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Art History, Article, Radio/Television/Film

Survey of Comic Book Cartoons: The Silver Age

When we last left off we were in the mid to late 80s and the X-Men just had a false start pilot, although it did become a rather popular arcade game, which is available on the Playstation network for those interested.

At the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century no one could had predicted that we would be entering into an animated renaissance for comic book based TV shows. We also are going to see these animated shows begin to step away from what we previously saw TV animation. With a departure from an influence from fine art, shows are going to be returning to their roots for inspiration by trying to imitate the art form of the comics they are based on. As the decade progresses we do start to see the influence of Japanese anime influence both comics and cartoons.

A show that bears mentioning would the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which actually happens to be the longest running cartoon based on a comic book. It originally kicked off in 1987 along with a toy line to match and featured our favorite wisecracking teenage turtles. One thing to note is that the show existed and was extremely popular with a younger kid age group that was totally unaware of the course material. The cartoon’s creators changed elements of the original comic to make the cartoon more kid friendly. This ended up shocking fans of the cartoon when the first live action movie came out with a storyline that was faithful to the comic, not the cartoon. The cartoon moved to CBS’s Saturday line up in 1990, which reinvigorated the series to last another six years until leaving the air in 1996. What did the Ninja Turtles in? Well it could very well be that their aging fan base fell in with another animal themed superhero vigilante.

In 1992, the TV cartoon got a shot in the arm and a wakeup call when Batman the Animated series hit the airwaves on Fox Kid’s afternoon line up. Its film noir look and feel was an instant hit with viewers young and old. The series told gritty stories true to the comic inspiration without relying on heavy violence and alienating concerned parents. This narrative feel also owes some inspiration to the first two Batman films that did depict Gotham and the Batman in darker more realistic light. This influence departed from the previous Adam West live action and cartoon versions.

When watching the intro linked above it is easy to see how much the creators were influenced by the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s, even going as far as giving Gotham City a retro futuristic feel by having 40s and 50s style vehicles populate the cityscape. In terms of content, the show shattered boundaries by showing that a cartoon could tell a dramatic story well and without resorting to graphic violence. As a sign to how great this show was, many fans still consider Kevin Conroy as the best representation of Batman and Bruce Wayne to this day. Mark Hamill grew famous for something other than Star Wars with his amazing rendition of the Joker. So much so that they both have come back many times to reprise the role for video games, spin off shows, and full length animated movies.  It is safe to say that the animated series reinvigorated the Batman franchise and paved the way for future installments in film franchise. Whether it’s considered a good or bad thing will depend on who you ask. I will go on record saying that Joel Schumacher should never again direct or produce a superhero franchise, mainly because Batman Forever and its follow up feel more like a Dada-esque work. Either way the success of this series helped prime the pump for Fox’s next jump into the comic pool.

The second big contender in the 90s renaissance came from the opposite end of the comic book pool. X-men premiered to amazing numbers as part of Fox’s Saturday line up in the fall of 1992. Much like Batman, X-Men did not pull any punches by killing off Morph, a main character created specifically for the show, in the first episode. What the Pryde of the X-Men pilot lacked we found in the first episode of the new series. The story immediately sets the stage by focusing key elements from the comic such as prejudice, inequality, and of course our favorite mutants kicking some serious butt.

The artistic style of the show also departed from what we had seen in animated shows towards the last half the 80s and early 90s. The animation tried to resemble the actual styles of artists currently drawing the X-Men comics such as the Kubert Brothers. Instead of the minimalist feel of the Fleischer inspired Batman, X-Men chose to go a more realistic route by focusing on more detail especially in close ups of characters facial expressions. The series worked very hard in the beginning to maintain a sense of realism without making the show look and feel cartoony. This effort was incredibly noticeable with the series premiere of the third season. The two episode story premiered in a prime time slot alongside the two part season premiere of the second season of Power Rangers. The artistic detail of those two episodes was amazing with a strong dramatic storyline to match.

The narrative of X-Men did differ greatly from Batman. Thinking back, I remember it was just cool to see my favorite characters on the screen coming to life. Now that I can watch all the old episodes with my son on Netflix, there was some really cheesy dialogue in there. Some of the storylines were a little out there too, especially towards the latter seasons.

