There’s been a surge of claims, articles, and video essays that state we should look back to Marvel Animation’s superhero cartoons of the 90’s.  Why? Well, the claims say it serves as the first MCU.  

I’ve studied animation.  Not that I was an animator, but I’ve looked at what happened behind the scenes, and why certain cartoons had the look they did.  Looking at Marvel Animation, I didn’t see this well of overwhelming ‘overlooked quality’.  Instead, I saw the usual of-the-time Saturday Morning fare with a Superhero wrapper.

Marvel Animation’s Humble Beginnings

Marvel Animation of the 90’s is a direct child of Marvel Animation (Sunbow) of the 80’s.   Transformers, GI Joe, and yes, even My Little Pony were technically properties animated by Marvel’s animation branch.   

Spider-man and His Amazing Friends was an under-looked watershed moment for Marvel’s animation.  Toei animation became the outsourced animation studio for season 2.  The quality difference between the first season and second is stark and noticeable. 

Overseas Animation

Nelson Shin, Animator and founder of AKOM animation

Toei would be one of Sunbow’s most used animation studios, until season 2 of Transformers. Toei animation was getting more expensive, and the turn-around time was getting delayed.  Nelson Shin, who worked in animation for over a decade at that point, made a bold suggestion. He would go to South Korea and found a new animation studio called AKOM, with the intent of being Sunbow’s go-to animation studio.

AKOM was one of the biggest workhorses in Marvel’s animation going forward.   There was still use of Toei going forward, but AKOM did the majority of the heavy lifting.   

Spider-man and His Amazing Friends also hinted at it bringing in something greater.  That thing is the X-Men.   

X-Men Animated

The episode ‘A Firestar is Born’ brought in an X-Men line-up that most people will find very familiar.  This line-up is nearly the same line-up used in the aborted (Toei animated) X-men pilot Pryde of the X-Men(which also influenced the X-Men Konami arcade game).   

X-Men was an exceedingly popular comic title in the 80’s, and it’s adaptation into animation was inevitable.  1992 would see the start of an X-Men cartoon, animated (mostly) by AKOM, and partially produced by SABAN entertainment. The first episodes, as aired on FOX syndicated stations… were a disaster. 

Lots of people lay the blame on AKOM’s animators.  The decisions made in the adaptation phase cursed the production.   Toei was a mature animation house, with a history dating back to 1948. AKOM had teething issues, being less than a decade old.  The character designs, heavily influenced by the art style of Jim Lee, was not friendly to animation.  Issues were bound to happen with a young animation studio.   

A Rocky Start for Marvel Animation

Marvel threatened to cut ties to AKOM.   This forced AKOM to correct the many errors in the first batch of episodes.   The show had a weird, loose continuity it didn’t follow (including what the ‘first X-men’ costumes were), animation that went from passable to terrible, and voice acting that ranged from overly dramatic to outright hammy.  

Days of Future Past, Age of Apocolypse, Phoenix, were just a few adapted storylines to varying levels of success.   Hannah Barbara replaced AKOM in season 3, much to the show’s further detriment.   This series was also noteworthy when it showed a brief glimpse of Spider-man’s hand; Spider-man being Marvel’s other extremely lucrative property.   

Is Marvel Animation a Universe If It Lacks Cohesion?

1994 would see the introduction of the Marvel Action-Hour, with Iron Man and Fantastic Four, both cartoons created directly for syndication.  Iron Man’s show itself wasn’t exactly a solo show, at least not at first. It was more of a loose adaptation of the Force Works, with a title sequence that was heavily reminiscent of He-Man.  

The show also had a character called Century, who had plot-powers, able to cure people of zombie-ism, and reverse dire plot elements in the last 2 minutes of the cartoon.   Julia Carpenter’s Spider-Woman was also a major character of the show, acting as Tony Stark’s love interest, but with Peter Parker’s web shooters for some strange reason.  

The second season of both shows saw a change in show intros, and direction, trying to (and somewhat failing) to shed the cartoony aspects of their first seasons.

Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and even the short-lived Incredible Hulk cartoons were the typical Saturday Morning fare; made for syndication, loosely adapting storylines from the comics, and without much thought in production other than ensuring the characters were the right shade of color(most of the time).   

The Lynchpin of the ‘Shared Marvel Animated Universe’

No, the crown jewel of the 90’s Marvel nostalgia wave has to be the 1994 Spider-man cartoon.   This is the cartoon people point at most as some sort of bastion of unheralded quality. This is the cartoon that did crossovers with the previously mentioned series.  Hell, people have proclaimed this was the original ‘spider-verse’.  

I want to note: Not once have I called any of these cartoons ‘The Animated Series’.   There’s good reason for that. The first reason is ‘The Animated Series’ is not the production name of any of these cartoons.   That’s a name given to them after the fact by fans.   

The second reason I choose to not use the subtitle ‘The Animated Series’ for these cartoons has to do with the first superhero cartoon to earn that title; Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Batman: The Animated Series.  I won’t delve too much into the creation of said series, but Timm and Dini, each with a decade of experience in animation, were approached to do a Batman treatment in animation.  Timm expressly stated he wanted to make a show that was not Batman The Cartoon, which is why they chose the subtitle ‘The Animated Series’.   The Marvel cartoons, on the other hand, never attempted, nor succeeded, in shedding the ‘cartoon’ aspect. 

Spider-Man The Cartoon

Get used to seeing this scene, it comes up alot.

The showrunner for FOX’s 1994 Spider-man cartoon was a man named John Semper Jr.  Semper had a history in the 80’s with various animated projects, including various episodes of Fraggle Rock, DuckTales,and 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo.   He was not the first choice Marvel had to showrun Spider-man. Rumors in the animation industry pointed to Marvel attempting to recruit Frank Paur, co-producer and director of several episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.  

A big issue the show had was it was syndicated across the FOX stations across the country (this is before FOX had a network outright), and Semper was warned that episodes might air out of sequence.   Semper chose to produce the show as a linear, story-driven cartoon, with continuity that required airing in order to understand.   

This how titles like “The Neogenic Nightmare Chapter 9; The Living Vampire Chapter 3: Blade the Vampire Hunter” became prevalent in the cartoon, with increasingly longer and longer ‘Previously on Spider-man sequences’ that eventually topped off to almost 5 minutes long.

Odd Decisions in Production

The show’s animation definitely wasn’t doing it favors. The original character model for Peter Parker was the classic comic book Peter most readers were familiar with.   The one with the two bangs and denim jacket.  Peter’s model changed, per Semper’s insistence, to resemble live-action Spider-man actor from the 70’s TV series Nicholas Hammond.   

An Odd Production Decision

Was this misplaced nostalgia or an attempt to draw in older Spidey fans to the property?

Animation Issues

The first season had several episodes animated (beautifully I might add) by TMS studios, with AKOM filling in the blanks where needed.   The issue with later season’s animation boils down to timing. A friend of mine, a professional in animation, told me that animation is about manipulating time.  

Inbetweens, or ‘tweens’, are the number of frames used a second for traditional animation.   If you have a scene planned around needing only 5 ‘tweens’, then an animator can accommodate the look and timing of these five ‘tweens’ as best as possible.   The FOX Spider-man production crew would get animation back from the studio and decide to later manipulate the timing in-house, creating some jarring effects. 

Whole episodes of Fox’s Spider-man would recycle earlier animated sequences from earlier episodes(the Lizard smashing a wall with his tail and Doc Ock’s tentacles tearing through wooden crates are two very prominent examples), which made the show feel cheap, and even somewhat stilted.  There was also heavy use of really really bad 90’s CGI that aged the show badly. The show also suffered from extremely heavy censorship.   

Censorship

The only thing Batman didn’t get was a vampire.

John Semper would go on interviews and claim that Batman: TAS and Power Rangers(of all things) ruined Spider-man with their higher levels of violence, thus having the censors crack down on him.   One often cited complaint was Spider-man could not land too roughly on a roof lest he disturb pigeons, and Spider-man not being allowed to punch. The honest truth about censors is you have to know how to play them.

