I’m pretty prepared to say we live in a golden age of western animation – and as someone who survived the compulsory (and awful) “western animation is just so shallow compared to glorious anime” phase, it is a real kick to be able to say so. We’re also still pretty square in the wave of mainstreaming of superheroes, replete with unexpected winners (you rolled your eyes at that Rocket Raccoon trailer, don’t you lie) and a seemingly endless chaff of bland, soulless cash-ins eaten by time (of which I imagine poor, director-shuffled Ant Man will only be the most recent example).
But before we had the tidal wave of superhero movies, kids’ TV was where it was at – and for every unfortunate Spiderman utterly strangled by terrified studio mandates, there was another handful of shows that made it out with something worth talking about. Let’s tip our hats to them today.
5. The Tick
In Brief: A lantern-jawed space case of a hero called The Tick and his sidekick Arthur (a former accountant now known as “The Moth”), fight crime against and beside a surreal cast of characters populating a fictional New York.
Imagine, if you will, a child-friendly version of The Venture Bros. If nothing else, that’ll give you broad strokes of what’s going on in this show (which, like all surreal comedies, is quite difficult to describe without just falling into a list of gags): it’s one of the early versions of the “superpowered beings dealing with everyday annoyances” shtick, the good-old beleaguered everyman/out of touch but cheery disaster hurricane as its central dynamic, bizarre character design (there is a villain called Chairface, and I encourage you to imagine that design as literally as possible), and a beating heart that really, really enjoys making fun of 90s comic tropes without the slightest concern that the supposed target audience wouldn’t be old enough to read them.
All of these intriguing elements do not necessarily make an engaging show on their own – fortunately, The Tick is really, really funny. Even better, it’s far more affectionate in its parodies than many of its ilk and clearly fond of its motley crew of self-centered idiots, which goes a long way to selling the world and the jokes even if one isn’t familiar with the material being mocked.
4. Batman Beyond
In Brief: High Schooler Terry McGuinness, on the run from a local gang called the “Jokerz,” stumbles upon the seemingly abandoned lair of the legendary Batman. When he returns home to see his home wrecked and his father murdered by the gang, he returns to the cave to steal the Bat’s final invention: a high tech crime fighting suit, and convinces Bruce to let him take over the title of Batman.
Watch: The series is on Netflix, Return of the Joker is here
“Hey, that Buffy show seems really popular. Give us some teenage Batman!” cried the WB’s studio execs, and thanks to the ingenuity of Batman the Animated Series creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, we were granted one of the Batman franchise’s biggest breaths of fresh air rather than the utter nightmare such a mandate might imply.
The black background art deco style that was so iconic to BtAS translates well to a dark, cyberpunk aesthetic that incorporates elements of the original canon without ever feeling unduly like fanservice – this might be a spinoff, but it’s also bound and determined to be its own thing. And boy is it stylish, using the original show’s capable hands with dark subject matter and turning them toward family relationships and coming of age, with a true beating heart in the form of Bruce and Terry’s growing bond.
The biggest rough spot is Terry’s rogue gallery, which have uniformly impressive designs but are notably shallow in psychology compared to the Bat’s original villainous lineup. And for all the cool sci fi concepts and willingness to stretch its wings in comparison to much of the lineup at the time, some episodes do feel the cringe of that very high school element.
All of this aside, of course, the show is absolutely worth familiarizing yourself with just for the sake of watching Return of the Joker, the show’s semi-official finale and one of the great films in the Batman canon (and a bonus dosage of that sweet, sweet Hamill Joker, with a uniquely subdued and menacing take on this incarnation of the character).
In Brief: One fateful day computer geek Dexter Douglass is “zapped into the internet” (it’s one of those shows with a helpfully descriptive theme song, you see) and develops superhero alter-ego Freakazoid, gaining the collective knowledge of and superpowers from the 90s understanding of the Internet while also losing his sanity.
Watch: Here (albeit in regrettable quality)
Never has a show been so unfortunately stretched and orphaned by so many talented people. Originally conceived by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (yes, them) as a fairly serious action series, the network pushed them to make an out and out comedy that the duo was deeply dissatisfied with. From there, production and development went into the hands of Tom Ruegger, whom you might know best as one of the driving creative minds behind Animaniacs. True to form, he turned the show into an ensemble variety show, with “main” cartoons centering around Freakazoid and other shorts focusing on bizarre heroes such as “The Huntsman.” This got jettisoned in the second season in favor of 20 minute Freakazoid cartoons with slightly more cogent plots, only for the network to throw the whole thing in the can after a mere 24 episodes.
