Superhero cartoons have been a dominant force in animation for decades. From Fleischer Studios’ Superman cartoons of the early 1940s to the ongoing success of shows like “Avengers Assemble” and “Young Justice,” characters from Marvel Comics, DC Comics and independent publishers have thrived on TV screens. While some long-running cartoons have turned characters like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into pop culture superstars, other superhero cartoons were considerably less successful.
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Now, CBR is taking a look back at some of the most forgotten cartoons based on comic books. In no particular order (apart from being grouped loosely by comics publishers), we’ll be re-examining shows based on characters from Marvel, DC, Image Comics and others. For this list, we’ll be looking at cartoons, animated shorts, movies and animated web series that were officially released or broadcast anywhere in the world.
50. LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES
After the success of “Justice League Unlimited” and “Teen Titans,” the Legion of Super-Heroes was DC’s next logical choice for a team-based cartoon. “Legion of Super-Heroes” debuted in 2006 on the CW’s Kids’ WB programming block. Without any connection to existing DC shows, the series provided an accessible entryway into the convoluted history and expansive roster of DC’s 31st century teenage heroes. The show’s first season had a distinctly Silver Age feel and featured a time-traveling Superboy.
In a parallel to the “Five Years Later” Legion of the late 1980s, the second season of the show jumped two years into a darker, Superboy-less future, replaced instead by Superman X, a clone from the 41st century. As planning for a third season time jump was underway, the series was canceled after 4Kids Entertainment took over the Kids’ WB timeslot. Despite the series’ short 26-episode run, it garnered a tie-in comic, “Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st Century,” that lasted for 20 issues. While the Legion’s only animated series certainly has its fans, its legacy has largely been eclipsed by the popularity of DC’s longer-running team shows.
49. RUBY-SPEARS SUPERMAN
Even though it premiered just four years before “Batman: The Animated Series,” the 1988 “Superman” cartoon feels like a relic of a bygone era. Produced by the animation studio Ruby-Spears, “Superman” aired for one season of 13 episodes on CBS. With the involvement of comic creators Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane, this show was the first to showcase a post-“Crisis on Infinite Earths” Superman. The series incorporated several of that reboot’s changes, including a business-oriented Lex Luthor and a modernized Wonder Woman. With the regular comedic flashback sequence, “Superman Family Album,” the show also chronicled Superman’s traditional upbringing in Smallville.
Despite some stilted dialogue, Ruby-Spears’ “Superman” is the missing link between the traditional simplicity of “Super Friends” and the richer, more complex story-telling of “Superman: The Animated Series.” Despite the cartoon’s quality, the licensing fee for Superman was too high for CBS, and the network canceled the show after a few months. Today, this series is a fascinating footnote that fittingly aired in its entirety during Superman’s 50th anniversary year.
While most of the series that make-up the DC Animated Universe are revered by legions of fans, a few of DC’s early Flash-based web series have fallen into obscurity. One of these series, “Lobo,” premiered in July 2000 on DC’s web site. Over 14 brief episodes, the series followed the intergalactic bounty hunter Lobo as he carved a path of “Itchy and Scratchy”-esque violence around the universe. The show made frequent use of Lobo’s regenerative healing-abilities in darkly comedic moments that saw Lobo play golf with his own decapitated head before beating someone to death with a severed arm in one episode.
While “Lobo’s” extreme violence, crude humor and mature themes fit the character, it’s still jarring to see in what’s ostensibly a spin-off of “Superman: The Animated Series.” Since this show was released during the days of dial-up Internet, the show included interactive mini-games to help kill time while the now-primitive audio and animation loaded. After one extreme season of “Lobo,” a toned-down version of this character reappeared on “Justice League” in 2003.
47. THE PLASTIC MAN COMEDY ADVENTURE SHOW
Over the years, Plastic Man has only headlined his own comic book series irregularly, but he was still popular enough to star in “The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show” in the late 1970s. Developed by Ruby-Spears as a companion to “Super Friends” on ABC in 1979, this cartoon showed the comedic adventures of Plastic Man, his girlfriend-then-wife Penny, their son Baby Plas, and a Polynesian sidekick named Hula-Hula. Segments starring Plastic Man and his friends were packaged with unrelated cartoons like “Mighty Man and Yukk,””Rickety Rocket,” and “Fangface.”
After three years of new episodes, the series was repacked into 130 episodes and sold into syndication with newly-produced live-action segments. In 2006, a new Plastic Man pilot was produced, based on Kyle Baker’s Eisner-winning run on “Plastic Man.” While this didn’t become a series, the test episode was included on a DVD release of the 1970s Plastic Man cartoon. It also was part of the basis for some recurring Plastic Man shorts that aired as part of the DC Nation programming block.
46. THE ZETA PROJECT
The star of “The Zeta Project,” a shape-shifting android called Infiltration Unit Zeta, debuted as an antagonist on the incredibly popular “Batman Beyond” in 2000. Although the character wasn’t originally designed to headline his own show, “The Zeta Project” premiered on Kids’ WB in early 2001. Over 26 episodes, the series followed the killer robot with a conscience and Ro, his teenage runaway sidekick, as they attempted to evade Agent Bennett and his NSA operatives.
While Zeta’s two seasons had a distinctly brighter tone than “Batman Beyond,” the series is still firmly planted within the DC Animated Universe. Zeta didn’t have any roots in DC Comics, but Batman Beyond, Gotham City and a few related concepts appeared in the show. Unlike Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya, this DCAU-created original character never fully transitioned to the main DC Universe. Although this show was set in the future, Zeta made a cameo of sorts in a few episodes of “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” as a training robot called “Z-8.”
45. THE KID SUPER POWER HOUR WITH SHAZAM!
While it can be difficult to imagine today, Shazam, the hero formerly known as Captain Marvel, was comics’ most popular character in the 1940s. After suing Shazam’s publisher Fawcett Comics out of the publishing industry, DC Comics began licensing Earth’s Mightiest Mortal in 1972 before buying the character outright years later. A few years after a live-action Shazam show ended, kid reporter Billy Batson and his heroic counterpart Captain Marvel made their animated debut in “The Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam!” on NBC in 1981.
