We, my peers, are the lucky ones. We experienced the crest of cartoon bliss. The 1990s provided some of the most unique, well-crafted and well-drawn animation. Even now, I can go back and watch my favorite series without feeling childish. The plots don’t try to talk down to the viewer. We lived in the decade when plot development was king. Saturday-morning cartoons actually meant something in the 1990s.
I bet every male at UT can remember the stark notes of the introduction theme music to “Batman: The Animated Series.” It aired from 1992 to 1995 and even won an Emmy. The lovely animation incorporated period police blimps, 1940s influenced fashion and car styling and a vintage color scheme in a largely film-noir-influenced style. Batman didn’t dumb down its plot lines. Its criminal masterminds were shown as actual three dimensional human beings. Mr. Freeze was simply a fragile man hunting for his lost love. Two-Face was at war with himself. One exception to that was the Joker. He will always be a brilliantly twisted homicidal maniac. It had distinctive animation, mature writing and because of this, it is a wonderful cartoon.
Then of course there was “X-Men.” This show also was much more adult oriented than previous typical superhero cartoon series. Like “Batman: The Animated Series,” it is considered to be one of the most faithful animated series based on a comic book. The characters were again three dimensional. Anyone remember the tortured Morph? “X-Men” was one of the longest-lasting series on FOX Kids, second only to “Batman: The Animated Series.” “X-Men” is also one of the highest-rated and most-viewed Saturday morning programs in American history. The series dealt with mature social issues through its characters. The ills of intolerance, racism, divorce, Christianity, the Holocaust, AIDS and white supremacy all found a plot or subplot in the series.
“X-Men” quickly spawned the 1994 series of “Spider-Man,” which made use of a few crossover episodes. This series faithfully recreated New York when animators consulted maps and photographs of the city. It even made a point to have pedestrians and cars on the streets as the amazing Spiderman swung through the city.
Other cartoons during this time took on adult themes in appropriate ways. Mainframe Entertainment created “Beast Wars” shortly after the seminal series “ReBoot.” It was only by re-watching it as an adult that I realized “Beast Wars” quoted Shakespeare during an episode! “Alas poor Tarantulas. I knew him.” The series deals with the death of vital characters, teaches the pain of unrequited love and showed a definition of evil that was far from simple.
Of course, cartoons didn’t have to be serious to be great. We had “Tiny Toon Adventures” and “Animaniacs.” We had Pinky and the Brain teach us the futility of world domination. Captain Planet taught us about the environment. We had inventive series such as “Batman Beyond” – who didn’t think Batman in 2040 was an awesome idea. We had the rocky heroes of “Gargolyes” and the insanity of “The Tick.” Our generation had the glory days of Nicktoons. (My favorite real monster was Ickis.)
The beginning of the end of the golden age of Saturday mornings was definitely the anime invasion. Animation began to be completed on the computer. It was easy to churn out standard, lackluster backgrounds. Anyone can see the lack of detail placed in the majority of modern cartoons. The care and attention were removed.
Plot lines took a dive once cartoon writers thought children couldn’t handle a serious plot. Thus began the create-a-villain-destroy-villain episodes. The main-character-challenges so-and-so-to-a-card-game/duel/showdown plots emerged. Criminals became one-dimensional creatures, driven either by anger, greed or an odd obsession with a yellow rodent. The outer space and alien plots became first-season episodes. In the golden age, those weak story lines were always reserved to fourth- or fifth-season drivel. When the writers couldn’t think of anything better, they had the characters taken captive or take part in an intergalactic inter-dimensional war.
I miss the classic days of animation and cartoons. The excitement of Saturday morning was a tangible part of my childhood. Hopefully, I can share well-written cartoons with my children some day, instead of most of the drivel that floods the screen today. There is still hope in the few new series that still have deep plot development and character growth. At least these classics are slowly appearing on DVD.