Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.
Nick: It’s time once again, loyal readers, for the Hard-Traveling Fanboys to take you on the monthly rollercoaster ride known as Countdown. This month, we’re getting animated, as we take on the topic of our favorite animated comic book-related television shows of all time. There have been many great ones, but we’ll be limiting it, as always, to our top five.
Greg: Yes, the history of cartoons based on comic books is a long and rich one, dating all the way back to Max Fleisher’s Superman cartoons, and perhaps even further. But without any further delay, let’s get started with Nick’s fifth-favorite animated comic book TV show.
Nick: And, before we ever get started, let me offer something of a confession. During our time writing for the Place to Be Nation, we’ve earned a reputation for having a bit of a pro-DC bias. Now, in some regards, it’s a warranted reputation. Hell, when we started, we took our name and the names of three of our four monthly columns directly from the world of DC Comics lore. However, we’ve made many attempts to remain “fair and balanced,” so to speak. Now, I say all of that to say this: This will be one of the most DC-heavy columns ever written. Because as dominant as Marvel has been in the world of big screen adaptations, DC has been just as dominant when it comes to the small screen. Marvel Zombies, you’ve been forewarned.
But yes, here’s my No. 5.
Nick’s No. 5: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
Greg: A Marvel show to kick off our lists! And this one was a good one that was cut short before its time.
Nick: Now, there have been Marvel series that are more iconic, such as the 90s X-Men and Spider-Man shows. However, this is the show that I felt most accurately portrayed the Marvel Universe as a whole, rather than just one corner. Even though it only lasted two seasons, the scope of the show was impressive. It’s unfortunate that it didn’t last longer, as the writers were clearly setting up a lot of plot threads that they had to wrap up in a hurry rather than playing them out over the course of several seasons.
And even though the second season feels a bit rushed, the first season is the finest season of television Marvel’s ever produced. It provided a fantastic introduction to the so-called founding fathers of the Avengers — Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor. The depictions of Thor and Iron Man in particular were very impressive and felt fairly in line with their big screen counterparts. However, Marvel, in their infinite wisdom, decided the show needed to be scrapped and restarted as Avengers Assemble, which isn’t half the show EMH was. As you’ll soon see, corporate interference was an issue with many of these shows, but this one was especially disappointing because it was Marvel killing a fantastic creation.
Greg: Running for 52 episodes from 2010 to early 2013, Avengers: EMH set the standard for the small-screen versions of these characters. Solid voice work and patient, smart storytelling (largely due to story editor and accomplished comics writer Chris Yost) and great adaptations of old Avengers stories helped make this a modern-day classic. I must confess I never found the Avengers interesting when I was a child. I gravitated more to the X-Men and cosmic sides of the Marvel Universe. However, this show made me familiar with concepts and characters like Ultron, the Masters of Evil and Kang the Conqueror. Through this show, I’m now interested in exploring the Avengers’ rich history.
Nick: It really was a fantastic example of a show paying homage to certain iconic storylines while also putting its own spin on the plot. I’ll never understand Jeph Loeb’s insistence that this show be canned, but Jeph Loeb’s Marvel work is a rant unto itself.
Greg: The good news: like several of the shows on our respective lists, this one is available to stream on Netflix. I highly recommend checking it out, but be warned: once you start, it’s difficult to stop watching.
And speaking of Netflix, my fifth-place show recently got added to it.
Greg’s No. 5: Young Justice
Nick: I’ll remain silent for the moment.
Greg: While I have respect and some affinity for the Teen Titans show that predated Young Justice, it was this Greg Weisman (of Gargoyles fame) creation that showed how to create a masterful show centered on teenage heroes.
Focusing on the young sidekicks to the Justice Leaguers — initially Robin (Dick Grayson), Kid Flash, Aqualad, Miss Martian, Artemis and Superboy — this show did a great job portraying the lives of young characters striving to break out of their mentors’ shadows. Because they’re teens, there’s plenty of awkward romantic drama and funny shenanigans, but it never devolves into slapstick like the Titans shows often do.
