Welcome back once again my friends to Cartoon Month here at Descendants Serial. This article is actually being cross-posted to the Pen and Cape Society, so for PCS people, if you want to see the previous Cartoon Month posts, go here and here.
This week, as promised, I’m doing a countdown of my personal Top 10 Superhero cartoons and believe me, it was hard paring it down to 10. It pained me that worthy shows like Static Shock, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and X-men: Evolution didn’t make my cut, but the genre is particularly strong in animation and there are just so many solid shows that qualify.
Now, this is just my personal list. Feel free to argue or list your own in the comments, but I’m going to give brief explanations why. Unlike the past two entries, I won’t be giving a summary of the shows, instead allowing the lcips I post with them to speak for themselves.
Now this is a top 10 instead of a Top five, so let’s dive right in:
Number 10: Darkwing Duck
I love Disney’s Duck-verse. The very first comic book I bought with my own money was Uncle Scrooge, I get up on Ducktales, and I adored Darkwing Duck.
The show loves its parodies and is steeped in superhero history that only keeps revealing itself as I get older and more knowledgeable. Sure, there are plenty of shades of Batman, but Darkwing as a character is has more in common with The Shadow, my beloved Green Hornet, and Booster Gold when you get right down to the elements he takes on form his costume, to his situation, and mannerisms. His primary weapon is even a gas gun!
The breakout character is Gossalyn, DW’s adopted daughter, who manages to be the precocious kid sidekick in a fun way instead of an annoying way. More importantly, she reminds us all why kid sidekicks were important in the first place: she anchors DW’s eccentric personality and forces him to come more down to earth to be a good father figure to her.
Like a lot of entries on the bottom half of this list, the cons here are just how married it is to the parody. The show is highly episodic and characters are subtly molded to fit the plot instead of the other way around. Darkwings ego and even concern for his daughter change in intensity just to get the plot rolling. If you’re a veteran to my blogging, you’ll recognize this is my bone to pick with event comics too.
Surprisingly, the wacky cartoon still manages it better, at least in that the personality traits remain the same, wit just the levels changing.
Number 9: The Powerpuff Girls
There are two kinds of people when it comes to this entry: those who are surprised it made the list and those who are surprised it ranked so low.
PPG was one of the smartest shows to come out of Cartoon Network’s Cartoon Cartoon imprint, capable of cute antics, fun action and parodies you wouldn’t believe a show about preteen girl superheroes would get away with. Once people got over the innocent, sugary veneer of the series, they got to see tons of clever commentary not only on the Sueprhero genre, but kids shows, parenting and even the freaking Beatles.
If it’s so good, why isn’t it rated higher? Well as brilliant as the show was, it was still highly episodic (which is why Brave and the Bold didn’t make the cut). Not only that, but each episode was also usually broken into 2-3 shorts rather than a single 22 minute story. Don’t get me wrong, they did a lot with the smaller stories, but I like story arcs or at least longer stories, so the series suffered a bit for that.
Number 8: The Tick
A product of the same wacky 80’s that spawned Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Tick, in a way is to Superman what TMNT is to Daredevil; that is, a parody that ended up with such a rich world all its own that most people don’t even remember what it was parodying.
In The Tick’s case, you still know it’s a parody though. Everything about the franchise is absolutely ridiculous, from Chariface Chippendale, a bond villain type whose face is literally a chair, to American Maid, a Wonder Woman expy who is exactly what you’d expect when combining that name and Wonder Woman.
Some might wonder why the very continuity light The Tick ended up rated higher than other shows that were rated down for being too episodic. To them I would say that The Tick takes more advantage of its episodic nature in that every episode of the show showcased yet another insane thing usually out of nowhere. At a certain level, chaos becomes a virtue, I guess.
Number 7: X-men (90’s)
The 90’s X-men series is my personal favorite superhero cartoon, even ahead of the ones listed ahead of it. I put ass to sofa every afternoon after school to watch this show and my first superhero comic was an adaptation of the show (which is insane because the show was an adaptation of the comics).
More than any other, this show shaped how I approach superheroes and everything I love about them. It didn’t hurt that Gambit, my favorite superhero was in it, and so were Rogue and Storm, forming my trinity of awesome from a young age. Oh, and there was that short dude with the claws too. I think his name was Badger or something?
Sadly, I’m doing a list of what I think are the BEST superhero cartoons, not my favorites. And when it comes right down to it, the animation and dialogue of this show haven’t aged well. The art itself is gorgious and matches the art from the comics during the Jim Lee era, but in motion… it’s not as choppy as some shows, but when you consider the #1 cartoon came out at the same time and its animation is STILL excellent… yeah, so Marvel’s Merry Mutants.
Number 6: Gargoyles
Argue as much as you want, but Disney’s Gargoyles were superheroes. They had to conceal their true natures while working to combat threats to their community beyond the abilities of the proper authorities. Seriously guys, they fought robots and evil clones with their friend on the police force covering up their vigilante activity. They. Were. Superheroes.
They were also excellent for the first two seasons (we shall never speak of the Goliath Chronicles.. until I do a post on why it failed).
While it had its fair share of comedy moments, it was best known for drawing deeply on Shakespearean drama, giving its characters expansive and enduring conflicts and situations. And it was such good drama. I mean, one of the core conflicts is that the leader, Goliath’s greatest love has grown twisted and bitter over the years (for reasons we slowly discover) to become the greatest threat to everything he cares about. And meanwhile, his arch-enemy Xanatos is unquestionably smarter, more resourceful and always comes out ahead.
If nothing else, Gargoyles gave us Xanatos, who is a special breed of villain whose plots were deliciously complex, especially for the bad guy of a kid’s show. Still didn’t manage to come out ahead of…
Number 5: The Spectacular Spider-man
I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: I LOVE Spider-man, but HATE Spider-man comics. The character concept in and of himself is great: a snarky genius with power purpose-built for rooftopping (I’ll do an article on this after October is done) who usually wins using his wits while dealing with his day-to-day life.
But in the comics, his life is an endless nightmare of failure that is constantly heaped upon him purely because the universe hates him.
Spectacular Spider-man is a show about that first Spider-man and pulls it off flawlessly. I grew up with the 90’s Spider-man series, but this one blows it out of the water, especially in depicting Spidey fighting; blending elements of parkour and something out of a circus high-wire act, the show is the first time were really get a feel of what Spider-man should look like in motion. Not even the Raimi films managed that.
And it doesn’t disappoint plot-wise either. Peter has to deal with problems in both his identities, often with them coming into conflict. He gets grounded for saving lives, and poor cover-ups get him in trouble with friends. But in the end, he learns and grows and gets better… in exactly the way comics!Peter never does.
Speaking of Spider-man…
Number 4: Batman Beyond
Up until Spectacular Spider-man, the best Spider-man cartoon was… Batman. Batman Beyond that is.
The tale of the second, high-tech Batman, Terry McGuinness, is the official future of the acclaimed DC Animated Universe and it wears that badge proudly. The future elements are logically extrapolated from things that exist in the ‘present day’ of the DCAU and the series gets a perfect mix of nods to old Bat-characters and new cast members both enemy and ally for Terry.
Terry himself is the best part of the show. He’s his own Batman, not just a future Bruce Wayne… which is where the Spider-man crack comes in. Terry’s personality draws heavily from the more fun incarnations of Peter Parker, meaning we get a Batman who banters and mocks villains and even Bruce himself at times. It’s interesting to watch him integrate the teachings of Bruce Wayne into his own personal code and outlook without being subsumed.
Comic fans will never forgive me, but it’s a better future!Bats story than DKR. At least to me.
Number 3: Teen Titans
Teen Titans didn’t get the credit it deserved when it first started. The younger-looking, anime-inspired designs invited a lot of mockery and complaints by people who think that ‘anime-inspired’ is inherently bad (speaking of which, whenever I hear some say ‘weeaboo’, my fist stops right at their face.) and who thought that the comedy bits from the early and mid-season episodes was all there was to it.