Over 12 episodes, Shazam and the other members of the Captain Marvel family battled their signature villains like Black Adam and Doctor Sivana. Several “Shazam!” characters also appeared in the “Power Hour’s” other segment, “Hero High,” a superhero high school cartoon originally built around versions of Archie and the Riverdale gang. Both segments, produced by the Filmation animation studio, were canceled after less than a year.
44. KRYPTO THE SUPER DOG
While super-pets were a regular feature in the early days of super-heroes, they mostly seemed to fall by the wayside as the genre arguably matured. In 2005, the premiere of “Krypto the Superdog” bucked that trend. Over two seasons, the cartoon showed the ongoing adventures of Superman’s super-powered pooch. Since Superman was busy saving the world, Krypto stayed with a boy named Kevin and his Metropolis family.
Over the show’s 38 episodes, Krypto teamed up with other heroic pets like Ace the Bat-Hound and Streaky the Supercat to fight animal villains like the Joker’s hyenas and the Penguin’s penguins. Unlike most other depictions of the character, Krypto could speak to Kevin and the animals in English, or whatever human language was common where the program aired internationally. While the show skewed younger than most superhero series, it was broadcast on Cartoon Network, Boomerang, and Kids’ WB in the United States and was often used to fill a network’s “educational/informative” programming requirement. More recently, Krypto and the other Super Pets appeared in shorts on the DC Nation block.
43. BATMAN UNLIMITED
In the viral video era, DC has embraced short animated segments in a way that few other conglomerates have. From the CW’s “Vixen” to the DC Nation’s 155 shorts, these cartoons have offered spotlights for obscure characters and alternate takes on the company’s icons that have thrived online. In 2015, “Batman Unlimited” premiered on the DC Kids YouTube channel, loosely based on a Mattel toyline of the same name.
As of this writing, three direct-to-DVD “Batman Unlimited” animated movies have also been released. In both the shorts and the films, an accessory-heavy Batman fights crime with Nightwing, Red Robin, Green Arrow, Flash and Cyborg. While this effort could easily have been a perfunctory attempt to raise brand awareness, “Batman Unlimited” is marked by quality animation and fun, light-hearted adventures. In 2014, Warner Bros. Animation released another similar direct-to-DVD production, “JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time.” While DC’s other animated movies have targeted older fans, this well-received cartoon applied “Batman Unlimited’s” brand of kid-friendly adventure to the Justice League.
42. SWAMP THING
After starring in two films and a live-action television series, Swamp Thing was placed in the unlikely position to be DC’s next multi-media juggernaut. Despite the character’s role in pioneering comics for “mature readers,” “Swamp Thing” debuted in the early days of the Fox Kids programming block in 1990. The series chronicled the adventures of the monster that used to be Alec Holland, notably rejecting Alan Moore’s revised take on the character. Along with his allies Tomahawk and Bayou Jack, Swamp Thing battled Anton Arcane and his beastly Un-Men.
While this DIC Entertainment-produced cartoon only lasted for five episodes, it embodied several popular trends of the era. The show’s freakish Un-Men mirrored the kinds of beastly foes common on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and the vaguely environmentalist message of the series echoed that of the concurrently airing “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.” Despite this show’s brief existence, Kenner released over a dozen action figures in an accompanying toyline.
41. SCOOBY-DOO MEETS BATMAN
Since both characters have a penchant for solving mysteries and a history of teaming-up with guest-stars, it’s not too surprising that Batman and Scooby-Doo have crossed paths a few times. The first two televised meetings between the Dynamic Duo and the Scooby Gang took place on “The New Scooby-Doo Movies.” This short-lived Hanna-Barbera series featured team-ups between Scooby and a roster of fictional and real-world guest stars in double-length episodes.
In “The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair,” the Scooby Gang teamed up with Batman and Robin to battle the Joker and Penguin and expose a counterfeiting operation. In “The Caped Crusader Caper,” the Dynamic Duo and the Mystery Inc. crew once again took on the Joker and Penguin after they stole an experimental flight suit. In 2011, “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” revisited these meetings in the anthology episode “Bat-Mite Presents Batman’s Strangest Cases!” In this brief segment, Scooby-Doo and his friends were trapped by the Joker and Penguin after attending a “Weird Al” Yankovic concert. Batman and Robin rescued the Scooby gang from the Joker’s deathtrap and defeated the villain.
40. TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER
In the mid-2000s, several big-budget movies were released in conjunction with shorter, supplementary animated films. While this trend only lasted a few years, it provided a logical solution for one of the problems posed in adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen.” In the seminal miniseries, “Tales of the Black Freighter” was an allegorical pirate tale that showed what comics looked like in a world that grew weary of superheroes long ago.
In director Zack Snyder’s original plans for his 2009 “Watchmen” movie, the Black Freighter segment would’ve been a live-action interlude, visually modelled in a similar style to his adaptation of “300.” After those plans were scrapped, the animated version of the Black Freighter, which starred Gerard Butler, was supposed to be included in the film’s theatrical release. Since that film was already nearing the three-hour mark, the 26 minute Black Freighter segment was excised and released on DVD with some other supplemental material. Later in 2009, this “Ultimate Cut” of “Watchmen” reincorporated this segment into a 215 minute-long cut of the film.
39. THE NEW TEEN TITANS’ ANTI-DRUG PSA
While “New Teen Titans” was one of DC’s most popular titles in the 1980s, the Titans wouldn’t make the jump from page to screen until 2003. In 1983, Hanna-Barbera was putting together a cartoon that would’ve featured a team consisting of Cyborg, Kid Flash, Raven, Starfire, Changeling, and team leader Wonder Girl. While Robin would’ve remained on “Super Friends,” the series would’ve featured several of the Titans’ usual villains. While ABC never picked that series up, this version of the Titans made their only animated appearance in an anti-drug public serve announcement.
