The Secret Life of the Other Birdman

Before Michael Keaton's critically-acclaimed movie, there was Ray Randall... Or should that be Harvey?
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman flew away with a best picture Academy Award on Sunday. It's another twist in the strange history of Birdman — a name that existed four decades before Michael Keaton stepped onto a window ledge to the concern of the audience, and a little-known character whose career includes appearances from comic book great Alex Toth, comedian Stephen Colbert and the launch of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

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The original Birdman arrived in the world Sep. 9, 1967 as one of the lead characters in the Saturday morning animated series Birdman and the Galaxy Trio. Created by comic book atist Alex Toth, the series was split into two separate strands of superhero adventure: The Galaxy Trio were three aliens who protected outer space as part of the “Galactic Patrol” law enforcement agency, while Birdman — real name Ray Randall — kept things safe down on Earth.

Inspired by DC Entertainment’s Hawkman in terms of both visuals — both characters sport enormous wings on their back — and origins (Both characters’ origins included Egyptian figures interacting with contemporary figures and giving them superpowers), Birdman was a somewhat dry hero who fought crime accompanied by both an eagle called Avengers and a sidekick called Birdboy. Despite the best attempts of all at Hanna-Barbera Studios, the series never quite caught the imagination of the audience and was cancelled after a couple of years.

Birdman didn’t stay retired for long, however; the series was revived as part of the 1980 syndicated package Hanna-Barbera’s World of Super-Adventure, with re-runs paired with episodes of similarly vintage adventure cartoons including Space Ghost and Dino Boy, Herculoids and Moby Dick and Mighty Mightor. Successful enough to stay in rotation for some time — the package was eventually renamed Super Adventures and would air as part of Cartoon Network’s launch line-up in 1992 — it wasn’t so popular as to lead to new Birdman adventures… although those were just around the corner, as it turned out.

The key to Birdman’s revival was, fittingly, failure. The character would show up in four episodes of Cartoon Network’s 1994 series Space Ghost Coast to Coast, recast as a depressed, desperate former superhero willing to try his hand at anything to make ends meet. He actually hosted the show twice, although unsuccessfully (He was fired both times), and gained a whole new name in the process: say goodbye, Ray Randall — you’re “Harvey Birdman” now.

By 2000, the groundwork has been laid for Birdman’s return to solo stardom via a show that was ostensibly a Space Ghost Coast to Coast spin-off, and also one of the first Adult Swim shows to air. Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law debuted in 2000, and became a series the next year, with the one-time superhero now working as a criminal defense attorney, in many cases defending villains he himself had put away in his original incarnation. Voiced with deadpan aplomb by Gary Cole, the series’ cast also included a pre-Colbert Report Stephen Colbert, Michael McKean and Paget Brewster playing over-eager sidekick Birdgirl.


 

Harvey Birdman ran through 2007, for a total of 37 episodes. In many ways, the show is a precursor to The Venture Bros, with a similarly loving sense of parody and deconstruction applied to the adventure cartoons of he late 1960s. The success of the show remade the character as a neurotic, uptight failure, however, so successfully parodying the (admittedly flat) hero of the original cartoons that it’s almost unimaginable that he could be salvaged as a straight lead in future.

On one hand, there’s no connection between Birdman the animated superhero and Birdman, the live-action movie — but on the other, there are strange thematic coincidences, as if the real-life transformation and deconstruction of the original in some way mirrored the more intentional deconstructionist tendencies of the movie. In some alternate world, the fictional movies within the world of Birdman the movie were explicitly updates of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons as much as the Tim Burton Batman was updating the DC Entertainment hero for a movie audience. In this one, we have to join the dots ourselves.

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