Cartoon Graveyard: Comics Are Just For Kids Again

October 15, 2009

Bear with me, because I’m going to let my inner comic book geek out for a minute. I doubt I’ll be courting controversy by observing that a lot of superhero comics these days are really depressing. The big publishers are so enamored of the big-summer-crossover-event model that they can’t go a full year without killing off a carload of popular characters, ending one or more romantic relationships and generally being a huge downer. As a result I’m always grateful that superhero cartoons tend to lighten the tone a bit. So while comic-book Batman can be morose and borderline psychotic (thanks a lot, Miller), cartoon Batman is just dour. Then again, it can also go too far, like in a new show on Cartoon Network that pushes the concept from “family-friendly” to “for little kids only.” Behold the big-headed weirdness that is Super Hero Squad.

Can't... process... forced... perspective...

Can't... process... forced... perspective...

Title: Super Hero Squad
Network: Cartoon Network
Premise: What if the Avengers were drawn by the same person as Nancy?

The first thing that catches the eye is that jarring art style. Never has a superhero cartoon looked so, well, cartoony. Did the animators mean to make everyone look like kid versions of themselves? Having watched the show, I can affirm that the characters are all supposed to be adults. It’s just hard to take seriously when they all look like they’re four feet tall and have huge heads. And you know, they didn’t have to have Tom Kenny voice Iron Man. It’s hard enough suspending disbelief without imagining Spongebob Squarepants stuffed inside that armor. The plots and dialogue don’t give any reason to think this show was meant for anyone who’s hit puberty.

Gotta admit, I love '70s-version Luke Cage.

Gotta admit, I love '70s-version Luke Cage.

Speaking of Iron Man, he’s the leader of the group, I guess because he’s gotten really popular thanks to the movie. Apparently he and Doctor Doom tussled over some magical MacGuffin called the Infinity Sword, which blew up and showered Super Hero City (yes, really) with fragments called “fractals.” Doom and his army of supervillain minions are trying to collect all the shiny geegaws, and all the superheroes that can be licensed unite to stop them. The fractals, conveniently enough, all have vaguely magic powers that can create essentially whatever plot device is needed for the adventure/comic relief du jour.

What’s especially weird about this show isn’t that it’s strictly for kids, but that it’s essentially a throwback to kids’ cartoons of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The generic city, the gems to be collected, the over-the-top villain speechifying, the slapstick – it’s all very, very retro. It’s like watching Pirates of Dark Water or some such thing, except with Marvel characters. But there’s something missing, something that holds this show back from being a true 80’s throwback. What could it be?

Hmm, what could it be...

Hmm, what could it be...

Ah, but of course! Blatant merchandising! The circle is complete.

In all seriousness, I can’t really say anything all that negative about Super Hero Squad. Sure, it’s cheesy and mercenary and juvenile, but there are worse things to be. Anything that introduces kids to superheroes as fun and exciting instead of ultraviolent and depressing is fine by me. Plus, my geek self loves the effort they’ve put into digging up semi-obscure characters and references, even if they have to look like Munchkins. And hey, MODOK! I don’t care that they drew him about the size of a basketball, I love me some MODOK.



So I’m going to give this show a break. It’s not great television, and it’s not the best representation of these characters, and that’s okay. Coming off watching The Spectacular Spider-Man actually get better in its second season, perhaps I was caught off guard encountering overt kiddie fare. But hey, if I must choose between my superheroes being cute or insufferable, I’ll take cute.

Final Judgment: Okay, geek parents, here’s what you do. Let your kid watch this show, wait until he’s hooked, then bust out the Essential Spider-Man volumes. Baby steps, people, baby steps.


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