The Herculoids meeting Jonny Quest and Hadji. The Galaxy Trio and Birdman sharing a weird adventure together. Mightor and Space Ghost combining past and future. It’s all going to happen and, from the looks of Future Quest #1, these team-ups are going to be freakin’ awesome.
Future Quest stars characters that started out as protagonists in cartoons which were aimed squarely at children. But this is not primarily a comic book for kids. It’s for grown-ups who never forgot what it meant to love the assembly-line entertainments that Hanna-Barbera pumped out for Saturday mornings. Despite the ungainly animation and recognisable templates that characterised the company’s productions, the Hanna-Barbera action-hero cartoons of the 1960s had just enough jazzy presentation and aesthetic spark to spawn a legion of fans. I got hooked as a kid, drawn in by the fetching character designs and superheroes I never saw in print.
Desperate for danger and believable pseudo-science, I’d tune in the bunny-ear antennae of our static-plagued family TV to whatever broadcast station was carrying reruns of The Herculoids. Years later, I’d follow those shows onto Cartoon Network when I was in university. That love still burned strong and I scooped up comic-book series based on Space Ghost and Jonny Quest whenever I could find them for cheap.
When DC Comics’ re-imagination of old Hanna-Barbera properties was announced months ago, Future Quest was the only title I was instantly on board for. As a guy who’s been in thrall to these characters for more than 30 years, I vibrated intensely upon hearing the idea at the heart of the book: throwing old-school Hanna-Barbera action heroes into one big ongoing crossover series, anchored by Jonny Quest, the kid with the best cartoon theme music ever made. (Fight me.) The question, however, would be how to create any kind of harmony from the little bits of world-building that got doled out of the 10-minute shorts.
The first thing that Future Quest creative team — writer Jeff Parker with artists Evan ‘Doc’ Shaner, Steve Rude, Jordie Bellaire and Dave Lanphear — gets right is a decision not to drastically update anything. Brought to life via Bellaire’s excellent command of vivid pastels and gem tones, the linework by Shaner and Rude perfectly channels the mid-century, spy-fi aesthetic that made the Hanna-Barbera shows so visually appealing. The technology created by Dr Benton Quest and arch-nemesis Dr Zin lives in clean, sinuous industrial design silhouettes that could have been manufactured at any time in the last 50 years. Sure, there are more modern touches like hologram displays and mentions of GPS, but none of it breaks the spell cast by the original cartoons.
Future Quest #1 opens with a corps of superpowered soldiers making a last stand against a Lovecraftian-styled xeno-organism. An unnamed captain receives familiar-looking power bands from dying commanding officer General Orxis and wields them to help fuel a final victorious energy burst that vanquishes the tentacled Omikron. This cosmic captain is the only survivor, a ghost of a once-proud brotherhood. From there, the scene shifts to the Quest compound in Palm Key where Jonny and Hadji swoop around in jetpacks looking for signs of the interdimensional vortexes that have been popping up all over the world. While they do that, Dr Quest receives a visit from Inter-Nation agent Ray Randall so that he can brief the hawk-owning operative on his findings.
The expectations around something like Future Quest are weighty. At least two or three generations of fans have decades of nostalgic attachment to these characters and concepts, holding on despite the inescapable knowledge that they’re way too old to be still hyped about boys-adventure stuff. Then there’s the satirical reinvention that some of these characters have gone through.
Harvey Birdman, Attorney-at-Law recast the sun-guzzling hero as a bumbling barrister where he handled cases like a custody battle between Benton Quest and Race Bannon. That episode mined supposedly veiled homoerotic subtext for laughs. In similar fashion, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast turned the burly galactic avenger into an addled talk show host. The Venture Bros. is a mirror-darkly riff on the whole action cartoon genre, with its main characters expressly built to take the piss out of Jonny, Race, Dr Quest and their enemies and friends.
The transgressive goofiness of these shows are the most recent touchstones people have for the properties being revived in Future Quest. Despite that, Parker and crew present a sharp, matured take on Jonny Quest and his corporate action-hero cousins.
When Ray Randall muses aloud about the political contradictions of a private scientist like Dr Quest taking money from the government, it’s like hearing the kind of postmodern conversations that adults have been having about the ramifications of the actions of their childhood favourites.
Other little touches make the book sing. Parker’s dialogue spellings and Shaner’s expressive art combine to make Bandit sound like the scrappy comedic mascot that livened up proceedings of old Jonny Quest shows. Birdman’s transformation invokes genuine awe, making him seem cooler and more mysterious than ever hinted at in his paint-by-number adventures. There’s a foreboding air around Space Ghost that drives home the idea that he’s an aggressively spooky entity from beyond the Milky Way.
This series is prepping readers for meet-brutes they only dreamed of, culture clashes amongst characters who barely had any culture to speak of. The Impossibles, Herculoids and their ilk were meant to be disposable entertainments, discarded once viewers got pulled away by other distractions. They have endured almost by accident, preserved by quirks of nostalgia and copyright portfolio management. Future Quest feels like the evolution they have been inexorably drifting towards, a grown-up interpretation that feeds fans’ inner children with clever reinvigoration.