How Superman: The Animated Series Avoided the 'Cornball' Man of Steel


The specific character model for Superman remained a challenge for Timm, however. "I did zillions and zillions and zillions of drawings" he tells Nolen-Weathington. "I just couldn't quite nail him down in the powerful, iconic image like we had done with Batman." He describes going with everything from cleanly heroic to "kind of creepy looking." Nothing clicked.

Inspiration came in the oddest of places. Director Dan Riba brought to work one day a tape of 1963's The Mighty Hercules. Produced on an ultra-cheap budget by Adventure Cartoon Productions, no one views this as a classic of the genre. (Youtube has several episodes archived.) The design of Hercules spoke to Timm, however, becoming his inspiration for their modern Superman.


Fans of Batman: The Animated Series knew what to expect, with the same crew producing a Superman series. At the very least, we'd have a stylized opening credit sequence. Then, a gorgeous title card painting, representing the episode's theme. Well, about that...

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The crew actually didn't have time to produce an original opening for the series, instead pulling clips from the early episodes. They're all nicely animated (in general, the animation quality for the show is near-excellent.) But, still, nothing as stylized and cool as the Batman opening. Apparently, the producers realized while assembling the clips that they didn't have the iconic image of Clark Kent opening his shirt to reveal the "S" emblem. This was rectified by a few seconds of new animation; along with an original silhouette shot of Superman flying above Metropolis. They look great--too bad nothing else about the opening is new.

Regarding the painted title cards...blame Todd McFarlane. Following Batman's cancellation, some key figures departed Warner Brothers. Eric Radomski, the animator who developed Batman's look with Bruce Timm, was also responsible for those famous title cards. By 1996, Radomski was no longer at Warner Brothers. Instead, he'd been hired by HBO to shepherd the troubled production of Todd McFarlane's Spawn into completion.

Regardless of those missing elements, Superman: The Animated Series soon developed a devoted following. Reviews were uniformly positive, even if Superman lacked the edge and psychological drama of its predecessor. One comics legend, however, one vocal in his love of Batman: The Animated Series, was not a fan.


Timm tells the story of Alex Toth's reaction to Brian Saner Lamken in the inaugural issue of the fanzine Comicology: 

He really loved the first series of Batman that we did. So that was cool; I wrote him a fan letter, and he wrote me a fan letter back...I was floating on Cloud Nine for a week. But when we did the Superman show, he got all bent out of shape that we didn't do it exactly like the Fleischers did; he thought that we updated the character too much, which is kinda bizarre, 'cause we really didn't.

RELATED: When Superman: The Animated Series Tried to Make Clark Kent Cool

If I had it to do over again, I'd update the character more — I think that the show would have been more successful if we had reinvented [things] a little bit...The reason why we didn't make it Fleischeresque is that I didn't want anybody to literally put it side-by-side with the old Fleischer shorts and say, "They're just doing a third-rate knockoff of the Fleischers."

But Alex got really bent out of shape about it. I'd write back to him explaining why I did what I did, and it went back and forth, two or three exchanges, and then I just stopped hearing from him. I didn't hear from him for about a year & a half...I sent him [Batman Animated] as a Christmas present, and I wrote in there a little note saying, "Alex, I hope that we can agree to disagree and still be friends." And he wrote me back this postcard that started out nice and ended nice, and in the middle was just full of poison. It starts off with "Thank you for that unexpected gift, blah blah blah blah blah, Yes, We must agree to disagree, because I think you're wrecking Batman!"


Amazingly, 2019 will mark the twenty-third anniversary of the show. And the debate over Superman's portrayal, the anxiety about the public viewing him as "cornball" continues to this day. Warner Brothers essentially threw several million dollars into a well, thinking Superman could be reinvented as a brooding, conflicted hero with messianic issues. All they had to do was go back to one of their own productions. Or, crazy thought, hire one of the creators who have already proven themselves on the character. Superman wasn't a perfect show, but it overcame some major hurdles in its development, and remains the highest-quality action cartoon you'll find in the post-Batman era.

So that’s all for now. Special thanks to Eric Nolen-Weathington and Brian Saner Lamken for their interviews. And to Bruce Timm, for being so open. The Comicology interview has disappeared from the Internet...but here's an archived version I've located. A great read.

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