Being a cartoonist and artist (on a technicality perhaps) I do find character design and art styles interesting. The proper visual style adds to the comic or cartoon. Choose the right style, even if the style seems counterintuitive in theory like Into The Abyss using a more cute art style to balance out the very dark tone of the story, helps form the world of your show as much as the music does. Getting it right is very important in an animated work just like getting sets and costumes right in a live-action work matters.
Superman: The Animated Series continued off of Fox Kids’ Batman: The Animated Series and its slight revamp The Adventures Of Batman And Robin. It would set the tone for the art style for most of the DC Animated Universe going forward as well as influence some of Warner Animation’s direct-to-video movies not actually set in the DCAU. However, there was a long road in developing that art style that I found rather interesting. The show almost looked quite a bit different and while ultimately they made the right move in what they went with, I kind of wish they had stuck with their earlier concept. For a better explanation this video by Watchtower Database shows us the retro style they originally thought up…and I wouldn’t mind see being used in the future.
Check out more from Watchtower Database on YouTube.
Personally I wish more people talked about the Ruby-Spears show. Although it only lasted one season it had to straddle the barrier between the pre-Crisis and post-Crisis DC universe, as seen by Lex Luthor and some parts of the Superman lore they went with. I’m guessing production took place during that time. As a Saturday morning cartoon it was really good, Beau Weaver did a better job with Christopher Reeves’ version of Clark Kent than Reeves himself did in my opinion, and the “Superman Family Album” segment at the end works better for Clark Kent’s early years than either Smallville or Man Of Steel. I find it easier to believe that version of Clark grows up to be Superman than either movie, and the DCAU managed to capture that as well. Meanwhile Ruby-Spears put the same attention to matching the comic style (again, pre-Crisis as post-Crisis we saw the art starting towards what we now think of as the 90s style minus the level of EXTREEEEEEMMMEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE) of its time as the Fleischers did with the Superman of their time, though they added in flight because the jumping looked too silly to them. I’ve seen them animating jumping Superman in one story and they weren’t wrong.
I’ve heard before that Bruce Timm had planned for Freakazoid to be a bit more serious than they made it, and I’m not sure what that would have looked like. I can’t help but think it would have been closer to something like Dynomutt: Dog Wonder, where everything was serious but the occasional comedic comment or action would take place, usually do to Dynomutt’s ignorance or one of his gadgets malfunctioning. That would also be interesting but the show we got there stands out by not being that but being a darn good and funny superhero parody standing out from Dynomutt or the animated version of The Tick. So this one of those times I’m kind of glad the intentions didn’t happen.
In the same vein I kind of wonder what the 40s style Superman cast would have looked like in animation. We do get a hint of that in the adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s Justice League: The New Frontier and imagine a series in that art style. I also like the idea of Telly Savalas as Lex Luthor. He might have been fascinating actually playing the role but he’s also a good physical template to use. Sadly the only voice acting I know he did was Magmar in GoBots: Battle Of The Rock Lords and even as a GoBots fan and defender that movie was not really that good. However I really don’t like the design there for Jimmy Olsen. While I’m not a fan of the design they went with the 40s version doesn’t feel right either…but at least they still let him be a redhead.
I also reject the notion that Superman’s villains were primarily “fat men in suits”. By this time he had encounters with the Fourth World characters even before the DCAU made it cool. He fought alien menaces, cyborgs, magical threats that were more powerful than he was…Superman’s gallery doesn’t just include villains he can punch. Sometimes he had to find ways to use his powers to outsmart his foes, who assumed having all that physical power meant he lacked the same level of mental power, only to be proven wrong when Superman worked around their scheme and saved the day as well.
That’s why I don’t balk at villains like The Prankster. Goofy as he is the Prankster’s ability to trick our hero with his pranks does actually work to me. Lex Luthor earned his inflated ego but lacked the morals to balance that out, and even as a mad scientist was as much a mental powerhouse as Superman was a physical one. Mr. Mxyzptlk used trickery and fourth-dimensional powers. They couldn’t challenge Superman physically so they challenged him mentally and Superman had to rely on more than his powers, or use his powers in different ways, if he was to save the day. Interesting that the only actual fat guys in suits was the aforementioned Prankster that they dropped altogether and the Toyman they did a heavy recreation of, and unlike the recreation of Mr. Freeze didn’t catch on in the comics. He was a good villain, just not the Winslow Schott we comic fans all know. Then again he wasn’t retconned into a child murderer either.
I would have totally been fascinated by that retro design for Brainiac and I wonder what other DC villains would look like in that style.
I have to wonder how Kyle Rayner got to be Green Lantern in that one Superman episode if the focus is always on John Stewart for Bruce Timm? Did DC mandate it as the current Green Lantern? At least he wasn’t given Hal’s backstory and job like Wally was in Justice League when they essentially made him Barry Allen with red hair. As far as a Superman Team-Up series…why not? Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends was basically that, just with two heroes regularly and the occasional guest hero. Meanwhile Batman: The Brave & The Bold did that concept well with their take on Batman, and Superman did have DC Comics Presents, which was Superman teaming up with a different hero each issue, including himself in one my favorite stories.
How does Bruce Timm refuse to use Krypto and not want Perry to look like Perry? That’s just not right. Krypto didn’t make it to the DCAU while we got an altered version of Ace in Batman Beyond. As for Inspector Henderson, I didn’t know that was supposed to be him, which is NEVER a good idea in an adaptation. Lois and even Jimmy still give me vibes of their counterpart. Lois I picked out right away and Jimmy was kind of a guess but he still felt like Jimmy Olsen while Lois looked and felt like Lois Lane right out of the box. Clark’s parents have never really had a set design. They didn’t appear regularly until the Superboy comics since they were dead in present day until the Crisis reboot but the designs they went with worked well enough. There were elements in the comics that we saw in the Ruby-Spears cartoon that they kept while modifying other things to match Timm’s chosen look so I was okay with it.
Finally we should discuss the Superman design they went with. I thought the shoulders were too broad and the chin too long but otherwise I liked it and even got used to those features. He’s easily recognized as Superman and while part of me really likes the 40s design I can’t complain about what we ended up with overall. Still, a modern take on a retro art style sound really cool and frankly it’s what I would do. The science fiction aspect of Superman’s world was well adapted and who Superman is as a character shows up in the animation, the writing, and Tim Daly’s portrayal–although it’s too bad Kids WB didn’t allow Daly to alter his voice for Clark the same way Kevin Conroy did with Bruce Wayne and Batman, which he also had to drop when Gotham City was relocated to the network. They didn’t want to pay extra for another voice even though it was the same character…and I thought you got paid by the character, not the voice. If they really would charge extra to do what Bud Coyer did to further the Kent guise that was a huge mistake.
I mean I can nitpick parts of this show but in the end we ended up with something amazing. It may not be my favorite take (that’s a toss-up between Fleischer and Ruby-Spears depending on my mood) but that’s just me being me. Superman: The Animated Series may actually be the best version of Superman the same way Batman: The Animated Series was for Batman. You can’t really argue with the results.