Last weekend I rented the old Hanna Barbara cartoon Birdman, along with his Saturday morning companions, the Galaxy Trio. The bright primary colors and sharp contrasts led me to start painting, and what you see here is the result. (It’s pretty much straight from a stopped frame, the title cell of “The Eye of Time”–a fabulous episode, wherein the trio get sucked into a “time tornado” hanging over the northern hemisphere of the Earth and end up in medieval Scandinavia for a day, helping the Vikings fight off invading Romans, all of whom speak Modern English). While I was painting I did some thinking on cartoons in general, and those created in America in the late 1960’s in particular, like Birdman, Galaxy Trio, Johnny Quest, and Space Ghost. Before going any farther, I must mention the late Alex Toth, a DC Comics artist who created all of the above cartoons, along with the Superfriends and several others. I know very little about him, or any comic artists really, and will only say that his sense of color is my favorite among twentieth century graphic artists.
Meteor Man (front and center in the painting), Gravity Girl, and Vapor Man make up the Galaxy Trio. They travel through space and time, fighting off pirates, evil geniuses, bad robots, invading lava men, et cetera. Sometimes they’re informed by the Interplanetary Space Patrol, an intergalactic U.N.-type authority; other times they’re cruising by a planet in their rather obscenely shaped rocket ship (it looks not unlike a pair of breasts with a long pointy tail) and hear a distress call. Their individual powers are often not enough to defeat the forces they encounter; teamwork is crucial to their success.
Meteor Man has the ability to instantly grow in size and strength but is slightly dull; Gravity Girl can manipulate gravity such that opponents lose hold of their guns or footing but is susceptible to all human weaknesses; Vapor Man is able to change his form (and temperature) from solid to liquid at will, making him impossible to cage, but weirdly vulnerable in other ways. Frequently, one of the trio escapes while the other two are trapped (poisonous gas knocks out Gravity Girl and Meteor Man, Vapor Man is unharmed), and the escapee must free his companions. The trio’s relationship is strictly platonic; there is the occasional fond remark between old friends, but you get the sense they’re held together by their common mission, and by their oddities. They don’t fit in anywhere they go, and though grateful planetary leaders ask the trio to stay after defeating the invading force, they never do. Their spaceship, constantly in motion, is their home.
A theme throughout the Galaxy Trio, Space Ghost, the Superfriends, and down on earth, Johnny Quest, is the supremacy of the rule of law. Take the Galaxy Trio: when there’s a prison break on the “prison planet,” the greatest fear is not of any particularly evil criminal and what further harm they might inflict, but of the state of anarchy that ensues. Rounding up the escaping convicts and freeing the imprisoned guards is pretty much all that matters; there is no individuality among the criminals, they’re like a faceless horde charging the trio. The three criminal masterminds, who manage to beam aboard the trio’s ship, could be triplets, identical except for their beard colors. They only talk about trying to get away from jail, nothing of future crimes and exploits–but the Galaxy Trio doesn’t rest until they’re re-caught, dumped back in the same cell they broke out of. The prison guards re-assume control, and order is restored. Could this be a reflection of our government’s credo in 1967? That order must rule over growing social chaos?
In another episode, I forget the title, a cunning robot named Calcatron revolts and throws down the planet’s human king, planning to enslave all humans in service to robots (as the robots had been enslaved by the humans). The robots are identical, all wearing blue overalls and caps, advancing in endless rows: pure anti-Communist propaganda. The workers rising up to dethrone the ruling class. After the Galaxy Trio defeats the robot masses (Gravity Girl tells the restored king, “A machine can never rule over men: it has no heart”), Calcatron’s deactivated robot shell is erected as a statue, warning all of the dangers of ignoring unrest in lower social classes. Calcatron’s bald head and stern grimace look more than a little like Lenin standing watch over Leningrad.
And what of the trio’s individual powers? What do they symbolize? Meteor Man is like the good soldier, strong and unintelligent, always following the orders of his companions. He knows his place, he never uses his superior strength for personal glory. On seeing the cartoon for the first time, my nine year old friend Tristan said, “Meteor Man’s the only one with real powers.” Like the ideal soldier, Meteor Man doesn’t realize the potential, for good and evil, of his own endless strength.
Galaxy Girl is both feminine and masculine; her voice is low, deeper than Vapor Man’s. And though bright red hair, her body and her go-go boots are distinctly feminine, not an inch of skin outside of her face and hands is visible, and she never flirts or uses her wiles in service to the trio (or otherwise); it’s like she’s suppressing her sexuality to serve the common good. Frequently she is the only woman in an entire episode; while her physical self separates her from all other characters, her low voice and unaffected dialogue are completely in line with the men. Her superpower is kind of weak in comparison with her partners, but Gravity Girl’s intelligence often saves the day, another possible late 60’s commentary. (And, though I acknowledge “Gravity Woman” sounds terrible, it is worth noting that the superheroine is merely a girl, while the superheroes in her crew are “men”.)
And lastly, Vapor Man. I mentioned that his powers are the strangest of the trio, and this leaves him somehow vulnerable; I think it’s because he’s the least human, in looks and abilities. His skin is green, like a “real” alien, and his ability to shape-shift into vapor often leaves him alone, having snuck off where no one else can follow him. Only seldom does he even appear with legs; his usual form is half-man, half-green gaseous cloud. Like a chimera. Could he stand as a dark vision of the chemical warrior? Of the man who gives up his humanity to serve the state? Can he father human children, or is he without the necessary biological means? And does he even have parents, or was he “born” of a vapor cloud?
Sure I’m reading too deep into all this; they’re just cartoons, right? Well I can’t help it, I always look too deep into everything visual, from cartoons to modern art to silent movies. I don’t know how to wrap these thoughts up, so I’ll just let them trail off, into the strange cosmic atmospheres circling over Earth…