Comics, Film and TV

The Greatest Super-Hero Cartoons

The comic book is the natural medium for the super-hero. This is an indisputable fact – it’s the medium that birthed them, that’s most featured them and has evolved around them. But it’s not the only medium that the super-hero thrives in. There’s another that’s had a long and fevered history with the super-hero, brought it to new audiences and brought out new sides of it. No, it’s not the cinema (where the super-hero has only really worked successfully en masse in the past decade or so). It’s radio.

Just kidding, it’s cartoons.

Yes, what other than animation can replicate the bright characters, crazy locations, mad props and insane action of a super-hero comic? Some pretty wicked shadow puppets maybe, but let’s stick with cartoons for now. To celebrate this joyous affair of moving pictures and lycra-clad super-men, here’s a non-definitive run down of some of the best super-hero cartoons ever made.

Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

The announcement of the Avengers movie predictably led to Marvel deciding to create an Avengers cartoon to air in the lead-up to the movie, to cash-in help audiences discover the characters more.

Expectations were low – the preview art was a bit ugly and the Avengers doesn’t have a good track record in animation. They were deliberately down-played (though not nearly erased like the X-Men) in those awful 60s Marvel cartoons and their only previous animated series, Avengers: United They Stand from the late 90s, was utterly terrible.

Things got off to a bad start with the insistence on the first half dozen episodes of the series being cut in small chunks and serialised online, rather than broadcast normally. However, once the series got to start properly, it proved to be a pleasant surprise. Top notch animation, excellent voice acting and great stories. The production team was clever enough to lift from comics where necessary, but not be slavish to them, vastly improving upon the character arc of Wonder Man, for instance, and doing a much better version of Secret Invasion than Marvel Comics managed. Its versions of Ant-Man and the Wasp are perhaps the best ever written. The show even got to broaden out to the rest of the Marvel universe in its second season, including a great team-up episode with the Fantastic Four and another featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Sure, the theme song’s a bit, well, Power Rangersy, but the A:EMH is top notch.

Batman: The Animated Series

I don’t think I could have got away with not putting this on the list but I was tempted to. You see, B:TAS has a legendary reputation, but does it really deserve it?

Well, yes, it does. Batman: The Animated Series changed the game for practically all Western comics-based TV animation. Taking a cue from Tim Burton’s gothic cinematic takes on Batman, it was a super-hero cartoon that didn’t rely on having bright colours, comic relief, easy resolutions and a closing joke. It allowed the Dark Knight to be dark. The show’s backgrounds were painted on black paper, its Gotham was deliberately anachronistic, featuring a signature ‘Dark Deco’ style. The unparalleled Kevin Conroy gave Batman nuance and depth, with a conscious change between Batman and Bruce Wayne. Danny Elfman’s theme music, scavenged from the score to the Burton film, set the basis for an orchestra soundtrack. B:TAS is a high-water mark in American animation and the basis for over a decade of DC cartoons.

But it’s often oversold. Stylish though the animation was, it was out-sourced to a wide variety of animation studios, some of which were notably poor (one, AKOM, was fired from the show for being so bad). Not every story was a hit. Some in fact are quite dumb, like I’ve Got Batman In My Basement (where a kid detective hides a concussed Batman from the Penguin in his basement) and The Forgotten, where Batman loses his memory while in a disguise and gets made a slave to some secret underground mining operation.

Ok, I’m being picky. B:TAS is pretty great over all, it created Harley Quinn and made Mr Freeze relevant and interesting, so definitely go check it out. But, you know, be aware that it is of variable quality.

Justice League

I’m not a massive fan of a lot of DC Comics, so it’s a testament to the production of Justice League that I absolutely loved it and all its characters. Half its line-up is, on paper (you know, comics), awful. Wonder Woman? Dull. Flash? Pseudo-science bollocks. Green Lantern? Bland and boring.

But in Justice League they’re all interesting and fun. Wonder Woman? A proud, strong fish-out-of-water warrior. Flash? Visually exciting and excellent comic relief. Green Lantern? Bad ass (it helps that they ditched Boring Hal Jordan for John Stewart).

Justice League brings together DC’s biggest heroes (and Hawkgirl) and creates a product greater than the sum of its part. It has a ridiculously pompous and overblown theme tune. It doesn’t even bother to properly show it’s characters, just minimalists near-silhouettes. And yet it earns it. It is suitably grand and epic, its characters are icons (and Hawkgirl). Justice League boasts perhaps the definitive versions of its characters, all perfectly voiced (it helps that it’s in the same continuity as Batman: The Animated Series).

The successes continue into the sequel series/format change Justice League Unlimited, which broadens out to bring in countless other DC heroes, with many successes. There’s the brilliant Booster Gold episode The Greatest Story Never Told, which suggested the tone for the character for a few years in the comics. There are several episodes with the Question, turning a minor, largely forgotten character into a quirky favourite (“The plastic caps on the end of shoelaces are called aglets. Their purpose is sinister.” That line has stuck with me for years).

The show isn’t perfect. The characters looks strangely shiny and while Bruce Timm’s character designs look decent, you have to wonder why his male characters don’t fall over from their top-heavy design (like the action figures based on them do). But Justice League is perhaps enough to turn any non-DC fan into a believer.

