Monday, November 30, 2009

13 Random Observations About '90s Superhero Cartoons Spurred By Ben's Post From Friday

I was totally going to put up my photos highlighting what was on Ben's desk this morning, but after reading our editor's excellent essay on the fanboy impact either "Batman: The Animated Series" or "X-Men" left on a generation of burgeoning comic fans, I decided to post a response instead. This is basically going to be an expansive comment to that post so please read it before following my ramblings here, and know that there's no real thesis I'm working on outside getting down a bunch of thoughts about what Ben said, many of which will likely be expanded into their own more thoughtful posts at a later date. Oh, and looking back over this after it's's really long. I'm betting only Ben, TJ and Rickey will get through it. Look for the Ben desk tour later this week! - KP

1. Before I dive specifically into the impact the two greatest superhero cartoons of the '90s, I should note that unlike Ben "Batman: TAS" and "X-Men" weren't the initial drivers of my comic habit so much as shows that kept me hooked through my early adolescence. Like Ben, I was born early on in the '80s, but my comic habit started at a very young age and was brought about thanks to exposure to an earlier generation of TV adaptations. From around age five or six, I was watching superhero shows including "Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends," "Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show" and that more awesome as a memory than as an actual show "Superman" cartoon Ruby-Spears put out that just hit on DVD. I'm not sure these cartoons had a major impact on my falling in love with the comics form any more than my playing with Super Powers or Secret Wars toys did, really. Well, one impact they did have was that when I finally became heavily involved with the "universe" super stories of DC and Marvel around fifth grade, I was totally confused to find out that Spidey and Iceman weren't best buds or that Firestorm and Cyborg weren't important members of the Justice League, but those are really stupid when you think about it.

2. Without getting too far into it right now, I will say that the one show that's more responsible than any other thing in the universe for making me fall for comics was the Adam West "Batman" TV show from the '60s. As a very young boy, I was addicted to reruns of that series and watched each "new" installment with a total lack of irony. Adam West was Batman to me – a real living, breathing human being – and I found nothing about his adventures comical. Some day soon, I'll tell you the story about when I finally met the mad behind the cowl in real life, and you will shit a brick.

3. All that is more or less preamble to the fact that when my older brother Brian and I actually started buying comic books to get our superhero fix, it was pretty evident that Batman would be my reading bread and butter from the get-go. However for whatever reason, Brian gravitated towards the X-Men immediately despite having no earlier connection to the property like I did with the Dark Knight, so in the end I became pretty familiar with the core concepts if not the brass tack specifics of each property earlier than I understood anything else about any other comic books. In that respect, I was almost certainly pre-determined to love the '90s shows at the heart of Ben's post whether they sucked or not. Luckily, neither did.

4. Unlike Ben, during their respective primes sixth grader Kiel would have argued like a fucking crazy person that "Batman: TAS" was by far the superior show to "X-Men." Like, not even close, man. Surely a big part of this grew out of the amount of my own growing sense of identity I'd strangely poured into the Batman character from the age of five up – going from Adam West junkie to a fanatic participant in the "Batmainia" surrounding Tim Burton's 1989 film adaptation to diehard comic fanboy. And I'll readily admit that my early love for "TAS" sprung from the superficial elements it shared with the first Burton flick and "Batman Returns" (lest we forget, the show launched just after the release of the second movie, shared Danny Elfman's iconic theme music and took design nods specifically from Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny Devito's Catwoman and Penguin in its early seasons).

All that said, I'd like to think I'm remembering my own mind correctly when I say young Kiel also recognized the great amount of subtlety, style and smarts that elevated "TAS" beyond its kiddie fare brethren. When the show debuted, I'd already been reading Batman comics for years and had a grasp of how the characters could tell stories full of more "adult" themes and human emotions than most media geared towards kids in my age group could pull off. Neither the comics nor the cartoon were high art, but considering the fact that most of my peers were reading bullshit like Goosebumps, I think the respective work of guys like Marv Wolfman, Doug Moench, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini gave me a leg up on my understanding of how real, honest stories are told.