As part of the President’s Drug Awareness Campaign, this ad featured the familiar Titans and a new character named the Protector. Since the Keebler Company co-produced the ad, the Protector, an original character, was included in place of Robin, who was licensed to Nabisco at the time. While the one-minute commercial reportedly aired during Saturday morning cartoons in the 1980s, the complete ad has been lost to time. The only extant footage of the cartoon comes from a marketing video released by DC in 1984.
38. THE AQUAMAN AND FRIENDS ACTION HOUR
After decades of being a punchline to tired jokes, Aquaman seems like he’s finally poised to be taken seriously by the general public. While DC has spent decades trying to rebuild the character’s reputation, a short-lived 2003 series threatened to cement his status as a laughing stock to a new generation. In the days when Adult Swim was filled with shows that remixed old Hanna-Barbera cartoons into absurd comedies like “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” Wild Hare Studios produced “The Aquaman and Friends Action Hour.”
Over seven episodes on Cartoon Network Latin America, the show reconfigured the Aquaman of “Super Friends” into a Krusty the Clown-esque kids show host. While most of the other “Super Friends” were off-limits due to their roles on “Justice League,” the Legion of Doom appeared as a cash-strapped organization that was subletting space in the Hall of Doom. While a conceptually similar series of interstitials involving Aquaman, Wonder Woman and the Powerpuff Girls aired in the United States, none of these shorts has even been released in the U.S.
In another early Flash-animated web-series, DC’s magical hero Zatanna appeared in two shorts as part of the Noodle Soup Productions contest anthology “Cartoon Monsoon.” “Zatanna” featured a teenage version of the title character that was heavily indebted to then-popular shows like the “Sabrina: The Animated Series.” Despite the fact that the two-episode series can be viewed entirely in less than five minutes, Klarion the Witch Boy and her father Zatara both appeared. They were joined by her brother Damon, an original character who did not have any powers. Although the shorts had a mildly catchy theme song, the series was critically derided and no further episodes were produced.
After the failure of this series, a teenage version of Zatanna was featured in the recently-revived “Young Justice” to considerably better results in 2011. Once again, her father Zatara appeared and she fought Klarion the Witch Boy as a member of the teenage hero team.
36. GOTHAM GIRLS
In a move that predated the ongoing shorts series “DC Super Hero Girls” by over a decade, “Gotham Girls” gave a spotlight to some of the DC Animated Universe’s most popular characters. Like “Lobo,” this Flash-animated web-series debuted in 2000 and featured interactive mini-games that killed time while the short episodes loaded. Over three seasons, the show’s 30 episodes chronicled the adventures of Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Batgirl, Zatanna and Renee Montoya.
As a spin-off of “The New Batman Adventures,” the web-series featured Arleen Sorkin, Tara Strong, and much of the same voice cast as the iconic cartoon. While earlier episodes of the series were more humorous, the last season of the show told a dramatic serialized mystery. The show even garnered its own spin-off comic miniseries in 2003. Years later, the complete “Gotham Girls” was released on DVD with the first and only season of the live-action show “Birds of Prey.” While the animation is primitive by today’s standards, “Gotham Girls” remains a worthwhile entry in DC’s most popular cartoon universe.
35. GREEN LANTERN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
After “Justice League Unlimited” successfully brought the DC Animated Universe to a close in 2006, Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment gave the Green Lantern his own show in 2011. Even though John Stewart had popularized the character on “JLU,” Hal Jordan was the star of “Green Lantern: The Animated Series.” Released in conjunction with the 2011 film, “Green Lantern,” this show appeared on Cartoon Network’s DC Nation programming block and was the first DC series that primarily used CGI animation.
Over one season of 26 episodes, “Green Lantern: The Animated Series” mixed classic parts of the Green Lantern mythology with original concepts and Geoff Johns’ then-recent work in comics’ “Green Lantern.” Along with Jordan, the series featured fan-favorite characters like Guy Gardner and Kilowog and villains like the Manhunters and Red Lantern Corps. Despite the show’s solid reviews, the movie’s failure ultimately tainted the show’s success. After the movie’s action figures went unsold, Mattel’s plans for a cartoon-based toyline were abandoned, and the series was canceled.
34. SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED
The long-running “Spider-Man: The Animated Series” of the 1990s was one of Marvel’s biggest animated successes. After that show ended in early 1998, Marvel and Fox were contractually obligated to come up with a new Spider-Man series. At the same time, Marvel and Sony had just signed a multi-media deal that would ultimately lead to the 2002 feature film “Spider-Man.” As a result, Marvel and Fox were forced to combine disparate elements together to create “Spider-Man Unlimited.”
The new series premiered in 1999 as part of Fox’s well-remembered Fox Kids programming block. It starred a familiar Spider-Man who had been transported to Counter-Earth, a strange world ruled by the High Evolutionary and his human-animal hybrid Beastials. The show lasted for 13 episodes before the series was canceled. Although ratings were decent, the show was eclipsed by a surging “Pokémon” and “Batman Beyond,” which had already discouraged producers from adapting “Spider-Man 2099” for this series. Despite the show’s brevity, this Spider-Man garnered a six-issue tie-in series by Marvel, and unofficially appeared as a corpse with a broken neck in 2014’s “Spider-Verse” crossover.
33. SILVER SURFER
After some guest roles on the moderately successful “Fantastic Four” cartoon of the mid-1990s, the Silver Surfer made the leap to his own series in 1998. In the show, Norin Radd became the Silver Surfer, a Herald of Galactus in order to save his home-world Zenn-La from the Devourer of Worlds. After discovering Earth, he was struck by the planet’s similarities to his home and broke free of Galactus’ control. While the Fantastic Four were not featured, this show explored a slightly rearranged version of the cosmic Marvel Universe, featuring future “Guardians of the Galaxy” players like Gamora, Drax and Thanos.
“Silver Surfer” blended traditional cel animation with computer generated effects to create a distinct facsimile of Jack Kirby’s dynamic artwork. The Fox Kids show even garnered some acclaim for its highly-serialized, relatively complex stories. Despite robust ratings, only 13 episodes of the show aired. Although more were written, the second season never materialized due to complications from Marvel’s 1998 bankruptcy.