Beyond that, this felt like the first true successor to the legacy left by Justice League Unlimited, though this takes place in its own continuity. The show had strong overarching stories in each of its two seasons, and its commitment to telling that story never wavered. Each show provides either a piece to the overall puzzle or a key piece of character development. And, like the great DC shows before it, it managed to get better as it aged. Season two introduced an older Grayson as Nightwing (my favorite superhero), Bart Allen and Tim Drake as Impulse and the new Robin, respectively, and characters like Wonder Girl and Blue Beetle. It managed to make me a huge fan of several of these characters in the process, something the comics often failed to do.
Sadly, this show met an early end just like Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, ending on one heck of a cliffhanger.
Nick: An excellent choice, sir. So good in fact, that I’ve gotta do this…
Nick’s No. 4: Young Justice
Greg: Interestingly, I remember how skeptical you were when I first told you about how good this show was. That would’ve been early in the first season. Then you checked it out, and I received a phone call from you later that night: “Yeah, I’m hooked.”
Nick: Greg pretty much nailed everything about what makes this show so great, but one thing I’ll say is that the writers did an unbelievable job of taking sidekicks, some of them even the partners of B or C list heroes, and making them every bit as interesting as their Justice League counterparts.
It also did fascinating character work by allowing characters like Miss Martian, Superboy and Dick Grayson to grow up before our very eyes, eventually becoming characters completely capable of handling threats on their own in ways that were at times unexpected. However, the real breakout characters, in my opinion, were two of the newer characters — Kaldur’ahm as Aqualad and Artemis as the supposed sidekick of Green Arrow.
These two characters didn’t have the longest history coming in to the show, but the writers took those blank slates and crafted complicated, compelling characters the likes of which you’ll probably never see in a Saturday morning cartoon for a long time. Just fantastic work by all involved.
And, like Greg said, and something that will be repeated often throughout this column, Cartoon Network never did the show any favors. It was repeatedly pulled from the schedule for no reason whatsoever and seemed to be perpetually on the brink of cancellation. To make matters worse, CN didn’t cancel the show in time for the writers to wrap up all the loose ends — meaning we end the show with the mother of all cliffhangers. As our good friend The Iron Sheik might say, FACK THE CARTOON NETWORK!
Greg: Indeed, this is a show that, since its official cancellation in early 2013, has already become a cult classic. Unfortunately, Cartoon Network’s bizarre handling of its DC properties affected another great show at the same time.
Greg’s No. 4: Green Lantern: The Animated Series
Nick: LOL. I’ll stay silent again for reasons that are in no way completely obvious.
Greg: Welp, it’s too bad you don’t have more to say about this!
As we talked about last week in Off the Page, the 2011 film “Green Lantern” left a lot to be desired for longtime fans of the corps. But one positive effect of greenlighting a big-screen adaptation of any property is the possibility of side projects involving the property. In addition to the movie, we got a decent video game and this wonderful Bruce Timm-helmed animated series that was only loosely tied to the film (in the same way Batman: The Animated Series was loosely tied to “Batman Returns”).
And my, oh my, what a difference a strong creative direction can make. Timm and his crack staff (including the brilliant Giancarlo Volpe) rebuilt the mythos from the ground up, encapsulating in one pilot episode everything the movie missed about the Green Lantern mythology. We got a cocky, ring-slinging but heroic Hal Jordan, a strong-willed Carol Ferris, incredible constructs, instantly interesting villains in the Red Lanterns and an army of the coolest, weirdest Green Lanterns you’ll ever see.
And as it progressed, the show simply got better and better. Along the way it even managed to introduce some vital new characters, none more intriguing than Red Lantern Razer and the artificial intelligence known as Aya. We meet a who’s who of the Green Lantern universe: Guy Gardner (performed admirably by Diedrich Bader), Ch’p, Kilowog, Tomar-Re, Sinestro, Saint Walker and (my personal favorite) Larfleeze.
