Animation and comics are a natural fit. First of all, most mainstream comics are action-oriented so it’s neat to see the fluidity of animated motion vs the visual cues and shortcuts needed to convey action on the page. Second, there are a lot of things about comics that translate to animation way better than they translate to live action. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that there remains an animation ghetto in the USA (the perception that it’s only for kids), I’d think that animated comic book movies would work a lot better than live action movies. Another benefit that animation brings to the table is that it’s infinitely cheaper when it comes to the special effects budget. That’s why we’ve had a lot more animated comic book television shows than live action television shows. But who does it better? Marvel or DC?
There are two main types of animated projects that come out from the Big Two. There are television shows and there are direct to video movies. Let’s tackle the TV shows first. Because of my age, the TV shows that represent DC’s work to me are Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League. Marvel had Spider-Man, X-Men: The Animated Series, Fantastic Four and Iron Man out during my youth. Thanks to DVDs and Netflix instant I’ve been able to re-experience Batman: TAS, Justice League, X-Men, and Spider-Man. Interesting, excluding Justice League, they were all created in the early 90s and all appeared on the Fox network, but they hold up quite differently to me two decades later.
Spider-Man ages the worst. The animation looks quite cheap - its Wikipedia page mentions that the animation was outsourced to Japan and that company then outsourced it to a korean company. In an attempt to look high tech, there are a bunch of early CG scenes. But with time it just ends up looking very “90s”. It’s very hard to properly combine CG seamlessly with cell animation (Disney’s done it well, a lot of anime has not) and it looks clunky. It also doesn’t lend itself well to viewing as an adult because of the amount of censorship it was subjected to. Cartoons work best when they are allowed to treat their audience as adults while making only slight concessions to its child audience like steering away from profanity and sex. It does do its best to stay true to Spidey’s character and it succeeds.
X-Men: The Animated Series ages a bit better. It does have a bit of an issue with feeling dated because of its focus on Jubilee. In a way, it works brilliantly - the show takes plots from the Chris Claremont era of X-Men rather than starting from the beginning, so all the core X-Men are adults. So, in order to appeal to the child audience they have Jubilee to live through. But Jubilee is a very 1990s character - at least as she is depicted in the show. Her way of speaking, her “mall-rat” tendencies just seem to root the show in a certain era. Still, the show was not afraid to tackle some pretty heavy storylines. Of course, they had to change the Hellfire Club a bit for the child audience, but it’s still depicted along with a lot complex storylines like The Phoenix Force. And, having read some Chris Claremont issues from the time period, the slightly clunky dialogue was par for the course in comics at the time. I also give it a lot of credit for being pretty faithful to the comics. With very little difference, you could use the TV show as a primer to understand the background of the X-Men storylines of the time and jump into the comics.
Of the three cartoons from the early 1990s, Batman: The Animated Series ages the best. I think this is due to Bruce Timm’s art style. The show seems to take place in a mix of the 1930s and 1990s. There are police zeppelins patrolling Gotham City and the cars seem to be from around that time period. But Batman and the rest of the characters speak as we did in the 1990s without relying on slang. The result is a timelessness that gives us Batman in the 1930s (when he was created) but without the Golden Age silliness. Additionally, the stories can, at times, be genuinely dark. The episodes with the Ventriloquist are truly bone-chilling even to my adult self. In fact, this series really does not shy away from the fact that all of Batman’s villains are criminally insane. While there is no adult content, I am amazed at what made it past the censors for this show. Another example of how great Paul Dini’s writing on this show was - many of the villain origin tweaks found their way into the comics. And his character, Harley Quinn, also eventually appeared in the comics. I think the show stays very true to Batman’s personality and works well as Robin and Batgirl are eventually added.
The Justice League is only 11 years old so there isn’t as much aging for the show to have done. It’s a good example of modern animation. The stories work rather well and the writers selected a good roster for the Justice League. If the show suffers in any way, it’s that the headliners, Batman and Superman, were too often missing from the plots. I’m sure that was partially in order to introduce viewers to more obscure DC characters and partially to ensure they could have some drama in situations that Superman could easily punch his way through. Still, I think X-Men handled the team situation a lot better and often was able to have a large portion of the team involved in any one episode.
I have to say that while I tend to prefer Marvel characters and Marvel storylines, I think that DC has the upper hand in their TV shows. They tend to write more timeless stories and write the dialogue in such a way as to not end up dated too quickly. They also have the amazing WB animation studios working on their shows. While X-Men: The Animated Series puts up a good fight for Marvel, it’s just not quite enough to push it over the edge.
What about direct to video movies? Without question, DC wins on one count: sheer volume. Especially in recent years (although it’s been going on for some time now) DC has been taking all its most famous storylines and turning them into films. The best example in recent years was Batman: Under the Red Hood, which featured the storylines “A Death in the Family” and “Under the Hood”. This is one of the most famous Batman stories and it worked perfectly within the 75 minutes allotted to it. I may be wrong, but as far as I know, the only thing Marvel does that’s similar is the motion comic. They have a great motion comic for the “Gifted” storyline by Joss Whedon up on Netflix instant. But a motion comic looks cheap and lacks a lot of the polish of regular animation. So DC takes the prize in this category as well. One great thing about the animated efforts of both companies when it comes to feature-length animation - they tend to ignore the rules about animation being for kids, which allows them to more faithfully represent what was in the comics.
There have been a lot of recent Marvel animated efforts such as Wolverine and the X-Men and a slew of Spider-Man cartoons that weren't considered in this article. However, DC Comics has still been much more aggressive and much more successful at putting out animated versions of its properties. I know in my case, the only reason I started collecting DC Comics recently is because I rewatched Batman: The Animated series on DVD and I got into Marvel comics as a kid via the cartoons. So it’s important for both companies to focus on cartoons to get new readers both young and old. DC has had a nice running headstart, but perhaps Marvel can begin to throw some Disney animation prowess at its properties to end up with better quality animation to attract those new readers. But that's the future! For now, however, DC clearly is the winner. They have consistently had higher quality animation, more timeless stories, and a commitment to bring their best arcs to direct to video reslease.
Who do you think made/makes the best animation? Sound off in the comments!