32. DRACULA: SOVEREIGN OF THE DAMNED
Marvel’s “Tomb of Dracula” was one of the best comics of the 1970s. Even if it hadn’t introduced Blade the Vampire Hunter, the series would still be remembered as a landmark horror comic and one of the first finite stories in the Marvel Universe. After Toei Animation adapted that series as a 94-minute TV movie in 1980, that anime was called “Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned” on its 1983 American release.
In that brief runtime, Dracula went on a frantic series of adventures where he fell in love, fought Devil worshipers, befriended children, lost his powers, and became a mugger. While Blade didn’t appear in this densely-plotted anime, Quincy Haker, Rachel Van Helsing and Frank Drake firmly planted the roots of the Marvel title into this anime adaption. As knowledge of the film’s existence has grown in recent years, it’s become something of a minor cult classic. The anime was released on home video in the 1980s but has long since gone out of print.
31. BLACK PANTHER
In the early-2010s, Marvel experimented with directly adapting some well-received stories as motion comics, where comic panels are lightly animated and combined with dialogue and sound effects. “Black Panther” was arguably this effort’s most successful venture. This 2010 series was based on Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr.’s 2005 story “Who Is the Black Panther?” The six-episode show was a fairly straight adaption that made a few minor changes to the story where T’Challa avenged his father’s death, teamed up with the X-Men and defended Wakanda from a group of super-villains.
After a long development process, the series debuted on the Australian channel ABC3 in 2010 before airing in the United States on BET in November 2011. The animation studio Titmouse brought Romita’s art to life with a surprising fluidity that recalled the studio’s frequent Adult Swim work. With an all-star cast including Djimon Hounsou, Kerry Washington, and Alfre Woodard, the show was backed by an incredibly strong roster that elevated the material beyond a standard motion comic.
30. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Thanks to his long-running live-action show, the Hulk has been one of Marvel’s more successful characters on television. After a string of successful Marvel cartoons on other networks, UPN Studios developed “The Incredible Hulk” for the UPN Kids programming block in 1996. Although live-action Hulk Lou Ferrigno reprised his famous role for the cartoon, the show only lasted for 21 episodes over two seasons.
While most of the other superhero shows on UPN Kids were reruns of well-received Marvel shows like “X-Men: The Animated Series,” “The Incredible Hulk” struggled to find a consistent tone over its brief run. In the show, Bruce Banner’s allies like Betty Ross, Doc Samson and Rick Jones helped the Hulk take on villains like Gen. Thunderbolts Ross and the Leader. After a relatively dark first season, She-Hulk became a regular cast member in the show’s considerably lighter second season. Despite its brief run, the cartoon spawned a ToyBiz action figure line and featured a plethora of guest stars including Ghost Rider, Thor and Doctor Strange.
29. SPIDER-MAN: THE NEW ANIMATED SERIES
In 2003, “Spider-Man: The New Animated Series” premiered on MTV after impacting the development of “Spider-Man Unlimited” a few years earlier. This 13-episode series was a byproduct of the Marvel/Sony deal that produced 2002’s “Spider-Man” movie and was loosely set in that film’s continuity. The series followed college student Peter Parker as he fought a mixture of new and classic Spider-Man villains while trying to live a normal life with his friends Mary Jane Watson, Harry Osborn and original character Indy Daimonji. Brian Michael Bendis served as a producer on the series, which coincided with the first peak of his long run on the “Ultimate Spider-Man” comic series.
Today, the series is perhaps best remembered for Neil Patrick Harris’ turn as Spider-Man. With its cel-shaded computer-generated animation and then-contemporary clothes, the show has a distinctly early-2000s feel. While Spider-Man has traditionally been Marvel’s most kid-friendly character, this show was geared towards MTV’s older audience. This Spider-Man couldn’t connect with that audience, however, so the show was canceled by MTV due to poor ratings after one season.
28. FRED AND BARNEY MEET THE THING
Despite this show’s title, the two “Flintstones” characters never actually met Marvel’s Thing on this short-lived 1979 NBC cartoon. This hour-long program featured a half-hour “Fred and Barney” cartoon and two 11-minute segments starring a character loosely based on the Thing. In this series, the Thing was Benjy Grimm, a high school student who could transform into the Thing at will by putting his “Thing Rings” together and shouting “Thing Rings, do your thing!”
Neither the Fantastic Four nor any of their classic villains appeared on the show. Instead, Benj spent his time with his friends at Centerville High School fighting generic mad scientists and “Scooby-Doo”-esque monsters. While only 26 “Thing “segments were produced, they aired for just over a year on “Fred and Barney Meet the Thing” and its successor “Fred and Barney Meet the Shmoo.” While this show seems like an odd paring today, it was possible at the time because of a partnership between Marvel and Hanna-Barbera that saw both companies producing projects with the other’s characters.
27. IRON MAN: ARMORED ADVENTURES
While the idea of a teenage Iron Man might strike fear into the hearts of older fans who lived through the much-derided 1995 Avengers storyline “The Crossing,” it seemed like an idea worth revisiting in 2009. In the haze of success following 2008’s blockbuster “Iron Man,” “Iron Man: Armored Adventures” spent two seasons following teenage versions of Tony Stark, James Rhodes, and Pepper Potts. Taking another cue from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the primary villains of the series were Obadiah Stane and Justin Hammer.
Since it wasn’t beholden to any pre-existing continuity, this Nicktoons series featured several Marvel heroes and villains in reworked takes on the classic Iron Man mythology. This show’s version of the Mandarin started out as Tony’s friend Gene Khan and ultimately became more of an anti-hero than an outright villain in one of that character’s few redemptive portrayals. While the show focused some on teenage Tony’s social life, both Rhodey and Pepper had assumed their traditional roles as War Machine and Rescue by the series’ end.
26. MARVEL ANIME
In 2010, Marvel teamed up with anime giant Madhouse to create four 12-episode series based on “Iron Man,” Wolverine,” “Blade,” and “X-Men.” Working from rough plots by Warren Ellis, these four loosely-connected series all featured Japanese settings and aired on the Japanese channel Animax before airing in the United States on G4 between 2011 and 2012. In “Iron Man,” Tony Stark traveled to Japan to battle the Zodiac. The X-Men’s show saw the mutants fight the U-Men and the Hellfire Club in Japan. “Blade” showed its lead fighting Deacon Frost and hunting vampires, while “Wolverine” featured its title character fighting his classic foe Shingen.
