It’s hard to know for sure, but I suspect that the first super hero that I followed with any regularity wasn’t Superman or Batman or the Flash–it was Underdog.
Produced in 1964 by a portion of the team that worked on Rocky & Bullwinkle as well as a number of cereal commercials, Underdog was a surprisingly good show, one that still holds up despite its limited animation. Some of that is the fact that it was written on multiple levels in the manner of Rocky & Bullwinkle (though not to the same extent or depth), and the fact that it’s simultaneously a very funny send-up of the super hero concept that at the same time functions as a legitimate super hero show, with recurring colorful villains, life-or-death traps, a cliffhanger structure, and a hero you could root for. It also had a great voice cast, led by Wally Cox as the lead character.
Underdog first appeared as a pilot segment of the Tennessee Tuxedo Show before being spun out into its own program. By the time I would have started watching it in the late 1960s or early 1970s, it was in syndication–where it and a number of other shows controlled by Total Television, the producers, had been mixed and matched together. A typical Underdog storyline ran for four 4:30 minute chapters, but in each episode of the syndicated package, you would get one chapter as an opener and one as a closer, with the center two sections taken up with either a Tennessee Tuxedo story (starring the great Don Adams as Tennessee, and F-Troop’s Larry Storch as the all-knowing Phineas J Whoopie), or a Go-Go Gophers short (one of the most racist cartoons ever made, and one I never really warmed to) and a Klondike Cat (not much better.) There’d also be a quick Commander McBragg short in the mix–those I loved, as the Commander told tall tales of his many absurd adventures around the globe.
For those to whom this ancient cartoon is a new thing, Underdog (a name I just accepted as a four-year-old, having no idea what an underdog was) was typically the humble and loveable Shoeshine Boy. But when trouble would break out (typically because Underdog’s Lois Lane-style girlfriend Sweet Polly Purebread had gotten into a jam–although I always thought that Polly was a heck of a lot sharper and more capable than the Lois of the 60s), Shoeshine would make for a nearby phone booth, and explode out of it as Underdog, a flying canine super hero with all of the typical Superman/Captain Marvel powers one would expect. Underdog was hell on phone booths–it’s no wonder they no longer exist. He seemingly had to destroy one in order to power up.
Underdog was also a drug addict, of sorts. In those more innocent days, when Underdog would find his energy waning, or he was in a spot from which he couldn’t extricate himself (typically in chapter four), he would open up the secret compartment in his ring and gulp down an Underdog Super Energy Pill. These sequences started to get cut out of reruns by the end of the 1970s, which I somehow find a shame, as they were perfectly harmless.
Underdog also had a crew of great villains. My favorite was always Riff Raff, a Warner Brothers-esque gangster who carried a tommy gun and who was a dedicated gangster of the old school type. I will still occasionally evoke his war cry of “camouflage and sabotage” to people. Underdog’s main foe, though, was Simon Bar Sinister, a Luthor or Sivana-esque evil mad scientist who sounded like Lionel Barrymore. His straight man henchman Cad was also a hoot. But there were a dozen more. Overcat, his evil counterpart, and Battyman, the vampire, and Tap-Tap the Chisler, who looked just like Underdog. And Riff Raff’s secret weapon, the guy known as “Just In Case”.
Another thing I dug about Underdog was his sense of social justice, as it developed–and, in fact, I more recently advocated to give the same sort of approach to Squirrel Girl. In several different episodes, Underdog would face threats from outer space, from other planets who were attacking the Earth because of some problem they had. Underdog not only warded off these attacks and triumphed over the invaders, but in virtually every story he went the extra mile and fixed the attacking planet’s problem too. That’s such a small thing, but so significant in these take-no-prisoner days. I suspect that Underdog helped to form my own underlying sense of morality in this way–the job wasn’t done just because the good guys won, it was necessary to help the bad guys as well.
Underdog also had a great theme song and title sequence–so great that there were two separate versions with two different stanzas. All throughout, the music, while only a few cues, is good and strong and fits the piece. Plus, Underdog always spoke in rhyme for some reason (which he didn’t do as Shoeshine Boy.) The classic Underdog rejoinder from the pilot being: “I am a hero who never fails. I can’t be bothered by such details.”