Comic books and cartoons have long gone hand in hand. In fact, Superman shorts were influencing comic books all the way back in the 1940’s and of the reasons Superman actually flies. Over time that relationship has only grown, with some of the most popular cartoons of all time being based on comic books, and plenty of comic books in turn based on popular cartoons. But what are the best comic book animated series of all time?
That's where we come in. We've complied the essential animated series that are based on comic books, so here are the ones you should fire up the streaming services for.
10. Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes
One of the newest shows on our list, this show hit with a bang in its first season. With solo episodes that first aired in fragments that lead to the team coming together in a big way, this could be considered the purest Avengers cartoons ever - even arguably among present contenders. It's heroes working together, it's crazy over-the-top villainous threats, it's big action, and there was this prevailing sense of happiness over it all.
Oh, and that unbelievably catchy theme song? Come on, that thing gets out of your head just before the next episode starts!
The second season ended the series, to be supplanted soon after by Avengers Assemble, and a series of ever-evolving renamed seasons of that show.
Disney's DuckTales, which aired in first-run syndication from 1987 to 1990, is a comic adaptation, though not as obvious as the others on this list. Unlike Donald Duck (who appeared in several episodes), Ducktales star Uncle Scrooge appeared in comic books first, and the show was based on stories by the character's creator, Carl Barks.
Some episodes were direct adaptations of Barks' stories, like 'Micro Ducks From Outer Space' and others just borrowed elements from the comics, but they all captured the same sense of all-ages adventure. Villains Flintheart Glomgold, Magica De Spell, and the Beagle Boys all also originated in Barks' comics, as did supporting characters like Gyro Gearloose. (Launchpad, Webby, and several others were created for the show, though.)
DuckTales ran for 100 episodes, inspired the feature film Treasure of the Lost Lamp and led to the creation of "The Disney Afternoon," a block of programming including TaleSpin and spinoff Darkwing Duck that was pretty much Must-See TV for 7-year-olds.
It also has one of the catchiest theme songs in television history... "Life is like a hurricaaaaane here in... Duckburg..." There. Try to get THAT earworm out of your head anytime the rest of the day.
8. The Tick
A surprisingly high amount of independent comic books beat the odds and ended up with animated series in the '90s (maybe because of the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?), from MTV's surreally literal take on The Maxx to the short-lived Savage Dragon and Wild C.A.T.S. cartoons.
But there was nothing quite like The Tick, which ran from 1994 to 1996. It was both faithful to creator Ben Edlund's source material and also expanded the universe with multiple hilarious additions to the cast, like Die Fledermaus, American Maid, Sewer Urchin, and Dinosaur Neil. The Tick was surprisingly subversive for a Saturday morning cartoon, charming children and adults alike with plots like alien invader Thrakkorzog creating a Tick clone out of mucus and Tick creating a sidekick out of wood when he feels abandoned by Arthur. Though the show never truly pushed the envelope, its appeal with adults was strong enough that it was syndicated on Comedy Central after its original run on Fox Kids.
In three seasons, the show inspired video games, toys, and two live-action shows.
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
There's a remarkable amount of shows on this list with insanely catchy music to open them, isn't there? This show broke the mold, taking a black-and-white comic book that was in fact always meant as a parody, and turning it into the biggest hit of its time (and a show that has inspired multiple revivals, and adaptations on the big screen even.
Whether you were a Michelangelo, a Donatello, a Raphael, or a Leonardo, if you were a kid while this show was airing, you can bet you yelled "Turtle Power!" more than once. The show that spawned from the comic in turn made the franchise high profile enough for multiple feature films and video games and all sorts of apparel and other products. Heck, even now there's a "sexy ninja turtle" costume sold (seriously). These pizza-eating sewer-dwelling high-kicking turtles were proof that you didn't need Marvel or DC in your masthead to have awesome superheroes that could make the TV transition.
Since this initial series, the TMNT have had a series of animated shows, with the latest iteration being Nickelodeon's Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
6. Justice League Unlimited
When the big seven aren't enough, how about the big 150 or so?
That was the basic gist when Justice League became Justice League Unlimited for season three, now pulling from nearly the entire stable of DC superheroes. We saw Green Arrow, The Question, Huntress, Dr. Fate, and so many more enter the fray alongside the big heroes such as Wonder Woman and Batman.
Suddenly, this wasn't a show just for select fans, but a show that could bring people into the larger DCU. Several comic book writers worked their way into writing an episode, and the late Dwayne McDuffie's brilliance with this series was always felt. The show also spawned an incredibly successful toy line that outlived the show by several years. This was the ultimate interpretation of the "Timmverse" that started with Batman: The Animated Series, and is thus well-earned in its place on the list.
