The World of Animated Superheroes

Superheroes have been a part of our Pop Culture history since 1938, the year Superman made his debut in Action Comics #1. As a kid, I grew up loving superhero comic books. Although my tastes and interests have evolved and grown over the many years since childhood, I still have a soft spot in my heart for those super-powered men, women, and kids. With the increasing popularity of superhero-based movies like Black Panther and Wonder Woman, these characters are bigger than ever now!

For many years, the only place to find someone like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or Captain America was in a comic book, or maybe a newspaper’s comics section. When Lorenzo Semple Jr. came up with the bright idea of putting Batman on television as a live-action series, he opened the door for animators to pick up on the concept and run with it. Since 1966, when Marvel Comics heroes The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Sub-Mariner and others started showing up as afternoon cartoon shows, the world has been filled with them. Getting to handle original production art from these shows has been one of my greatest joys of working at Heritage Auctions. There’s really nothing like seeing these pieces in person, up close.

Speaking of those Marvel heroes that first started to show up on TV sets in 1966, we have a splendid Iron Man hand-painted cel and Key Master background setup in this auction. While the animation on these shows was limited, they managed to use actual artwork from the comic books, and this setup features a great shot of Iron Man surrounded by odd-looking mechanical equipment, definitely looking like a panel from a comic!

The Marvel Super Heroes Iron Man Production Cel and Key Master Background (Grantray-Lawrence, 1966)

The Marvel Super Heroes Iron Man Production Cel and Key Master Background (Grantray-Lawrence, 1966)

While I think the Marvel heroes are wonderful, my preference has been the DC characters; in fact, the first comic book I ever bought was a 1961 Batman Annual, for which I paid the then-hefty sum of twenty-five cents (well, it was pretty hefty for me back then, costing a week’s allowance). For TV, Batman and his sidekick Robin grouped with Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and others in the long-running Super Friends series. Someone searching for a great Title cel from this series need look no further than this incredible piece!

The World's Greatest Super Friends Title Cel (Hanna-Barbera, 1979).

The World’s Greatest Super Friends Title Cel (Hanna-Barbera, 1979)

Most superheroes were a bit slow in making the transition from printed page to animation, but not Superman. This timeless character was featured in a series of 17 incredible theatrical cartoons that ran from 1941 to 1943. Original production art pieces from these very well-made shorts are practically impossible to find today, but of course, that never stopped us! Here’s an original hand-painted background from the fourth cartoon in the series, The Arctic Giant.

The Arctic Giant Superman Series - Metropolis Painted Background (Max Fleischer, 1942)

The Arctic Giant Superman Series – Metropolis Painted Background (Max Fleischer, 1942)

There was one fondly-remembered superhero series that was created especially for television. I’m talking about Hanna-Barbera’s Space Ghost. Master comic book artist Alex Toth designed this masked character, which first appeared in 1966. It’s interesting to note that the voice of Space Ghost in that original series was by Gary Owens, best known as the announcer on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. If a classic image of this powerful hero has been on your want list, here’s just the thing – an action pose cel on an original Master background!

Space Ghost Publicity Cel with Master Production Background (Hanna-Barbera, 1966 1967)

Space Ghost Publicity Cel with Master Production Background (Hanna-Barbera, 1966/67)

In addition to these great lots, check out the auction for items from Star Trek: The Animated Series (a personal favorite); The Iron Giant; Dragon’s Lair; Jonny Quest; even Underdog! Plus, there’s one you’ve just got to see – Scooby-Doo as a muscle-bound, costumed hero! Excelsior!

Posted by David Tosh

David Tosh is a cataloger for the Animation Art department. He is also the author of Rise of the Superheroes: Greatest Silver Age Comic Books and Characters and editor of the Eisner Award-nominated Walt Kelly’s Fables and Funnies. His most recent book is Jumbo Mumbo.

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