After these series concluded, Madhouse made two direct-to-video anime films. The first, “Iron Man: Rise of the Technovore,” saw Iron Man and Punisher team-up in 2013. The second film, “Avengers Confidential: Black Widow and Punisher” saw a handful of Marvel characters work to defeat the espionage organization Leviathan in 2014. Reviews for all of these series and films were mixed, but all four shows remain the most recent series dedicated to their respective main characters.
As CBR has reported, Marvel created Spider-Woman in 1977 to secure the trademark before Filmation could release a cartoon named “Spider-Woman.” While that cartoon was ultimately released as “Web-Woman,” Marvel’s own “Spider-Woman” premiered on ABC in 1979. While the cartoon starred Jessica Drew as Spider-Woman, the alienated spy of the comic was replaced by a magazine editor who gained powers after being injected with an experimental “spider-serum” as a child. This Spider-Woman lacked her comic counterpart’s super-strength, but made up for it with a precognitive spider-sense, “spider-telepathy” and the ability to fly.
Over the show’s 13 episodes, Jessica and her friends from “Justice Magazine” mainly dealt with original threats. Spider-Man, Kingpin, and Marvel’s Dracula all managed to make guest appearances during the show’s brief run. While this Spider-Woman only lasted for one season, Julia Carpenter, the second Spider-Woman, was a regular member of the team Force Works on the “Iron Man” cartoon of the 1990s.
24. FANTASTIC FOUR: WORLD’S GREATEST HEROES
Despite some excellent comics, the past decade has been a little rough for the Fantastic Four. Between 2005’s “Fantastic Four” and 2007’s “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” the Four’s fourth animated series, “Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes” premiered in 2006. This show depicted a younger version of the Fantastic Four in a blend of traditional and computer-generated animation. During the show’s brief run, the Four fought many of their traditional adversaries and teamed up with several of their regular allies, including a brief stint where She-Hulk joined the team.
Although the cartoon only lasted one season, the show’s 26 episodes premiered out of order over four years in the United States. After debuting on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block in 2006, the series was pulled after eight episodes. Shortly before “Rise of the Silver Surfer” was released, the show returned to the network’s airwaves for another nine episodes. After a brief stint on Cartoon Network’s sister network, Boomerang, the series moved to Nicktoons in 2009, where the final nine episodes aired in 2010.
23. MONSTER OF FRANKENSTEIN
While “Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned” has a degree of cult status, its companion film, “Monster of Frankenstein” has been almost entirely forgotten. Loosely based on Marvel’s short-lived “Monster of Frankenstein” series, this 98-minute film was the second collaboration between Marvel and Toei. While the 1970s Marvel comic built on Mary Shelly’s original Frankenstein novel, the anime borrowed more from the monster’s other famous film appearances.
After its Japanese premiere in 1981, the anime aired on American cable in 1984. The shockingly gory movie offered a fairly familiar take on the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster’s trail of death and destruction in the Victorian Age. With philosophically heavy themes and an ending involving a double suicide, this cartoon was firmly targeted towards an adult audience in an era when the concept of adults watching animated features not made for kids was still a novel idea in the West. While Marvel’s comic featured several original characters, none of them appeared in this anime, making this seem more like another take on the overall Frankenstein mythos than an adaptation of Marvel’s Frankenstein.
22. PRYDE OF THE X-MEN
For a failed pilot, Marvel’s “Pryde of the X-Men” has a rich legacy. Originally airing in syndication in 1989, this pilot was meant to sell what would have been the X-Men’s first cartoon series. The show featured a fairly simple plot involving a team of X-Men including Dazzler and an Australian Wolverine taking on Magneto’s “Brotherhood of Mutant Terrorists.” While the cartoon’s plot and animation are typical of the era, they were a poor match for the more complex themes that define the X-Men.
Shortly before the long-running “X-Men: The Animated Series” premiered in 1992, the cast and plot of “Pryde of the X-Men” were used as the basis for Konami’s beloved X-Men arcade game. In that game, one-to-six players could take control of an X-Man in a side-scrolling ‘beat ‘em up’ that became a pinnacle of the genre. Just as the X-Men franchise soared to new heights in the 1990s, “Pryde of the X-Men” was released on home video with the now-laughable caption “The only X-Men animated adventure ever created!”
By any metric, Solarman is a footnote in the history of comics. Originally created in 1979 by David Oliphant and Deborah Kalman, the Pendulum Press character was meant to teach children about alternative energy during the energy crisis of that era. After the success of “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” in the early 1990s, Stan Lee and Marvel-president Jim Galton approached Oliphant about redesigning and reviving the character for Marvel Comics. The resulting two-issue series starred Ben Tucker, a teenager who could become the super-powered Solarman by exposing his “Circlet of Power” to direct sunlight.
On October 24, 1992, the pilot for a proposed “Solarman” cartoon aired on the Fox Kids programming block. The show adapted Lee’s origin for the character, including the friendly alien scientist Sha-han and the impressively-named space tyrant Gormagga Kraal. Although Oliphant has claimed that studios were initially interested in a “Solarman” series, nothing ever came of the pilot. Earlier this year, Scout Comics revived the character in a new comic series by Joe Illidge and N. Steven Harris.
20. AVENGERS: UNITED THEY STAND
After the success of “X-Men: The Animated Series” and “Spider-Man: The Animated Series,” Marvel launched “Avengers: United They Stand” on the Fox Kids block in 1999. With major characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor tied up in other licensing deals, the core group of Avengers was the eclectic group of Hank Pym’s Ant Man, Wasp, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Falcon, Vision, Tigra and Wonder Man. Due to the popularity of “Batman Beyond,” the series took place at an undetermined point in the near future, where several team members had toy-friendly battle-armor.
