When Superman: The Animated Series Got Very, Very (Very) Weird

Welcome to the fortieth installment of Adventure(s) Time, a look at classic animated series and their tie-in comic books. This week’s entry is a suggestion from commenter “mrclam,” who requested the "Mxyzpixilated" episode of Superman: The Animated Series. Its companion is a famous issue of the tie-in from the Mark Millar era.

Originally airing on September 20, 1997, "Mxyzpixilated" could easily claim the prize for the most bizarre episode of Superman. Written by Paul Dini and directed by Dan Riba, the creators’ previous work on Tiny Toons and Freakazoid is hard to disguise here. While the producers tended to stay true to the John Byrne reboot era of the character, which presented a more grounded Superman living in a less fantastic universe, "Mxyzpixilated" is all about the insanity of Silver Age DC.

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The show had twenty episodes behind it at this date, and a shorter order than its predecessor Batman. This meant fewer experimental episodes, fewer scripts developed during a learning stage, and not a single “I’ve Got Batman in my Basement” in the first season. Having established the somewhat vanilla reality of the series, the sudden appearance of the imp from the fifth dimension leaves an even greater impression on the viewer. Fans used to Superman facing Intergang and Parasite were able to see a character they probably didn’t think would make the show, while kids were exposed to one of the oddest concepts in the mythos.

The series sticks to the classic version of Mr. Mxyzptlk, right down to his original 1940s design. This look had been nearly forgotten by the 1990s, with Mxyzptlk sticking to what was once perceived as his “futuristic” 1950s look in the ensuing decades. Going so far back is a testament to the creators’ knowledge of the canon, and their respect for the deep histories of these characters. (Plus, Batman had already proven just how well Bruce Timm’s designs mesh with a 1940s aesthetic.)

And what is Mxyzptlk’s classic gimmick? Well, he wants to find someone named McGurk. Everyone knows that. Okay, that’s a non sequitur joke, one that goes back to his earliest appearances. The bulk of "Mxyzpixilated" is Mxy doing what he’s always done, warping reality and tormenting Superman. He’ll go away if he’s tricked into revealing his name backwards, but only for three months.

(The gag of Mxyzptlk searching for an unseen character called McGurk is decades old, yet it fit in with the more obscure brand of humor of this era. Ren & Stimpy loved arbitrary jokes like this.)

So, it’s an episode of Mxyzptlk causing ridiculous trouble. Superman outwitting the imp. Mxyzptlk sulking in the fifth dimension while ignoring Gsptlsnz, his voluptuous girlfriend. Lather, rinse, repeat.

In the final act, the routine is interrupted when Mxy decides he’s had too much. He’ll go away forever this time if Superman can force him to reveal his name backwards two times in a row. The hero initially refuses, in one of the episode’s funniest scenes. When Superman flies away, Mxyzptlk angrily forces him into one more game.

Since this is the last act, and the episode has been unrelentingly goofy until now, some genuine danger is introduced. At moments, this feels like a standard Superman climax, as he races through Metropolis, avoiding the villain’s deadly Kryptonite rocket. Even briefly, there’s an acknowledgment of just how dangerous Mxyzptlk could be if he truly wished to cause harm.

It’s still an Mxyzptlk episode, though, and it ends with Superman outfoxing the imp once more. During their chase through Metropolis, he tricked Mxyzptlk into skywriting his name backwards twice, sending him away “forever.”

Mxyzptlk returns home to Gsptlsnz, who offers quality time to take his mind off Superman. We’re led to believe he’ll behave this time (in an ending that very much feels like something from the original Looney Toons.) His discreet transformation of his Superman statue into a toy monkey, however, hints at future Mxyzptlk stories to come.

An avowed fan of the Silver Age era of Superman, writer Mark Millar isn’t one to turn down a chance to pen an Mxyzptlk story. And during his stint on Superman Adventures, he made a point of returning to the imp every few months.

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