As we reach the end of Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, it seems only appropriate to go back to the beginning. To celebrate the end (?), Warner Home Video released a complete set of the original Birdman & The Galaxy Trio.
The extra featurette refers to Birdman as "The Forgotten Hero," and sure, in the years before Adult Swim revived him, he didn't have nearly the hold on fans' memories that Space Ghost did. (That DVD set was also released last week.) Yet in his original incarnation, the character, never called Harvey, hews much closer to standard superhero fare of the sixties than you might think.
In episode after episode, Birdman battles a paramilitary organization called (and pronounced alphabetically) FEAR. Though other villains appear, they tend to have only tangential connections to the organization. The very first episode, "X the Eliminator," will probably look familiar to Harvey Birdman fans, as FEAR's plan with the hooded X actually spun off into several Adult Swim episodes. The slightly pudgy villain has to prove he has killed Birdman by bringing them his crest, an obsession that would echo decades later.
Surprisingly, the Adult Swim show really didn't do much to exaggerate the voice work from the original series. Peter MacNicol may be slightly more shrill than the original X, but not by much. Give Gary Cole credit for his modern-day portrayal of Harvey, but it's a shame more people don't know Keith Andes, originator of the role, who imbues it with dignity even while things around him get ridiculous.
And despite Hanna-Barbera's efforts to make this a serious adventure show, at times it is ridiculous. Even putting aside Birdman's Bond-like volcano headquarters, it had to stretch the boundaries of even 60s kids' imaginations when Mentok the Mind-Taker secretly built his own volcano lair right next to Birdman's, never noticed, not even when he had carved a huge "M" in the side to mark where the loading dock was.
The strange but effective pacing of the Adult Swim shows also doesn't stray too far from the original production. Many shots linger on special effects for several beats too long, perhaps so that young audiences could register what was happening. Both heroes (Birdboy aka Peanut and Birdgirl are both here) and villains pause for dramatic effect time and time again.
In the featurette, a couple of the original animators make a good point about the style. When Hanna-Barbera turned to "serious" shows like this, it required a breaking down of everything the artists knew about animation. They couldn't do the standard squash and stretch, which would make everything look silly. So they went the other way, having characters strike poses and hold them, a compromise between cartoons and what these men thought comics were.
Michael Ouwleen, co-creator and co-executive producer of Harvey Birdman, dominates the documentary, but it's also clear that he has a lot of respect and affection for the original. A good section of it pays tribute to Alex Toth, and Ouwleen can do little more than lovingly hold up the original character design sheets and read Toth's notes. Anything that can help people understand what a pioneer and true original Toth was has to be worthwhile.
The Galaxy Trio segments don't quite have the pop. Ouwleen theorizes the characters were Hanna-Barbera's reaction to Star Trek, and indeed, some elements do seem lifted right out of Trek, including transporter beams. They're fun, but the real allure on this set is still Birdman.
So get this forgotten hero. Spend some time getting to know him. Next week we'll talk more of his reincarnation as an attorney-at-law.
Birdman and the Galaxy Trio: The Complete Series