Though back then, I was hardly able to put into words why I knew Batman was a better show (some would argue I can't do it now!) I remember in seventh grade, my buddy Shawn Gelisse telling me "X-Men" was obviously way better because "Batman looks too cartoony but the X-Men looks like some real shit" followed by me chasing him down the hall and stammering about "TAS" having its own style or something totally ineffective against his air-tight logic.

5. Two other thoughts Ben's post pulled out of me that I couldn't fit in above: First, I also totally remember when Fox tried to show episodes of "TAS" during prime time on Sunday nights. I also remember that for whatever reason, they promoted the show as "Batman: The Series" for that brief run, and even then I didn't get how dropping "Animated" from the title was supposed to con people who didn't want to watch a cartoon into tuning in. I mean, it played in advance of "The Simpsons" for crying out loud. You'd think the network would assume SOME kind of adult audience would tune in without having to be tricked.

Second, perhaps unsurprisingly, unlike Rickey I could find no one to go see "Mask of the Phantasm" in theaters with me, so I had to wait for it to play on HBO.

6. Despite my extended rant above on how much smarter I was than Ben at that age (seriously, know I don't mean it to sound like that), I can't even pretend to deny that I fucking LOVED the X-Men animated series with every iota of my young being. And I agree with Ben that the show had many, many elements going for it that made it a much more attractive viewing option than almost anything on TV for boys (and girls!) of our generation. Like Ben said, the soap opera appeal of "X-Men" can't be denied. Though I was a passionate Batman supporter at that time, the "X-Men" was the only show I video-taped every Saturday so I could go back during the week and have my own mini marathons of the season up to that point (I think this started with the Halloween debut, which I taped while out trick-or-treating, meaning I still have the original animation from the pilot that was later corrected on reruns somewhere). And as each season rolled on, the show deepened its cast and mythology in endlessly engaging ways, culminating in the show's high point: their adaptation of Claremont and Byrne's entire "Phoenix Saga" cycle. Years later when the end of Bryan Singer's "X2" teased a similar adaptation for the movie version of the X-Men, most of my friends instantly caught the reference thanks to the cartoon, as I'd suspect most general audiences who got the "bird in the lake" closer would rather than having read the actual comics.

And yeah, the X-Men had a sheer "balls out crazy" factor going for it that "TAS" could never match. It may make the series look silly in a lot of places to fans today (or to older fans at the time of original broadcasting), but the off-kilter, over the top moments contained in each episode of that series remain highly entertaining to this day. At one point when we were all still at Wizard, Dave e-mailed around this YouTube compilation of the series bug fuck craziest moments, and for the rest of the week not a day went by where I wouldn't pass someone's desk to catch them watching it and giggling like crazy. To this day I lose my shit whenever one of the crew looks me in the eye and says, "The wild man of Borneo!"

7. One thing Ben didn't strike upon about both shows and how they related to burgeoning comic fans that had a particular impact on me was that each series had its own comic tie-in on sale each month for almost the entire course of each series' run. Like I said, I was already making regular trips to the comic shop by the time the shows debuted, but I know for a fact that buying both Batman Adventures and X-Men Adventures helped keep me a dedicated comics reader over the long haul in some pretty profound ways.

To start with X-Men Adventures: the series – and later other Marvel cartoon-to-comics efforts – took the track of adapting the episodes of the show as each 13-episode season broke down into a year's worth of publishing quite easily. While in general I wasn't all that big on buying comic adaptations of things I'd already seen elsewhere, X-Men Adventures hooked me early primarily due to the creative team involved. For the first two "seasons" of comics, the art chores were handled by Andrew Wildman and Stephen Baskerville, who Ben has noted elsewhere were a team that many would write off as a Jim Lee/"kewl '90s artist" clone except I really feel their work together held a dynamism and kinetic energy that was perfect for a middle school audience without sacrificing some solid storytelling chops. While I dropped Adventures in season 3 when the pair left the book, I kept snapping up any and all Wildman/Baskerville comics I could over the next few years, making them the first art team I followed regardless of comic (it's how I got into Larry Hama's G.I. Joe!).

