Superman Max Fleischer
This seems like the true start of Comic Book heroes being Animated, and what a glorious beginning it was too. Using superb quality animation this series set the bar as high as possible when it came to translating comics to cartoons. It's a hight of achievement not to be challenged for 6 Decades until Batman The Animated series, which in turn was trying to emulate the incredible style of Max Fleischer.
Like I said, Super Friends was a poorly Animated series, but it was the first time comic fans got to see the likes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman fight crime together. It's much loved by fans, despite it's flaws. This show seemed to give prominence to characters that would otherwise go unknown by the general public, like Aquaman. He might be the butt of people's jokes because of the Super Friends - but it got him attention I doubt he had before.
Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends
Marvel like-wise had their own poorly animated cartoon fare. At first it was almost panel-to-panel recreations of classic tales. Marvel also had Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends. It starred Spider-Man with his crime fighting friends Firestar and Iceman. Why those two - I don't know. It makes no sense to this day, beyond that fact that fire and ice are cool powers. It's still nicely remembered by fans, especially special guest episodes like when the X-Men guest star. You can even find shades of the concept to this day, with Spider-Man, Iceman, and Firestar Toy Three-Packs, and team ups of Ultimate-Versions of these characters in Ultimate Spider-Man.
There actually was a failed pilot for the X-Men that never got off the ground. It was wonderfully animated, and it was shame it didn't get off the ground. Yet in that single episode we were introduced to Kitty Pryde - and shown how visually stunning the X-Men's powers could really be. The episode had it's faults, though. The plot was a bit more simple (fight the bad guys) than regular X-Men comics. Also it's notorious for getting Wolverine's voice wrong, giving him an Australian accent.
It would be awhile before the next X-Men got another chance. In the 90s the X-Men returned, and they simply blew everyone away. The stories where serious, grounded, and much more mature than you'd traditionally expect from saturday morning cartoons. It became an incredible hit, going on for five seasons, and retelling some of the X-Men's most famous battles. This show informed me so much about the X-Men - and helped get me into the real comics as well. The Animation was never the best, trying to be very detailed, but you could always feel the sense of seriousness the show was intending.
You have a hit with the X-Men, so what's next? Spider-Man! While the series suffered from re-used Animation and weak CGI building effects - it still managed to do what it intended: show us Peter Parker's life as Spider-Man, just like in the comics. The running monologue of Spider-Man helped ground the show and give us insights into the complicated life of Peter Parker. Spider-man wasn't just fighting villains, but also dealing with Aunt May, Mary Jane, and his job. That, by definition, is Spider-Man. It did start to spiral out of control, near the end, by having a version of the Secret Wars, but it was nonetheless a wonderful introduction to Spider-Man, and one I used as a basis to get into Spider-Man comics in general.
Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Avengers and the Silver Surfer
With the success of the X-Men and Spider-Man, Marvel naturally wanted to capitalize on it and introduce more Marvel properties to TV. There where mixed results, to say the least. These series where poorly Animated. With the X-Men, what it lacked in fluidity, it made up for it detail and atmosphere. With these shows that seemed to be entirely dropped, with characters often times moving like rubber. These shows at least introduced us to these characters, but the quality of the shows simply wasn't there. I look at reruns of the Hulk, and shudder as it uses every old and cliched concept from the 90s Hulk comics. (It was great in comics then, but not in Animation, and not without the wit of Peter David) The Avengers was an even worse flop, changing Hawkeye's signature costume - to putting Ant Man in charge of the Avengers. If you're going to have the Avengers - why not try putting someone like Captain America in charge. The only series worthy of praise was the space-opera of Silver Surfer, which sadly only lasted one season.
Batman The Animated Series
This is where Animated Comic characters really took off. This wasn't just a Batman TV show, it's the show that defined Batman in general. It was the 90s, and while Batman was back in full swing with his grim and gritty roots - it's this series that added a noir style to the formula. The episodes where classics, with musical scores for each episode (a rarity back then), with incredible voice talents, and storytelling that was second to none. The show was so good, in fact, that it got away with things you wouldn't expect, like the use of bullets and guns. The quality of this series set a new bench mark for Animation to achieve from now on, and that legacy still continues to this day.
