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Dr. Toon: Comic-Packed Discs

In the latest "Dr. Toon," Martin Goodman sees a promising future for comic book superheroes in animation, compared to their past toon incarnations.

Martin Goodman.

Sure, I remember Fantastic Four #1. I'll tell you where I first saw it: on the lower magazine shelf among the other comic books, in Roger's Drug Store on Blue Hill Ave. in Dorchester, Massachusetts. The big green monster on the cover was very cool, but, at that age, I had my mind set on other things. I looked up at my Bubby and pointed to the latest issue of Hot Stuff. Two minutes and 10 cents later, we were headed back up Callendar Street. My first and last chance to own FF#1 had unwittingly passed me by like cosmic rays fading into the cool air of that late fall day. Reed Richards, I hardly knew ye.

Roger's Drug Store was the only place it was possible to purchase comic books in 1961, as there were no comic book shops. My pals and I bought our comics, read them in the backyard or the clubhouse (in our case the slatted area beneath the porch), and left them riffling in the breeze wherever they happened to fall. No Mylar, no acid-free backing, no archival-quality products protecting anything. A comic book went from M to VF to P in a single afternoon, and no one thought about it twice, because we had already read the books, absorbed the stories, and came out flying, ready to clobber Lex Luthor's giant robots, trash Starro the Conqueror, or stand beside the Blackhawks in battle.

So it was for many years. A monthly comic book fix was possible only through the local drugstore or bookstore -- and later, convenience store -- if you wanted to read about your favorite superheroes. None of them were animated. While it is true that the Fleischer Superman cartoons were available oat the dawn of Saturday morning TV, they were actually old theatrical cartoons interspersed with sundry Harveytoons and Warner shorts.

In 1966, things changed for the better. Before that, fans of the DC or Marvel superhero genre had to make do with parodic fare such as Underdog or Mighty Mouse. Through the magic of animated cartoons, comic books began appearing on our TV screens. It took CBS executive Fred Silverman and Filmation Studios to bring an animated version of Superman to television. The New Adventures of Superman, despite its pedestrian animation, garnered the highest rating in the history of Saturday morning kidvid

Silverman and Filmation opened the floodgates for established comic book properties to come to TV. During that watershed year of 1966, Marvel Superheroes was produced by Steve Krantz under the aegis of Grantray-Lawrence Production and Paramount Studios. This well-remembered and beloved series consisted of drawings made by Marvel's top artists (usually consisting of extreme poses) that strongly resembled comic book panels. The "action" consisted of little more than camera pans and tilted angles, but one had the uncanny sense that one was actually reading a comic book in which physical action was taking place.

Superman Doomsday is a confluence between adult-oriented themes and deviation from the source material. All Superman Doomsday images Superman  and © DC Comics. © 2007 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc. All Rights Reserved.

By 1967, the same outfit had produced a crude but popular Spider-Man series. The Fantastic Four followed Spidey to TV via ABC that season, and soon both DC and Marvel were emptying their pages on to what had become a very dynamic Saturday morning schedule. The superhero series that took over this specific timeslot throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s are too numerous to specifically mention in this piece; suffice it to say that at any given hour no one could turn the channel without seeing some caped and mighty hero (or team of same) bringing justice to their equally super foes.

After disappearing from television due to the protests of anti-violence watchdog groups, the Marvel and DC superheroes of the comic books returned in a far more sophisticated form in the 1990s. There was no comparison between Super Friends and Batman: The Animated Series because, during the mid-1980s, the concept of what it meant to be a superhero had changed. Although Marvel had introduced superheroes with emotional and personal baggage as far back as the initiation of their "silver age," most of the leading superhero comic books began to share a common thread by 1990.

Stories had become darker and more complex, and the psychological burdens of the characters became heavier as well. With the cost of comics rising steadily, more buyers were adults, and they had to be given more than just another tussle between Batman and the Joker or another slugfest featuring Ultron and the Avengers. They had to be given entertainment that suited new cultural mores, and if the comics were to be translated into animated shows, the same rules would have to apply.

Bruce Timm, Eric Radowski, and Alan Burnett delivered exactly that with Batman: The Animated Series, their landmark 1992 offering via Warner Bros. Television Animation. Much time could be spent extolling the outstanding features of this series, but chief among them was the mature content and sharp insight into any featured character's motivations. Marvel's most popular character, Spider-Man, had been animated many times before, but never was he lineated as brilliantly as in the (far too brief) 2003 opus Spider-Man: The New Animated Series. This show boasted Brian Michael Bendis as an executive co-producer, the same talent that had worked on the Ultimate Spider-Man comic. During the period, new animated incarnations of the X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four were also making the rounds.

Batman: The Animated Series was a landmark title that offered mature content and sharp insight into characters' motivations. © 2004 Warner Home Video Inc.