History has vindicated the series as no matter how soft and fluffy it might have gotten, when it decided to cut lose with the action and drama, it got EPIC.
This show… this show. One minute you’ve got characters being chibified and the next the goddamn creepiest villain ever put to celluloid is ordering the intrepid leader to shoot his girlfriend—or else he’ll have nanobots tear her apart from the inside. That was Season 1. By Season 4, we had an episode where Satan took over the planet by unraveling his daughter (and my favorite character >_<) into a magical gateway.
And then another episode comes around and we get wacky reality-warping hyjinks…. right before a surprisingly astute and metaphor-packed episode about communication or racisim and how sometimes you can’t magically win over awful people.
It was damn near perfect, though I think it could have tried to maintain a balance between silly and serious rather than swing-shifting everyone’s emotions. That balance is why it didn’t quite beat out…
Number 2: Young Justice
I think we’ve all heard me rant and rave about this show and its untimely cancellation, but it remains one of the best all-around animated shows out there.
From animation to writing, the show is excellent with smooth, exciting action, complex plots (with characters cut from the same cloth as Xanatos from Gargoyles—speaking of which, Greg Wiessman was in charge of this, Gargoyles AND Spectacular Spider-man. The dude can make one hell of a cartoon), and satisfyingly meaty character interactions.
What I most enjoy about YJ is how just when I thought I knew where everything was going, a new wrinkle would appear, like what looked like a one-off Red Tornado episode becoming an arc, or a simple training session leading to development for everyone in unexpected ways.
And they animated Klarion the Wtich Boy! Seriously!
But all that. All of that still couldn’t help YJ unseat…
Number 1: Batman: The Animated Series
Everyone is going to have their own choice for the best here. Everyone is going to have their own criterion for that choice and a gold standard. For me, Batman: TAS is that gold standard. Even twenty years from its original release, there hasn’t been anything quite like this series even while it made many of the shows below it in this ranking possible, up to and including launching the DCAU and providing a successful formula behind it.
While Teen Titans took design and a few comedic cues from anime, Batman:TAS took the attitude and brought it to western animation. It didn’t care that it was animated, it didn’t care that it was supposed to be fore kids, it came to tell some goddamn Batman stories (Two Frank Miller jabs in a single post? I must be feelin’ my Wheaties) and by god, it was going to do it.
Considering the stuff that’s out there today, it’s hard to describe to younger readers of this blog just what it was like to have a cartoon show up that didn’t just have its own art style (and the black paper animation was something completely different), but it’s own alternate present; one where there were police airships, TVs were still black and white, but advanced robotics and modern sensibilities reigned.
And the actual stories… Unlike X-men and Spider-man, most of these weren’t adaptations of the comics. Instead, they were full-on re-imaginings, such as the poignant and tragic take on Mr. Freeze, the series-created Harley Quinn, whose relationships with Poison Ivy and the Joker redefined both characters, and speaking of– Mark Hamil’s Joker, who was the definitive Joker all the way up until the moment Heath Ledger’s version did his magic trick in The Dark Knight.
TAS’s Batman was so great that it really set the bar for Batman adaptations for an entire generation of fans. When the Nolan movies came out, I mostly heard comparisons between it and this rather than any of the movies or the comics.
In short, Batman:TAS was important. It was groundbreaking. Not just for superhero cartoons, but ALL cartoons. Without it, we wouldn’t have had Justice League. We wouldn’t have had Batman Beyond or Young Justice. I would even say it’s fair to say we wouldn’t have seen other powerful actions cartoons like Avatar, or story-driven ones like Mystery Incorporated either. TAS opened to door for all of that by showing that it could be done and it could be successful. And it inspired a generation of creators like me to reach for that kind of storytelling and owning our medium.
Nothing else, at least in my mind, could have taken this slot. But if you have something better in mind, I’d be happy to hear it.