Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law, Vol. 2

Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law, Vol. 2


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Back in 1985, Alan Moore pitched an idea to DC Comics for a murder mystery plot that would revitalise but also disassemble the Mighty Avengers, a discontinued yet recognisable line of superheroes that DC had recently acquired from Charlton Comics. Worried about what Moore was intending to do with their latest assets, DC proposed that Moore instead create his very own superheroic archetypes – and so the single most influential comic series of all time, Watchmen, was born, and with it a new age in cartoon postmodernism.

Ever since then, we have all been reaping the rewards, or at least picking up the pieces, of Moore's deconstructive innovations - and while, with its lightning-paced surrealism and high camp, Harvey Birdman Attorney At Law might seem a world away from the ideological earnestness of Watchmen, it is definitely part of the Moore legacy.

Copy picture

Both, after all, are concerned with the fates of retired superheroes still yearning to play their part, however unhinged, in the workings of justice – although in the case of Michael Ouweleen and Erik Richter's madcap animated series created for Cartoon Network's late-night [adult swim] programming block, the veteran crimefighters and supervillains have all been drawn from the Sixties and Seventies TV cartoonwork of Hanna-Barbera (much like the eponymous protagonist of Cartoon Network's Space Ghost Coast to Coast).

Once the winged star of Hanna-Barbera's Birdman and the Galaxy Trio (1967-9), Harvey (voiced by Gary Cole) is a third-rate hero turned third-rate defence attorney for a shonky law firm founded by his one-time (and one-eyed) handler Falcon Seven, now known as Phil Ken Sebben (Stephen Colbert). Harvey's former ward Birdboy has now become his legal clerk Peanut (Thomas Allen), and his erstwhile sidekick, the purple eagle Avenger, is now his cawing legal secretary.

Other colleagues include useless yet preternaturally successful hippo Peter Potamus (Chris Edgerly) and a large, speechless Bear, while Harvey's mortal enemy of yesteryear Reducto (also Stephen Colbert), is now faced only as prosecutor in the courtroom or opponent in the squash courts, and another supervillain, Mentok the Mind Taker (John Michael Higgins), now serves as a mischievous judge. Old nemesis X the Eliminator (Peter MacNicol) still harbours a grudge against Harvey, but it has reduced the now-flabby assassin to the role of haplessly obsessive stalker.

Harvey's clients, too, are a who's who of Hanna-Barbera cast-offs, all struggling to cope with the complexities of modern life. In the 13 episodes (straddling Series Two and Three) that make up this second of three volumes, Secret Squirrel faces charges of public flashing, Grape Ape of steroid abuse, Wally Gator of 'being a redneck', Ricochet Rabbit of property destruction, Morocco Mole of terrorist activities, and Quick Draw McGraw of carrying a concealed guitar, while Yakky Doodle seeks a name change, the Jetsons try to sue us all for ruining their future, and Captain Caveman takes his son's school to court for refusing to teach evolution (with talking ape Magilla Gorilla appearing as a witness).

The characters (and opening credits sequence) may all be wonderfully retro, but nonetheless it is very much the preoccupations of our own age that are on trial here, as the show satirises everything from Bush-era surveillance culture (in the episode Blackwatch Plaid) to sports doping (Grape Juiced), from attention deficit disorder (X Gets The Crest) to religious fundamentalism (Evolutionary War), from business efficiency drives (Gone Efficien…t) to cosmetic surgery (Droopy Botox), from excessive litigiousness (Harvey's Civvy) to global warming (Back To The Present), from gun laws to the corporatisation of the electoral system (both in Guitar Control), and from the witch hunts of the war on terror to sexual inequality in the workplace (both in Birdgirl Of Guantanamole). Justice itself, of course, is presented as arbitrary and entirely marginal, taking a backseat to office politics, bottom lines, lechery and all manner of irrelevant distractions. Essentially, this is a flash-animated Ally McBeal – only infinitely more anarchic, and with banalised superpowers to boot.

Each episode comprises 11 phantasmagorical minutes where seemingly anything can happen - and it happens fast, in a compressed fever dream of pop culture references, savvy commentary, and smutty innuendo, all bound together by Harvey's peppy cluelessness. It is jaw-droppingly funny, but also somewhat perplexing: an utterly crazy cartoon for a world - our own - that is implied to be just as crazy. If only, one might suppose, the Mighty Avengers and their ilk could miraculously return to wipe out all the problems of today – but Harvey Birdman Attorney At Law exposes the folly in imagining that modern ills call for old-school heroics.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2009
Share this with others on...
Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law, Vol. 2 packshot
The trials and tribulations of Hanna-Barbera's third-rate superhero turned third-rate lawyer.
Amazon link

Director: Richard Ferguson-Hull

Writer: Michael Ouweleen, Erik Richter and others

Starring: Voices of Gary Cole, Stephen Colbert, Thomas Allen, John Michael Higgins, Chris Edgerly, Maurice LaMarche, Paget Brewster, Tom Kenny, Peter MacNicol, Debi Mae West, Phil LaMarr, Bill Farmer

Year: 2004

Runtime: 151 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


Search database: