Friday, November 27, 2009

Animated Origins & Observations

You can tell a lot about a comic book fan by what super hero cartoon they watched growing up.

Ok, you can't really tell all that much in terms of analysis of them as a person on a deeper level, but there is some insight to be gained about how they came to enjoy the characters and genres they enjoy rooted in which animated series they watched as a kid, particularly fans of my generation.

When I was at the prime age for getting into comics for real, there were really two choices if you wanted to watch a contemporary super hero cartoon on television: Batman or X-Men. I can't really imagine two series more diametrically opposed. X-Men was strictly Saturday morning fare, and while Batman also aired then, I knew it more for being a weekday show. And while X-Men actually debuted in prime time ("Night of the Sentinels" part one hit the airwaves on Halloween night, 1992; I remember it well), it very much fit in the more brightly colored weekend world whereas the more gritty and muted Batman would have seemed right at home playing 8:30 on weeknights (and often times it did).

Batman was a very street level show with stylized animation by Bruce Timm that did not become visual shorthand until a few years later. It kept a very tight focus on its one lead character and his modest supporting cast, as well as the villain of the day. Though there was some progression in terms of character arcs, for the most part, each episode was standalone, with the occasional two-parter but no season-spanning mega-stories. Violence on the show was also very realistic--i.e. guns shot bullets as opposed to lasers--and overall the series had a more mature feel, even though it was perfectly accessible to kids.

And even though now I recognize Batman: TAS as something of a revolutionary work that led to a real animated renaissance, at the time, it bored the hell out of me.
By contrast, X-Men was a larger-than-life comic book come to life that didn't have the intelligence or finesse of Batman, but compensated with wild energy or over-the-top action. The figures looked as close to Jim Lee's then iconic X-Men as animation could get. Every episode led in to the next in some fashion, with a running continuity that paralleled the comics on which the show was based and stories that took full seasons to culminate (even though some weeks you'd just get a wink to the big picture with Professor X and Magneto trapped in the Savage Land as a coda after the X-Men fought the Juggernaut or Mojo). The violence was cartoony in every sense, with cops packing laser guns and punches never actually making contact with their intended target (there was a lot of throwing and dodging as far as fight choreography).

Again, I can watch the compilations on YouTube now and see how ridiculous this show was, but I still remember it fondly despite, and when I was 12, it was the coolest thing on TV.

I think my preference for X-Men over Batman definitely foreshadowed that super hero comics were going to be the genre I'd be primarily loyal to, as clearly on the purest level even something that diverted as slightly as Batman into crime or noir wasn't my taste. I wanted bright colors, tons of characters and big, stupid action, not clever nuances. I like to think I've matured beyond that state (I'm 98% sure), but there's no denying there is still some baseline part of me that still recognizes that as my sweet spot. I remember still being at Wizard in 2007 and lighting up with an insane glee during the buildup to Messiah Complex as I realized we were reading a comic about Cable fighting Gambit and "Age of Apocalypse" Sunfire, a revelation which blew Sean T. Collins' mind (that's possibly an overstatement).

Flipping the script again, I find that my friends who were fiercely committed to the Batman cartoon as kids tended to discover stuff like Garth Ennis' Punisher and similarly off-the-beaten super hero path (but not too far off) work I've never really cottoned to.

Of course, there's also an ingrained loyalty to Marvel or DC that comes with how you spent your Saturday mornings or weekday afternoons as a kid. This expanded to folks who watched Spider-Man over Superman once those shows watched and had a lot of the same differences as X-Men and Batman. It's also interesting to note how DC went quite a few years between Superman/Batman and Justice League without a cartoon while Marvel had at least X-Men: Evolution; did that make a difference as far as hooking kids who were born in the late 80's/early 90's? Similarly, I wonder how the presence of Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans and the newer Batman cartoons in the last decade in opposition to Marvel focusing more on DVD animated features until the last couple years with Wolverine and the X-Men as well as Iron Man: Armored Adventures has affected younger would-be fans.

But that's all a lot of thinking for me I don't feel like doing just now.

I do feel like my lack of enthusiasm for Batman: The Animated Series as a kid made the DC Universe seem like a muted, dour place I didn't feel like investing much time in, whereas X-Men made Marvel seem vibrant and crazed enough to really hook me. Years later, I really took to Justice League and then Justice League Unlimited, where I finally got to see huge casts, more epic stories and bigger action in a DC setting, which got me into the comics upon which that universe was based.

One last question for the group: Did any of you consider Ultraforce the formative super hero cartoon of your youth and, if so, have you just been wandering aimlessly for 15 years or so?


Caine said...

I do remember seeing the Ultraverse cartoon and thought that it was way to "Marvelish" and not representative of the comics at all. Besides, neither the Nightman (Comic not show) nor Solitaire made the cut....

TJ Dietsch said...

I was such a comic book devotee that I would watch any and all comic-based toons I could. X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, Ultraforce, Savage Dragon, Wildcats, Hulk, Silver Surfer, Iron Man, Fantastic Four. Man, they seemed so good at the time, but most don't hold up now (except the DC aniamted universe stuff).

Erik said...

Bah, you young kids and your fancy cartoons. In my day your choices were "Superfriends" or "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends", and that was it. Everybody was friends back in the early 80's and we liked it that way! Grumble grumble.

Ben Morse said...

To be fair, Caine, Night Man and Solitaire weren't actually members of Ultraforce in the comics. I agree that there is nothing that can't be made better by the inclusion of Solitaire though.

Did you watch Avengers: United They Stand, TJ?

Caine said...

You're right of course (although Wikipedia does state that NightMan was a part of the team at one point). Episode 7 (after doing some research) is all about The NightMan after all.

I had forgotten to mention WILDCATS and of course SpiderMan & His amazing friends...

Rickey said...

I went to the theater to see Batman: Mask of the Phantasm like a BOSS. Luckily I had another nerdy buddy to go see it with.

Unknown said...

I think the biggest impact on my cartoon watching and preferences came from what had just happened a few years before "Batman: TAS" and "X-Men": The Tim Burton "Batman" films. Both films, especially the first, had a huge influence on what I thought a realistic superhero story should be. When comparing "Batman:TAS" and "X-Men," it was quickly clear which one seemed more "real." Sure, I was already in love with the Reeve "Superman" films, but "Batman" was mine--living through the hype and seeing it in theaters and collecting the toys and trading cards. I think its going to be interesting, with all these incarations of the same properties across various media, how tomorrow's fans' preferences will be shaped.

muebles madrid said...

It will not truly have success, I feel like this.