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Superhero Cartoon Shows

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Animation has been a staple of television almost since the medium's inception, although superheroes were not quick to catch on. Early cartoons—relegated mostly to Saturday mornings or after-school timeslots—were generally repeats of theatrical comedy shorts strung together into half-hour blocks. Early examples of superhero cartoons included all funny-animal characters such as The Mighty Mouse Playhouse (1955–1966), the Bob Kane–created Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse (1960), shoe-shine boy turned superhero Underdog (1964–1973), and insect and rodent heroes The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show (1965–1968).


1965 saw the debut of the first two animated superheroes who were played for adventure instead of comedy. The Eighth Man (syndicated, 1965) was a Japanese import show about an android crime fighter, while Grantray-Lawrence's The Marvel Super-Heroes (syndicated, 1965) featured five days of superhero programming (Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Mighty Thor, and Sub-Mariner).


New heroes were created for American television in 1966. Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles (CBS, 1966–1968) featured a trio of rock-and-rolling crime fighters known as Fluid Man, Multi-Man, and Coil Man. CBS's Space Ghost and Dino Boy (CBS, 1966–1968) gave top billing to a space-bound crime fighter with powerful gauntlets. The Super Six (NBC, 1966–1969) starred heroes defined by their names: Granite Man, Super Scuba, Elevator Man, Magnet Man, and Captain Whammy. Ralph Bakshi's The Mighty Heroes (CBS, 1966–1967) were an odd quintet named Diaper Man, Cuckoo Man, Rope Man, Strong Man, and Tornado Man.


1967 was a banner year for animated heroes. Batfink (syndicated, 1967) was a parody of a certain other Bat-hero, and was accompanied by sidekick Karate. Birdman and the Galaxy Trio (NBC, 1967–1968) featured stories with Birdman, Birdboy, and their pet eagle Avenger as they fought crime, while Vapor Man, Galaxy Girl, and Meteor Man were the trio of the title. Galaxy Girl shared with Invisible Girl of Hanna-Barbera's The Fantastic Four (ABC, 1967–1970) and Mera of Filmation's The Superman-Aquaman Hour of Adventure (CBS, 1967–1968) the title of the first animated superheroines. Grantray-Lawrence again checked in with an ultra-popular Spiderman series (ABC, 1967–1970), while Super President (NBC, 1967–1968) saw the country led by a crime-fighting Commander in Chief.


The following several years debuted few new hero shows, largely because the others were popular enough to go to second or third seasons. Filmation's The Batman/Superman Hour (CBS, 1968–1969), Aquaman (CBS, 1968–1969), and The Adventures of Batman (CBS, 1969–1970) were extensions of previous shows. In 1973, Hanna-Barbera teamed several of DC Comics' top heroes together as Super Friends (ABC, 1973–1977), while police janitor turned kung fu hero Hong Kong Phooey (ABC, 1974–1976) rode to crime sites in his Phooeymobile. Old heroes got a new life in The Space Ghost/Frankenstein Jr. Show (NBC, 1976–1977), and comedy dog hero Dynomutt joined with Blue Falcon to fight crime in The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour (ABC, 1976–1977).


1977 saw the format of Super Friends altered for The All-New Super Friends Hour (ABC, 1977–1978), while Batman played double duty, also starring in Filmation's The New Adventures of Batman (CBS, 1977) and later The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour (CBS, 1977–1978). The following year, the show was changed to Tarzan and the Super 7 (CBS, 1978–1980), and several superhero elements were added: Freedom Force featured Isis, Hercules, Merlin, Super Samurai, and Sinbad; Web Woman featured a heroine given spider powers and accompanied on her adventures by an alien pet named Spinner; Manta and Moray showcased the last survivor of an underwater civilization and his girlfriend; and Super Stretch and Microwoman featured African Americans Chris and Christy Cross who could shrink and stretch to fight crime. Rumored legal trouble from both DC and Marvel led to few episodes (and fewer reruns) of the latter three series.


1978 also saw Dynomutt, Dog Wonder (ABC, 1978), another new title for Hanna-Barbera's Challenge of the Super Friends (ABC, 1978–1979), and a trio of familiar Marvel heroes—plus a clownish robot sidekick—in The New Fantastic Four (NBC, 1978–1979). The following year was a banner year for heroes, though several of them were comedy oriented. The Super Globetrotters (NBC, 1979–1980) refashioned the basketball-playing Harlem Globetrotters into the superheroes Multi-Man, Sphere Man, Gizmo Man, Spaghetti Man, and Fluid Man. The Plastic Man Comedy-Adventure Show (ABC, 1979–1980) featured the Quality/DC stretchable character, as well as a segment called Might Man and Yukk featuring a tiny hero and the world's ugliest dog fighting crime. Hanna-Barbera debuted a new series called Fred and Barney Meet the Thing (NBC, 1979), teaming characters from The Flintstones with one member of the Fantastic Four. Another Marvel character made her debut in Depatie-Freleng's Spider-Woman (ABC, 1979–1980), and the DC superteam got another new incarnation with The World's Greatest Super Friends (ABC, 1979–1980).