Superman The Animated Series
Following on the heels of Batman, the Superman Animated series also set new ground for DC Animation. The style of the series was more stream-lined that Batman. To help make Superman easier to write, his powers where diminished quite a bit - but it never detracted from how great a hero Superman was. He was the first, and still is the definition of the term "Super Hero".
A revolutionary show, that easily could have turned into a disaster. The idea of a new and younger Batman in the future was a great concept, and even better it was expertly pulled off. The Animation style of the series was wonderful, giving us a dark and rich concept of the future, while never getting bogged down from the core concept of Batman: fighting villains.
Justice League and Justice League Unlimited
Where do you go after doing both a Batman and Superman Animated series? You go to the Justice League, where you can introduce all sorts of other DCU characters while always having the big sellers of Batman and Superman. The series got off to a slow start, but the quality and amazing writing was right there all along. The only real hurdle the series needed to over-come was the perceived notion that it was another Super Friends series. The show developed some wonderful stories, not the least of which is Hawkgirl's revelation that she was a spy. The series then utterly reinvented it's self by opening the doors of the DCU wide open. Now EVERYONE was a member of the Justice League, which allowed the likes of Booster Gold, The Question, Huntress and Green Arrow their time to shine. It truly was the end of an era, finally coming to a close, somehow managing to tie everything since Batman the Animated series all together into one universe.
For me this series somewhat came out of left field, as I didn't know anything about Static. I knew it was being done by the same team who did Superman and Batman, but beyond that I didn't know what to make of it. It was good to see they where portraying an African American Super Hero well, and doing so without seeming like a token series designed for the network to be PC friendly.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Before they rocketed to fame in the 80s, the Ninja Turtle where first and foremost an indy comic creation. The series, while having little to do with the Comic books, still opened the way for everyone to get to know these wonderful characters. First written as Comic Book satire, the Ninja Turtles quickly became a legend unto themselves. The series went on longer than anyone could have expected. What was even more stunning was the revival of the TV series, this time following the comic book source material much more closely, giving us the perfect Ninja Turtle series. Sadly things started to go downhill after the 4th season. The 5th season didn't air for many years, and the Turtles where being needlessly reinvented for adventures in the future and then cyber space. It seemed to end on a high note, though, giving us a movie team up between the original animated turtles and their current counter parts. Toss in the Black and White Turtles from TMNT #1, and you have a wonderful ending note on the entire Turtles franchise since it's beginning.
This series was a wonderful, yet strange, take on the Teen Titans. Heavily influenced by Anime - the series seemed like a great mix of humor and action, using both Western and Eastern Animating philosophies. It seemed fitting that the series ended with the characters taking a trip to Japan - the source of the series' inspiration.
This was another take on the X-Men, setting them in a normal human high school (which, frankly, sort of defeats the purpose of going to a private school). The show was different, with some less than well received reinterpretations of characters - but nonetheless grew into a wonderful series.
Coming off of the Spider-Man movies, there was an attempt to have a CGI Spider-Man series on MTV. Despite comic creators like Brian Michael Bendis helping, the show was a flop.
Not content to let Batman rest, we saw a new TV series appear showing us a younger and less experienced Batman. This did give the show a youthful edge while not compromising what it means for Batman to be Batman. The series employed many wonderful new concepts and reinterpretations of villains. It did shock many fans of the original Animated Series, but eventually became it's own entity. It was simply Batman, but a different take on him.
Legion of Super-Heroes
This was a cool series giving us a fun and adventurous team of heroes, all trying to live up to the legend of Superman. It was sadly hindered by having to call Clark Superman, instead of Superboy. The show's second season changed things, giving us a second Superman from even farther in the future. This easily could have been a horrible thing, trying to give us a cooler and ruder version of Superman - and he essentially was just that - but it still came off well, playing against the real Superman. Beloved Legion characters like Bouncing Boy, Brainiac 5, and others finally got a chance to shine here as well.
