Have you ever looked back at your childhood and thought with nostalgic glee, “Yeah, I was born to be a geek?”
I’ve talked about how various cartoons have influenced and brought me into the world of comics, fandom, and superheroes. So I skipped down the lanes of my memory to take a look at what cartoons stuck out and dragged me happily along into the great big world of superheroes.
Growing up I didn’t have any interest in American comic books. I caught maybe a few reruns of the original Christopher Reeve Superman movies when I visited my mamita, but other than that, I wasn’t interested. My jive was anime; I’d rush through my homework to catch the last half of Sailor Moon, stay up late to catch Yu Yu Hakusho, and set time aside to glue myself to an episode of Rurouni Kenshin. And a non-anime show that I watched religiously was The Powerpuff Girls.
Three little girls being superheroes and kicking butt all over Townsville? I was so there. A group of girls in pretty sailor suits fighting monsters, and flowy haired men with sparkly wands in killer heels protecting their city? How could I resist? A teenager who gets a second chance at life to fight spiritual crime with his buddies, with the help of some of the most diverse lady characters ever? I was swooning. A story about a man on the path of redemption and a young woman bringing both hope, renewal, and passion to his and others lives in feudal Japan? Stop, I can’t, I’ll start crying.
I notice now that all these shows have similar running themes that are what eventually attracted me to comic books and superheroes. Essentially, the Sailor Scouts, the Powerpuff Girls, and even the boys from Yu Yu Hakusho are superheroes. Not because of their actual superpowers—though they all have those in abundance—but because of the moral foundations on which they fought.
There’s an episode of The Powerpuff Girls where a new classmate, Princess, shows up and decides she wants to be a Powerpuff Girl. Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup all try various ways of explaining to Princess you can’t just be a Powerpuff Girl (i.e., a superhero). Princess, instead of taking this graciously, throws a tantrum and makes her father buy her a super suit. At the end of the episode Princess defeats both Bubbles, and Buttercup, but is unable to defeat Blossom. When Princess asks why the girls won’t let her be one of them, a Powerpuff Girl, Blossom says, “Because, you’re just a spoiled brat.”
Princess couldn’t be a hero because she didn’t care about people, only herself, unlike the girls, who put their lives on the line to protect the city of Townsville and its people. These were the types of heroes I grew up with as a child, and what I looked for when I eventually got into comics and superheroes as a pre-teen.
The first official superhero show that I watched with these qualities was X-Men Evolution. I had dabbled in The Amazing Spider-Man, and the original X-Men show. While the supernatural aspects of their stories intrigued me, I was to young to really appreciate them.
X-Men Evolution came out in 2000, when I was about ten or eleven years old and about to enter middle school. Though the characters were in high school, I could still relate to their problems and storylines. This was a more mature version of The Powerpuff Girls, and the then watered down and Americanized version of Sailor Moon. The supernatural or fantastical elements were extremely present in the show, and it was one of the first cartoons I had seen that dealt with the outsider complex that the X-Men are famous for.
I related deeply to that aspect of the show. It helped that the animation was different from what I was used to at the time. I love animation, I’m a big fan of different styles (which is why I’m so bored with Disney recently) and colors, and the whole industry. The imported anime of the time always employed a very specific animation style for each show though with a similar thread of big eyes, thin lines, and exaggerated expressions are common in each. The Powerpuff Girls had a very rigid and specific animation style that employed lots of geometric shapes and specific colors to emphasize character traits and personality.
The girls were all rounded shapes, oval arms, legs, and fully round heads. Their color palettes were the same, yet each had a specific identifying color. Blossom was red, as she was the leader, the strongest, and most powerful. Bubbles was blue, bright, happy, and cute, while Buttercup was green, rougher, and tougher. To associate the colors, red is power, and fire, blue is the sky and water, green is the earth. It may sound like I’m reading too much into the color meanings behind the Powerpuff Girls, but the show was clever enough that I think these things were done on purpose.
The Professor is strictly thick square lines that contrast with his rounded superpowered daughters and his open and kind personality, while his colors are all black and white emphasizing his scientific background with clinical precision. Meanwhile Ms. Bullum has the shape of a literal hourglass, decked from head to toe in seductive red, and the Mayor wears a tiny top hat, with a monacle, a parody of power since Ms. Bullum is the brains behind the city.
