TV Toon Terrors: Beyond Saturday Morning

TV Toon Terrors: Beyond Saturday Morning

(pop culture)
The Saturday-morning cartoon shows that dominated broadcast networks ABC, CBS, and NBC throughout the 1960s and 1970s, earning ratings of more than 20 million viewers, began to decline in the mid-1980s. The rise of first-run syndicated animated programs, the increasing popularity of home video, and the emergence of cable and satellite TV—which began to replace the networks as the one-stop-shopping-place for all things cartoon— contributed to this shift. Early 1980s shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983–1985) and G.I. Joe (1983–1986) began the trend of packaging new animation into syndication. (During the 1970s, syndicated cartoons that aired during the afternoon were reruns of shows mostly produced for Saturday morning.) Like generations before them, children sat glued to their television sets as He-Man battled the evil Skeletor, “real American hero” G.I. Joe defended the states against Cobra Commander, and King Features' comic-strip heroes the Phantom, Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician, and Lothar teamed to protect Earth against the evil machinations of world dominator Ming the Merciless on Defenders of the Earth (1986–1987). The bionic-powered Bennett family regularly faced off against the evil Dr. Scarab on The Bionic Six (1987). The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers (1986–1989) showcased a team of futuristic guardians of planet Earth who continually met up with space bandits and intergalactic menaces like Captain Kidd, the Disney-esque evil Queen of the Crown, and crime boss Bappo. The feline-human hybrids Thundercats (1985–1987) fought the magical Mumm-Ra and his evil mutants, Luna and her band of Lunatics, and a variety of “Third Earthers,” including Ooze, Tashi, Grune the Destroyer, Mad Bubbler, Mud Hog, Inflamor, and the Crabmen. Even short-lived hero teams on shows like The Centurions (1986) and The Inhumanoids (1986) faced recurring villains in Dr. Terror and his Doom Drones and Blackthorne Shore and his subterranean Inhumanoids. Amidst these fondly remembered syndicated toons lie a staple of classic superheroes who helped keep Saturday morning alive on various network TV shows, fighting a bevy of world-class supervillains (and some long-forgotten made-for-TV bad guys) on Super Friends (which had started on ABC in 1973 and proved popular through the mid- 1980s, albeit with various title changes), Spider- Man and His Amazing Friends (NBC, 1981–1984), and Kid Super-Power Hour with Shazam! (NBC, 1981–1982). At the end of the 1980s, as part of his 50th anniversary celebration, the Man of Steel gave a brief but stellar performance in the Ruby- Spears–produced Superman (CBS, 1988–1989), facing off against long-time adversaries Lex Luthor (and his Defendroids), the Prankster, General Zod, and Wild Sharkk. Still, afternoon syndicated cartoons continued a competitive edge over their Saturday-morning counterparts and the 1990s saw a resurgence of animated superhero shows. The critically acclaimed “Dark Deco”–style Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995, later followed by its continuation, The Adventures of Batman & Robin) showcased many Batman comic-book villains, including the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill), Catwoman (Adrienne Barbeau), Clayface, Two-Face, the Mad Hatter (Roddy McDowell), Ra's al Ghul, and Talia. The breakthrough of the show was the introduction of the Joker's girlfriend, Harley Quinn, but other revamped or original villains included Baby Doll, Roxy Rocket, Red Claw, Lock-up, the sinister computer HARDAC, Calendar Girl (a variation on the comics' Calendar Man), Maxie Zeus, the Clock King, and the Cluemaster. (The success of Batman: The Animated Series has kept Batman and his rogues' gallery in near-perpetual television view with the cartoons Batman Beyond, 1999–2001, and The Batman, 2004–present.) The Man of Steel received a similar animated treatment in the fledgling WB network's Superman (1996–2000), with Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown), Metallo (Malcolm McDowell), the Toyman (Bud Cort), and Darkseid (Michael Ironside) running amok, along with villains created specifically for the show: Livewire, Luminus, and the Preserver. Along with Batman and Superman, Marvel's XMen (1992–1997) began its long run in the early 1990s, with villains such as Magneto, the Sentinels, the Morlocks, Kang the Conqueror, Silver Samurai, Red Skull, Mr. Sinister, Apocalypse, and Lady Deathstrike beautifully rendered and true to their comic-book roots. Marvel's web-spinner debuted with a brand-new show in Spider-Man (1994–1998), which included key villains from the spider-pantheon, including the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, the Lizard, the Scorpion, the Rhino, Mysterio, Venom, Carnage, the Shocker, the Vulture, the Chameleon, the Kingpin, and the Hobgoblin. Two Marvel series were combined in syndication for The Marvel Action Hour (1994–1996), with Fantastic Four and Iron Man sharing the screen. Fantastic Four saw the likes of Puppet Master, Krang, Galactus, Dr. Doom. Mole Man, Annihilus, Hydro-Man, Juggernaut, the Skrulls, and Ego the Living Planet, to name a few, while Iron Man encountered Mandarin, Blizzard, Whirlwind, Modok, the Living Laser, Fin Fang Foom, Madame Masque, Titanium Man, Crimson Dynamo, and the Grey Gargoyle. The 1990s also saw heroes and villains collide in Jim Lee's WildC.A.T.S (1994–1995) as the prehistoric alien race, the Daemonites, fought for control of the universe. In Phantom 2040 (1994–1996), the purple-clad, skull-ringed hero battled environmental villains in a futuristic Metropia ravaged by corrupt corporations and international terrorists with destructive ecological agendas. Lighter fare included New England Comics' big blue hero The Tick (1994–1997), who bounced onto the scene with his dozens of memorable comedic villains in tow. Animated characters met live-action guest stars in the galactic talk show Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast (1994–2003), on which the supervillainous insectoid Zorak, the catlike pirate Brak, and heat-inducing Moltar stole the stage. Disney's first hero-oriented cartoon, Darkwing Duck (1991–1995), introduced parodies of established supervillains, such as Negaduck (superhero Darkwing Duck's evil counterpart), the “Lord of Electricity” Megavolt (a parody of the Spider-Man villain Electro), the “Master of Plants” Dr. Bushroot (likely inspired by DC's the Floronic Man, with hints of Poison Ivy), Quackerjack, a demented court jester obsessed with toys (a cross between DC baddies the Joker and Toyman), and the watery Liquidator (in celebration of Marvel's Hydro-Man). The superheroic duck stood alongside another unlikely hero, a video game–playing hedgehog, as the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog debuted in 1993. Loaded with Tiny Toons–like slapstick humor, the speedy blue animal delighted in stopping the evil Dr. Ivo Robotnik and his fleet of vicious robots from taking over the planet Mobius. The show morphed into the Saturday-morning program Sonic the Hedgehog (1993–1995), with Jim Cummings voicing the role of Dr. Robotnik. Another popular, villain-rich series was the Canadian import ReBoot (1994–2002), the first TV series produced entirely with computer animation, and seen on ABC and in syndication. The show's action primarily occurred in Mainframe, a computer on the Internet, where a band of heroes fought the ruthless supervillains the Darth Vader-esque Megabyte and the evil queen Hexadecimal. Cable TV networks Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network formed the triumvirate of cartoon supremacy in the 2000s. Airing cartoons 24/7, cable has “changed the programming paradigm” for the broadcast networks, notes children's television expert Brian O'Neil in Animation World magazine: network Saturday-morning cartoons only exist on ABC Kids, FOX Kids, and Kids' WB. In this new climate, supervillains dominate action-adventure, humor, anime, and superhero shows in the forms of either brand-new characters or edgier reincarnations of past favorites. Franchise-friendly superhero series based on best-selling comic books portrayed dark, grim, and gritty supervillains and pushed the envelope with the hero-villain relationships, with shows like Justice League Unlimited (2004–present) presenting allied villains—like the diabolical Legion of Doom—banding together to usurp established political systems and destroy the heroes. Teen Titans (2003–2006) reinvigorated existing comic-book villains, with new takes on the evil-hearted Slade, Terra, Brother Blood, Trigon, and the Brain, the latter of whom stepped up as leader of the Brotherhood of Evil. The evil crimelord Shredder joined Mousers, Foot Soldiers, and an array of miscreants and monsters in the pumped-up Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003–present). And series like Static Shock! (2000–2004), winner of the Humanitas Prize in 2003, examined real-life villainy in the issues faced by today's teens, including peer pressure, gangs, and survival in an ethnically diverse urban neighborhood—but the streetwise teen hero Static still encountered his share of costumed criminals, like the flaming Hotstreak, Slipstream, Replay, and Ebon, the illusive leader of the Breed.
