The '80s and '90s were a wonderful period for fans of animation – and comic books, in particular. X-Men: The Animated Series showrunner Eric Lewald cites the '90s as the period when superheroes came back into the mainstream consciousness.
"I've come to see X-Men: TAS, along with [the] more beautiful sibling Batman: The Animated Series, as the spark that has brought comic book superheroes from a corner of pop culture out to reigning atop it. In the '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s there were occasional attempts to bring superheroes to a wider audience (cartoons, an occasional movie, a rare TV series). When X-Men: The Animated Series was pitched, very few people in Hollywood believed it had a chance to succeed. I believe that our success with audiences of all ages showed Hollywood that there was a huge audience for superheroes if they were taken seriously. I believe that we showed them how it could be done, and then the floodgates opened," Lewald told Syfy Wire.
Naturally, not every comic-inspired show was as massive a hit as X-Men: TAS or Batman: TAS, and there were a lot of strange series green-lit. This isn't to say they're bad in quality, but they just were curious choices at the time. Let's have a look at some of these weird and wonderful animations.
The success of X-Men: The Animated Series inspired networks to heavily invest in other comic-book team-ups. Simultaneously, Image Comics was riding a wave of unparalleled fortune as it disrupted the big two (Marvel and DC) and claimed its own piece of the pie. As a result, it only made sense that Image properties would find their way onto the small screen as well. In 1994 CBS brought WildC.A.T.s to the mainstream as it attempted to compete with Fox Kids' Marvel shows at the time.
Rather than delve into the more mature concepts of the comic-book series, though, CBS toned things down to make it more of a family-friendly product to obviously sell toys. Characters and their origins were changed drastically, and a lot of fans of the source material were left disappointed by all the tinkering and deviations. Despite the cool opening theme song (an absolute staple of '90s cartoons), the series only lasted 13 episodes before riding off into the sunset. On the bright side, Colin O'Meara – the voice actor who provided the voice of Tintin in The Adventures of Tintin – was responsible for bringing the gruff Grifter to life on the show and he did a pretty sterling job.
14 SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED
If you've ever wondered why the spectacular (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) Spider-Man: The Animated Series got canceled when the show had great ratings, it was due to a dispute between executive producer Avi Arad and network head Margaret Loesch. Apparently, Loesch couldn't stand Arad. Still, there were contracts involved and a new Spidey series was required, hence Spider-Man Unlimited's release in 1999. The sci-fi-inspired series proved to be a major departure from what we'd seen before, though, as it took the Web-Crawler's mythos in a whole new direction.
The show's co-developer Will Meugniot explained to Newsarama why so much had to be changed. "It's complicated, but the short version is: Both Marvel and Fox Kids needed a new series with Spider-Man in the title to fulfill contractual obligations. Doing the new episodes, which couldn't be a continuation of the previous show, would allow Fox Kids to keep airing their earlier Spider-Man series for several more years. Initially, the goal was to do an extremely low-budget adaptation of the first 26 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man comic book. We'd started work on that version of the series, but then Marvel and Sony locked the Spider-Man movie deal, and we were suddenly cut off from our source material. We could no longer adapt the early comics or use the classic Spider-Man costume." In other words, they had to make a Web-Head animated series that wasn't too Spidey. Lolwut?!
13 CADILLACS AND DINOSAURS
A lot of people might not know, but the popular Cadillacs and Dinosaurs video game was actually based on a comic-book series called Xenozoic Tales, which was created by Mark Schultz. The Capcom beat 'em up, though, proved to be a monumental hit at the arcades, so an animated series was commissioned next on the list of potential cash-cow projects. The TV show wasn't a direct adaptation of the comic book or video game, however, as it tackled deeper ecological and political issues, but it had enough influence from the original Schultz stories.
The animated series was tackled by Steven E. de Souza, who you'll know for writing Commando, Die Hard, Hudson Hawk, and Judge Dredd among other action flicks. He acquired the rights for the TV show after having worked on the video game and being a fan. In his action-centric hands, the story followed Jack Tenrec and his crew, known as the Mechanics, as they faced the challenges of a futuristic world. Of course, there were also dinosaurs and cool cars featured in the show's 13-episode run. It was a wild and surreal spectacle that still has a cult following today, and we wouldn't be averse to seeing a modernized version of it being released today.