Best of all, these characters all interact and add to the overall narrative. It’s another example of strong episodic storytelling, with themes that link the seasons together.
Nick: YES. A thousand times yes. All of this.
Nick’s No. 3: Green Lantern: The Animated Series
Greg: Hey, good choice.
Nick: Like Greg said, for every misstep the movie made, this show made three correct steps in terms of establishing the mythology and building an entire universe around these characters. Yes, things don’t play out exactly as they do in the comics, but that’s ultimately OK because the creators clearly just “got” the concept.
I can’t think of a bad episode of this show, largely because nearly every character was used perfectly — Atrocitus, Kilowog, Sinestro, Tomar-Re, the Guardians of the Universe. I could go on and on. However, the two biggest contributions the series made to the GL mythos were the original creations, Razer and Aya. As much as Hal, these two formed the emotional crux of the series’ one and only season. And while the show’s cliffhanger was nowhere as frustrating as that of Young Justice, it’s still a damn shame that we’ll never get to see these two characters enjoy the happy ending we were led to believe could be possible after all.
And, while it wasn’t a true cliffhanger, there were certainly some seeds being sewn for the eventual “heel turn” of Sinestro and possibly even a film adaptation of the Sinestro Corps War. There was also a certain cameo by a certain dark-colored book that hinted at another famous comic storyline coming to the show.
However, as they are so well-known for doing, Cartoon Network put the kibosh on that. Rather than GL and YJ, the network decided that the world needed more the things we had already seen — namely a revival of the old Teen Titans show and a new Batman show. I’m all for all DC properties having a shot on television, but there really wasn’t a need to cancel GL, especially when the show had barely scratched the surface of ring-slingin’ stories. In a perfect world, we’d be in season 3 by now and maybe gearing up for a big showdown with Nekron, but this isn’t a perfect world. Again, this time to borrow a phrase from the great Tony Schiavone, Cartoon Network, you can go to hell!
Greg: Even more maddening is the alleged reasoning behind the cancellation. In addition to “making room” for Titans and Beware the Batman (there was plenty of programming room for all these shows), apparently the poor sales of toys related to the movie played a factor. How asinine.
As for the show itself, it’s chock full of amazing episodes. The steampunk episode even (seemingly) influenced a recent issue of the Larfleeze comic book. As for my favorite episode, I might have to go with Sinestro’s debut. It was beautifully crafted from beginning to end, though so were all the episodes involving a certain Crisis-related villain.
Nick: Yeah, I’m a sucker for the introduction of Guy Gardner, especially since the writers put a new, unexpected twist on Guy while still maintaining the same sensibilities that make Guy, well, Guy.
Greg: Absolutely, and I don’t think we ever expected, despite our mutual love for the character, to see Guy treated so well on screen.
But when it comes to creating iconic versions of characters and reaching the mainstream, it’s tough to top my No. 3 pick.
Greg’s No. 3: X-Men
Nick: Finally, something our lists don’t have in common!
Let me be clear — I love this show. It just missed my top 5. When I read X-men comics, the versions of these characters are often the ones I hear in my head, perhaps with the exceptions of Magneto and Professor X. Still, a beautifully drawn show that wasn’t afraid of embracing some of the X-Men’s more “comicky” concepts and storylines.
Greg: This show hit right at the peak of my childhood comic book fandom, 1992. Taking its visual inspiration directly from Jim Lee’s then-contemporary X-Men redesigns, the show absolutely defined these characters for my entire generation.
Like Nick, when I read these characters in the comics, I still read them in the voices of the actors from this cartoon. Though Hugh Jackman owns the role on the big screen, it’s Cathal J. Dodd’s iconic gruffness that I hear when Wolverine speaks. That leads to some issues given the more cultured take on Wolverine some writers use today, but that’s just the way it’ll always be for me.
But beyond the wonderful voice acting (has ANYBODY done a better Gambit? What about Rogue?), it’s the stories that keep people coming back more than 16 years after the final episode. This was the first cartoon I’d seen that took a truly serial approach, telling long-form stories that often played off episodes from prior seasons. It also featured the “death” of a main character in the first episode, which definitely left the impression that X-Men was serious business compared to something like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show.
