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'Tooning In: Why It's Okay to Love Animated Series

Confession time: I've never really outgrown watching cartoons. Ugh, scratch that; I hate cartoons. There's something so negative and bubble gummy about that word. Instead, let's call them animated series. I'm not talking about the Bugs Bunny, Care Bears, Dora the Explorer, or even Pokemon kind of animated series (though I will admit to catching the odd Spongebob Squarepants every now and then), but rather animated series that are darker and have more of a more adult sensibility, that are populated by fallible or imperfect characters... perfected by the epitome of the classy animated series, Batman: The Animated Series (henceforth referred to as Batman: TAS).

I will admit that I am a person of profound contradictions. Give me a Jane Austen book, a pot of tea, and a rainy day and I am in heaven. But conversely, there are few things more rewarding and nostalgia-inducing than waking up on a Saturday morning, curling up with my girlfriend on the couch, pouring myself a big bowl of cereal, and watching some brightly colored animated characters pound one another.

I mentioned Batman: The Animated Series earlier. Airing in the late 1990s, this incarnation of Batman was darker than his 1970's zip!, boom!, pow! counterpart. The beauty of the animation alone is worth giving this series a shot (I particularly love all of the Art Deco design elements) but seeing Batman and his "family" in action (Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl) is priceless. As is Batman's portrayal as the Detective (it's not just a nickname) solving crime--and yes, beating up a few baddies--in Gotham City. This depiction was aided by strong, angular lines in the animation, by liberal use of black, deep darkness, and by the writers' (Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, et al) intense characterizations, not just of Bruce Wayne/Batman, but of his entire Rogues Gallery as well. It's where Joker girlfriend/sidekick Harley Quinn made her first appearance. And it explored the tenuous relationship between Bruce and Dick Grayson, the first Robin (yes, there was more than one) who later goes on to take on the mantle of Nightwing in the series' later episodes (referred to collectively as Gotham Knights). The companion seres, Superman: The Animated Series, is also worth checking out for its take on the Man of the Steel, but it pales in comparison to the heights that Batman: TAS manages to reach.

The successor to DC Animation's Batman: TAS is the equally fantastic Justice League, which morphed more recently into Justice League Unlimited. Originally detailing the exploits of DC Comics' superteam--in this incarnation the pantheon of the Big Six (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter, plus Hawkgirl for good measure)--the series grew into a rotating cast of superheroes dedicated to defending the world against major threats to safety. It explored the notion of might vs. right, secret identities, the need for society's iconography, zingoistic loyalties, the pull between civil liberties and national security... all against a backdrop of spandex, capes, space stations, and aliens. While the series is coming to an end (Cartoon Network recently announced that the final episodes would be airing soon), Justice League's legacy will live on in the way that we perceive and enjoy animated series.

Which brings us to one of the later additions to the animated canon (and the latest incarnation of Batman, after Batman: TAS and the futuristic Batman Beyond): The Batman. In this series, Bruce Wayne is a young billionaire playboy who has only recently returned to Gotham City and taken up the mantle of the Batman. He is naive, inexperienced, and foolish, yet has a deep-seeded conviction that the streets of Gotham City must be cleaned up and, thanks to the ineffective police force, the people of Gotham need a champion who is not afraid of the night. The Batman also showcases the redesign of all of Batman's foes: The Joker is even scarier than before, now a dredlocked, white-faced ball of deadly energy, his shock of green hair a badge of honor; Penguin a sadistic yet snobbish killer; Poision Ivy a teenage ecoterrorist who cares more about plants than people, etc. The designs are sleek and savvy, giving the villains a scarier, edgier look, as though they were viewed through a funhouse mirror. Lately, the solitary Batman has warily taken on an apprentice: a teenage Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, whose father is the police chief. Their strained relationship has given the show an added dimension as Batman is forced to admit that he can't fight this battle alone. And Batgirl's introduction has added an innocence and insight into adolescent (and adolescent superheroes) that has been missing from the series.