12 BUCKY O'HARE AND THE TOAD WARS
When you think of cartoon rabbits, the first name that comes to mind is Bugs Bunny. However, in 1991, Bucky O'Hare showed that stinkin' wabbit who's boss. In the short-lived Bucky O'Hare and the Toad Wars, we experienced the sheer awesomeness of the green captain and his anthropomorphic S.P.A.C.E. crew. It was like Star Wars, but with cuter creatures – and with episodes written by the likes of comic-book icons Christy Marx, Neal Adams, and Doug Moench. The character of O'Hare, though, had long been rooted in comic books, having been originally created by Larry Hama and Michael Golden.
In an interview with the Bucky O'Hare fan site, Hama explained how the character nearly ended up at one of the big two. "I developed it in 1978 when I was an editor at DC Comics. It was supposed to be the first 'creator-owned' DC Comic. They kept asking me to turn in material before they came up with the contract, and I kept refusing to hand it over until I had the contract in my hand. My lawyer was Ed Preiss, father of the late Byron Preiss, who had been Siegel and Shuster's lawyer in their suit against DC for recognition of creator status on Superman. Ed said, 'A verbal agreement is worth the paper it's written on.' So I never handed it over and took it with me when I left." O'Hare eventually made his official debut in Continuity Comics' Echo of Futurepast #1 in 1984.
11 THE MASK: ANIMATED SERIES
Even though 1994's The Mask transformed Jim Carrey into a bona-fide superstar, it was a large departure from the source material published by Dark Horse Comics. In the original series, whoever wore the Mask would become dangerous and act as an antihero or villain – regardless of whether it was the person's original intention or not – and the book was relatively violent. The film lightened things up, and the animated series followed suit as we got more of Stanley Ipkiss and Milo's crazy adventures. The show, though, went completely bonkers and the stories got more outrageous than the film. That said, fans seemed to like it as it lasted three seasons (which is like a lifetime in animation).
The series ended on a totally meta note as it crossed over with the Ace Venture: Pet Detective animated show in the "The Aceman Cometh/Have Mask Will Travel" two-part special. While it wasn't Carrey providing the voice for either character, it was simply awesome to see how the creators conjured up this ultimate fan service. In fact, the next time someone tells you that Avengers: Infinity War is the most ambitious crossover event, you take out an old copy of The Mask: Animated Series and show them this episode. It was smoooookin'!
Created by Carlos Meglia and Carlos Trillo, Cybersix was an Argentine comic book first published in 1992. It received a bit of a boost in the United States, as Fox Kids added the animated adaptation of the series to its programming block in 1999. Much like its title implies, it was a sci-fi inspired show that followed the titular character (spelt Cyber-6): A leather-clad, genetically-engineered hero that was created by the Nazi engineer Dr. Von Reichter (yes, he has the most evil name ever). The bulk of the adventures revolved round Cyber-6 and her partner Data-7 battling Reichter's minions and searching for "Sustenance", a liquid that keeps her alive.
The series received a lot of praise and a small cult following due to its slick animation. While it toned things down from the comic's darker and more mature theme, it still remained a highly compelling and intriguing premise for viewers. The fact it was dubbed into multiple languages also showed the faith that the producers had in the show. Unfortunately, Cybersix only lasted 13 episodes. There were plans for another season of 13 episodes; however, a dispute between production studios resulted in its cancelation. You see, money is truly the root of all evil.
9 FLASH GORDON
Despite our affinity for all things Flash Gordon, not everything was a blockbuster. In 1996 the famous hero was brought to the small screen once again; however, this time, he appeared as a teenager. You see, in the '80s and '90s, animation studios went through this phase where they'd try to reimagine heroes as younger people; think of James Bond Jr., Muppet Babies, and The Flintstone Kids. While it brought some initial novelty to the franchises, it didn't have much lasting potential. In the case of Flash Gordon, it persisted for a whole 26 episodes before receiving the inevitable boot.