Troubled production aside, one of the show’s biggest problems was the oddity of its sense of humor: a bit too weird for the 6 to 9s (by network mentality, anyhow), a little too childish for teenagers (and who would market animated shows to teenagers, after all); while it would’ve been right at home (tonally, anyway) with the current Cartoon Network lineup, the marketing of the time clearly had no idea what to do with it. And that is how a superhero comedy with a golden pedigree died an ignoble death, remembered with fiercely loyal fondness by the small handful of weird kids who adored it in its very, very brief life (because there is, make no mistake, plenty to love – I did mention that it took its writers, director, and many voice actors from one of the best animated shows ever made, didn’t I?).
2. Static Shock
In Brief: 14 year old Virgil Hawkins is a normal kid – he has a nerdy best friend, a crush on one of his friends, and a loving family. He’s also being pressured join a local gang, which leads to him being in the wrong place at the right time: a release of toxic chemicals dubbed the “Big Bang” causes those in its wake to develop superpowers. Determined to do some good with his newfound abilities, Virgil becomes the superhero Static.
Watch: Sorry, Readers, this one’s caught in the crossfire of obscurity and Youtube bots
Static has had a rough go of things as a teeny tiny franchise. The comic’s original creator Dwayne McDuffie (who was also the driving force behind the animated adaptation, and started his own comic company) passed away at the tragically young age of 49. His work on the show was constantly under heavy pressure and censorship from the higher ups. When DC started its blank slate “new 52” project, the new comic line for the character only ran eight issues. Virgil showed up for the final leg of Young Justice, and then it was cancelled. And Netflix is in serious production talks to make a live action series…but they’re considering Jaden Smith for the lead.
That is a hard row to hoe for a series that’s dear to my heart. Speaking solely from personal experience, this show did an incredible amount to open my eyes to other viewpoints and stories at a critically impressionable age: I’d never seen another superhero show with an African American hero, or such a diverse cast period (not a watcher of The Proud Family, yours truly); I’d never seen stories dealing with gang violence or what it was like to live in an urban community (as the whitest white kid in the whitest town of the most deserted state in the nation – it was freakin Twin Peaks up there, y’all), or even just the normalizing image of an African American family having day to day struggles alongside those cool hero shenanigans; and it did small, important wonders for my ability to empathize with differences that weren’t my own (though on the subject of familiar differences I did cotton immediately to – and remain nostalgically fond of – BFF Richie Foley, despite editorial mandate keeping him firmly closeted during the show’s run). Because of the restrictions of how harsh the show’s tone was allowed to be and how overtly they were allowed to approach certain topics (there was a far tighter leash on this show than proven network property Batman Beyond), the later episodes did grow somewhat Very Special Episode in tone, but y’know? Maybe that’s not so bad once in a while, if you’re the only genre show doing it.
And the Very Important Series qualities aside, it’s a well put together show. That happens when you have Phil LaMarr as your lead, solid dynamics between the small handful of main cast members, and the occasional bombastic crossovers with other shows in the DC animated universe. This is one that deserves saving from the obscurities of time.
Aired: 1994-1996 (there was a third season from 96-97, but we do not speak of it)
In Brief: Moved from their ancestral Scottish castle and woken from an ancient curse in modern Manhattan by the brilliant, scheming billionaire David Xanatos, five gargoyles become the city’s unexpected protectors – both against the man who woke them and other, far older threats from their pasts.
Before Gravity Falls, there was another impeccably written series which Disney went out of its way to screw over at every turn. Gargoyles remains one of the most highly regarded cartoons of the 90s for very good reason: it maintained a cohesive world and ongoing narrative at a time when that was fairly rare, incorporated myths and Shakespearean characters without presuming stupidity on the part of its audience, and kept careful balance of a beautifully mournful tone and intensity broken by well placed levity.
Its strongest element, mythic elements aside, is easily in its memorable, likeable cast. Every recurring member is given a touch of intrigue and humanity, and the antagonists in particular get a chance to shine with practically unheard of hidden depths for the time: Demona is a heartbreaking tragedy but no less a terror for it, while David Xanatos contributed new meaning to the modern lexicon of villainous masterminds. On the heroic side, viewer-POV cop Elisa Maza bears the role of parroting questions more gracefully than many in her role, becoming not just a necessary plot function in the early going but a well-developed member of the team, and the always masterful Keith David Anderson puts in great work as lead gargoyle Goliath.
This may seem a tad truncated for the number one place on the list, but rest assured – this won’t be the last you hear of this show around these parts.