And, indeed, this show was seemingly unafraid to tackle any comic storyline, no matter how complex. This is how most in my generation know of stories like “Days of Future Past,” “The Phoenix Saga,” “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “The Phalanx Covenant.” And while the show was unfortunately handcuffed by network censors to a ridiculous degree, it still managed to strike emotional chords in episodes like “Nightcrawler.” And I think Nick would agree that no show, with the possible exception of Batman, has done more to connect kids with superheroes in the last 30 years.
Nick: Couldn’t agree more. It’s definitely the most iconic Marvel animated show ever, and it’s one that’s remembered almost as fondly as a certain DC offering from around that same time. But, more on that in a bit.
Nick’s No. 2: Justice League/Justice League Unlimited
Greg: The final series in the Bruce Timm DC Animated Universe, it wrapped things up while still leaving fans salivating for more.
Nick: OK, let’s speak honestly here — I think most people who know comic book TV knew coming in that there are two shows that a lot of people, and especially DC fans such as you and I, hold near and dear above all others. One of those is Justice League. It was the culmination of the DC Animated Universe, which to that point had included Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond.
And this show, over the course of three and a half seasons (technically four) found a way to bring in plot threads from all of those shows that, quite frankly, I didn’t even know were dangling until they were addressed. The first two seasons also do a great job of expanding the DCAU beyond just Bats and Supes, giving us fantastic incarnations of Wonder Woman, John Stewart, Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl and perhaps the show’s most developed and evolved character by the time the final credits rolled, The Flash.
Greg: Indeed, and it was this show’s take on John Stewart (as Green Lantern) and Wally West (as the Flash) that has served to define them for many in the mainstream. Wally’s development was wonderful, and it also gave us a truly great love story between Green Lantern and Hawkgirl. I’d call it probably the best love story I’ve seen in any animated series.
Nick: While the first two seasons lay the groundwork for the League and establish how its members interact with one another, the show’s transformation into JLU brought the DCAU a sense of scope and depth that I don’t think anyone thought was possible in a half-hour cartoon. The league’s roster expands to literally hundreds of characters, and rather than trying to juggle all characters in each episode, Timm and company wisely use a revolving door of different squads on missions that all tie into an overarching plot that not even Batman detects at first. No, that honor goes to another of the show’s breakout stars — The Question. By season’s end, the stage is set for perhaps the most satisfying season finale in comic book TV history. If you haven’t seen JL/JLU, go to Netflix now and watch it. You won’t regret it. If you don’t have Netflix, get it.
Greg: It should be noted that we agreed before this column that Justice League and Justice League Unlimited should be counted as the same show. While there are arguments to be made that the shows were separate, the fact is that the massive Cadmus story arc that plays out in JLU is directly set up by the events throughout Justice League.
Nick: And it even ties in plot threads from Batman and Superman as well.
Greg: But I’ll hold off on anymore praise of this show until … a later time. And hey, what do you know, Justice League even had throwbacks to my second-place show.
Greg’s No. 2: Batman: The Animated Series
Nick: Again, I defer to you.
Greg: As it turned out, 1992 would be a hugely important year for comics, particularly on television. While the aforementioned X-Men series launched in 1992 and made an impression, Batman: TAS launched the same year and made an even bigger impact on its audience.
Free from the censorship handcuffs that plagued its Marvel counterpart and sporting a fresh, distinctive art and animation style courtesy Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, the series did nothing short of revolutionize the entire field of action animation. True, it took cues from Fleisher’s groundbreaking Superman cartoons and the genre of anime, but there’s no mistaking the look of Batman with that of any other show before or since. It managed to craft compelling, complex and dark versions of characters that had, for many, been more known for campy versions in the 1960s Batman live-action show. Voiced by the amazing Kevin Conroy, Bruce Wayne had even more layers than the big-screen version played contemporarily by Michael Keaton. Mark Hamill’s performance as the Joker is arguably the single most well known in all of animation.