This one-season show is generally regarded as one of Marvel’s least successful animated efforts. Although this kooky octet faced several classic Avengers villains and featured occasional cameos from the likes of Captain America and Iron Man, the low-rated series was canceled after 13 episodes. Like its sister program “Spider-Man Unlimited,” the cartoon garnered a short-lived comic series that was canceled shortly after the animated series.
19. MARVEL DISK WARS: THE AVENGERS
Although “Marvel Disk Wars: The Avengers” is the most recent entry on this list, it may also be the most unknown to a Western audience. Developed in conjunction with Marvel’s old “Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned” partners, Toei Animation, this anime started in 2014 on the TXN Network as an attempt to localize Marvel’s heroes for the Japanese market. The show begins with Iron Man presenting his new DISK system as a way to safely detain super-villains in a Poké Ball-esque technology. Thanks to Loki, several heroes were captured inside DISKs that could only be opened by kids using a special “biocode.”
Although the series focused on Avengers characters, it served as a crash course to the Marvel Universe that featured characters from Spider-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the X-Men. In addition to garnering a Nintendo 3DS game, this series was the basis for “Bachicombat” – a POG-like collectible game by Bandai. While the 51-episode series was dubbed into English for the Malaysian market, there are tragically no current plans for an American release.
18. MEN IN BLACK: THE SERIES
While “Men in Black” may be one of the more memorable films of the 1990s, it’s easy to forget that the sci-fi franchise started out as an independent black-and-white comic book published by the Malibu Comics imprint Aircel Comics. “The Men in Black” ran for two three-issue miniseries by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy Carruthers in the early 1990s before Marvel purchased Malibu in 1994.
After the blockbuster success of 1997’s “Men in Black,” Agent K and Agent J starred in their own cartoon on the Kids’ WB programming block. Over four successful seasons, “Men in Black: The Series” greatly expanded the mythology of the alien-policing organization and turned minor characters like the coffee-loving Worms into fan favorites, who would take on larger roles in later films. While the darker “MiB” of the comics dealt with aliens and supernatural monsters, the 53-episode cartoon mimicked the movie’s lighter approach and focused on extra-terrestrial threats. Though the animated series was successful at the time, its star has faded as the franchise’s cultural prominence has diminished.
17. THE MASK
Before Jim Carrey turned the Mask into a living cartoon in 1994’s “The Mask,” the character formerly known as Big Head regularly appeared in titles published by Dark Horse Comics. While several people became the Mask in those dark, hyper-violent comics, the film and its subsequent animated series starred Stanley Ipkiss as a mild-mannered banker who could become the powerful, chaotic Mask.
Over three seasons starting in 1995, “The Mask: The Animated Series” replicated the cartoon logic of the film in an actual cartoon. The zany 55-episode series loosely followed the movie’s continuity and had a similar sense of humor, which led to one episode being pulled over risqué content. In the CBS show’s series finale, the Mask crossed over with “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” another show based off of a Jim Carrey movie. This version of the Mask also garnered its own 12-issue comic book series “Adventures of the Mask.” While the character has rarely appeared on television or in comics since 2000, Dark Horse reprinted that series as one volume in 2009.
While the WildC.A.T.s have been property of DC Comics since the late 1990s, the WildStorm heroes were the first Image Comics characters to jump to television. Jim Lee and Brandon Choi launched their comic about “Covert Action Teams” in 1992, and the successful series was one of the few comics that could legitimately challenge the X-Men’s popularity. When CBS launched its Action Zone programming block in 1995, they hoped that “WildC.A.T.s” could also be a match for the X-Men’s animated popularity.
Despite a marketing push that included a toy line and a video game, “WildC.A.T.s” only lasted for one 13-episode season. Like the comic, the series followed a team of superheroes and aliens that was caught up in an ancient interstellar war between the heroic Kherubim and the evil Daemonites. Although most of the characters looked like their comic book counterparts, the series recast most of the team’s core members into slightly different, more kid-friendly roles. Years after this series ended, team-member Grifter appeared in “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox,” an animated direct-to-video feature based on DC’s “Flashpoint” crossover.
15. DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH
While comedic comic strips like “Garfield” and “Peanuts” have been the basis for plenty of cartoons, a handful of adventure strips have been turned into shows, too. In 1986, King Features Syndicate brought three very different heroes together in “Defenders of the Earth.” In that series, space adventurer Flash Gordon, jungle hero Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and their children teamed up to fight Ming the Merciless in the far-off future of 2015. The Marvel-produced show lasted for one season consisting of 65 episodes and garnered a four-issue miniseries that was partially written by Stan Lee.
While Dynamite Entertainment has recently had success teaming up those characters in “Kings Watch,” two of the characters had their own future-based animated series later in the 1990s. In 1994, a later incarnation of the Phantom starred in “Phantom: 2040,” a 35-episode series that was praised for complex storytelling and distinct designs by “Aeon Flux” creator Peter Chung. Later, Flash Gordon starred in his own self-titled 24-episode sci-fi series in 1996.
14. SAVAGE DRAGON
With over 200 issues published as of this writing, Erik Larsen’s “Savage Dragon” has quietly become one of the longest-running works by a single creator in modern comics. While the title doesn’t top the sales charts, its endurance is a testament to creator-owned comics and the power of a singular creative vision. In 1995, the USA Network gave the Dragon his own show as part of their Action Extreme Team programming block. “The Savage Dragon” ran for two seasons and offered a kid-friendly take on Officer Dragon’s struggle to save Chicago from Overlord and the Vicious Circle.
“The Savage Dragon” also participated in one of the odder crossovers in television history. In 1996, an original character called the Warrior King appeared in Dragon’s show, “Street Fighter: The Animated Series,” “Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm,” and “Wing Commander Academy” all on the same day. While the crossover between the Action Extreme Team shows was not promoted as such, it remains the only interaction between some of the most prominent franchises in video games.
During the collecting boom of the early 1990s, Malibu Comics launched a line of superhero comics called the Ultraverse. Defined by a strong creative roster and advanced-for-the-time digital coloring techniques, that line was the short-lived publisher’s signature success. In 1995, Malibu’s premiere team book Ultraforce was adapted into animated form as part of USA’s Action Extreme Team. Over 13 episodes, “Ultraforce” chronicled the adventures of Malibu’s relatively noteworthy heroes like Prime, a Shazam for the ‘90s who received his own video game. Despite the show’s brief single season, “Ultraverse” killed off the young hero Pixx, a bold move for the time.
