So when I caught wind of G4’s plans to broadcast Anime versions of some of our favorite Marvel heroes I have to admit, my interest was piqued. I’ve always been a fan of the animated medium. I owe this in large part to the fact that my parents indulged my craving for super hero antics in my younger years. That or VHS tapes of the old 70s and 80s cartoons were all there was to rent at the video store when we were stationed in Germany. Either way I can safely say that I’ve grown up with the classics and still will give any animated adaption a good try.
So I downloaded the premieres of Iron Man and Wolverine Anime. X-Men and Blade will come later this year.
I am amazed at how far we’ve come. Not just in terms of animation style and technology. Just from a sheer aesthetic, comic book cartoons evolved into a very sophisticated art form. This evolution owes much to borrowing from existing artistic styles and movements and importing styles from other countries.
Now, I will not discount how amazing the classics were and continue to be. Even some of the oldest cartoons from the Golden Age still look amazing from an artistic standpoint. What I consider the Golden Age of comic book animation runs from the 1940s to the early 1980s. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to stick with cartoons based off comic books. Great cartoons like He-Man, Transformers, GI Joe, and others fall into a category all their own (which I most definitely intend to tackle on a later date).
You can’t watch Max Fleischer’s Superman in the 1940s and not be in awe at the amazing animation quality. When reviewing the artistic movements of the time we can see just how much Urban Realism influenced Fleischer’s animation.
Take a look at Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and watch this the imbedded video of a Superman cartoon. You can certainly see the influence. In terms of a narrative development, the stories for these cartoons are, for the most part, entirely self-contained. This was because most cartoons ran before films in movie theaters and really didn’t have a need to extend a consistent narrative.
Moving into the 60s and 70s we find a greater influence by Pop Art, animation often colored with combinations of flat colors a great movement away from the richness of Fleischer. Here we start to see a look and feel closer to what we were seeing in the actual comic book panels. Another development is the invention of the home television and broadcast programming and along with that the advent of saturday morning cartoons.
We owe this to the growing popularity in the Pop Art movement. Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Lindner and Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude Series (caution this would be NSFW images) grew in popularity. This heightened appreciation for this style could very well have paved the way for a wider acceptance of the flat colors we see in the animation in the 60s and 70s. This departure from the richness was not a bad thing; this style paved the way for impressive leaps in future animation. This change also allowed the exploration of the medium as a method for story telling.
With animated shows being easier to produce, they allowed more time to develop a narrative. While these cartoons still provide an episodic feel to the story they were longer in length and allowed for more build up and pay off in terms of a dynamic narrative.
We see this in shows such as the 1960s Spiderman (with the iconic theme song), the 1968 Batman cartoon, heavily influenced by the Live Action Batman series starring Adam West, the Super Friends series in the mid and late 70s, and Marvel’s Spiderwoman series which came out in 1979, surprisingly before the next attempt to bring the webslinger to the small screen. While these series were blazing trails, they did depart from the original narrative content of their source material.
In 1981, Marvel gave Spiderman another shot and was impressively faithful to the comic book. The artwork of John Romita Sr heavily influenced the animation style and this series also gave us some of the closest narratives to the comics. This fidelity in terms of artistic style also carried over somewhat into the Incredible Hulk (1982) cartoon series, which introduced canon characters such as Rick Jones and the Leader. While the episodes for both were self-contained some had a slight overall narrative that carried through the series.
Unfortunately, both series didn’t make it past a year. Spiderman and his Amazing Friends faired much better lasting three seasons. This series introduced what would become one of the most successful franchises, the X-Men which will pop up again in the late 80s in an attempt to revive the comic book animation franchise.
Next month we’ll continue with a survey of the cartoons of the 90s and how they laid the groundwork for the great animation and storytelling we see today.