As they embrace their villains, some 2000s shows celebrate animation “firsts”: Justice League marks the first time in more than fifteen years that DC Comics' heavy-hitter superheroes have banded together in an animated television series since uniting in Super Friends, and Static Shock! earns credit for being the first animated series centered on an African-American superhero and an urban supporting cast. With the help of Mainframe Entertainment (of ReBoot fame) and writer/executive producer Brian Michael Bendis, Spider-Man: The Series (2003) broke away from traditional animation techniques, using computer aided 3-D modeling in conjunction with traditional 2-D animation styles for enhanced fight scenes. As usual, Spidey wrests with concealing his secret identity while wrangling a host of foes, a mix of comic-book favorites (albeit slightly updated) like Electro, the Lizard, and Kraven the Hunter, and brand-new villains such as Talon (voiced by the rapper Eve). Pint-sized heroines and action adventurers also take on their share of supervillains. The kindergarten Powerpuff Girls (1998–2004) battled Mojo Jojo and other infiltrators of Townsville. In Totally Spies! (2001–present), developed by French animation studio Marathon, a teenaged trio of Charlie's Angels–like international agents attempt to circumvent sociopathic villains with bizarre personality disorders, such as Max Exterminus, Sunny Day, Myrna Beesbottom, Triple Threat, Macker the Safecracker, Frankie Dude, Helga Von Gugen, and Inga Bittersweet. Laced with a hip, comedic element, these villains' plans revolve around their twisted obsessions and their desire to convince the world to buy into their demented worldview. Cheerleading-captain-turned-crime-fighter Kim Possible (2002–2005), and ten-year-old rebels in Codename: Kids Next Door (2002–present) similarly battle grotesque, satiric, and outright evil world dominators while dealing with the trials and tribulations of childhood and adolescence. Anchored by Kim's arch-enemy and most recurring thorn, mad scientist Dr. Drakken, Kim Possible's rogues' gallery includes the likes of the smart and sadistic femme fatale Shego, multibillionaire villain Señor Senior Sr. (originally voiced by Ricardo Montalban), the eccentric English Lord and monkey-obsessed Lord Monkey Fist, and Amy Hall, a disgraced former geneticist obsessed with Beanie Baby–type collectable dolls who breeds living mutants to supplement her doll collection. Supervillains are so insidious, they even have managed to sneak into comedy cartoons: on SpongeBob SquarePants (1999–present) Man Ray battles Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, SpongeBob's favorite TV heroes, and Plankton covets the secret Crabby Patty recipe. In this mix, shows like Samurai Jack (2001–2004) and American Dragon: Drake Long (2005–present) portray villainy against a backdrop of martial arts, magic, and mysticism. In the action-heavy Max Steel (1999–2001), diabolical Psycho and Vitriol combated nanite-charged superspy Max Steel, simultaneously parlayed into a line of action figures from Mattel. Many of these 2000s shows were either nominated for or garnered Emmy Awards (Samurai Jack, for example, which scooped up an Emmy for Best Animated Television Series in 2004), receiving accolades for their smart dialogue, fluid animation, and engaging, well-written characters. With these and other programs, Cartoon Network in particular has made attempts to attract viewers outside its core audience of young children. The network's Saturday-evening cartoon block Toonami is dedicated to reruns of teen-oriented anime from Japan, with its darker, supernatural themes found in shows like Duel Masters and Naruto. With the comic-book world developing villain-centric titles like Villains United (2005), one wonders if it's only a matter of time before villain-centric programming makes its way to television.