Shortly before the show’s only season, Marvel bought Malibu, reportedly to keep DC from buying the young publisher. In 1994, Marvel rebooted the Ultraverse and loaned it some Marvel characters like Loki and Juggernaut. The last Ultraverse title was published in early 1997. Despite a few revival attempts, the Ultraverse has not been seen in two decades for undisclosed reasons.
While largely unknown in the United States, the Argentine comic book “Cybersix” became a short-lived cartoon on the Fox Kids programming block in 1999. The series followed Cybersix, an “artificial human” created by the evil geneticist Dr. Von Reichter. By night, she and her panther sidekick Data-7 hunted his other creations for “Sustenance,” a liquid she needed to survive. By day, she hid from her creator by posing as a male high school teacher named Adrian.
After one season of 13 episodes, this conceptually rich series ended. Even though the series toned down some of the comic’s darker, more mature themes, it earned a small cult following due to its fluid animation. Although a second season was planned, an alleged dispute between the show’s international co-producers, Canada’s NOS and Japan’s TMS Entertainment, caused the show’s premature cancellation. While the cartoon series was released on DVD in 2014, the original comics have still not seen an English language release, as of this writing.
While most of the cartoons on this list toned down the more graphic content and mature themes of the comics they were based on, “Spawn” doubled down on darkness. Debuting a few months before Spawn’s live action film in 1997, this HBO series embraced the bleak world of Todd McFarlane’s best-selling comic over three seasons. Despite a few small alternations, the show was largely faithful to its source, chronicling the fallout of the Faustian pact that turned commando Al Simmons into the supernatural Spawn.
The series was critically acclaimed for its detailed, fluid animation and Keith David’s performance as the title character. While the show’s 18 episodes were edited into three films for home release in the 1990s, the complete series has since been released on DVD, complete with McFarlane’s endearing live-action introductions to first-season episodes. While Spawn has receded some from the larger cultural landscape, talk of a new live-action Spawn movie has continued in recent years. Regardless of the character’s future, “Spawn” remains one of the few non-comedy Western animated series meant for adults.
10. THE ELTINGVILLE CLUB
Over two decades, Evan Dorkin’s multiple Eisner Award-winning series “The Eltingville Club” took a dark comedic look at the ugly underbelly of geek culture. The irregularly-released Dark Horse title followed the four members of the Eltingville Comic Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Role-Playing Club. In 2002, Adult Swim produced a pilot for an Eltingville series called “Welcome to Eltingville.” With heavy involvement from Dorkin, the pilot brought his manic cartoony art to life with a faithful adaption of the first full-length Eltingville story “Bring Me the Head of Boba Fett”
Despite a positive critical reception, the ahead-of-its-time pilot didn’t become a series. Back when the episode premiered, Dorkin said that the show would have carried on the comic’s unrelenting dark humor, mixing original stories with adaptations of older Eltingville stories. Though those plans didn’t come to pass, Adult Swim has occasionally re-aired the pilot episode as a special, and even released it on DVD with a few other failed pilots in 2009.
9. THE MAXX
While most of their programming is live-action today, it’s easy to forget that MTV was one of the strongest venues for adult-oriented animation in the early 1990s. Besides shows like “Beavis & Butt-Head” and “Daria,” the network also showed anthology series like “MTV’s Oddities,” which showcased an animated version of Sam Kieth’s surreal Image series “The Maxx.” The mind-bending series followed the Maxx, a homeless man in the real world who protected the Jungle Queen in a realm called the Outback. Back in the real world, the Jungle Queen’s unaware human form was a “freelance social worker” named Julie who looked after the Maxx.
Over 13 short episodes, the cartoon faithfully adapted the first dozen issues of the comic series, using a variety of animation styles. While the comic series would go on to expand its characters’ backstories and cover a future storyline before its conclusion, the cartoon ended after adapting the first story arc of the comic.
8. ARCHIE’S WEIRD MYSTERIES
As comics like “Afterlife with Archie” and “Archie Vs. Predator” have shown, mixing the traditionally wholesome world of Archie with darker subjects can produce an intriguing narrative friction. While nowhere near as dark as those series, Archie’s most recent animated show, “Archie’s Weird Mysteries,” took the classic Archie gang in a similar direction. In the 1999 cartoon, Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead investigated various monsters and supernatural occurrences for the Riverdale High newspaper.
Much like its spiritual ancestor “Scooby Doo,” the series mixed teen hijinks with light tension over one 40-episode season. After premiering on the American network Pax TV, the series was widely syndicated to fulfill an “educational/informative” programming requirement. Although the show only lasted one season, it garnered a comic book tie-in also called “Archie’s Weird Mysteries,” which lasted for 25 issues before becoming “Archie’s Mysteries,” a non-supernatural procedural. While the upcoming CW drama “Riverdale” appears to be a decidedly more adult affair, it seems like it will also recontextualize Archie and his friends in a darker setting.
7. INVINCIBLE: THE SERIES
While Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” and “Outcast” have reached massive new audiences on television, his other long-running creator-owned series, “Invincible,” wasn’t quite as successful. Back in 2008, when motion comics seemed like a promising new way to bring comics to the masses, MTV produced “Invincible: The Series,” a 13-episode adaption of the first dozen issues of Kirkman and Cory Walker’s comic book.
While the teenage heroes and shocking twists of “Invincible” could’ve made the show a hit, the show’s experimental animation style failed to connect with audiences. Using a process called Bomb-X, Gain Enterprises lightly animated Walker’s art from the comic book for the show, complete with dialogue in word balloons. While the dialogue was read and sound effects were added in, the viewing experience was essentially like listening to a well-produced audiobook while following along on Comixology’s Guided View. Despite an ambitious multi-platform release strategy and critically-acclaimed source material, “Invincible: The Series” flopped and plans for further episodes were scrapped.
