Superheroes on TV: Animated shows, superhero cartoons

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Superhero cartoons: they ain’t just for kids anymore. And we’re not just talking about the way Cartoon Network programmed “Justice League” in its Saturday night time slot, either; after all, even back in the 1960s you had a show like “Underdog,” which regularly featured jokes that went way over the heads of the kids who thrilled to the title character’s adventures. Of course, having said that, most of the shows featured here always seemed right at home in their Saturday morning timeslot… and that was fine with us.

The Marvel Superheroes (1966)

When it came to adapting their characters to television, Marvel was always considerably behind the curve from DC, but, in 1966, they finally got off their duffs and entered the small-screen fray, and the results were…interesting. From an animation standpoint, “Marvel Superheroes” was a far cry from groundbreaking – the show did little more than take images from the comic books and make the characters’ lips move. But, even now, it’s still pretty damn cool to see the classic Silver Age adventures of Captain America, The Hulk, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner and Thor acted out on TV. The most notorious parts of the show, though, remain the theme songs written for each of the heroes. For instance, the intro to Cap’s segment included the lyrics, “If he's led to a fight and a duel is due / Then the red and white and the blue'll come through.” Yeah, that’s bad, but at least it’s not as awful as The Hulk’s, which attempts to rhyme “gamma rays” with “unglamorous.” – WH

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Underdog (1964 – 1967)

“Look, up in the sky!” “It’s a plane!” “It’s a bird!” “It’s a frog!” (A frog?) Please, dear readers, though I know it was a bummer, don’t judge this great show by the movie from this summer. Okay, calm down, I’m not going to attempt to maintain Underdog’s traditional rhyming dialogue throughout this entire write-up; I’m just saying that it’s not the fault of the original ‘60s cartoon that Hollywood once again tried to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place. Underdog’s not a real damned dog, people. He’s a humble and loveable cartoon dog named Shoeshine Boy who, when criminals in this world appear and break the laws that they should fear, and frighten all who see or hear, leaps into a telephone booth and transforms into the greatest canine superhero this side of Krypto the Super Dog. Underdog was always standing by to put a stop to evildoers like Simon Bar Sinister and Riff Raff, as well as to save the forever-in-danger Sweet Polly Purebred. And if there was collateral damage as a result of his actions, Underdog always had a stock reply: “I am a hero who never fails; I cannot be bothered with these details.” Yes, the live-action movie was a horrible misstep, but there’s no need to fear: Underdog’s reputation will yet recover. But, uh, probably not this year. – WH

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Super Friends (1973 – 1986)

It’s so bizarre that this show remained the industry standard for superhero TV for as long as it did, given how terrible it actually was. It pains us to write those words, but have you seen the show lately? It’s still great fun to watch if you grew up with it, but it’s more on a “Mystery Science Theater 3000” level, since you find yourself laughing out loud at some of the ridiculous dialogue and ludicrous plots. Even the creators of the show get in on the fun during the audio commentaries on the various DVD releases of the show, for God’s sake! It was particularly annoying in the show’s early years that the Super Friends were always saddled with teen and animal sidekicks, like Wendy, Marvin, and Wonder Dog, but, OK, fine, The Wonder Twins did have some pretty damned cool powers (except for Zan’s bizarre water-only limitations). Of the many incarnations of the series over the years, the one that’s held up the best is “Challenge of the Super Friends,” partially because it was gloriously sidekick-free, but mostly due to the deliciously evil Legion of Doom and the expanded line-up of the Super Friends themselves. Finally, we got the chance to see guys like The Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman in action! Later years brought us animated versions of Firestorm and Cyborg, but if you’ve got a really long memory, you may even remember one-off guest appearances from Green Arrow and Plastic Man. With the more recent “Justice League” series giving DC’s premiere super team the animated respect it’s always deserved, “Super Friends” now looks quaint at best, but we’ll never forget sitting Indian-style in front of the TV, a bowl of Fruity Pebbles in our lap, thrilling to every last moment. Yes, the safety tips, too. – WH

