In the words of superhero historian Jeff Rovin, “Bias because of phylum has no place in the enlightened universe of the superhero.” Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Underdog #1 awaits!
Writer: Frank Johnson (?)
Penciler: Frank Johnson
Inker: Frank Johnson
Editor: Sal Gentile
Publisher: Charlton Comics
Cover Price: 15 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $160.00
Previously in Underdog: Initially created to star in cartoons to shill the breakfast cereals of General Mills (not to be confused with Hayley Mills, the star of ‘Good Morning, Miss Bliss’, which became ‘Saved By The Bell’), the adventures of mild-mannered Shoeshine Boy quickly became the biggest hit in Total Television’s arsenal. One of the great successes of early syndication, ‘The Underdog Show’ managed to make sixty-odd episodes run endlessly for decades and are fave-raves of my misspent youth. This first issue opens with a somewhat faithful adaptation of of Underdog episodes 8 through 11, ‘Zot!’, a four-part serialized story that starts with an ordinary day for our intrepid hero.
Meanwhile, in deep space, “a million million miles away”, the king of the planet Zot finds that his beloved daughter wants to marry a big, strong man. the strongest in the world! Since he can’t say no to her big blue eyes (all three of ’em), he engineers a planet-wide gladiatorial competition to choose her new husband. In this story, there is no winner, as all the… men? Let’s go with men… all the men of Zot are left injured. (In the original cartoon, Princess Glissando punches the survivor, Seymour, and knocks him out, proving that he’s not strong enough for her.) The King orders Goggol, his chief advisor, to seek out another method of matrimony, leading to a brainstorm.
I’m actually kind of entertained by the simple art of Frank Johnson, maintaining the unique design aesthetic of the show while working around a lack of animation (and given the limited animation of the original program, sometimes that sense of movement is the only thing keeping the cartoon’s story going.) King Klobber sends his entire fleet to Earth to capture his new son-in-law, but the combined military might of Zot is hard-pressed to overpower one super-energy-pill-enhanced basset hound.
Funnybook cartoon adaptations are a mixed bag at time, especially when it comes to Charlton’s output, which is focused on timely delivery of product over artistic statements, but this issue captures much of the fun of watching an Underdog episode. (It lacks the secondary features, like Go-Go Gophers, though, and I miss the excited narration of George Irving, aka Mister Heat Miser.) This condensed adaptation also lacks the two-headed dragon of the original, probably due to a lack of space, but it does provide a slightly more coherent ending for the Princess’ obsession with Underdog, as Klobber punches Goggol in the head, injuring his royal hand.
This issue also features some cool coloring pages, a number of one-page gags that capture the general sense of the short transitional cartoons that filled out syndicated U-Dog episodes, a poster and a coupon for membership in the Underdog fan club, including choice of t-shirt or sweatshirt for $2.50. Interestingly, the second story features a focus on Underdog’s special ring, with its secret compartment that house the pill that gives him his powers.
That final panel is interesting, as Underdog doesn’t seem to be actually putting the super-energy pill in his mouth, presaging the editing of the original episodes in later runs, where references to Underdog taking a pill for his powers were excised as often as possible, as encouraging children to take pills became somewhat less socially acceptable. By the mid-1970s, only those moments that couldn’t be safely edited out remained, making me wonder if this story was likewise restricted.
For the most part, Underdog #1 is a success, especially for the target demographic, and is a more faithful take than many similar funnybook versions, earning a better-than-average 3 out of 5 stars overall. You can’t fault a clear, simple, entertaining comic book for what it is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go color in the coloring pages.
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Charlton adaptations can be a mixed bag, but this one nails the tone of the material and does so with art that's clear and on-model. If you run across this issue, my advice is grab it.