6. CADILLACS AND DINOSAURS
In the wake of “Jurassic Park’s” gargantuan success in 1993, an animated adaption of Mark Schultz’s critically-acclaimed series “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs” joined the CBS Kids programming block in 1993. Originally published as “Xenozoic Tales” in 1987, the gorgeously-illustrated series was collected and republished several times in the early 1990s after being retitled “Cadillacs and Dinosaurs.” The series took place in a post-apocalyptic world where dinosaurs reemerged after ecological disaster forced humanity underground.
Over 13 episodes, the show followed mechanic Jack Tenrec, Hannah Dundee and Mustafa Cairo as they tried to save humanity and the dinosaurs from each other an another ecological disaster. Despite its brief run, the show spawned a well-regarded side-scrolling beat ‘em-up arcade game in 1993 and a brief revival of the comic series by the now-defunct Topps Comics. In a rare move, both the name of the franchise and the likenesses of the titular 1950s Cadillac cars were licensed by General Motors.
5. TALES OF THE CRYPTKEEPER
Given the bloody, morbid legacy of the infamous E.C. Comic “Tales from the Crypt,” the horror anthology series seemed like an odd choice to become a Saturday morning cartoon. After the success of the live-action HBO show of the same name, the Cryptkeeper made his animated debut in 1993’s “Tales from the Cryptkeeper.” Over two kid-friendly seasons, the titular ghoul hosted a series of light horror morality tales on ABC.
After that initial 26-episode run ended, the series was briefly revived in 1999 as “New Tales from the Cryptkeeper” on CBS. This iteration of the franchise highlighted the morality tale angle, which allowed it to fulfill an “educational/informative” programming requirement. Shortly before that, the Cryptkeeper hosted a bizarre CBS children’s game show called “Secrets of the Cryptkeeper’s Haunted House” that combined a macabre obstacle course with archaic computer generated graphics in a kind of primitive augmented reality. After almost two decades off the air, the Cryptkeeper is set to return to airwaves in M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming live-action “Tales from the Crypt” reboot, set to be released in 2017.
Shortly before Jim Lee entered into talks to sell his company WildStorm to DC Comics, Disney began adapting the incredibly popular teen superhero comic “Gen13” as a direct-to-video animated feature. While the comic skewed slightly older than most superhero books, the film targeted a teenage audience and faced relatively loose restrictions on content. After DC Comics, a division of Time Warner, bought WildStorm in 1999, the film’s American release was canceled, even though it had already been screened at a Chicago comic convention in 1998.
While it wasn’t released domestically, the film had a small release in the international home video market. The movie followed Catlin Fairchild’s introduction into the super-powered world of the “Gen-Actives.” In addition to Fairchild, the film starred Freefall, Grunge and Gen13’s mentor John Lynch. Since Disney now owns DC’s rival Marvel Comics, it seems increasingly unlikely that this film will ever see an official American release.
3. JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS IN OUTER SPACE
After the success of Filmation’s “The Archie Show” and the Archies’ chart-topping hit “Sugar, Sugar” in 1969, Hanna-Barbara wanted to bring some other Archie Comics characters to the airwaves. In 1970, the famous animation studio brought “Josie and the Pussycats” to CBS. Although the band’s “long tails and ears for hats” left a lasting cultural footprint, the show only lasted for one season of 16 episodes. After a year of reruns, Hanna-Barbara revived that concept as “Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space” in 1972.
Like its predecessor, that show only lasted for one season of 16 episodes. After being accidentally sent into deep space, the Pussycats, Josie, Valerie and Melody, were joined by their manager Alexander, their roadie Alan and their friend Alexandra for strange interstellar adventures. While the cartoon kept “Josie’s” musical interludes and the cat Sebastian, it added Bleep, a bizarre Furby-like alien who could only say his own name. By the time the Pussycats teamed-up with Scooby-Doo in 1973, they had returned to Earth without any apparent explanation.
2. BIG GUY AND RUSTY THE BOY ROBOT
With their two-issue 1995 miniseries, “Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot,” comic masters Frank Miller and Geoff Darrow crafted an insanely-detailed love letter to robot anime and classic kaijū movies. In the series, Rusty the Boy Robot battled a giant monster that had savagely attacked Tokyo. After Rusty’s initial defeat, Big Guy, an older American hero in a giant mech-suit, joined the fight against the relentless beast. While the plot is elegantly simple, Darrow earned the Eisner Award for Best Penciller in 1996 thanks to his hyper-detailed depictions of hyper-violence in the Dark Horse series.
In 1999, Fox Kids reformatted that series into two seasons of “Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot.” Over 26 episodes, the cartoon followed Big Guy and a now-American Rusty as they navigated their partnership and fought threats to New Tronic City. Although the cartoon couldn’t match the comic’s awesome visual power, the show successfully reformatted the series into a sustainable ongoing concept. While Big Guy and Rusty have briefly returned in the anthology “Dark Horse Presents” in recent years, the animated series legitimately expanded the world of the franchise and delivered thrilling new adventures that were perfect for Saturday mornings.
1. THE ADVENTURES OF SAM & MAX: FREELANCE POLICE
While Sam and Max might be most famous for their landmark early 1990s computer game, they debuted in Steve Purcell’s 1987 comic book, “Sam and Max: Freelance Police.” After Purcell took a job with game developer LucasArts, the point-and-click adventure game “Sam & Max Hit the Road” was released to rave reviews in 1993. After that success, Nelvana gave the anthropomorphic detectives their own animated series, “The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police,” in 1997.
Despite strong reviews and moderate success, “Sam & Max” only lasted for one season of 13 episodes on YTV in Canada and Fox Kids in the U.S. On the orders of the mysterious Commissioner, the canine Sam and the energetic rabbit Max traveled through time and space in adventures that usually parodied other pop culture mainstays. While the show kept the franchise’s zany sense of humor, some of the moderately more mature elements of the duo’s offbeat adventures were toned down.
Stay tuned to CBR for all the latest news about comic-based animated and live-action shows. And be sure to tell us what your favorite superhero cartoon is in the comments!
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