Format changes resulted in more name changes for older series in 1980: The Super Friends Hour (ABC, 1980–1981), Batman and the Super 7 (NBC, 1980–1981), and The Plastic Man/Baby Plas Super Comedy (ABC, 1980–1981). Hanna-Barbera mixed monsters and teens to become the superheroes Drak, Frankie, and Howler and pitted them against Dr. Dred and O.G.R.E. in Drak Pack (CBS, 1980–1982). The following season saw the return of Space Ghost in Space Stars (NBC, 1981–1982), and another name change for The Super Friends (ABC, 1981–1984). Marvel's web-spinning hero appeared on the network show Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (NBC, 1981–1982) and in a syndicated solo version called simply Spider-Man (1981–1982). Prescott-Scheimer's Kid Super-Power Hour with Shazam! (NBC, 1981–1982) featured animated adventures with the Fawcett/DC Marvel Family (Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr.), as well as adventures of the teen heroes who attended Hero High (Captain California, Gorgeous Gal, Dirty Trixie, Misty Magic, Rex Ruthless, Weatherman, and Punk Rock).


The following several years mainly featured name and format changes for a few continuing series: The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man (NBC, 1982–1983), which added a half-hour Hulk component; The Amazing Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk (NBC, 1983–1984); and Super Friends—The Legendary Super Powers Show (ABC, 1984–1985). A British comic strip was brought to the United States with Bananaman (Nickelodeon, 1985–1987), in which a banana-eating wimp becomes a superhero. That year also saw the final name change and final incarnation for Hanna-Barbera's venerable Super Friends with The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians (ABC, 1985–1986).


Defenders of the Earth (syndicated, 1986–1987) featured King Features' comic-strip heroes the Phantom, Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, and Lothar as they protected Earth's future from Ming the Merciless. A family of bionic-powered heroes fought Dr. Scarab in Bionic Six (syndicated, 1987). An old heroic mouse reappeared for funny—and sometimes controversial—new stories with Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (CBS, 1987–1989), while comicdom's hero supreme reappeared in a new Ruby-Spears series with Superman (CBS, 1988–1989). The universe's cuddliest hero arrived in the form of a superpowered teddy bear, set to battle Skeleton, Bulk, and Texas Pete in The Further Adventures of Super-Ted (syndicated, 1988–1989).


As the 1990s began, superheroes had all but disappeared from the airwaves, though that would soon change. Environmental heroes faced villainous polluters and strip miners in Captain Planet and the Planeteers (syndicated, 1990–1995), while Disney produced its first hero cartoon with the adventurer known as Darkwing Duck (Disney Channel and ABC, 1991–1995), who protected the city of St. Canard from evildoers. Musician M. C. Hammer donned magic shoes to become a superhero in Hammerman (ABC, 1991–1992), but by the following year, weird heroes were in vogue. DIC produced a short-lived Swamp Thing cartoon (Fox, 1991), while bizarre and deformed Troma movie creations Toxic Crusader (toned down from Toxic Avenger), double-craniumed Headbasher, Junkyard, and No Zone fought against evil polluters and mutants such as Zarzoza from the planet Smogula, Bonehead, Psycho, and Dr. Killemoff in Toxic Crusaders (syndicated, 1991–1992). The following year, two excellent comic-book adaptations began their long runs on Fox: Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1994) and X-Men (1992–1997).


1994 was the biggest year for superheroes in history with eight new series debuting, and one going through a name change: The Adventures of Batman & Robin (Fox, 1994–1997). Marvel's web-spinner debuted with a brand new show in Spider-Man (Fox, 1994–1998), while New England Comics' big blue hero arrived in The Tick (Fox, 1994–1997), and Image saw representation with both Jim Lee's WildC.A.T.S (CBS, 1994–1995) and The Maxx on MTV Oddities (MTV, 1994–1995). Two Marvel series were combined for The Marvel Action Hour (syndicated, 1994–1996), with Fantastic Four and Iron Man sharing the screen. Animation met live-action in the wacky talk show Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast (Cartoon Network, 1994–2003), and a purple-clad King Features hero saw more futuristic adventuring against environmental villains in Phantom 2040 (syndicated, 1994–1996).