Spectacular Spider-Man

Your immediate reaction to Spectacular Spider-Man might well be to go ‘what the hell is up with that art style?’ And that’s fair enough. It’s certainly what I thought. I mean look at it – next to no shading, bizarre eyes with massive irises and no pupils, huge heads – weird. But, once you get used to it (and it takes about an episode) none of that matters. And instead of giant-headed, pupil-less freaks, you see Peter Parker, Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man and all the rest. Even the brazenly ostentatious theme song gets to be awesome a few episodes into the series.

Beyond the aesthetic, Spectacular Spider-Man distinguishes itself by being the smartest Spider-Man cartoon ever made. Each episode is named after a scientific theory or educational principle, in unified groups of three or four, all the while still relating to the subject matter of the episode. The show threads sub-plots and story arcs through its episodes, without falling into the quagmire of never-ending stories like the iconic 90s Spider-Man series. It also sells Peter Parker as both a smart guy – he often defeats his enemies with scientific thinking rather than punching them enough – and a teenager. Josh Keaton does a great job as the voice of Peter, pulling off the jokes and quippery without sounding like a douche, convincing as a teenager without sounding whiney. Spectacular has uniformly great voice acting in fact.

Despite expectations, Spectacular Spider-Man is perhaps the perfect cartoon adaptation of Spider-Man. It’s writing is smart and spot-on and though its art style is strange and quirky, that’s perfectly in keeping with the original tone of the comic.

Iron Man

To be very clear, this is only the second season of Iron Man. The first season, which was packaged with the simultaneous first season of Fantastic Four as the Marvel Action Hour, was woeful. Based on the Force Works comic of the early 90s, it had Iron Man in a team with Hawkeye, War Machine, Spider-Woman, a terribly accented Scarlet Witch and some weirdo called the Century, arrayed against the Mandarin and his cronies like a 90s GI Joe, with shitty CGI thrown all over the place and three different people voicing Rhodey.

The second season was a marked improvement. Most of the team was dumped, leaving Iron Man with just War Machine and Spider-Woman. The animation came on leaps and bounds – the CGI was ditched, the motion was smoother and the palette darkened down and everything was much less cheesy. The villains were broken up and became less a Cobra-knock off and more a traditional super-hero rogue’s gallery, featuring in well written stories, some adapted from the best comic stories (like Armor Wars).

Perhaps the most interesting addition was Tony’s virtual assistant, Homer, who is strangely prescient of the movieverse’s version of Jarvis. Oh and the bad ass theme song. This series has been released on DVD loads of times, often on a small budget, and as long as you’re sure you’re not getting the 60s series (which is often mispackaged) it’s buying if you see it cheap.

Wolverine & The X-Men

Like Spectacular Spider-Man, it’s easy to prejudge W&TXM. Wolverine works best in small doses, as a supporting member of the X-Men (and only the X-Men, not the Avengers). Giving him top billing over the X-Men doesn’t really inspire confidence.

However, W&TXM is the best X-Men series ever. Honestly!

For a start, it has the smooth, stylish, competent animation you’d expect of a late 00s cartoon. Sure, there are some design oddities (Cyclops’ grey trenchcoat for instance) but it’s more faithful than X-Men Evolution and just generally more appealing than the iconic 90s X-Men.

It also has more confidence in its stories. Taking a cue from the more recent comics and using the popularity of the movies as a starting point, W&TXM tells more of a ‘getting the band back together’ story at the start rather than bothering to set out an origin. A long story arc, with Professor Xavier trapped in a coma and the future, covers the entire series, but never weighs it down, instead allowing for variety and a narrative direction.

The series also features a hell of a lot of X-Men characters. Not only do you get the core X-Men, but there are plentiful, substantive cameos, from Sammy the fishboy (a minor student at Xavier’s in the mid-00s comics) to Blink (fan-favourite leader of spin-off team the Exiles). There’s so much to enjoy in here as an X-Men fan, instantly propelling it above the 90s series, which is essentially a string of melodramatic adaptations of stories from the 80s comics with bad animation.

The Tick

What is there you can say about the Tick other than SPOON?

Well, I could mention that it’s a gloriously ludicrous adaptation of NEC (a chain of American comic shops, not the exhibition centre in Birmingham or the computer company)’s newsletter mascot-cum-indie comic star. That The Tick’s creator Ben Edlund worked on the series and later went on to write the Smile Time episode of Angel, Jaynestown from Firefly, as well as being a major creative force on Supernatural.

The Tick is impressive because it succeeds despite having some pretty shoddy animation, as was the norm in the 90s. I mean really, it’s pretty awful. But the show as a whole manages to transcend that with utterly hilarious stories and brilliant voice acting (apart from Mickey Dolenz as Arthur in season one, to be honest, who just sort of mumbles through everything).

The unfortunate thing is that The Tick is really hard to get hold of now. It was released on DVD, but has been out of print for years and commands a high price on the secondary market.

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Martin is a writer and misanthrope from Gloucestershire, with an obses... er interest in comics, video games and animation. You can also find him at his blog, The Taste of Rising Bile, where he's in the middle of a cynic's guide to Disney films.