5. Super Friends
Comprising 109 episodes produced and aired over 13 years, the originally very kiddie-friendly Super Friends may well have helped convert more TV-watching kids into comic book reading kids than any adaption big screen or small before or since.
While it might not be ranked #1 on our list of the greatest adaptation ever by pure quality, it's arguably the most recognizable, multi-generational pop culture touchstone in our countdown. Who among us doesn't know that when the Wonder Twins powers activate, Jayna can turn into any animal and Jan can turn into any form of water?
Or isn't instantly taken back to sitting in front of the TV on a Saturday morning, bowl of Captain Crunch in hand, when hearing the familiar booming deep-throated voice-over narration of Ted Knight, or later Bill Woodson and his iconic "Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice...."
Think back to the last time you actually wanted to get out of bed on a Saturday morning; it may have been to watch Super Friends.
While one could make the case subsequent animated adaptations were better (2008's Spectacular Spider-Man was a particular critical favorite), 1967-70's Spider-Man remains too culturally iconic not to be counted about the best comic book animated series ever.
Sure, seasons two and three had little to do with the comic books, and were a trippy, psychedelic hodge-podge from the mind of animation legend Ralph Bakshi (serious budget limitations in those season were the cause of many a 10 year-olds minds being blown), but here's our closing argument for Spider-Man being #4 on our list...
Does whatever a spider can
Spins a web, any size,
Catches thieves just like flies
Here comes the Spider-man.
We rest our case.
3. X-Men: The Animated Series
Like Super Friends two decades earlier, the 1992-1997 X-Men animated series was responsible for introducing a new generation to superhero comics. If you ask a comic book fan in their mid 20s to early 30s about their first exposure to the medium, it's a safe bet this Fox Kids cartoon played a part and that the theme song is still stuck in their heads 20 years later (notice a pattern?).
It just looked like a comic book, featuring character designs roughly identical to the visuals found in the Chris Claremont/Jim Lee era of the comic books. With a main cast of nine, it revelled in the X-Men's flair for complicated storytelling, adapting comic book arcs from "The Dark Phoenix Saga" to "The Phalanx Covenant" and eventually depicted just about every major X-character of the time.
Sure, when revisiting the series now – which is pretty easy to do, since it's all on DVD and various streaming platforms – it's clear that it hasn't aged particularly well, from its frequently groan-inducing dialogue to sometimes choppy animation. But there's no denying the show's lasting impact, as it's hard to imagine X-Men movie franchise getting off the ground without the success of this show. Furthermore, Marvel recently revived the continuity of the show as a comic book title.
And hey, for many children of the '90s, it's still voice actor Cathal J. Dodd's voice they hear when they read Wolverine comic books - not Hugh Jackman's, bub.
2. Young Justice
The series may have only gotten two seasons (at first), but it offered a glimpse into the DC Universe that had intrigue, humor, romance, fun - as well as its heavy moments. It expertly juggled a huge cast of characters, focusing on the young heroes of the DCU, but also showed how the Justice League fit into this world as mentors and more.
A five-year jump after season one could have been jarring, but instead only made the series that much better, with a second tier of cast members including Tim Drake as Robin, Bart Allen as Impulse, Beast Boy, and a whole lot of aliens.
The series ended with many plotlines closed, but the promise of a major incursion by Darkseid's forces just around the corner that seemed for years would go unexplored.
However, the series was revived thanks to fan demand, with a new lease on life on the DC Universe streaming service.
1. Batman: The Animated Series
Batman: The Animated Series was nothing short of revolutionary. When Bruce Timm and Paul Dini teamed up to offer a take on the Batman that had never been seen in mass media, they changed more than one perception.
As Kevin Conroy, the voice of Batman, told us in a video interview, Timm approached the show as closer in tone to the Batman of Frank Miller's seminal Dark Knight Returns rather than the campy Batman that most of the masses knew. This was a tortured soul, with often equally tortured enemies. It was easy to feel bad for Mr. Freeze, who just wanted to save his poor wife Nora's life. It was easy to relate to Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, who warred with himself. Even the Joker with his charisma and genuine insanity was clearly played as the other side of Batman's own coin.
The music, the pseudo-thirties look, the voice acting of Conroy, Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin, the dark tones, and the stories. Oh, those stories. This is a series that actually stands up today, with tales that to a generation (and maybe more) completely defined Batman. Its willingness to be different, and to show the world that animation didn't have to equal "kiddie" or "campy" makes it the best comic book animated series of all time.