In all fairness, the show did try to mirror its source material as much as it could, as it included all the pivotal characters such as Hans Zarkov and Ming the Merciless. At the same time, it tried to make Flash a Marty McFly character with his hoverboard. There are worse animated series from this era, but this one fell a little flat as it lost the magic of what made the campy classic so memorable. Mind you, at least it was better than the awful 2007 live-action Flash Gordon series, starring Eric Johnson, who had about as much personality as a Norwegian mushroom.
8 BIG GUY AND RUSTY THE BOY ROBOT
What's this? A Frank Miller-inspired property that isn't all dark and gritty? Well, take a gander at the Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot animated series, which is based on the comic book by Miller and Geof Darrow. Inspired by the likes of Astro Boy and kaiju tales, it was a family-friendly show that actually improved on the comic by adding more backstory and aired for 26 episodes across two seasons. That said, the series ended on a note that would've allowed it to continue had another season been optioned. Alas, it wasn't meant to be, but there's still hope that someone will revive this series in the near future (or at least give us a live-action movie).
The story followed Rusty, an enthusiastic A.I. with the mind and personality of a 10-year-old child, and Big Guy, the world's supposed first A.I. robot who's actually just Lieutenant Dwayne Hunter in a super-suit. Rusty was commissioned to replace Big Guy, but when the going proved too tough for the young robot, Big Guy was brought back into the fold and had to help Rusty. However, he couldn't reveal his secret to Rusty, or it could've caused the young robot to experience an emotional overload.
7 THE MAXX
Do you remember a time when MTV actually released good programming? Okay, that might be some time back, but in the '90s, it still had some decent shows, including The Maxx which was a part of the Oddities line-up alongside The Head. Based on Sam Keith's comic-book series that was released by Image Comics, the show adapted Darker Image #1, The Maxx #1/2, and issues #1–11 of the regular series into 13 episodes. While the episodes were relatively short, running between 11-13 minutes, it received much praise for its unique approach and respect for the source material.
The animated version of The Maxx followed the comic-book art closely. The producers used animation that was identical to the panels from the comics, utilizing a technique that didn't require a lot of animation work and interspersing different styles. While it sounds like a smorgasbord of rubbish, it worked as it gave viewers the actual feel of the comic book without having to diverge too far from the source material. Moreover, the voice talent was spot-on, nailing the way you'd imagine these characters to sound when reading Keith's stories. In many ways, this was a show that was way ahead of its time.
6 POPEYE AND SON
After years of seeing Popeye smack Bluto around as they fought for the affections of Olive Oyl, CBS released a 13-episode series that leapfrogged ahead and showcased the sailorman's life after he'd secured Olive's hand in marriage. Happily betrothed now, Popeye and Olive had a boy named Popeye Junior (because every child dreams of having the name of Popeye, naturally). It was a bit of a departure from the Popeye cartoons we'd been used to before, but it strangely worked and breathed fresh life into the franchise.
Not only did we get to see what kind of a father Popeye would be, but we caught up with his great nemesis, Bluto, and his boy, Tank, as well as other fan-favorite characters like Wimpy. Additionally, a new dynamic was thrown into the mix as Popeye Junior hated spinach, yet reluctantly ate it to get strength like his father. As expected, Popeye Junior and Tank shared a rivalry, as their dads continued theirs as well. It might not be the most memorable series of the late '80s, but it tried to do something different with our favorite sailorman. There's only so many times that he can try to save Olive from Bluto's schemes.
5 PHANTOM 2040
Hey, if you're ever stuck in a rut for storylines, set your character in a futuristic world. It worked for Batman (Batman Beyond) and also Kit Walker as he received a new lease on life, thanks to Phantom 2040. While all signs point to it being a dumpster fire, it turned out better than okay as the show received rave reviews for its animation, dynamic storylines, character development, moral lessons, and voice direction. The latter was due in part to voice director Stuart M. Rosen, who treated the voice acting craft with the respect it deserved. As with any other medium, it requires poise and decent acting skills to succeed – and it received it in the form of actors such as Margot Kidder, Ron Perlman, and Mark Hamill joining the Phantom 2040 cast.
The series was popular enough to spawn a video game for Sega Genesis, Game Gear, and SNES, as well as a comic-book series published by Marvel Comics. Unfortunately, after 35 episodes, it was canned. In a strange twist of fate, it was canceled the same year as the release of The Phantom, which starred Billy Zane as Kit Walker/The Phantom. Knowing what we do now, we would've traded the film for more episodes of this intelligent animated series.
