Nerd Factor: TV Comic Origins

Dr. Mike Robinson, LC Communication Studies Professor~

Superheroes have been part of the television landscape for a long time.  But for much of their early history on the medium, they arrived as cartoons or in live-action shows aimed squarely at children.  Batman (1966-1968) was the first primetime superhero hit.  While the brightly colored pop program had action sequences galore, its mission was often more pop movement camp than serious adventure.  Imitators followed that glorious show, but for me, there is an unsung hero of the genre.  

The Six Million Dollar Man arrived on ABC in 1974, after successfully testing out in a series of primetime specials the year before.  While Colonel Steve Austin was not quite what we think of as a traditional superhero, over five seasons (1974-1978), his adventures set the stage for a boom of network superhero programs.

Austin, played by Lee Majors, was an astronaut back in an era when our country still revered astronauts as cultural heroes.  Critically injured after a test flight accident, Austin was chosen to be the recipient of the titular expensive bionic replacement surgery.  As the opening credits legendarily pronounced, Austin was made “better than he was before.  Better, stronger, faster.”  His bionic right arm could lift great weights and strike with incredible power.  His new bionic legs allowed him to run at 60 mph.  And a new bionic eye made it possible for him to see at great distances.  

running man

Illustration by Genevieve Griffin

Of course the real genius of the show was the way that these powers were expressed on screen.  With every sports program today using slow motion video after every play or during every highlight reel, it’s hard to remember a time when that way of viewing seemed new.  But to 1970s eyes, slow motion added a bit of awe.  In a strange way, every bionic punch given to an enemy, leap up onto a roof, or sprint to catch a speeding vehicle was made more epic by slowing it all down.  And the famous accompanying sound effects, particularly the “na, na, na” bionic noise, added to the feats.

Steve Austin used his powers on missions for the Office of Science Intelligence, sometimes after being pressed by his boss and friend Oscar Goldman.  Some weeks, Austin would take on enemy agents.  Other weeks, he would get into absolutely bonkers situations, such as fighting a tank-like Russian Venus probe that accidentally crashed in rural America, stopping the Fembots who were replacing the administrative assistants of key government officials or battling Bigfoot, who was crazily enough a machine created by space aliens.  All the while, Austin was a straight-up American hero—a likable guy who used his powers to help others in need and his country.

Kids loved this show.  My friends and I spent hours slowly running around the playground while making bionic noises.  

Since success always breeds imitation, a wave of superhero shows followed.  Austin’s tennis pro girlfriend Jamie Sommers was injured in a skydiving accident. She, too, got bionic powers and her own show The Bionic Woman (1976-1978).  More traditional superheroes such as Wonder Woman (1975-1979) and The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982) arrived on the small screen, using their own blends of sound effects and slow motion to ramp up their action sequences.  

Steve Austin may not have worn a costume (unless 70s fashion counts), but he really was the first traditional superhero success story.

These links might be fun for the online version:

Title sequence–
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HoLs0V8T5AA

In action–
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Let6ReHUANQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7w4yd3aPnC4