a live action version of the series. As for Ladd? He claims due to the sudden death of his partner Singer, he couldn’t pick up the rights to the next major anime hit to break out of the gate Speed Racer, but Fernandez did. Both men still earned the love and respect of golden-ager anime fans, even if their adaptations were done more with meat cleavers than scalpels. Thanks to many other series Yokoyama created, he is now considered one of the true immortals of the manga and anime world. Maybe his name isn’t as easy to remember as Tezuka or the Tatsunoko Studio, but it’s still one to be remembered.
As for Gigantor? The series built a strange afterlife. The original theme song, a madhouse mambo, was put on turbo thanks to the legendary L.A. punk outfit the Dickies. The original series itself started appearing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, usually at 5:00 a.m., but airing continuously for years. As for the DVDs? Koch announced a second set of episodes will be released this September.
All one has to add is thank you, giant robot.
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