What these series all had in common was their very loose translation from the comic books. While some of the storylines were similar and versions of the villains fairly faithful, the writers and producers of these shows were taking off in different directions and introducing novel innovations not found between the stapled sheets of pulp. In the past, these changes had been puerile and largely unwelcome: Witness the hated Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog who corrupted the Super Friends show, or the equally ridiculous Wonder Twins. No true fan of the Fantastic Four can hear the acronym H.E.R.B.I.E without wanting to flee to the Negative Zone. Animated series featuring the Marvel/DC lineup instead grew increasingly mature, with diversions from source material more plausible. The recent Justice League series comes to mind in this regard.

Direct releases to video have taken things even further. The most recent, and perhaps most interesting example of the confluence between adult-oriented themes and deviation from the source material is the new Superman Doomsday offering from Warner Home Video. This was no lightweight effort; many of the same Warner veterans who had worked on both the Superman and Batman series teamed up for this direct-to-video movie. The screenplay was the work of Duane Capizzi, who has prior experience with both Batman and Superman animated films.

I admit that I greatly enjoyed the original multi-issue buildup to the final showdown between Superman and Doomsday in the heart of Metropolis. Superman's death was graphic, believable, and dramatic in the way few comic books of that time were. The problem was in the disappointing encore issues, in which a convoluted storyline involving four uninteresting "Supermen" culminated in a contrived and foreseeable ending. It is revealed in the Superman Doomsday DVD featurette that the writers almost immediately convened about possible scenarios in which Supes was brought back. In the end, Superman was as alive as he had been before Doomsday showed up, and the feeling that the reader had been snookered was, at least for me, unavoidable.

Superman Doomsday's narrative is often different, and superior, to the comic book, and includes an overtly sexual arrangement between Lois Lane and Superman.

I do not wish to hand out spoilers, but I'm not giving much away to tell you that Superman is alive at the end of the DVD as well. What happens up to that point is far different -- and far superior -- to the comic book narrative. There is an overtly sexual arrangement between Lois Lane and Superman, a somewhat homoerotic subtext between Lex Luthor and Superman, and several graphic deaths (along with D-Day's and Superman's). One scene, in which multiple clones of Superman in stages of development from fetal to adult lifelessly litter the floor of Luthor's lab, is more powerful than anything the comics conjured up in the comic book issues following Superman's alleged death. By treating the showdown between Doomsday and the Man of Steel as a springboard to a complex and mature storyline giving characters (such as Lex Luthor) major parts they did not have in the original material, Superman Doomsday crafted, well, a better comic book.

In short, the DVD movie ran rings at super-speed around its source material. Superman Doomsday may not have been the greatest accomplishment in the history of direct-to-video, but it does suggest a new direction that comic books and animation might take together. What makes this DVD release different is that it totally re-invents the source material to create an alternate telling. Lately Marvel has done the same with revised origins of Iron Man and Doctor Strange on direct-to-video. In doing so, the company created a digital comic book in itself and a potential new way of expanding the possibilities of comic book production and distribution.

Comic book companies would actually have two ways to go with direct-to-video: within the continuity of a comic book series or outside of it. Superman Doomsday is an example of the latter. Might there be a future in which DVDs actually fit into the continuity of a given comic book? Back in the day, popular lines of comic books used to feature "Annuals" which were double-sized (and double-priced) issues that sometimes wrapped up storylines and sometimes featured stand-alone tales. Might there someday be a new type of, say, X-Men annual that exists only on DVD and wraps up the storyline for an entire year of issues?

The technical problems might not be very significant. The animators would have a year to complete the project, having been given the resolution by the writers well in advance. It is not too far-fetched to consider: If Superman Doomsday and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker are any indication, direct-to-video films are already the new graphic novel. Why couldn't direct-to-video films and the pulps work in tandem? Imagine a comic book that announces: "To be continued in the DVD movie (Your title here) -- available in stores December 15!"

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is one indication that direct-to-video films are the new graphic novel. © Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

Suppose a comic book line could go directly to video, completely animated, with each DVD containing six "issues" released twice yearly. What if, for example, The New Avengers became a title that could only be obtained via DVD? Given the present price of comic books, which clock in at around $3.00 per issue, the cost to fans would be $36.00; the cost of two DVDs would be right in line with this price. The storylines could be as adult and as sophisticated as the writers wished. After all, Superman Doomsday carried a PG-13 rating.

More animators would be given work, and it is not necessarily true that comic book artists would join the unemployment line; the company can always launch a new comic book line. Given the number of Spider-Man and X-Men titles proliferating today, as well as the increasing number of one-shots and special titles, this is not unrealistic. Animating comic books would not reduce the work force; rather, animation studios could become adjuncts and partners to comic book companies.

Perhaps this is simply a hoax, a dream, or an imaginary story, but the technology and talent exists right now to make it so. Superman Doomsday is an innovative piece of work that outstrips its origins, and it just may be a harbinger of the future where comic books are concerned. It is no longer 1961: comic book fans still have the old drugstore, but also the bookstore, comic book shop, graphic novel, animated series, and now, the animated DVD. A pity that Hot Stuff never lived to see it.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.