overthinking the idiot box

April 18th, 2005

Animation on television, child-safe and otherwise.

Comic Book Properites, Animated

by Adam Lipkin

The '90s were a wonderful time for fans of "authentic" comic book adaptations. Marvel had a slew of series (X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four, etc.) that were faithful, if uninspired, adaptations of their core characters. And DC, in the ever-capable hands of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, gave us Batman: The Animated Series, featuring a Dark Knight who managed to surpass and redefine his comic-book progenitor. This was followed by an equally dead-on Superman series. Even the indies -- from the light-hearted Tick series to the sci-fi Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot -- got in on the act.

But the more recent comic book adaptations that have hit the air have been anything but faithful. A few, like the Brian Michael Bendis Spider-Man series on MTV, were still pretty loyal to the original characters, but more often than not, the latest spate of animated versions of comic books have introduced new characters, drastically changed "classic" plotlines, and gone off on tangents from the source material. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Marvel, not historically known for innovative cartoons, surprisingly broke the new ground on this front, with their X-Men: Evolution series. Although viewers were used to a new lineup of mutants with each movie or cartoon series, the Evolution series shifted gears entirely, slowly introducing Teen X-Men and evil mutants in a public high-school setting and taking place in a world without any previously known heroes. The show still featured classic concepts, but presented them in new ways; Alex Summers, for example, still turned up as Cyclops's long lost brother, but instead of the laughably silly Living Monolith/Egypt storyline from the comics, they tied him in to a more relevant Magneto story to close out season one. Likewise, characters like Avalanche and Boom-Boom switch "teams" at times, acting more like teenagers who just want to hang with their friends than people with the fate of the world resting on their shoulders.

Meanwhile, DC's mid-'90s Milestone line of comics finally found its way to the small screen with Static Shock, featuring the best of the Milestone heroes. Although the cartoon keeps a watered-down version of Static's origin(in which Virgil Hawkins, a geeky inner-city kid, is drawn into a gang war at which experimental gases are released, giving him and many others powers), many of the major issues addressed in the original series fall by the wayside. The most notable example: Richie, Virgil/Static's best friend, comes out of the closet in the comic, forcing Virgil to confront both his own and society's homophobia. On the series, Richie is not only straight, but ends up becoming a super-hero himself. But the show still manages to address social issues, providing one surprisingly deep episode about illiteracy, and becoming possibly the first kid-centric cartoon to feature an episode supporting gun control. At its core, even if characters have been changed or watered down, the show still features sharp dialogue and a solid look at some contemporary issues.

X-Men: Evolution and Static Shock are practically picture-perfect adaptations, however, compared to Cartoon Network's reworking of Teen Titans. The Teen Titans universe, unlike the rest of the current DC Universe (over on Justice League Unlimited), has been turned into an anime-style universe, complete with super-deformed heads, big eyes, and plotlines that don't always make sense. The characters all live in the Titans Tower, but don't seem to have secret identities, or even lives in general. But the series, somehow, still works. Traditional villains like Deathstroke (here, just known by his first name, Slade) are still menacing, and provide for some surprisingly nice continuity. But unlike most cartoons, the animated Teen Titans can have an entire episode featuring Malcolm McDowell as a trippy British supervillain who uses techniques straight out of A Clockwork Orange to try to hypnotize the teens, or an episode in which the video-game obsessed Beast Boy manages to crash Cyborg's computers, causing the latter hero to go insane and attempt to eat literally everything in the city. It's one of the most surreal shows on television, but it still manages to blend that humor with legitimate character development, and some genuinely threatening villains.

Some fans bitched about the shows, complaining that they weren't like the original characters or plots. And if that's all you're looking for, you're out of luck here. But instead of providing animated carbon copies of adventures that we've all read (and that, in some cases, really aren't worth seeing again anyway), these shows broke new ground, showing the potential of the X-Men characters even after all these years, the potential for the Milestone universe to win over a mainstream audience, and the inherent silliness that can be found in superhero comics. Granted, not all changes are necessarily good the jury's still out, for example, on the new (and not nearly as tragic or exciting) interpretation of Mr. Freeze on The Batman. But all three of these shows are amongst the best in the long line of superhero shows to hit the air, and anyone who ignores them because they only want "faithful" adaptations is missing out.

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