One thing it did do was create an overarching narrative that carried throughout the season. The metaplot, for lack of a better word, carried over the entire season. We really see this in the second season where several plotlines all run along the main storyline. Events had consequences and the viewer saw those throughout the season’s story arc. This is something that you would see often in primetime dramas geared towards adults but not very often in cartoons. We saw it a little bit in Batman; however, Batman’s episodes really felt like self contained stories with some over flow into other episodes. Although, what Batman lacked in metaplot it made up for in quality stories with a solid story structure and character development.

So I can say that the Batman series does win in terms of narrative structure and pure story development. Those are shows that, at 30 years old, you can watch and they are still just as crisp.

Two years after the successful launch of Fox’s cartoon line up saw the advent of the overflow of comic book franchises in the cartoon line ups. One could almost see that some of these entries were really just trying to get something out there without a real drive to be innovative. We’re gonna run through the heavy hitters and skim over the shows that didn’t make that much of an impact.

Of course, one of the biggest heavy hitters that premiered in 1994 was Marvel’s Spiderman. Even now it remains the most successful and longest running incarnation of the wall crawler on TV.  The show found adaptations of popular stories like the Venom Saga, the Green Goblin, and other popular stories. It did a successful job of adapting the stories fairly well, even into its final seasons it really didn’t suffer the story degeneration that X-Men did. It even had some time to poke fun at storylines in the comics that fans didn’t enjoy too well such as the Clone Saga. Yes, the dialogue was a little cheesy, especially when we got into Peter Parker’s interior dialogue. The shows does get points for trying to be faithful to the core themes of the Spiderman books which deals a lot with Peter’s internal view of himself and his place in the world around him.

Another show that I feel warrants attention is the WildC.A.T.S cartoon. Based off the Image book of the same name this show marked Image’s one and only successful attempt to bring one of their titles into the Saturday Cartoon line up. I remember this show and it had good potential. The storylines were strong and the show was not altogether terribly cheesy. For some reason it didn’t manage to hold on longer than a season. It did pretty cement that the two main players in the TV market for comics was Marvel and DC, which we will see that DC really comes out on top as the winner in the long run.

On that note, Marvel really went with a quantity over quality approach in the mid 90s in launching four new cartoon titles in 1994. Along with Spiderman, they launched Iron Man and the Fantastic Four as the Marvel Power Hour that they produced in syndication, which means that TV stations would essentially buy the series to show on their network. This usually meant that it typically did not get a prime slot, which is probably why I only caught a couple of episodes between the two. They also launched the Incredible Hulk on UPN (before it merged with the WB to become the CW). Hulk was entertaining but it lacked the same luster that X-Men had and eventually brought on the character of She Hulk to try to liven up the show. It seemed like they were trying to capture that same magic that the Bill Bixby series had but just couldn’t find it. The other series they tried was the Silver Surfer, which I say was pretty daring for them. Silver Surfer does not commonly stand out as a flagship title in terms of popular recognition. The stories were actually pretty solid and I think that this one just suffered from a lack of popularity with Fox’s key Saturday morning demographics.

Two years later in 1996, we find DC pushing back into the fray with Superman and the New Batman Adventures. We do find a different structure and feel for both of the series from first Fox animated series. This time, both shows partner up and find homes on the WB network. They both lasted about four years until 2000 when Superman left the airwaves. As we will see next month, the franchise re-energizes with Cartoon Network’s Justice League series.

It bears to mention that looking at all the series across the decade Marvel and DC cartoons share similar styles in their own respective universes. The Marvel cartoons took a lead from X-Men but did begin to lean more towards an overall cartoon feel. The look and feel of Spiderman does not carry the marked realism that the first three seasons of X-Men carried. The later attempts by Marvel lean more towards Spiderman’s approach with a minimalist animation look in terms of detail and anatomy. Which is ironic considering that future cartoons will begin to follow comic books with an increase in influence by the Japanese Manga and Anime. Something we see with the last series we are going to cover.

DC took a giant risk in launching a series that really had no flagship comic book to use a guide. With Batman Beyond, they took us somewhere completely new with only a hint of the source material to make us feel a little bit at home. They really delivered. After premiering in 1999, Batman Beyond lasted three seasons on the WB. It continues to stand as one of the most innovative steps in both animation and content for the 90s. This is where DC really realized that they could expand beyond the comic book universe to create original stories but still keeping that same flavor. From this, we get the inclusion of Static Shock in the DC cartoon universe as well the free range of the Justice League series. Next month we are going to see how DC really dominated the animated scene for the majority of the 21st century’s first decade and how much Japanese Anime influences new cartoons in terms of content and artistic feel.



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