People have been saying recently that it is a new phenomenon to see superheros dominating the mediasphere beyond just comic books. While it is true that Marvel Studios, an ever increasing comic television line-up, and the success of indie book franchises have risen the profile, our favorite caped characters have always been a gold mine for adaptations. One of the most common of these that dominated in the 1990s and early 2000s was different superhero ported cartoons, both from Saturday morning and even those with a slightly more mature themes. While there are a lot of animated options today, nothing is quite like the nostalgia we get when we see the animated renditions of our favorite Marvel or DC superpowered vigilantes.
But what cartoons stand up after all these years, and what ones are best left to fond memories? Here are the top five superhero cartoons that still hold up today.
1. The Tick
This is probably not the first one you would think to add to the list, but the irreverent comedy of this quirky, indie inspired cartoon. As a comic character, The Tick only ran for about three years yet spent this time lampooning the conventions of the superhero genre and creating the kind of satire that both young kids and their parents could enjoy. This needs to be on the list because it only grows in enjoyment as you return to it when you are older. SPOON!!!
2. The Maxx: The Complete Series
Probably the strangest book on the list, and back in the public consciousness because of the reprints with new coloring from IDW. This series ported the famed Image indie comic over to MTV as part of their push to bring independent animation into their line-up. The book itself had barely begun with MTV optioned it, trying to capitalize both on the fury surrounding Image comics in the 1990s and to try and capitalize on quirky comic characters. Even as years go by, this is still one of the most fascinating and strange series ever to be on television. A superhero existing in a dreamscape. A social worker having a public debate on sexual and gender ethics. Violence and horror at the edges, and a question as to what is real and what is imaginary. What is especially unique about the show is that almost all of it is done with still images, which really draws on the artistic style of the book perfectly.
This was one that, like the comic, was not meant for children. Spawn, as one of the launching books from Image and Todd McFarlane, brought superheros into the dark side of Christian mythology where murder, revenge, and sexual assault were prevalent. There was a certain logic to Spawn that made sense where the real horrors of the world had to be matched with the violence of someone seeking hellish redemption. The book was rightly optioned by HBO in their attempt, like MTV, to capitalize on adult oriented animation. They created a dark adaptation that stylistically drew on anime styles to have an interesting and violent creation. The series is almost uncomfortably bleak, but a charm remains as it still appears furious and frightening.
This is exactly the X-Men that people tend to think of when they remember the team. Professor X, Wolverine, Storm, Jean Gray, Cyclops, Beat, Gambit, and the rest of the crew together in adventures that draw heavily on the social and political themes of the comic and create a continuity of some of the most interesting adventures from their history. This show dominated the perception of Marvel for years and was influenced by the Chris Cunningham stories, as well as inspiring the original Brian Singer X-Men films. While it is definitely age appropriate, it is a great manifestation of the fun areas of the X-Men comics that adult fans can enjoy over and over again.
5. Batman: The Animated Series, Volume One (DC Comics Classic Collection)
This is the Citizen Kane of the comic book animated adaptations. The series brought an entirely new view on Batman, including the invention of now popular characters like Harley Quinn. Mark Hammil got his second largest role with this doing voices for many characters, yet the Joker is what really stands out. The madness in Gotham, and inside Batman, takes dominance in a way that is both fun and frightening, and the show is crafted with a strong continuity that really did make it feel like a moving comic series. The Animate Series was the perfect Saturday morning cartoon that treated children as intelligent and capable of strong storylines, and it has retroactively influenced Batman in the comics and across all media. Even now it is shocking how good the show is and has subtlety and nuance that you would never expect.