The first thing I think of when I think about animation based on comic books is the Fleischer shorts from the 40s. Even as a kid, while I didn’t really connect with them emotionally, there was something about them that felt foundational that I did connect with. I felt less like I was watching entertainment and more like I was watching art. My fundamental understanding of comic books, animation, and Superman are all very much informed by those shorts. (In particular the first two: “The Mad Scientist” and “The Mechanical Monsters”) There are two major takeaways for me: 1. The visual power of a small red and blue character holding up a giant grey rectangle and 2. the sheer spectacle of watching a man punch a laser beam. While those films are short (around 10 min) they feel big and meaningful.
For me, that’s what Superhero stuff is always chasing, the visual spectacle that makes something silly and fantastic feel important and meaningful.
On the other side of the coin I really like and care about good character writing. Which is the half of the equation that those old shorts lacked and why I appreciate them more than I necessarily like them.
So that’s where I’m coming from at a kind of fundamental level, but really this is just to highlight some TV shows that matter to me and stand up as things I can recommend. There are certainly cartoons that I have a deep love for, that I watched as a kid, that I can’t recommend to someone today. The 90s Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons are shows that are very important to me and I could go on and on about what does work about them, but I just think they’re too flawed for this list; both on the animation and writing side.
Let’s get to the shows themselves:
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987)
This show was really the first piece of media I ever loved. I would whisper about it in my sleep when I was little. And yet I almost left it off this list.
A lot of that has to do with how much of this show there is, and how heavily its success was exploited. The first season of this show was 5 episodes, the second was 13, and the third was forty seven episodes. There were diminishing returns on both the writing and animation fronts unsurprisingly.
All I really want to talk about here is that first five episode season, both because they’re important and because they’re good. This is a weird case though because the comics that the Turtles were based on were much different from the cartoon (The first issue ends with Shredder dead for one thing.) mostly because the Turtles of the comics are a parody of Frank Miller’s Daredevil, whereas the cartoon versions were made more distinct and archetypal. There’s just very little of the original joke left in the cartoon, which allowed it just feel like it’s own thing, even though it was steeped in ideas that weren’t its own.
What’s important to me about those first 5 episodes though is how serial they feel, as opposed to the more episodic nature of the bulk of the show. There’s an arc, and a building of stakes in that first season, something that’s incredibly key to comic books. The threat of the Technodrome, Krang, and his army from Dimension X feel big and important, and a key component of that is how the show builds to that in its early episodes. That Krang is just this brain without a body, and then the weird thing his body turns out to be. Even though it was very much lighthearted and humorous, when it went for it the show pulled off spectacle that felt meaningful.
Again, as the show went on it didn’t really pay off on that often enough, and it never found some other thing to fill that gap, there’s nothing else that compares to the threat of the Technodrome. Instead becoming much more about selling a new silly toy every week. But in 5 episodes it left a blueprint for serialized storytelling in a kids cartoon, one that proved surprisingly difficult for shows (including itself) to recapture.
The Tick (1994)
This is a show that exists specifically because someone was trying to recapture to financial magic that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles turned into. That’s the reason this independent parody comic became a cartoon marked to kids. Obviously The Tick never had the impact of TMNT, mostly I think because it’s parody is a little more adult, or maybe high concept, while TMNT is more visceral.
All the heroes in The Tick are either lame, stupid, crazy or some combination therein, and the cartoon doesn’t really soften that for kids. While the Ninja Turtles of the cartoon are a much more distinct, and archetypical in a way that’s easier to relate to and pick a favorite.
But those things that made The Tick less marketable to kids, are a huge part of why it stands the test of time, because it’s just so fucking weird. And that weirdness sometimes works against it, sometimes it’s just weird and not as funny as it should be, but when it hits it really hits.
And it nails spectacle.
At only episode 2 the villain Chairface Chippendale, who has a chair for a head manages to irrevocably reshape the world, when he writes his name into the moon. (Well the first 3 letters anyway.) This is a world where our heroes, as well intentioned as they may be, just aren’t good enough to completely stop villains from pulling of their evil plans (As stupid and inane as they may be). Not only does the Tick set the stage for its world brilliantly and early on, it follow up on that well later on as well. (Like how eventually there’s a big bite taken out of the moon.)
The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008)
Sadly this is the only Marvel show I can put on this list, but it’s also the best non-comics adaptation of Spider-Man out there, and even including comics its right up there with my favorite version of these characters and story. This just a great example of how to distil out the best elements of a comic, and then reincorporate the best ideas and versions of characters that have happened over the year.
This show starts with the star of Peter Parker’s Junior year of high school, with him having become Spider-Man over the Summer. This show is straight up using the original Lee/Ditko run as a base, but there are key things it changes and adds in, like supporting characters that didn’t show up in the comics until Peter was in college, and also Eddie Brock.
Look Venom is my jam, I was more of a Venom fan than a Spider-Man fan as a kid, frankly I’ve been obsessed with that character, so when I say this I mean it: This is the best version of Eddie Brock Venom. (The more recent Flash Thompson version of Venom in comics is fucking great but that’s a different beast) What makes this version so good is that it takes an idea for Eddie Brock that was in the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, namely that Eddie and Peter were childhood friends, but executes on that idea in a much sharper way than those comics did. In the comic, Eddie was kind of a dirtbag who came out of the blue, with this new backstory just sprung out of nowhere. Here Eddie was a popular, smart Jock, who looked out for Peter in high school (When the show starts he’s now in college working as an assistant for Curt Connors, who Peter and Gwen Stacy end up interning for) It’s also establish that Peter and Eddie’s parents died together in a plane crash. Eddie not only is basically an older brother to Peter, he’s also the other side of the coin, because he did not have an Aunt May or Uncle Ben too look after him once his parents were gone, a resentment that plays into but is only one part of, his descent into becoming Venom.
There’s so much there, and the show does a great job of building to it over its first 13 episodes. That’s the biggest example that stands out to me, but the show is full of thoughtful choices like that. Even in that explanation there’s a taste of how good the show is at introducing and interweaving characters to make things more interesting. This is also the best version of Gwen Stacy period, and more generally this is the only non-comics adaptation of Spider-Man that gets the romance aspects of the story right at all. The show never drops the ball on any character, it does a good job with everyone it uses.
And the animation is very good. The character designs are simple and streamlined, but they shine during action, which is fast paced and fluid.
Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2012)
Before I get to the house that Bruce Timm and Paul Dini built let’s look at Timm’s last foray into television animation. (Coincidentally this show stars Josh Keaton as Hal Jordan, who played Peter Parker/Spider-Man in The Spectacular Spider-Man.)
This is kinda bringing it down, right before we bring it back up again, because Green Lantern isn’t great, but it is very good. What really makes it is the character work, particularly on the two characters created for the show itself, the AI, Aya (Who starts as the ship’s Ai, and then gets her own body and discovers emotions, yada yada yada EDI from Mass Effect), and the Red Lantern Razer. Not only are they the most interesting characters, but the show makes the correct decision to center most of the big plot stuff around them.
There is some good distillation here; up until now the Red Lanterns other than Atrocitus were all blood drooling rage zombies. But the Lantern Spectrum that this series builds off of was an idea that was only 4 years old at this point so there’s just not all that much to distill. This is just a solid space series.
More on pages 2 and 3.