Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic's Art - Part VI
With all due respect to Lady Gaga, animated superheroes are not born this way. The X-Men are one of the few X-ceptions. Animated superheroes usually gain their powers through alien intervention, or as the result of finding or receiving artifacts of power, through formulae, or through fortuitous accidents. Some have powers of intellect, some have brawn, some have awesome weaponry, but they tend to share the same traits: They are on the side of good, justice, law, order, ad nauseum. Many of them are defenders and protectors, although there are some interesting variants we'll look at.
Animated superheroes were relatively rare until the Silver Age of comic books (circa 1960). When television became the main outlet for America's animation, they began to proliferate; reaching an apex during the late 1960s when comic book properties and original heroes reigned. Anti-violence watchdog groups and changing tastes made their stay a brief one, and it was not until the 1990s that the superheroes began to return. Thus, they can be evaluated over separate periods of time and through different incarnations.
The Advantages of Super-Powered Protagonists
The immediate advantage was that their adventures were well-suited to a medium that could bend the rules of reality without the use of special effects. Thus, a superhero's world was larger than life. A superhero is easy to root for, represents the forces of nobility, and functions as a wish-fulfillment figure for the audience. Since it takes above-average means to kill, defeat or outperform such a protagonist, both the action and the stakes are quite high. A superhero by nature attracts villains of equal or sometimes greater brains and/or brawn, giving animated conflicts a sense of drama and epic conflict.
The Disadvantages of Super-Powered Protagonists
Obvious: They're super, which means that they are rarely, if ever, in danger of losing. The artists and writers who took over Superman in the decades after Siegel and Schuster faced this dilemma repeatedly: How do you threaten an invulnerable immortal? One method was to utilize imaginary stories, which is not a very good idea in an animated series; Comic books can run for 500-600 issues in the extreme, and have a long-standing, well-informed fan base that can accept such variations. In the animated market, using even one of thirteen or even 26 episodes on stories outside the continuity of the series is too high a risk.
Superheroes are also rather one-note singers with few emotional nuances or kinks in their personalities. They are the personification of justice and high moral code, and can become bores rather quickly. Some animated series have managed to avoid this trap by making comedies with super-protagonists, but that means the heroes often descend into spoofs or campy images with little chance of breaking that mold.
Popeye: Possibly animation's first superhero. Popeye, of course, derived his powers from eating spinach. Once he consumed this power-packed veggie, he took on unbelievable strength, invulnerability, and on many occasions, super-speed. Popeye was rarely the aggressor in combat; he typically took a beating before exclaiming, "That's all I can stands, and I can't stands no more!" Popeye evolved a more playful and human side as he progressed, thanks in part to voice artist Jack Mercer, who was a master of the post-synched ad-lib.