And really, all props to Marvel mainstay and Adventures scripter Ralph Macchio, who used his extensive knowledge of the Marvel Universe (and the fact that he could get away with more blood in a printed comic than on TV) to make sure you were really getting more than a mere rehashing of an episode in each new issue. While my reading tastes took me elsewhere after Wildman and Baskerville left, I know Ralph continued to grow the "Marvel Animated Universe" as it was in comics for years after that, shifting the various series based on Marvel's various cartoons (more on which in a minute) from adaptations to original stories and eventually into a totally nerdy and fun piece of Marvel continuity trivia. All in all, I bet the animated adaptations comics were a lot of fun for a lot of kids (and adult fanboys) for years, and that's a good thing. Though in the end, Marvel's loose animated universe never hit the heights on the page like DC's did. Speaking of which...

8. Like its screen counterpart, Batman Adventures and its various spinoffs, counterparts and tie-ins stand as an unequivocal creative success on top of selling nicely for over a decade. I'm already dreaming up a bigger post on the animated DCU comics as I type this, but to try and keep this brief I'll just say that the success of the series, just like the cartoons, came from a stunningly smart mix of style, tone and accessibility. Sure, Timm, Dini and company set the bar in both spiritual and practical ways, but the DC animated comics really nailed their stories in a similar way thanks to the combined might of a fucking muderer's row of talent that at one time or another included names like Ty Templeton, Dan Slott, Darwyn Cooke, Mark Millar, Scott McCloud, Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer, Rick Burchett, Adam Beechen and more and more and more names not as familiar to most of you but just as accomplished in the end. It also goes without saying that whenever Dini and Timm came to do comic versions of their screen characters, the results were bad to the fucking bone.

Still, for the purposes of my increasingly long-winded nostalgia trip, there was no better TV-to-comics series than the issues of Batman Adventures by the criminally underrated editor-turned-writer Kelley Puckett and the sadly late and truly great Mike Parobeck. Like I said above, the best DC animated comics presented the characters with the same style and focus Timm's cartoons did only using the tools of their original medium to their full effect, and the Puckett/Parobeck Batman "one-and-done" stories were just gorgeous and entertaining comics. Clever, fun, character-driven, kid-friendly but open to all ages...pick any set of adjectives you'd use to describe your ideal superhero comics for younger readers and they apply here. I'd easily say that the pair's Batman stories rank amongst the greatest comic runs starring the Dark Knight in the past 20 years...period. Do yourself a favor and buy them up. My personal favorites are the stories starring the above trio of villains who were based on DC's then senior editors Mike Carlin, Archie Goodwin and Denny O'Neil that somehow take what could have been a lame "inside baseball" gag and turned it into three compelling characters in their own right. Guh. So great those books.

These days, I'm happy to see that DC still releases comics drawn directly from whatever current animated series Warner Brothers is producing for cable as it seems a no-brainer to have kids comics that a kid who likes the TV show can pick up and say, "I know this!" (as rare as that scenario may be). I'm also glad Marvel seems to be getting back towards that practice (albeit in more limited form) now that they've taken control of the production of their own animated series in a major way again.

9. From a pure nerd point of view, it was really interesting to watch how both the DC and Marvel brands attempted to expand their respective animated universes starting with "Superman: The Animated Series" and "Spider-Man" respectively. I think it's safe to say that while both shows were successful, the second round of series presented some diminishing returns each in their own way. Despite a strong start and a similar setup, "Spider-Man" really burnt me out as a young viewer when in its later seasons it took X-Men's formula of long, continuity-heavy story arcs and gave them ridiculous, season-encompassing names like "The Neogenic Nightmare." I don't care how often you throw a new crazy villain into the mix, when you get to "part XII" of a kids show, your audience is going to start quitting on you fast...even if you have "cutting edge" CGI web-slinging effects and a Joe Perry theme song.