4 THE SAVAGE DRAGON
Like other Image characters at the time, Savage Dragon received his own animated series in 1995. Produced by Universal Cartoon Studios, it had a decent run of 26 episodes and included other characters from the series such as Horde, She-Dragon, and Barbaric. In addition, the Dragon was voiced by Jim Cummings, the legendary voice actor who has voiced the likes of Darkwing Duck, Winnie the Pooh, and Dr. Robotnik. One of the later episodes also served as a mind-blowing crossover event between the three other shows on the "Action Extreme Team" block: Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm, Street Fighter, and Wing Commander Academy.
Sadly, the animated series was heavily watered down and aimed more at children than what the source material was. You'd think that the studios would've learned from something like Rambo: The Force of Freedom, which was a cartoon based on an R-rated film. There's still a lot of calls for a mature Savage Dragon animated series to be made, but it sounds like we might get a live-action film first. Creator Erik Larsen has said on several occasions that there is a screenplay for it. Maybe the future of that film may depend on Todd McFarlane's upcoming Spawn film?
3 SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS
If you thought that Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends felt a little like a knockoff off of DC's Super Friends, you're not entirely wrong. Rick Hoberg, who worked as a storyboard artist on the show, described to Spider-Friends.com how the series came to be. "They wanted to do a kind of Super Friends show. Y'know, initially it was called Spider-Friends. That's how they sold it, as Spider-Friends. They were going to do it under that name and it got changed to Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. Either name… I'm not sure which one is worse [laughs]. But they wanted us to do it much like the Super Friends and there was still this thinking that you’ve got to have a funny animal in it," he said.
In terms of the characters chosen, Hoberg elaborated on the reason of pairing Spidey with Iceman and Firestar. "The choices came about with them just deciding who would be good characters to work with Spider-Man. Spider-Man was thought of, at that point, as a teenager so they were looking for other teenagers and Iceman was always the perennial teenager of the X-Men. I'm going to guess that’s how they came up with him. Stan Lee and Dennis Marks [the producer] probably made the decision and, with Firestar, I bet they thought the fire and ice thing worked well together."
2 THE AVENGERS: UNITED THEY STAND
After we'd seen Spider-Man, Silver Surfer, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and the X-Men on screen in the '90s, there was a genuine excitement for The Avengers: United They Stand in 1999. In theory, this should've been the culmination of all of Marvel's animation efforts. The granddaddy of them all, so to speak. Instead, the studio decided to go for the West Coast Avengers, a team not many people knew of at the time, rather than introduce Thor, Captain America, and the other big guns. So, we got Ant-Man as the main character and everyone was bewildered by this decision.
Furthermore, it didn't help that these heroes were a bunch of whiners and not exactly heroic material. They were continuously complaining about their personal problems and feelings, which would've seen them more at home on a network such as The CW. Add to that their upgraded outfits to give them a real '90s look (even though the showrunners were aiming for a Blade Runner aesthetic) and you'll thank every deity you pray to that the turn of the century inspired new fashion trends. Thankfully, it only lasted 13 episodes before being put out of its misery and saving us in the process.
1 SWAMP THING
Oh, man. Swamp Thing still hits us in the feels because of its spoofing of Chip Taylor's infamous "Wild Thing" song ("Swamp Thing! You are amazing!"). That tune might very well go down as the greatest theme song in the history of animation. At the same time, though, the show was a complete departure from the source material and must've resulted in many sleepless nights and rants from Alan Moore. It felt more like a Captain Planet and the Planeteers spinoff than an actual superhero show, which should tell you everything you need to know about it.
Gone were the dark and grim tone of the comic-book series, and in its place was a goofier style of villains and storylines. As expected, Kenner invested a great deal of moolah in the toyline, producing action figures, vehicles, and playsets. We also got a video game, clothing, stationery equipment, as well as a bunch of other weird merchandizing for the masses. Sadly, it only lasted for five episodes – yes, five! – and received a sayonara. Since then, Swampy hasn't had much luck and been on the periphery of TV and film. Hopefully, the James Wan-produced TV series changes everything for DC's green machine.