Okay, so I've been slacking a bit lately on the writing front, sorry about that. Right, onto business.
The 90s were a magical time, a time when the world seemed much simpler, no smartphones, no Facebook, no Twitter. Much of the technology we take for granted today was the stuff of science fiction. It was also my childhood (which could explain why it seemed so magical). There were many things to enjoy about the 90s but what I want to talk about today are the simply amazing superhero cartoons that were around at the time.
I'd like to start with a small disclaimer, this is gonna be pretty heavy with praise on the Marvel cartoons and Spider-Man in particular but that is basically because it was my favourite.
There were a number of superhero cartoons on our television screens in the 90s, many of the more popular heroes had a series dedicated to them. Batman, Superman, the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four all had their own animated series which introduced these heroes to a new audience in the same way the films are doing today. The shows were quite unique for the time as they were the first cartoons to feature long form storytelling where there was an overarching plot to each series rather than just having stand alone episodes. As a result of this they were well received by both the target audience and critics alike, however, some of these have garnered more acclaim than others...
Batman: The Animated Series in particular is widely praised, IGN once described it as the greatest adaptation of Batman outside of the comics and the series itself is often among lists of the greatest animated series of all time. The art style was very unique and really drew you in to the atmosphere of Batman's world giving the series a noir vibe which was drastically different to the camp live action series of the 1960s. The writing was also very mature for what could have been considered a children's cartoon, the depiction of violence in the series was realistic and it also featured realistic guns, Batman would often land punches on his villains on screen for example.
It also featured what many believe to be THE definitive voice actors for both Batman and the Joker. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill both give performances that are so widely praised the actors frequently reprise their roles 20 years later, they even cropped up in later DC superhero cartoons like Static Shock and Justice League from the early 2000s. From this series Conroy became Batman, his is the voice that readers hear in their heads when they read Batman comics.
Marvel also had many different series, the most successful were X-Men and Spider-Man. The X-Men cartoon was in fact so popular that it spawned its own spin off comic book, which has recently returned as part of Marvel's Secret Wars event. The series features a number of original stories for the characters, but it also faithfully adapts famous X-Men stories such as the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past. Like Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men also dealt with some quite mature social issues, as always with the X-Men there was the underlying racism metaphor but it also dealt with topics such as the holocaust and AIDs hysteria. The series also dealt with the death of a character early on and in true comic book style revived the character who then suffered from a split personality and was driven mad by his memories of dying. X-Men currently holds the record as the longest running show based on a Marvel property with 76 episodes, the current second place is Spider-Man with 65...
As I already alluded to my favourite of all of the series was Spider-Man. It introduced me to the character and his world. From Joe Perry's amazing soundtrack to the (now admittedly slight dated) computer generated New York from which Spider-Man spun his webs I was hooked. I appreciate that now the CG environments look quite bad but in the mid 90s these were revolutionary, the original plan was to have a fully CG environment but budgetary constraints led to this idea being used sparingly.
As with Batman: The Animated Series this show was responsible for the voice I hear in my head when I read Spider-Man comics, Christopher Daniel Barnes IS Spider-Man to me. No matter how many other people have voiced him since (and there's been a lot) I still think he was the best. The later episodes which depicted a variation of the infamous clone saga in particular were an example of the sterling work he did. Although there was essentially 6 of the same character in a scene Barnes cleverly altered the tone of his voice ever so slightly to represent the personality of each particular Spidey. For example, one of the Spider-Men was a supremely confident Peter Parker who had a giant Spider-Robot and had never lost, another of them was actually just an actor who had no powers but played the role of Spider-Man on television and whenever they were in a scene together you could tell which one was speaking just by the tone of his voice.
Another reason the voice acting worked so well was that instead of being one man in a booth recording the lines the producers had taken the idea to have all of the actors recording together (which was a technique also used on Batman). This way each of the actors could actually bounce off one another and act together as if it was live action. In my opinion this led to some excellent voice work and some of the better voice acting performances of the 90s. The series featured a number of high profile guest stars with the likes of Mark Hamill (yep him again) as the Hobgoblin and also David Hayter (yes Solid Snake!) as Captain America (if that is not fantasy casting I don't know what is!).
Each series had an overarching plot, as well as battling the villains Spider-Man also dealt with various problems in his own life. From the second series onwards each episode was a chapter in an ongoing story, the main story of series 2 was "Neogenic Nightmare" and dealt with Spider-Man's powers evolving. As the series progressed Spidey discovers that he is actually mutating and as a result goes to visit the X-Men. This was another fairly unique aspect of the Marvel series, all of the characters who had their own animated series existed within the universe and as a result might pop up in another series from time to time (sound familiar?). When Spidey visited the X-Men to ask about his mutation not only did the characters look the same as they did in their own series, they sounded the same too. The same can be true for the later episodes when Iron Man appears, they had the same voice actor as in their own series. It could be argued that Marvel effectively had a practice run at the MCU in the 90s with their animated universe.
One of the final storylines in the Spider-Man series was actually an adaptation of the original Secret Wars story, the Beyonder summoned Spider-Man and a number of other Marvel superheroes to a distant planet to battle Doctor Doom and his team of villains. As with all superhero team up events this initially did not run smoothly, but of course as it was his show Spider-Man had to rally the troops and lead the way. These huge crossover events were significant, but they were similar to the way Marvel is working now with the MCU, the characters existed in the same universe so were perfectly entitled to appear.
Maybe it was a dry run for the MCU but even if it wasn't, it allowed for some really great stories as well as some nice cameo appearances from the other heroes. It is definitely safe to say though that Iron Man had the coolest theme tune...