Personally, I think "Superman: TAS" did a lot of improve upon certain things fans had come to expect from the Timm style established in "Batman." Not being tied to a movie, they got to tell a solid origin and then use that to build a few longer arcs for individual characters like Brainiac and the Kirby Forth World characters ("Batman" didn't need those elements really, but it was fun to see the same creative team tell a different kind of story to match the new digs). Similarly, a lack of expectancy on so much of Superman's world meant the creators could strip down the "Superman" myth in so many cool and necessary ways. I think the "TAS" versions of villains like Toyman, Parasite, Mr. Mxyzptlk and Metallo were far and away more compelling than their comic counterparts had been in years, and the later season team-up stuff did a similar job for heroes like Steel, Green Lantern and Supergirl. Still, if Warner Brothers learned one thing from "Superman: TAS" that it still sticks to today, it's that general audiences will always find Superman lame compared to Batman, who is a bad ass. That kind of bums me out, really.

10. Like TJ, I watched EVERYTHING comic book or superhero-related on TV in the 1990s, and I mean everything. I watched all the DC animated shows from "Batman: TAS" right up through "Justice League Unlimited," and I watched weird one-off programs like when USA was running repeats of old Filmation DC cartoons under the name "The Superman/Batman Adventures." I watched the brunt of every season of every Marvel show produced during Avi Arad's tenure as executive producer including that one season of the CGI-heavy Silver Surfer show, both seasons of the "Marvel Action Hour" featuring Iron Man and the Fantastic Four (which I had to tape each Saturday as they were on CBS at 8:00 am along with other weirdo syndicated shows like VR Troopers), the awful "Avengers: United They Stand" show story-edited by the same guy who did "X-Men" which starred most of the same voice cast, the even worse "Spider-Man Unlimited" spinoff that copped its costume from the 2099 series and the RIDICULOUS "Incredible Hulk" show that ran on UPN (both seasons). I guess what I'm saying is that I'm a huge fucking nerd.

11. And yes, I watched a little bit of all the non-DC, non-Marvel cartoons produced as well. Sadly, I only watched a few episodes of "Ultraforce" (never got into the Ultraverse comics) which I remember mostly for the recycled animation segment that accompanied Prime's transformation. Ditto the one season of "Savage Dragon" on USA's Cartoon Express only swap the Prime transformation bit with Dragon climbing out of a Chicago street fire in the opening credits. I was slightly more invested in the CBS version of "WildC.A.T.S" because it was one of the few Image books I really dug, even though it was on balls early on Saturdays. My brother being the real Image expert was always bagging on "WildC.A.T.S." animated because however it dealt with the concept of the Kheran Orbs or whatever wasn't as cool as in the comics, but I'm pretty sure it made jack shit sense in the comics too. Though I did buy several issues of the WildC.A.T.S Adventures comic series after I got the above CBS Action Zone one-shot with the sweet Jim Lee cover for free at the local K-Mart and dug Ty Templeton's take on the characters.

Lastly, I will say that the only other Image comic I kind of followed at that time was Spawn, which was briefly a favorite of both my brother and my best friend Tony. So when we heard that the character had scored his own animated series on HBO that was supposed to be bad ass and adult and not a watered down kids versions, that became appointment TV. On the night of the premier, Tony came over, and we made popcorn and set the VCR to tape and everything. Then, halfway through the first episode there was a scene where Chapel had a flashback to killing Al Simmons while fucking a prostitute doggie style and then starts moaning "ALLLLLLLL! I'M SORRY ALLLLLLLLL!" as he cums (at least that's how I remember it), and we totally fell into fits of hysterical laughter and never watched another episode again.

Oh, and we adored the MTV version of Sam Keith's The Maxx, so that pretty much made up for the whole Chapel fucking thing.

12. Like Ben, I find myself wondering which of today's cartoons will leave a significant impact on the kids who will stick with the comics habit into their 20s. Though the more I think about it the more I'm sure there's no way for me to tell until I meet some of them. For one, I've already seen how differently fans only a little bit younger than me view their favorite animated adaptations, including our good buddy Matt Powell who was a big supporter of "X-Men Evolution" which I could never get into. So who I am to assume how the young ones are responding to what looks like an overall killer crop of shows from "Batman: Brave & The Bold" to "The Spectacular Spider-Man."