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Hong Kong Phooey (1974 – 1976)

We’re downright chagrined to admit that this was actually the very last entry written for our Superhero TV piece (seriously, the text for the entire thing was laid out already and everything), but when it came time to look for artwork for the various pages, we came across a shot of Hong Kong Phooey and realized that, holy crap, we’ve left off the number one super-guy! Given that karate was all the rage in the early ‘70s, it wasn’t terribly surprising that some clever cartoon maker would try to get in on the craze and create a character with martial arts skills but, really, Hanna Barbera pulled out all the stops, not least of which was its insidiously catchy theme song. (“He’s got style, a groovy smile / And a car that just won’t stop / When the going gets rough, he’s super tough / With a Hong Kong Phooey chop / Hi-YA!”) Voiced by the late, great Scatman Crothers, this quicker-than-the-human-eye martial arts master was, by day, a mild-mannered janitor named Henry. When crime reared its ugly head, however, Hong Kong Phooey was on the case, along with his faithful feline companion, Spot; the duo would jump into the Phooeymobile, which was able to change its shape to fit the situation with just a quick, uh, bong of the gong. And, no, that’s not a hidden dope reference: the car really did have a gong in it! Hong Kong Phooey was, like so many of Hanna-Barbera’s superhero creations, pretty much an incompetent boob who only solved crimes accidentally (or with Spot’s assistance) but, like we said, he had an awesome car and a kick-ass theme song…and, frankly, sometimes that’s all you need. – WH

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Dynomutt (1976 – 1978)

By 1978, the adventures of Scooby-Doo just weren’t doing it for the kids of America like they used to. I mean, really, how many times can you follow the same general plot structure before even the least sharp crayon in the box gets the gist of the show? Obviously, they killed the show’s credibility stone dead a few years later, when they introduced Scrappy-Doo, but in ’78, Hanna Barbera came up with an inspired creation to share the stage with Scooby: Dynomutt. Half robot, half superhero, Dynomutt wasn’t exactly the sidekick of The Blue Falcon, but he certainly wasn’t the brains of the outfit, either. For that matter, he also wasn’t much of a superhero or a robot. He was, however, fearless and scareless (if a little too careless), and being the go-go dog person that he was, Dynomutt and The Blue Falcon always managed to come through in the end and save the day. Given that he shared a show with Scooby, it’s no surprise that collaborations with Mystery, Inc. occurred on a frequent basis. Dynomutt’s adventures only lasted for a year; he did make appearances on “Scooby’s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics,” however, and has since reared his head in recent years on “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.” Do I smell a comeback in the offing? – WH

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Fantastic Four (1978)

We know, we know: it’s practically blasphemous to spotlight the 1970s version of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine when we’ve got three other adaptations that come a lot closer to providing a more accurate look at the Fantastic Four. But, really, how often to we get the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of H.E.R.B.I.E. the Robot? I still remember my confusion when I picked up my first “Fantastic Four” comic after having watched the ’78 cartoon, wondering, “Where’s H.E.R.B.I.E., and who’s this Human Torch guy?” The longstanding urban legend is that the character of Johnny Storm was removed from the show because the network was afraid that kids would imitate him and set themselves on fire. In truth, only really, really dumb kids would do that – seriously, that’s, like, a dozen steps past the stupidity level of jumping off the roof of your garage because you think you can fly like Superman. But it doesn’t matter, anyway, because it’s not true. (Turns out the character of The Human Torch had been licensed for a live-action project, which, y’know, you’d think would’ve made them think twice about doing an animated “Fantastic Four” series, but maybe that’s just me.) Inevitably, even though he was a Stan Lee / Jack Kirby co-creation, the character of H.E.R.B.I.E. suffered nothing but scorn, and the series only lasted a single season. Still, if you ever get a chance to catch it, it’s a hoot to watch how the writers were forced to adapt classic “FF” stories by subtracting a guy who could burst into flame and replace him with a, uh, little flying robot. It changes the dynamic juuuuuust a little bit. – WH

