The Age Of TV Heroes

Jim Burns reminisces about his own experiences with television as he thumbs through this almanac of TV heroes.

One afternoon, when I was about four, I was transfixed in front of the television set. There was no cartoon on, or sitcom, but an afternoon TV newscast. It wasn’t even a broadcast, but a newsread, with just a station logo on the screen. An aunt babysitting me wondered what a tot was doing, devoted to the news. Now I hadn’t suddenly become a budding journalist. I actually remember, oddly, that I was blowing off an episode of Astro Boy.

Somehow I had caught the announcer doing a story on how Batman, in the form of Adam West, had visited our real New York City Hall, and Mayor Lindsay, or someone (not Mayor Lindseed of the TV series’ Gotham), had given him some proclamation. I kept watching, hoping there might be a film clip of my fave, being honored.

Some time before, or maybe later, I had been roundly disappointed, when my family went to a local movie theatre waiting to see Adam West make a personal appearance, to promote the Batman feature film. With about 1000 other folks crowding the parking lot, we were stunned when neither the Batmobile, nor the actor, ever showed. It might have been my first lesson in being on the wrong end of a promotion gone bad. It wouldn’t be until years later that I learned that the sort of hard-to-believe, hard-now-to-remember Beatlemania kind of fervor that surrounded the first season of the Batman TV show, which debuted in January of 1966, had resulted in what was supposed to be West’s schedule that day totally going up in a cloud of bat-smoke.

All these memories came tumbling happily back to me, as I pored through Age Of TV Heroes, the profusely illustrated chronicle of almost every television superhero series ever produced, written by Jason Hofius and George Khoury. At first, it seemed odd to have a book about the genre with no material on The Lone Ranger (TV’s first masked crusader), or The Green Hornet, but Age is devoted only to those live action programs whose origins were based in comic books (rather than radio, pulp magazines, or movies). The range is impressive, from the obscure – such as a TV-movie adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, from 1987 – to the beloved (The Adventures of Superman), and even the unaired (1997’s Justice League Of America pilot).

While some of the text is occasionally clunky and at least a few of the factual claims disputable, many of the interviews are first rate.  It’s pleasing to finally read a history of the extremely rare Spider-Man vignettes that were shot beginning in 1974 for The Electric Company, a children’s program, on PBS,America’s “public television” network, and elsewhere.  The humorous ensemble show also marked the first major national exposure, for Morgan Freeman. There’s also an in-depth look at 1978’s short-lived dramatic CBS Spider-Man series – cancelled, we’re told, not for ratings, but because a network executive was embarrassed by fantasy shows. A nice surprise is the pages devoted to the virtually concurrent Japanese version of Spider-Man, which–in an entirely different series – subsituted a new identity and background for the character, now often seen fighting giant monsters (ala Ultraman).

The other Marvel Comics-based television presentations of the Seventies are also here (two Captain America pilots, a Dr Strange film, and The Hulk movies and series. Plus, there’s lengthy coverage of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Shazam!; as well as  chapters on the more recent The Tick and Smallville.

Perhaps the book’s most unique revelation details the creation of The Salute to the Super Heroes, a DC Comics water theme park show. The cavalcade  showcased water skiing stunts, motor boat racing (including The Batcraft), a few magic tricks and illusions, an elephant, and even the Flash being hoisted into the sky on a giant kite!  Fully scripted, with prerecorded music and narration, the aquatic cavalcade was forty five minutes long, and performed three to eight times daily, at Sea World in Ohio and Florida. Over twenty heroes and villains were featured – bolstered by the unusual inclusion of Mary Marvel, Black Canary and Captain Cold–making the extravaganza the largest assemblage ever of actors and athletes in costume for a live, regularly scheduled super hero production.

If Age Of TV Heroes seems like a fun, yet somehow incomplete package, it’s the book’s abundance of often stunning photos that may finally justify its relatively hefty price-tag: After nearly a lifetime of paying attention to this type of stuff, I was astonished to discover images that I’d never seen before.

Ultimately, Age Of TV Heroes made me recall the kind of happy miasma that can exist when you’re a child, where while some part of you may know that your favorite heroes aren’t real, you might quite not be sure. (One of my friends, who used to work in television news, likes to tell the story of how when a boy, he would put on his Batman cowl, and patrol his New York City block on tricycle, “protecting the citizens of his neighborhood”.)

Nor is the wonderful frisson that can come when seeing a childhood hero necessarily limited to one’s youngest years. My Dad, for his entire life, remembered the thrill he had, when as a teenager, in the early’40s, he saw Roy Rogers exiting Manhattan’s Statler Hilton Hotel, in full western regalia, making his way over to the rodeo. The book is also a reminder that some things do indeed come around. In fact, almost exactly twenty years after I was chagrined in the suburbs, I was a guest speaker at a comic book convention, in Manhattan. Adam West was also a guest. As my girlfriend and I sat in the audience, we couldn’t believe the excitement we felt, as that old Batman theme music pored from the sound system, and West came on stage. West, as many of you know, is absolutely charming and (as also represented in the book), a terrific raconteur on that special chapter of pop culture history.

And some fascinations, happily, never quite entirely go away.

James H. (Jim) Burns was a pioneer of the second wave of fantasy and science fiction movie magazines, being one of the first writers for STARLOG (and several other late 1970s publications), and a contributing editor to Fantastic Films, and Prevue.  Jim actually authored material for the very first history/trade paperback about Star Trek, that wasn’t written by someone involved with the show; and was a key figure in many of the era’s North Eastern
American comic book and Star Trek conventions.

He was one of the field’s first writers to cross over to such mainstream fare as Gentleman’s Quarterly, Esquire, and American Film, while still contributing to such genre stalwarts as Cinefantastique, Starburst, Heavy Metal and Twilight Zone magazines. He also wrote articles for Marvel and DC Comics.

More recently, Jim has made several contributions to Off-Broadway, and Broadway productions, become active in radio, and written op-eds, or features, for Newsday,, and The New York Times.

[isbn name=”Age Of TV Heroes”]978-1605490106[/isbn]