Given the overall low budget of certain cartoons like the Powerpuff Girls, the usage of color and shapes were some of the ways the show could create interesting and unique characters that had to wear the same things over and over. One of the reasons I adore animation so much is seeing tools like this being used. The style of animation can either make or break a show.
X-Men Evolution has a thicker line style that was still very fluid, and the quality was overall much cleaner. I loved the different ways the show used both sound and style to differentiate the characters powers—Kurt’s bamf noises when he teleported, Kitty’s soft phasing noise whenever she walked through something, the light metallic sound of energy when Jean psychically controlled something. Furthermore the writing was just brilliant.
I don’t like admitting this, but I’m actually a huge fan of Scott Summers, and I completely blame this show entirely. One of my first fictional 2D crushes was Scott Summers of X-Men Evolution. I adored his growth from an awkward, reckless, and even at times angry teenager into a responsible, caring young adult, and leader. But truthfully all the characters were well developed.
What I noticed in watching X-Men Evolution was that the question of morality was brought up more than in the other shows I watched. Because Yu Yu Hakusho, Rurouni Kenshin, and Sailor Moon were victims of the 90s dubbing industry, many of their more mature themes were whited out. Which was a huge shame, because as I grew older and revisited these shows, I realized how wonderfully crafted they were and how much their mythology and themes fit into the superhero stories I grew to love.
I wouldn’t realize until much later all the fantastic queer themes and text that existed in Sailor Moon. Nor the fantastic complexity of moral dilemma and redemption that existed in Rurouni Kenshin. These shows were just as complex and interesting as any adult TV show, which is probably why they were edited so heavily for content. They were considered too mature for children, which is more a product of the industry that regulates children’s media. Shows like Yu Yu Hakusho—which honestly wasn’t for children (the unedited version has extreme violence, profanity, and the occasional fan service scene)—Rurouni Kenshin and Sailor Moon had to be watered down as their content was too in-your-face unlike more subtly complex shows that were made for the American market specifically such as X-Men Evolution was.
X-Men Evolution had mature themes while still retraining a safe-for-children tone to them. X-Men Evolution dealt with issues like on whether or not they should save people or if they even wanted too. The Brotherhood, for example, was just a group of low income orphan kids who were rightfully bitter at the world. Their mutations weren’t something they could easily hide, and their backgrounds weren’t like the typically wholesome X-Men teens. Sometimes they worked with the X-Men for the greater good, and other times they didn’t, because why should they?
Even some X-Men, such as Boom Boom, struggled with living in the strict, straight laced world that Professor X enforced. Her background similar to that of the Brotherhood—whom she later joined—an outcast among outcasts.
Kurt, a.k.a. Nightcrawler, often struggled internally with his appearance and wanting to fit in, while Rogue had to deal with her inability to be close to people, yet wanting nothing more than to be close to her friends and pseudo-family. Evan, Storm’s in-show nephew, developed powers that altered his appearance, and in the same episode he meets a group of mutants who can’t “pass” as normal people, nor do they want too. Evan refuses to use a hologram bracelet that would hide his true form from people like Kurt does. He grows to resent humans and ends up completely separating himself from the rest of the X-Men.
A lot of the storylines emphasized the overall allegorical for prejudice that is inherent to the X-Men. You have mutants that can “pass” for humans, privileged mutants from high class families as opposed to ones from low income families. Legislation against mutants being created to segregate them, and internal movement politics on what is and isn’t the best way to fight for equality.
I was a bit too young—about ten or eleven—to fully comprehend everything in the show, but the themes left an impression on me nonetheless. It was the show that made me interested in superheroes. It was one of the few shows I saw that had a diverse cast and dealt in detail about what it was like to be discriminated against, from passively to openly. This caused me to grow curious about other shows in this same genre, which is how I found myself falling deeply into the DCAU, Teen Titans, and eventually, fully into the world of comic books.
But that is a story I’ll save for my next piece, as I continue looking back on the cartoons and TV shows that helped create the proud geek you see today.