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Battle of the Planets (1978 – 1985)

The so-called “Japanimation,” now more commonly known as anime, had been popping up on American shores since the ‘60s via shows like “Astro Boy,” “Marine Boy” and “Speed Racer.” It wasn’t until 1978 that we started to get the really good stuff like this series. “Battle of the Planets” was an adaptation of the 1972 Japanese series, “Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman,” which was a bit less kid-friendly in its original form. In the Americanized version, Mark, Jason, Princess, Keyop and Tiny served as protectors of Earth, working with their robot pal, 7-Zark-7, to ward off attacks from Zoltar, the evildoer hailing from the planet Spectra. The gang would put on their awesomely designed costumes and pile into their ship, The Phoenix, which would, upon takeoff, burst into flame like the mythical bird of yore. “Battle of the Planets” didn’t look like anything else on television at the time, and although its uniqueness is long gone in an era where you can’t turn around without hitting a new anime sensation, with high-profile fans like artist Alex Ross paying tribute to the show, it won’t soon be forgotten. – WH

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The Plastic Man Comedy / Adventure Show (1979 – 1981)

“Plastic Man” was one of those cartoons that bordered on being really bad, but I recall enjoying it at the time. Actually, I think that had to do more with the episodes that featured “Baby Plas” (Plastic Man’s son) than the ones featuring only the title character. Plastic Man was basically a comedy version of Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four. Plastic Man’s costume was kind of scary. It was red with a belt, and had no leggings…so, basically, Plastic Man was always sort of running around half-naked while transforming himself into ridiculous forms to save the day. When the show began, it was part of an anthology series that also included segments like “Mighty Man & Yukk” (a pint-sized superhero with a dog sidekick so ugly that he had to wear a doghouse-shaped helmet to cover his face); and “Rickety Rocket” (ABC’s bid for the “Fat Albert” audience, with a bunch of African-American kids in the future solving mysteries while riding around in their talking rocket ship). Later, however, the suits lowered the demographic, giving Plastic Man that son I mentioned earlier. So far, the series has not been re-released to the public on DVD format, though bootlegs abound. I bought myself a cheap three-episode disc on eBay (one of the episodes features Plastic Man battling “The Weed), but unfortunately none of the three featured Baby Plas. For what it’s worth, “Plastic Man” comes off now as one of those cartoons just cranked out at the time, without much thought to quality or content. But again, it did appeal to me at a younger age, and that was undoubtedly the target audience, so on that level the show succeeded. – JT

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X-Men (1992-1997)

What more can you say about the “X-Men” animated series that hasn’t already been said by its legion of fans, except that it’s hard to believe the first attempt to get the show off the ground never got beyond the pilot episode? (Maybe it was the theme song.) There’s a reason “X-Men” was so popular, and a lot of it had to do with staying true to the original comic. Not only did the characters actually look like the ones being drawn by Jim Lee at that time, but it also followed many of the same storylines, never forgetting to throw in some old favorites (like The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past). The cast for the show was pretty classic when compared to the ‘90s comic run, and though I may be a little biased because that’s what series I collected most regularly as a kid, it featured one of the best X-Men teams in history. Mainstays like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Storm and Beast headed up the superteam, while relative newcomers like Gambit, Rogue and Jubilee rounded out the pack. A ninth X-Men, Morph (who was based on the already established Marvel character of The Changeling), was reinvented and added to the series, only to be seemingly killed off in the second episode. He would later return as a bad guy alongside Mr. Sinister, one of the most underused villains in the X-Men universe. Despite its popularity, however, the series was cancelled after only five seasons (something to do with Marvel Studios going bankrupt), but its legacy lives on. – Jason Zingale

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Spawn (1997 – 1999)