The animation, much moreso than that of X-Men, holds up to this day. It’s smooth, completely devoid of the choppiness seen in many (most?) ’80s and early ’90s cartoons. It showed how to do a fight scene properly. It showed how to do a love story properly. And, to an even greater degree than X-Men, it provided the definitive versions of the Batman characters for my generation. You name the character, this show captures him or her perfectly: Clayface. Two-Face. Poison Ivy. Mister Freeze. Robin. Alfred. Jim Gordon. Harvey Bullock. Batgirl. Ra’s al Ghul. Talia. It’s a murderer’s row of some of the greatest comic book characters ever created. And frankly, the show greatly improved many of them, not the least of which were Clayface and Freeze.
Nick: I agree with all of this. Which is why, of course….
Nick’s No. 1: Batman: The Animated Series
Nick: Sometimes we do these Countdowns and choosing a No. 1 is agonizing work. Then, sometimes there are columns like these where the choice is so painfully obvious. It’s been more than 20 years since BTAS first debuted, but no animated superhero show has come close to replicating its nearly universal critical success. This show is almost singlehandedly responsible for introducing a generation of America not just to Batman, Robin and the Joker, but also to other Bat-characters who had not been represented in a fairly serious form in decades.
Whether it was the show’s stellar introduction of Two-Face, its heartbreaking reinterpretation of Mr. Freeze or the spotlight given to characters like Alfred, Jim Gordon or Harvey Bullock at times, this show felt at times like it was steps ahead of the audience at all times. It really has it all, and I can’t praise it enough, especially the writing of Paul Dini, who has proven in the years since that he’s as great a Bat-scribe you’ll find in this or any other generation.
And, like Greg said, no matter what came before or will come in the future, to me Batman will always be Kevin Conroy and the Joker will always be Mark Hamill. I can’t express enough just how important this show was to my childhood, as I’ve heard from countless others as well. I’ve got the entire series on DVD in a single box set, and it’s truly one of my most prized Batman possessions.
But, I know both Greg and I love the show not just for what it was, but what it set the stage for.
Greg’s No. 1: Justice League/Justice League Unlimited
Nick: I’ve said plenty about JL/JLU, so I’ll, once again, turn it over to Greg.
Greg: We talked a lot about this show earlier, but like Nick said above, it truly picked up the proverbial ball that was left by Batman, Superman: The Animated Series and even Batman Beyond. To say it then scored a touchdown would be a gross understatement.
From Professor Milo’s animal experiments in Batman to Darkseid’s attempted invasion in Superman to the very creation of Batman Beyond, JL and JLU (under the pen of an all-star writing team that included the late, great Dwayne McDuffie) tied these seemingly unrelated ideas together to form probably my favorite fictional universe. The Cadmus arc is not only the best overarching story I’ve ever seen in a cartoon, it’s probably my favorite of any show, live-action or otherwise.
Nick mentioned character development, and there isn’t a better example on TV than this one. GL, Flash, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, Martian Manhunter and even Superman and Batman undergo serious changes as the series progresses. And through it all we see how these god-like figures go from just the world’s greatest heroes to truly the world’s greatest team. And continuing the great tradition of Batman, JL and JLU could do no wrong in terms of voice acting and character reinterpretations. This is the best version of the Question, in my view. McDuffie and crew do similarly great things with Green Arrow, Huntress and Booster Gold.
And I can’t speak for Nick, but to this day, it’s Phil Lamarr’s voice I hear whenever John Stewart talks on the comic page.
Nick: Well said, sir. That about does it for this month’s Countdown. We’ve had a blast doing this one, even though we largely agree on the shows worthy of inclusion. Be sure to come back next week, when we dig into our collection of graphic novels to take a look at the first volume of the recent Hawkeye series in the latest edition of The Longbook Hunters.
Greg: Love our lists? Hate our lists? Send us yours on Facebook, Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87) or through our PTB email accounts (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com). Your responses could be included in a future column!