Cartoons have given us some of the best portrayals of super heroes. Until recently, the only way to get a good look at a guy or gal with super speed was to animate them. There are so many animated TV shows based on comic books, but which one’s the best?
1: As with our best live-action TV shows based on comics, cultural relevance plays a role as does overall quality.
2: Some of these shows’ animation doesn’t stack up to even its contemporaries, but they’re outstanding just the same.
3: We’ll have to stick with one show from a franchise because we wouldn’t want a list of nothing but Batman and Spider-man.
5) Teen Titans (2003-2006)
Be honest. When you read Teen Titans, you sang the theme song.
This fusion of Japanese anime and western comics exploded on the scene in 2003 with its light hearted style and self-referential humor. But not every episode was zany. An Easter Egg on the season 3 DVD revealed that the Japanese version to the theme song meant that the following episode would be silly, while the English version to the theme song meant the show would be serious.
And if you caught a serious episode, you had the chance of meeting Deathstroke. Even though he’s the main foil in the first two seasons of Arrow, Deathstroke got his start in the Teen Titans comic book. The creators wanted to see how Robin would react to an even darker Batman—one who would kill. Teen Titans might not have reached that depth, but it isn’t all fluff and you see some great characters – like Raven, Cyborg, and Beast Boy from The Doom Patrol – who don’t always get the credit they deserve.
4) Spider-man (1994-1998)
You might think that the Spider-man cartoon of the nineties is a strange addition to this list, but it edges out the classic sixties and eighties versions because of its importance as Marvel Studios first and only cartoon production.
The animation wasn’t the best, and Spider-man suffered from heavy censorship. Spidey couldn’t even through a punch. But no other Spider-man cartoon has spanned the full spectrum of the character like this series, and since it was Marvel Studios first production attempt, the studio used it as a proving ground.
Spider-man had crossovers with all other Marvel properties that had cartoons at the time – The X-Men, The Hulk, Iron Man, and Fantastic Four – and the Marvel Studio gained first-hand knowledge on how to develop several characters, leading to the writing and creative juices behind the Avengers movies.
If you caught the interview between past X-Men creators on a Pizza Hut VHS, you’d find out why Stan Lee thought X-Men was so unique. “You had youngsters, oldsters, men, women, black, and white (on the same team).” The characters drove this series, and you couldn’t have a show based on a comic steeped in tolerance without having a diverse group of characters. The X-Men had this diversity.
In fact, the first episode of X-Men gave significant air time to three X-Women: Jubilee, Storm, and Rogue. That’s odd due to Wolverine’s status as Marvel’s most popular character at the time. But the characters were so rich that no one cared.
X-Men broke a lot of rules. They killed off a character in the first episode – well, it looked like they killed off a character – and this shocked parents enough that it led to the heavy censorship of the nineties Spider-man.
X-Men didn’t shy away from the comic’s epic tales either. Days of Future Past and the Phoenix Saga made appearances. It was X-Men’s willingness to commit to the source material that has led to familiar tales on both the small and big screens.
2) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)
Sure, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (also known as TMNT) was a little known Eastman comic before it became a cartoon, but the cartoon brought relevance to the comic.
All the other entries on this list had a successful comic to its name before it hit the screen. These totally tubular teen turtles are only famous because of their Saturday morning cartoon that became so popular, it moved more plastic than an eighties cosmetic surgeon.
Seriously, if you had one of the turtles (action figures), you had to have the other three plus Casey Jones, April O’Neal, Shredder, and a few Foot Soldiers. Unless you played like my neighborhood and you had a B.Y.O.F.S. (bring your own Foot Soldier) policy.
This show differed from its comic in several ways. In the comic, the turtles didn’t have colorful headbands to tell them apart, they were foul mouthed, and while they were fond of pizza, the pizzas didn’t have vibrant toppings like chocolate ice cream and anchovies.
The ensuing live action movie may have pulled a lot more from the original source material, but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon of the eighties and nineties makes this list as most people hear “He’s a radical rat,” “Turtle power,” and “Cowabunga!” whenever they think of TMNT.
1) Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
Was there any doubt? Batman: TAS tops our list because of its beautiful visuals, on-point voice acting, and superb writing.
It doesn’t matter that Christian Bale and Ben Affleck have worn or will wear the suit. Kevin Conroy is Batman to generations of fans. Mark Hamill was finally able to shed his Luke Skywalker clothes only to put on Joker garb, and the character Harley Quinn (who got her start in Batman: TAS) became a constant fixture in DC Comics long after the show ended.
Batman: TAS also inspired a Superman: The Animated Series, built interest for the Justice League series (which Conroy reprised his role as Batman), and even had a cartoon that jumped the storyline decades into the future with Batman Beyond. Conroy played Bruce Wayne yet again in Batman Beyond, and we considered that show – since it’s highly underrated – for inclusion on this list, but according to rule three, we can only have one show from a franchise. So, we had to stick with the original.
And when you think of Batman: TAS’s opening sequence, the word that comes to mind is original. That opening, featuring Danny Elfman’s music from Tim Burton’s Batman, marked the first time that any TV show or movie began without the title on the screen. You just see Batman in silhouette atop a skyscraper. Lightning flashes and you see full frontal Batman for a second, and then he’s back in the shadows. The perfect beginning to a perfect Batman.