There is no more logical evolution than comic books becoming animated TV shows. No other transformation takes advantage of each format’s strengths. This relationship has existed since the 1940s, but has become more and more pronounced and beneficial, with many of the resulting animated series becoming critically acclaimed, commercially successful properties by themselves. When the product of the adaptation process is sometimes greater than the original source material, then the process is astounding. This list, which includes some of the most iconic comic book animated shows, does not include manga turned into anime, as that is a creature of its own qualities than will be discussed in a future list. Here, from 10 to 1, are the best animated comic book shows:
10) “Spawn” (1997, HBO)
The second most unexpected property to be adapted for the small screen, “Spawn” was one of Image Comics’ flagship titles from Todd McFarlane. The HBO series didn’t disappoint, bringing a violence and seriousness that had not been seen before for animation. This remains the best screen take on Al Simmons’ Hellspawn.
9) “Batman Beyond” (1999, The WB)
This future take on the Dark Knight was so good that it achieved that rare feat of getting inserted into the comic book canon after being originally a TV property. Dwayne MacDuffie’s vision of Terry McGinnis taking on the future mantle of Batman and the DC universe around him was a visionary achievement.
8) “Spider-Man and his Animated Friends” (1981, NBC)
This extremely popular show allowed new audiences to get on board with the classic Spider-Man character as a teenager fighting crime together with a teenage version of classic Marvel character Iceman and the newly-invented Firestar.
7) “Superman” (1941, Fleischer Studios)
The grand-daddy of them all, the Fleischer Studios’ animated adventures of the Man of Steel essentially codified what you could do with comic book characters on screen. In this newsreel version, Superman takes on sci-fi threats instead of his traditional villains but heralded the future of all animated adaptation.
Surely the most unexpected comic book property to make it to TV animation, Eastman and Laird’s parody of ninja comics became a genre-challenging hit as a comic but truly achieved crossover fame as TV show. It was slightly diluted (cutting out the books’ blood and adding a passion for pizza) for young audiences but remains a cornerstone of independent publishing success to this day.
5) “Spider-Man” (1967, ABC)
In 1967, viewers were hypnotized by the words: “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can…” One of the first true Saturday morning cartoons, “Spider-Man” perfectly captured the spirit of the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comic books, with Peter Parkers battling classic villains such as Doctor Octopus and Mysterio. Today’s superhero cartoons owe a debt to this show for its faithfulness to the original comic.
4) “Super Friends” (1973, ABC)
One of the later incarnations—“Challenge of the Super Friends”—was the show that truly reflected the Justice League comic book, but this show really captured the imagination of several generations of kids. Where else would you see Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Aquaman (he’s cool now, right?) join forces? That opening sequence—and the Hall of Justice—are unforgettable. As for the sidekicks, we prefer the Wonder Twins and their space monkey Gleek to Marvin, Wendy and Wonder Dog.
3) “X-Men” (1992, Fox Kids)
Just try to get that theme out of your head. If ever there was a show that reflected the times it was made in, it’s this blockbuster hit about the mutant super team. Adapted from the JimLee-drawn comic series, the lineup of Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Gray, Rogue, Gambit, Storm, Beast, Professor X and Jubilee defined comic book cool in the 1990s.
2) “Justice League Unlimited” (2004, Toonami)
The greatest team-up cartoon of all time, “JLU” doubled down on the DC animated universe show “Justice League” by recruiting almost all the available DC heroes at the time and stationing them on the Watchtower. The expanded cast (with a similarly impressive set of voice actors) allowed for more ambitious and mature storytelling.
1) “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992, Fox Kids)
No other show improved on its source material the way “Batman: TAS” did. The show’s tone, plots and, very importantly, its look paved the way for the later DC animated shows. Inspired very much by Tim Burton’s “Batman” movies, this show, more than any other, displayed just how good animated comic books can be. It also gave us Harley Quinn, so think about that.