Another factor in my lack of ability to zero in on whether current cartoons will have the same impact comes with the fact that the viewing landscape is already so radically different from when we were kids. Even in the recent past that was the '90s, cartoons were made either for short runs on Saturday mornings or in massive episode quantities to be in syndication every weekday. Like other "beloved" hits of my youth like "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers," both "Batman: TAS" and "X-Men" hit that sweet spot of both creative and commercial success that saw their many, many episodes live out for a number of years on weekday afternoons – eventually earning them a slot in the collective nostalgia consciousness of my generation while all the one-season superhero bullshit I listed above remains on Wikipedia only because of the super nerds.

With the rise of so many kid-centric cable channels, superhero cartoons made today rarely last more than two seasons of 13-episodes each and then don't see quite as many daily repeats as Ben and I were used to. Sure, there are a few series that have accrued more than a handful of episodes, but I honestly don't see any of the most recent crop of hero 'toons striking as hard with the adolescent masses as, say, "Spongebob" has. Based only on the totally non-scientific observations I've made of young cousins in my family and the general research that comes with covering some of these shows for my journalist gig, I'd say the closest thing we've got to a superhero show that is as popular with today's youth as "X-Men" and Batman: TAS" were with kids in my day is "Ben 10." And that's cool. Great show. I just wonder if all the animated product that DC and Marvel and both pumping out these days will have the impact on the comics buying segment of our industry that the big '90s shows had (which is arguably a small one at that). Should be interesting to meet some of these kids in a few years, though.

13. Just because I felt like taking this damn thing to 13 items and I couldn't think of another way to work it in, I'd highly, HIGHLY recommend that any comic nerds and/or animation fans who dig either of the '90s shows that spurred this whole thing to check out Greg Weisman's excellent "Gargoyles" if you've never seen it. I think that show combines the very best elements of both "Batman" and "X-Men" with a totally original core story. Actually, if I had to rank greatest superhero shows of all time, I'd place "Gargoyles" as #2 behind "Batman: TAS." If you have Tivo, set it to record the repeats that air in the middle of the night on Disney XD. You'll like it.


Ben Morse said...

GREAT post.

I actually also loved Stephen Baskerville, i.e. over Alex Saviuk on Web of Spider-Man, but I did take notice of his work with Andrew Wildman. Baskerville was the first inker whose work I actually noticed.

Isn't it interesting that so many comic adaptations of animated series across publishing lines always had that "Adventures" suffix?

I can't believe I didn't find a way to mention The Maxx. AWESOME show. Gargoyles was fantastic too.

I think despite different approaches and thought patterns, we ended at the same conclusion: Batman was unquestionably the BETTER show, but there was something about X-Men that was just undeniably FUN.

Caine said...

I agree, great post. After your last post that mentioned the ULTRAFORCE I went out and found all 13 and watched them.

I have to say, your spot on regarding the show centered around PRIME with plenty of animation tricks.

The shining light is ep 7 which introduces The Nightman and I have to say that its a great ep. They stay true to the origin and allow both NM and UF to have a villain to capture so neither takes all the spotlight.

There were other cartoons that weren't DIRECTLY superhero but might as well of been such as:

GI Joe
Tale Spin
Captain Planet

Ben Morse said...

That my post inspired you to watch 13 episodes of Ultraforce in 3 days is a milestone in my blogging career.

KP said...

The "Adventures" thing was rampant back in the day. What also cracks me up is how many of those series Ty Templeton worked on – Batman in multiple forms, WildC.A.T.S and he even did the few issues of the Avengers tie-in that were way better than the cartoon.

Caine, I LOVED "C.O.P.S." and I have no idea why. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my dad was a police officer, but that doesn't account for why I randomly found Longarm to be the coolest guy ever. I was a weird child. said...

Thank you for this post, really worthwhile data.

weyne moth said...

Wow! That is a great collection of popular and in fact my favorite 90s cartoons. Though I must admit I never saw few of them but this is simply something awesome and took me to my childhood days.