Similarly, the now-defunct X-Men: Evolution which ceased its run about two years back explored the struggle between teen superheroes' public lives and their private ones. Using the popular X-Men characters and mythos, the creators envisioned a team of teenage mutant superheroes, untrained in the powers, coming together at the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters to learn control and finesse over their abilities. Much as the original comic had, X-Men: Evolution used the metaphors of mutation to represent situations that most people encouter in adolescence (like Buffy), with mutants themselves representing any number of minority groups, who feel outside the norms emposed by society (and, hell, what teen doesn't feel that). In fact, the high school setting reintroduced those complex emotions and interpersonal relationship that are the hallmarks of the X-Men brand.

(Conversely, I cannot stand to watch Teen Titans, a sort of junior league version of the, er, Justice League. Candy-coated and sugary with way too many "cool" Japanime influences, this series about the exploits of Robin and Co. mostly rubs me the wrong way. The one exception: I watched the fantastic Season Two traitor-within-the-Titans/Terra storyline, which dealt with betrayal and sacrifice/redemption with a depth that the series doesn't usually contain.)

Then there's one of my personal all-time favorites, the Japanese import Neon Genesis: Evangelion. On the one hand, the series feels like a modern nostalgia-trip to the fantastic, giant mecha 1980s series, Robotech (which as a kid I would wake up at 6 am to watch with delighted glee and which I rediscovered the joys of a few years back on DVD); but its epic storyline about original sin, redemption, and the destruction of humanity and the creation of a new Eden (which unfolds over the course of the series' 26 episodes) places it light years ahead of any other animated series.

At time frustratingly obtuse, Neon Genesis: Evangelion is alternatingly ultraviolent, hilarious, poignant, and ethereal, a technicolor acid trip of an animated series. The series, set in the future after an Ameggedon-like incident kills most of Earth's population, concerns the pilots of advanced techno-organic mecha called Evangelion armed to fight against the destructive Angels, alien-like creatures hell-bent on destroying the rest of humanity. The main character, Shinji, finds himself recruited by his estranged father to be a member of an elite team of these pilots, each one of the recruits not yet fifteen years old. They report to NERV, a shadowy government agency that is willing to sacrifice their lives (and souls) for a goal that they perceive to be larger than themselves. Their leader is Ikari, Shinji's father, who developed the Evangelion program... and who may have been responsible for the suspicious death of Shinji's mother. Zealots of the highest order, NERV is fracturing into splinters as personal agendas and vendettas come to the fore as Shinji and his team are forced to make inconceivable personal sacrifices... I can't even do the concept justice with this description. The series was so mind-blowingly bizarre that it had not one, not two, but three endings, each of which sought to clarify the previous one. Not to be missed.

At the end of the day, while the characters may be drawn on these animated series, their stories are just as entertaining and engaging as any live-action show. After all, a good story is still a good story, regardless of the medium. And as the credits roll and I take my last gulp of milk from the bottom of my cereal bowl, I remember why I loved watching these--dare I say it--cartoons and why I still do. And I know, that had, say, Justice League been on in Jane Austen's day, even she too might have watched.

What’s On Tonight

8 pm: Ghost Whisperer (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC); What I Like About You/Living with Fran (WB); America’s Funniest Home Videos (ABC); Nanny 911 (FOX); WWE Friday Night SmackDown! (UPN)

9 pm: Close to Home (CBS); Las Vegas (NBC); Reba/Reba (WB); In Justice (ABC); Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy (FOX)

10 pm: NUMB3RS (CBS); Conviction (NBC); 20/20 (ABC)

What I’ll Be Watching

God, Friday really is the dumping ground for shows that the network doesn't feel like airing. I can honestly say that I haven't seen a single episode of any of the above shows. Where are shows like The X-Files and Firefly? FOX used to air sci-fi or quirky shows on Friday evenings that quickly became appointment television for me and were sometimes able to gain some cult status (though airing Firefly out of order, when at all, certainly didn't do anything to build an audience for it... same goes for the tragically short Wonderfalls).

For the sci-fi nerds hidden among us, tonight is the season finale of Battlestar: Galactica on SCI-FI (10-11:30 pm). And, beginning next week, Sci-Fi will begin airing the new Doctor Who series on Friday nights. So put on your great big wooly scarves, touch up the paint on your Tardis, and catch Christopher Eccleston (for the first batch of eps anyway, then it's David Tennant) in Russell T. Davies' re-envisioning of the cult classic series.

Comments

swirly girl said…
El Hazard is another good one.

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