Todd McFarlane became a true force in the comic world when, after breathing new life into Spider-Man, he decided to leave Marvel and create his own company and comic. “Spawn” debuted in 1992 and set the comic world on fire with its dark tone and grim portrayal of the title character. HBO gave McFarlane a chance to animate it, and he came up with 18 moody, dark and terrific episodes over the course of three years. Keith David’s fabulous voice was used for Spawn/Al Simmons (you know, your average murdered CIA agent who’s sent to Hell and becomes one of Satan’s agents in exchange to see his wife one more time, with the slight catch being that his memory and appearance are Swiss-cheesed). The series also featured the dulcet tones of Richard Dysart: yep, “L.A. Law’s” very own Leland McKenzie. Other voices utilized on the show included “ER’s” Ming Na, “CSI: Miami’s” Khandi Alexander, and Eric Roberts (you know, Julia’s older brother.) A very disappointing film version was also produced in 1997, but another animated series is in the works, though even a tentative release date has yet to be revealed. – RDS

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Powerpuff Girls (1998 – 2005)

Sugar, spice and everything nice: these were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect little girls. Damn that Ingredient X for screwing up the mix! Oh, no, wait, it’s actually a good thing that Professor Utonium accidentally added that particular ingredient; otherwise, we wouldn’t have been gifted with the adventures of Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup. On the surface, it seems a little unhealthy that we find so much enjoyment in watching the adventures of three kindergarten-aged little girls. But there’s probably not a single one of the show’s 78 episodes that doesn’t include at least half a dozen jokes that go sailing miles over the heads of your average kid. “Powerpuff Girls” regularly parodied both American and Japanese superhero stereotypes, but it was so much more than that. The number of pop culture references within the series are way more than anyone here at Bullz-Eye has any intention of counting, but we’ve always been particularly partial to “Meet the Beat Alls,” which contains an obscene number of references to the Fab Four. Both packed with action and filled to the brim with laughs, “Powerpuff Girls” is the cartoon antithesis of “Bratz.” Given the way kids look and act today, any time Craig McCracken wants to bring his creations back to our televisions, we’ll be there in a heartbeat. – WH

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Batman Beyond (1999 – 2001)

“A Batman series that takes place in the future? Cool! Wait, what? Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman anymore? Oh, um, nevermind.” That was a pretty common reaction when news hit that a new animated series about The Caped Crusader would headline the WB’s after-school line-up. After all, how could you possibly top the brilliant (and Emmy Award-winning) “Batman: The Animated Series” with a show about a crotchety old Batman who’s thrown in the towel? Well, quite simply, you can’t, but that didn’t stop the creative team behind the popular series from attempting to revive Gotham’s favorite son for a new twist on a familiar story. In “Batman Beyond,” the year is 2040 and Gotham has once again been plagued by crime. Too old to fight even the most common of criminals, Bruce Wayne has become a prisoner in his own kingdom. When a rebel teenager named Terry McGinnis happens upon the Batcave one night, he’s handed the reigns to the operation. OK, so it doesn’t all happen quite as easily as that, but you get the point: a new Batman is born, complete with a kickass techno-suit and a new stable of villains that, while not as memorable as the classic rogue’s gallery, ultimately grow on you with time. The series would eventually be cancelled after only three seasons, but that’s not the real tragedy. A victim of the crossover in an earlier season of “Justice League Unlimited,” Terry McGinnis’ legacy would forever be shattered when it’s revealed in a future episode that Batman was really Terry’s father. Groan. – JZ

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X-Men Evolution (2000 – 2003)

Drawing most of its inspiration from the first “X-Men” film (which was itself based on the visual style of the “Ultimate X-Men” comic), the “Evolution” animated series was like “Saved By the Bell: The Mutant Class.” Zach Morris and Screech had been replaced by Cyclops and Nightcrawler (respectively); Rogue was a rebel without a cause; and Tori and Jean Grey a solid combination of Jesse Spano and Kelly Kapowski. Attending regular high school by day, and Professor Xavier’s school at night, “Evolution” featured a major change in the X-Men universe we all knew and loved. Joining the other teenage mutants was the classic (but often left out) Shadowcat, and a brand new character named Spyke because, well, he could shoot spikes from his body. Clever, huh? The teachers themselves included the obvious (Storm) and the not-so-obvious (Wolverine), while the teenage X-Men’s enemies featured a blast-from-the-past Brotherhood line-up of Avalanche, Toad, The Blob and Quicksilver. Of course, they’re all being led by someone much more powerful (Mystique), who is in turn being controlled by someone even more powerful (Magneto). “Evolution” took a major turn in the second season, however, when it introduced Apocalypse as the main villain, ultimately killing a lot of interest in the show. The big guy’s meant strictly for special occasions, and the show’s writers went and shot their load a full two seasons early. – JZ