The same time Spider-man was not landing hard enough to disturb pigeons and The Punisher was not allowed to say ‘Kill’, and everyone used laser guns on ‘stun’, Bruce Timm had to work with the very same censors for Batman.   Timm is an interesting man, and not at all without flaws, but the man knew how to play a room.   

Playing the Censors

Could you really call sucker-hands winning?

Censors wanted pew pew laser guns in Batman.  Kids had seen Batman Returns, Timm argued, and that movie had real guns.  Lasers would ‘confuse children’. Bruce Timm got to keep real guns.

There were complaints about Joker shooting a Thompson submachine gun at the screen.   Again, Timm argued a Thompson was impossible to purchase as a private citizen at the time, thus the scene was not replicable.  He got the keep the scene.  

Whenever I hear John Semper complain about dealing with the censors, I just have to remind myself that he dealt with the very same censors Timm did.  Timm got the show he wanted, so why didn’t Semper?    Semper’s only win against a censor where Bruce Timm failed was in regards to vampirism.

Bruce Timm wanted to do an episode with Nocturna as a vampire, which the censors flat-out refused; Timm would not budge on onscreen blood consumption via a vampiric bite.  John Semper Jr. did a very watered down version of Morbius the living Vampire; but one lacking the ability to bite humans, and instead sucked ‘plasma’ through a set of suckers on his palm.   If you have to water down the character that much, could you really call it a win?

Infighting at Marvel Animation

Semper also claimed he was the only line of quality control.  He had an interview where he effectively attempted to throw Bob Richardson, supervising director, under the bus.   

Richardson, an animation veteran, has an impressive list of animation credits, such as the original Disney’s Jungle Book, supervising director on King of the Hill, and Marvel’s later direct to DVD animated specials, like Ultimate Avengers.  Semper, other than writing credits for two episodes of Hulk has not returned to Marvel Animation.

Crossing Over

The show did cross-over with the other, earlier Marvel animated properties, with proper crossovers done with Iron Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four.  This culminated to the series final season, a rough adaptation of  Secret Wars. The animation was getting stiffer, even with the welcome return of voice actors from other Marvel properties reprising their roles, the adaptation of Secret Wars lacked in any real stakes.   The final act had Spider-man defeating Doctor Doom with a speech about Power and Responsibility.

Semper, by the way, also derided his fellow show-runners of the earlier Marvel properties, which I find quite ironic.   He also claims that he was the one that made Blade popular, as opposed to Wesley Snipes, or even the character’s creator, industry legend Marv Wolfman.

On Reflection

When I was young, I remember watching these cartoons. But I also remember not being impressed with them.  I thought, back then, they were of the same quality of Captain Planet orHe-Man. Something to watch in the afternoon.

Do the shows stand up to repeat viewing as an adult?  Hell no. Not even close.  I’ve always said that Spider-man deserves a treatment that elevates him in animation equal to what Bruce Timm did for Batman.  To date, such a series still does not exist.

The one gem I have to pick in Marvel’s 90’s animation catalogue has to be the often overlooked X-Men Evolution, in that it had much tighter writing, excellent animation with character designs created specifically for animation, and excellent re-imagining of the characters.   

Overall, Marvel’s animation of the 90’s was disjointed, unfocused, and constantly battled with itself on who it’s target audience was.   I’m a big believer in creativity through adversity; that limitations in productions can allow for the creation of a better product versus full creative freedom.  I see the opposite in Marvel’s animated efforts of the 90’s; shows that are only tangentially connected to eachother with quality that wildly swung to both ends of the spectrum.

If you’re looking for the ‘original MCU’, you would be better off looking elsewhere than 90’s Marvel animation.

One Comment

  1. Abdel Yasin

    Abdel Yasin

    August 12, 2019 at 3:41 pm

    They just followed the concept of the comics… if anything it was the MAU

    Reply

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