Right now, Starship’s “We Built this City” is playing on loop, filling up the room from the pokey iTunes on my pokey Macbook. Not guided by the strange staccato magic of the Shuffle, not this time, Starship is an active choice on my part. A moment like this, the moment where I begin to round the corner on rereading Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation for first time, demands the perfect power ballad soundtrack.
I’m at the Preface again, and immediately I find myself awash in that same dramatic tension. It’s the darkest moment Filmation will ever see, because should they fail now, we all fail. Should Lou, and his partners Hal Sutherland and Norm Prescott, fail now, there’ll be no Archies, no Groovy Ghoulie Show, no Star Trek: The Animated Series, no He-Man & the Masters of the Universe, no Bravestarr, no Superman, no Batman. (For the latter, at least no Saturday morning cartoon shows). And none of the minds inspired by more than a generation of such shows would shine out. And consequently, the world we know today would simply go out like a light.
It’s 1965, and only a few months after Lou and his partners broke away Harmon Studies to go it alone. They were working in Los Angeles, in the film industry, but working in the medium of animation. Filmation seemed the right name for the nascent company, it popped with just the right fun and daring and dedication. Lou though, never really like the name that much. His concerns might very soon be at an end. There he sat in a studio emptied of animators 24 desks vacant of their animators. Down the hall, Lou’s partner Hal Sutherland had begun his over shutting-down process. The third partner, Norm Prescott was already at his motel on Sunset, packing for one last Hail Mary trip to New York the following morning.
And it’s exactly at that moment that Mort Weisinger, group editor of Superman out at then-named National Publishing, called. In a real life case of broken telephone, Hal had taken the call and misidentified the caller as “Superman Weisinger”. But the call was long distance and was already being paid for by the caller, so Lou takes the call when Hal hands him the phone. And what does Lou do? He cracks wise. “Hello Mr. Superman, are you calling from a phone booth somewhere?”. Lou figured it was nothing but a prank call. It was anything but. A new head of programming at CBS had a radical idea—what if you could program for the Saturday morning cartoons? Weisinger had just received an unexpected call himself.
It wasn’t the end for Filmation of course. It was a beginning. For the company, and for us all. Filmation’s success is deeply tied in with American cultural ascendancy on the global stage. Escaping the War relatively unscathed would provide America with only so much of a head-start. The real American victory, the moral victory over dehumanizing group-think that provided the emotional center for standing against the ideals of Communism, would come from, and come to be defined by the cultural trends perpetuated by ordinary Americans.
Left to Right (Caricature): Hal Sutherland, Lou Scheimer, Norm Prescott (with Ira Epstein in inset) (caricature by Eddie Friedman)
Lou, Hal and Norm, all of Filmation comes to us from across a great distance in time. At a moment when the economy was far less rigid, and you could still find yourself as an ordinary worker at one moment, and transition into business-owner the next. And at a time when the popcultural practices that emphasized the pursuit of happiness, popcultural practices like surfing or skateboarding or hotrodding or animation or rock n roll, came to be a rallying point for the free world.
And beyond the geopolitical, Filmation cartoons made profound statements about personal development. Heroes of Filmation shows came in teams. They pooled their resources. They solved problems by enlisting resources scattered throughout human history. They built the future, often by hand. Even Superman was never alone, he had Lois and Jimmy and Perry. Just as he had the Justice League. Watch Filmation cartoons often enough, and the idea of the impossible begins very much to look like a staging area for an awfully grand adventure.
And the impossible is exactly what happened next. The minds that would eventually build computers and the internet during 70s, restructure the financial industry during the ‘80s, build cellphone networks and develop legislature that allowed for the internet to propagate during the ‘90s and set the stage for social media in the 00s would incubate in the brightly-colored screens of Filmation cartoons.
The memories roll from the page fluently and lucidly. To read is to be immersed in the immediacy of the history of Filmation. From the startup in the ‘60s to the high point in the ‘70s/‘80s and even a generation prior that would see Sam Scheimer, Lou’s dad, storm a Nazi gathering in prewar Germany and deck out Hitler, decades before Jack Kirby would immortalize a similar scene on the cover of Captain America.
And although there’s no variance in the narration, Andy Mangels’ voice as coauthor is abundantly clear. Writing is the work of isolation, Paul Auster reminds us. And almost always, that loneliness during the production is abundantly clear in the work that is produced. Not this time. Creating the Filmation Generation feels exactly like the inside of a Filmation cartoon—where a strong supportive environment brings together a team with diverse skills and talents, and things are discussed openly before a plan of action is decided.
Creating the Filmation Generation feels like the long, bitter march of history isn’t quite so long, or quite as bitter. It feels like sitting down in the same room as Lou and Andy and listening to them as they plan out the next chapter. Feels like Andy asking what’s next. And Lou just smiling and saying, “We got time, Andy. We got time”.