A new take on the Fantastic Four, this Anime-Stylized FF seemed like a cool concept, but sadly fell a bit flat. The characters where written correctly, but I think what was more troubling for the series was the show's over-use of moving cameras and digital effects. Also, it brought back a problem I had with the FF TV show from the 90s - that of the FF having a Landlord. What? The FF should own the whole Baxter Building - not rent space there! Someone, somewhere, finds it funny to have some crotchety old lady banging on the door, demanding Reed Richard's keep the noise down. I don't find that funny; I find it annoying.
Like "The Batman", Spectacular Spider-Man is simply another take on the web-swinger, and I thought it was a remarkable achievement. The Animation style of the show was made less detailed, but this allowed the show to have wonderfully elaborate set fights. All the battles Spider-Man had seem to be like a mini-movie event, like the Rhino tearing into the Daily Bugle. Spider-Man himself was portrayed wonderfully, and the tone and feel of the series seemed like it came just out of Steve Ditko's comics. Venom, though, was the one character they sort of messed up. It ended at season 2, with the revelation of the Green Goblin's identity (they really left you guessing for a long while), but it was a great show while it lasted.
Krypto the Super Dog
Perhaps not like the other serious Animated Comic shows, this series seemed like a nice and funny take on the idea of Superman's Dog. It was a cute concept and a good use of un-used secondary characters.
Batman: Brave and the Bold
This is the latest show coming from DC Animation, and what a wonderful series it is too. Yes, it's yet another take on Batman - but it helps mix in what we all loved about Justice League Unlimited, once again giving us a tour of the DCU. Under rated heroes are once again being given a time to shine - and I've simply never seen a more fun interpretation of Aquaman in my life. The series is very comical and doesn't take it's self too seriously, but - it's not suppose to. Very rarely do these episodes disappoint at giving you a wild and fun adventure.
Iron Man: Armored Adventures
With Iron Man a hit in theaters, this seemed inevitable. But instead of a proper Tony Stark, they decided to depict a younger Iron Man. Instead of using Animation, the series is completely computer generated. Not my taste, but it seems to be doing well.
Wolverine and the X-Men
Yet another take on the X-Men, but one that is just as much a winner as the last one. There's a definite story being told here, with wonderful concepts like Xavier lost in a destroyed future Earth, and the X-Men trying to prevent that future from happening. A great series, and one I'm looking forward to seeing again next season.
Marvel Super Hero Squad
This is purely a kiddies' show, but I can definitely see Comic fans getting a kick out of Super Deformed Marvel characters. It's definitely not for most viewers, but it's not suppose to be. It's suppose to be for the kids, and I think it might help get them interested in comics, which is good.
Direct to DVD Animated Movies
The new trend for both DC and Marvel are Direct to DVD Animated Movies. Some of the films have been hit or miss, but as time goes on it seems like both Marvel and DC get better and better at their craft. I simply hated the two Ultimate Avenger movies, finding them a horribly watered down version of the Ultimates. The movies came back stronger, though, giving us nice versions of Doctor Strange and Iron Man - and now making their best movies, Hulk Versus, and Planet Hulk. For DC it seemed to take a bit longer for them to get rolling, with The Death of Superman, a very ambitious place to start, and since then it's been one hit after another. Series like New Frontier got more than a Animated interpretation, but got a companion piece to the real comic. Green Lantern was excellent, and while Superman/Batman was treading on old water with the original voices of the old Animated series, it still was a wonderfully action packed movie.
Suffice to say, there have been a LOT more choices in Comic Book Animated Series since the beginning of the 90s. In addition to the current shows, there's a new Avengers series in the works (which looks like it's going to be done right this time), a new Young Justice League series (?), and the Black Panther series, which I frankly don't have the foggiest when it's going to get here.