Several more comic book properties reached TV screens in 1995, with DIC's production of Malibu's UltraForce (syndicated, 1995–1996), Image's Savage Dragon (USA Network, 1995–1997), and Dark Horse's movie spin-off The Mask (CBS and syndicated, 1995–1997). Also on tap were the zany antics of a computer geek turned rubber-boned superhero in Steven Spielberg Presents Freakazoid! (WB, 1995–1996). Superhero action figures came to life in the Kablam! segment Action League Now!!! (Nickelodeon, 1996–1999), with short segments featuring the Flesh, Stinky Diver, Thundergirl, the Chief, and Melt Man. The following year DC produced the critically acclaimed Superman (WB, 1996–1997) and Marvel's green-skinned Goliath returned in The Incredible Hulk (UPN, 1996–1997). Both series changed titles and gained fellow heroes the next season, with The New Batman/Superman Adventures (WB, 1997–1998) and The Incredible Hulk and She-Hulk (UPN, 1997–1998). Aimed squarely at mature audiences, Todd McFarlane's Spawn also debuted in latenight timeslots (HBO, 1997–1999).


In 1998, Marvel's angst-ridden space hero debuted with The Silver Surfer (Fox, 1998–1999), and a trio of cute girl heroines debuted with their own series (though two earlier cartoons had aired in 1995 and 1996). Bubbles, Buttercup, and Blossom are the Powerpuff Girls (Cartoon Network, 1998–present) and they fight such enemies as evil monkey Mojo Jojo, Fuzzy Lumpkins, Princess Morebucks, and others. The following year, a futuristic relaunch of Marvel's top hero tanked in the ratings with Spider-Man Unlimited (Fox, 1999), while a futuristic version of DC's dark hero soared with Batman Beyond (WB, 1999–2002). Even cute and addictive kids series Spongebob Squarepants (Nickelodeon, 1999–present) got into the hero business with undersea crime-fighters Barnacle Boy and Mermaid Man appearing as Spongebob's favorite TV heroes.


An old Hanna-Barbera hero was revived for the bizarrely funny Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law (Cartoon Network, 2000–present), in which the ex-hero took on legal cases from other cartoon characters. Milestone's African American teen hero Static debuted in his own series called Static Shock (WB, 2000–present), while Marvel's popular mutants were revived in X-Men: Evolution (WB, 2000–present). Batman Beyond spun off a fugitive hero character into its own series with The Zeta Project (WB, 2001–2002), while DC's top heroes reunited for a well-received Justice League (Cartoon Network, 2001–present), which aired in both widescreen and full-frame formats. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi created The Ripping Friends (Fox and Cartoon Network, 2001–2002), a quartet of strange muclebound heroes—Rip, Slag, Crag, and Chunk—who ripped criminals ranging from wormy Flathead and egg-stealing Ovulator to sentient wads of chewing gum. The series proved too odd for Saturday mornings. And speaking of odd, The Fairly Oddparents (Nickelodeon, 2001–present) features Timmy, a boy whose wishes can bring his favorite comic-book heroes to life, including Crimson Chin (voiced by Jay Leno) and Cleft the Boy Chin Wonder, as well as Crash Nebula. Timmy also becomes Turbo Timmy in one episode.In 2002, Disney produced a show in which young kids become the superheroes Captain Crandall, Skate Lad, and Rope Girl in Teamo Supremo (ABC and Toon Disney, 2002–present), fighting villains such as Baron Blitz, Mr. Inflato, the Sinister Stylist, and the Birthday Bandit. An anime-inspired version of Teen Titans (Cartoon Network, 2003–present) debuted, with the teen heroes opposing the Fearsome Five, Terminator, Trident, and others. On the adult front, Pamela Anderson's Stripperella (TNT and Spike, 2003–present) doffed clothes and battled villains, and Spider-Man returned (MTV, 2003) for a set of computer-animated adventures based on the feature film.


Besides the clearly superhero-related series, many animated shows feature adventurers, fantasy heroes, or space characters who don't quite fit the superhero mold: Boys are represented by Marine Boy, Jonny Quest, GI Joe, Masters of the Universe, Flash Gordon, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, and Men in Black; girls have such heroines as Jem, She-Ra: Princess of Power, and Aeon Flux. As the above history shows, while the twenty-first century moves forward and computer-generated animation becomes more commonplace, superhero cartoon shows will remain an integral part of the television landscape. —AM

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