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.
Space Ghost: This hero barely escaped the "one-note" trap. Space Ghost had the power of flight but w by a set of wristbands that contained seemingly every ray-type weapon ever conceived. Space Ghost did have vulnerabilities, which meant occasional rescue by two adolescent sidekicks that managed to be less objectionable than those typically seen in the genre. His design, by comic book genius Alex Toth, was simple yet distinctive. Space Ghost so enchanted the imaginations of fans that he was given a comedy show, a comic book with an official origin story, and was easily the best of the 1960s Hanna-Barbera superheroes.
Astro Boy: No doubt about it: this robotic super-kid, the brainchild of the great Ozama Tekuza, was the most winsome creation in anime. Fearless, powerful and dedicated to battling evil, Astro Boy also had emotional vulnerabilities that endeared him to his fans. He gets credit for helping set the table for every super being to come out of anime. Even though American audiences did not see the full manifest of his adventures until years after Tekuza had passed, Astro Boy had an enormous fan base in America. Together with Akira, Astro Boy brought the term otaku to the United States.
The Unsuccessful Super-Protagonist
Mighty Mouse: Paul Terry's most famous creation, although Heckle and Jeckle were far more fun to watch. Mighty Mouse was created in 1940 when Superman fever was overtaking the country. Mighty Mouse was more of an imitation than an original, highlighted by the fact that no one on the Terry writing staff bothered to give the mouse a personality. Mighty Mouse had no seeming limits to his powers, no notable vulnerability, no secret identity, and as historian Leonard Maltin noted, usually didn't appear until his cartoons were nearly over. Not until Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi gave the mouse a makeover in the 1980s did this character move beyond two-dimensional status.
Shazaam: Disney's Aladdin might have come up with a way to defeat an all-powerful genie, but no one in this dreary Hanna-Barbera series ever did. Shazaam could not be harmed, beaten or even insulted, it seems, because he smiled and laughed at everything while dispensing magical butt-kickings. Boring and notably unspectacular for a genie, Shazaam is less a superhero than an abstract symbol of one.
Mighty Mightor: Even the name is unimaginative. If anyone can remember one cartoon in which the bizarre villains that populated them seriously threatened Mightor and crew, you're doing better than I am. Mightor was the epitome of the one-note superhero. He did have an origin story, but the weakling alter-ego subplot (featuring the beauteous Lady Sheera) was a pale echo of the Clark Kent-Superman-Lois Lane riff. The clichéd "noble hero" voice work by Paul Stewart only served to make Mightor a routine superhero.
This genre of hero does not necessarily wield magic as a power; rather, he or she is magical in the sense that the laws of reality are extremely plastic in their presence. The inexplicable and unexpected occurs when this character wills it, and only a surprise assault or clever plan is capable of threatening them. These characters may be ordinary, scrawny, and bereft of any trace of super abilities, but in their own way, they are as powerful as Superman. This hero does not act aggressively, but tends to excel in self-defense.
The Successful Magical Protagonist
Tweety: Created by Bob Clampett and honed to perfection by Friz Freleng, this tiny yellow canary packed a punch for his size. The disparity between his baby-soft voice, too-cute appearance, and his lethality made for hilarious cartoons. Aided by the ability to materialize mallets, dynamite, construction equipment and other deadly paraphernalia out of thin air, Tweety accounted for all of Sylvester cat's nine lives many times over. Although Tweety could call on his beloved owner Granny in a pinch, he often took matters into his own wings. As he put it, "I lose more puddy tats that way."
The Road Runner: This scrawny bird is the undoubted master of magical happenstance. It remains a matter of conjecture whether the laws of reality love the Road Runner or hate Wile E. Coyote, but one thing is certain: there's a winner and a loser, and the loser is never the bird. Such is the Road Runner's omnipotence; all he has to do is run by or show up in order to destroy his foe. To recount the ways in which the laws of nature bent to his will is to go on for pages. Engineer Scott famously told Kirk, "You canna change the laws of physics, Captain!" Of course, Scotty never had the Road Runner aboard the Enterprise.
Mister Magoo: Quincy Magoo was the most nearsighted character in cartoons, and his lack of visual acuity often put him in hazardous situations. Someone up there was watching out for the crotchety old dude. Magoo was heedless of the perils he couldn't see, and frequently mistook an object, a building or even a situation for something else entirely. Making snappy comments while danger whizzed past by inches, Magoo wandered undamaged through a deadly and unpredictable world on what should have been simple missions. His best cartoons were thrilling, hilarious rides. Magoo was often let down by writers who let him sag into a one-dimensional character by the end of his career.
Screwy Squirrel: Tex Avery's Screwy Squirrel commanded the same powers as the Road Runner, but this MGM star lasted only a handful of cartoons. Although Screwy could do anything he wished, including break the "fourth wall" to address the audience or warp the fabric of his own cartoons, he was nothing more than a front man for his frenetic director. During the early 1940s, Tex Avery was experimenting with speed, technique, and unconventional approaches to animation. Screwy's cartoons were essentially his laboratory; Avery cared little for the character. In recent years, Screwy has gained a cult following but his time has come and gone. Had Avery invested in a personality for the squirrel, he might have rivaled another Avery creation: Bugs Bunny.
Things to consider:
Examine the Fleischer Studio Superman cartoons. Did the Fleischers do an excellent job of actually creating superhero cartoons, or just translating the comic books to the screen? Why do you think so?Should a magical character have limitations? How would this affect its cartoons? What would be the scripting benefits or pitfalls?
What, in your opinion, were the very best/worst superhero adaptations from comic books to animation? What influenced your answers?
Why do you believe so many superhero or magical characters were created as parodies? What purpose do such cartoons serve for the audience?
Which characters with paranormal powers (choose any you wish) benefitted the most from having defined personalities. Were their cartoons popular?
Next month: The role of conflict in animated films and series: how to do it right (and wrong). As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Class dismissed.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.