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Justice League (2001)

After successfully creating a completely new and far more serious animated universe for characters like Batman and Superman, it was time for Bruce Timm to set his sights on the foremost super team of DC Comics: the Justice League. First step: get Aquaman the hell out of the primary line-up. Second step: no damned sidekicks! Third step: make the League racially diverse and gender-blended without creating lame new characters by bringing in Hawkgirl and making John Stewart the team’s resident Green Lantern. Fourth step: finally giving J’onn J’onzz, Manhunter from Mars – a founding member of the team in the comics, thank you very much – his chance to shine! After two successful seasons on Cartoon Network, “Justice League” evolved into “Justice League International,” and the palate of heroes expanded to…well, basically to every single hero in the history of DC Comics. This included the big guns of the original series to longtime League members like Green Arrow, Black Canary, and The Elongated Man, all the way down to lesser-known guys like The Shining Knight, Metamorpho, and, yes, even B’wana Beast. Sadly, “Justice League Unlimited” concluded in 2006 after a four-season run, but it’s fair to say that, given how extensive Timm’s version of the DC Universe is, we haven’t seen the last of it. – WH

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The Ripping Friends (2001 – 2002)

Theoretically, it should’ve been more than enough for the show’s ad campaign to just say, “This is a show by the creators of ‘Ren and Stimpy.’” But, no, for some reason, the Saturday morning audience just wasn’t buying John Kricfalusi and Jim Smith’s latest creation, a team of superheroes. Crag, Rip, Slab and Chunk live and work at RIPCOT – The Really Impressive Prototype City Of next Tuesday – and, with assistance from their foster mother, He-Mom, and their buddy Jimmy the Hapless Idiot Boy, they battle bizarre villains like The Indigestible Wad, Flathead the Flatworm, The Ovulator, and the French-Canadian terror known as Citrocet, who, via an encounter with a rarely-discussed mystical energy, gains the ability to control his farts. Farts are funny, people; they always have been, and they always will be, which makes the failure of “The Ripping Friends” to capture a young audience all the more incredible. John K. and Jim S. actually came up with the concept for the show even before they invented the infamous Powered Toast Man, so it was clearly a pet project of theirs; as such, it must’ve hurt all the more when it was yanked after only 13 episodes. Surprisingly, the series has yet to emerge on DVD, but we’re hoping Fox corrects that oversight soon. – WH

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Teen Titans (2003 – 2006)

The Teen Titans have been around a long, long time in comic book form, and only slightly less longer in animated form, but Warner Brothers took its most popular print incarnation – Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s “New Teen Titans” – and tweaked it for the younger set. The only thing was, even though my three-year-old son loves the show, it also found a solid fanbase with older viewers (myself included), so it’s truly one of those rare cartoon series that managed to wow both young and old without making either group feel “silly” for enjoying it. “Teen Titans” features Robin, Starfire, Cyborg, Beastboy and Raven battling various evil foes, most notably Slade, an arch villain if ever there was, who constantly wants Robin to join his side of the action. The writing in this series was always tight, filled with both enough good drama and humor to balance out the action. Plenty of anime-styled elements are brought into the artwork, but this is not an anime series, strictly speaking. It’s more like an anime-injected show like “Totally Spies!” which I also happen to find appealing. The bottom line is that “Teen Titans” remains a fan favorite that also transcends the old Marvel/DC rivalry. The DVD sets are must-haves for superhero fans of all ages, which is certainly saying something in this day and age. – JT

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