For Superhero Day: Of “Mighty Mouse” and “The MIghty Heroes”

Someone has decreed today to be Superhero Day and who am I to argue? While I have gotten more than my share of enjoyment out of most of the key comic book franchises, parody (of ANYTHING) is closer to my true poison. So today some tribute to the ground-breaking superhero parodies of Terrytoons. It’s time to get the situation well in hand.

Terrytoons was the cartoon studio of Paul Terry, who (inspired by Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur) had been making cartoons since 1915. Initially affiliated with Educational Pictures, Terrytoons became the official animated product of Fox/ 20th Century Fox, in a distribution arrangement not unlike Walt Disney’s with R.K.O. or the Fleischer Brothers’ with Paramount. The character of Superman was only four years old in 1942 when Terry animator Isidore Klein got the idea of creating a parody of Superman, who would be a flying bug. Terry refined the idea into a mouse (after all, the most popular animated character of all, Mickey, happened to be of that species). The idea had even more traction because Fleischer had launched their animated Superman cartoons the previous year. Mighty Mouse (initially called Super Mouse) was therefore a mash-up of popular Disney and Fleischer cartoon stars. And, much like another popular Fleischer character, Popeye, the plots would often parody old time melodrama, the stories involving the hero, the villain, and the damsel in distress. Terry intensified that element and made it more literal. The damsel was named Little Nell or Pearl Pureheart and the villain was a large cat named Oil Can Harry. Some of them went so far as to take on the shape of operetta. My first exposure to “The Girl of the Golden West”, for example,  was in a Mighty Mouse cartoon. And naturally its well-remembered theme song (“Here I come to save the day!”), later revived in lip-sync version by Andy Kaufman, stems from that impulse. Also, the Mighty Mouse shorts would  often parody classic works of popular literature, e.g., Jekyll and Hyde, Svengali, Swiss Family Robinson etc etc etc. They were endlessly clever and charming and I wish I was watching some with my old high school buddies right now!

In 1955, Mighty Mouse and Terrytoons’ other most popular franchise, Heckle and Jeckle (long overdue for a tribute here) came to television on CBS as Mighty Mouse Playhouse and this is when it truly exploded in popularity. Terrytoons produced new ones through 1961. Later, the character and his adventures were revived by Filmation (1979-80), and Ralph Bakshi (1987-89), and thereby hangs a tail…I mean, a tale.

Two decades earlier Bakshi had gotten his start at Terrytoons, producing his own original segments for Mighty Mouse Playhouse. The Mighty Heroes was a hilarious, more updated concept of sending up superheroes. Created in 1966 and 1967, the show spoofed superhero teams like the Justice League, the X-Men and The Avengers. The characters were Strong Man, Rope Man, Tornado Man, Cuckoo Man and — wait for it — Diaper Man. Most of them were voiced by Herschel Bernardi. The Mighty Heroes had a lot of slapstick. The characters were clumsy, they bungled their rescues and fell down a lot. Some of them, like Strong Man and Tornado Man, had what would be considered legit superpowers in the straight world of comics, although Strong Man didn’t know his own strength and Tornado Man caused inadvertent havoc with his wind powers. Cuckoo Man’s concept was a double-edge sword — he could fly like a cuckoo, but he was also crazy like a cuckoo. And Diaper Man got us real close to poo humor, although most of his ability seemed to stem from the many uses for his baby bottle, which he would also periodically suck from, which was downright weird. That last touch is probably the most characteristic Bakshi element — he later became known for pushing the boundaries by making X rated animated films. His best known later efforts include Fritz the Cat (1972), Lord of the Rings (1978), American Pop (1981), and Cool World (1992).

I find the timing of The Mighty Heroes interesting. It was created shortly after NBC had introduced Underdog in 1964. I adore Underdog, but you have to acknowledge that almost everything in it is borrowed from Mighty Mouse. Also true of Dudley Do-Right (1961) and Courageous Cat (1960), if you think about it, and I obviously have. And any superhero parody, including live action ones like The Greatest American Hero owe something to it. 

Mighty Mouse is far from dead. There have been other revivals besides those I’ve mentioned, and there is talk it may be revived yet again. Because that happens a lot to superheroes, even superhero parodies.