Nowadays, in light of multiple wars abroad and massive economic decline, the ‘90s are often remembered as a golden age of happiness and prosperity, a time when things were brighter, simpler, more wholesome…except for children’s animation, apparently. In a television world before Adult Swim, Western animators looking to produce more mature material still had to work within the constraints of children’s programming, with surprising and often award-winning results. Were these shows too serious for kids? Is today’s children’s programming too juvenile? Take a look at these seven (in no particular order) surprisingly dark kids’ shows of the ‘90s and let us know what you think.
7. X-Men: The Animated Series
Running from October 1992 to September 1997, the popular series loosely adapted a number of famous X-Men comic book arcs and dealt with many of the same issues that the print version focused on: intolerance, isolation, predjudice, and outright racism. In true ‘90s “After School Special” style,X-Men: The Animated Series even dealt with current controversial topics, such as divorce, AIDS hysteria (in the form of the Legacy Virus), and even the effects of too much television. In this clip, Professor X manages to stop a raging Magneto… by making him relive his Holocaust experiences of fleeing from Nazis in war-stricken Europe. Yeah, that’s pretty dark.
This multiple award-winning Canadian show originally ran from 1994 to 2001 and owns the distinction of being the first computer-animated television series. ReBoot followed the adventures of sprites and binomes living within a user’s home computer, presented as the futuristic city of Mainframe. The story focused on Dot Matrix, a sprite who owned a diner at the beginning of the series, her little brother Enzo, and their relationship with Bob, the designated guardian (a form of anti-virus software) of Mainframe. The central villains were two resident viruses, the evil yet orderly Megabyte (voiced by the late Tony Jay) and his chaotic, immensely powerful but utterly insane sister Hexadecimal (voiced by Shirley Millner). While the first season was mostly self-contained episodes, the show later evolved towards following coherent, surprisingly mature story arcs that explored topics such as
death, insanity, redemption, excessive force, and even outright torture.
5. Spider-Man: The Animated Series
The ‘90s Spider-Man cartoon ran for five seasons from 1994-1998. In the vein of the earlier X-Men series, the show followed its own storylines but with an even looser format. Rather than adapt entire arcs, the show instead focused on incorporating popular Spider-Man characters and then creating their own arcs and even origins for these figures. The show tread into dark waters numerous times, but one of the most memorable was the introduction of notable nightmare inducer Carnage. In the original Spider-Man comics, Kletus Kasady is an outright psychopathic serial killer who becomes immensely more dangerous and unhinged after bonding with the offspring of Venom’s symbiote. In Spider-Man: The Animated Series, they instead label Kasady as just a madman, but his maniacal personality and thirst for violence is present in full force.
4. Beast Wars: Transformers
The Beast Wars incarnation of the ever-popular Transformers line of toys and cartoons originally ran from 1996 to 1999. Beast Wars represented a distinct break with Transformers tradition, featuring robots disguised as animals rather than the usual vehicles (and occasional boombox… with accompanying transforming cassettes) duking it out on a prehistoric earth. Due to this fact alone, the show was initially derided by Transformers fans, but went on to earn their and really everyone else’s respect for the quality and maturity of its writing and excellent (for the time) computer animation. Ask a fan of the show what their most memorable moment is, and they’ll probably tell you it was the death of Dinobot, a proud warrior and Predacon (Beast Wars’ analog to Decepticons) who defects to the Maximals (Beast Wars’ Autobots) in rebellion against the trickery and lack of honor of his original faction. Dinobot eventually sacrifices himself (while kicking the ass of multiple opponents at once) to prevent the destruction of creatures that will evolve into the human race.
Gargoyles originally ran from 1994 to 1997 and followed the adventures of nocturnal Gargoyle creatures from 994 medieval Scotland, who, after being betrayed by their human allies, are cursed to remain frozen in stone until the castle they inhabit “rises above the clouds.” In the modern day, Machiavellian billionaire David Xanatos lifts the remains of the castle to the top of his personal skyscraper, breaking the curse and awakening the gargoyles to 1994 New York City. The show consistently dealt with the ramifications of anger and long-held grudges and prejudices, alongside dealing with the alienation felt by the very human gargoyles themselves. In one thoroughly after school special-esque moment, the episode “Deadly Force,” gargoyle Broadway horses around a bit in the apartment of a friend of the group, NYPD officer (and somewhat inter-species love interest of gargoyle leader Goliath…) Elisa Maza, finds her gun, and then accidentally shoots her, which leads to this disturbing image for a children’s cartoon (there used to be a YouTube clip of this whole sequence but it’s been taken down).
Exosquad only ran from 1993 to 1994, yet in that short time it proved itself to be one of the most somber fully realized animated shows aimed at kids. The series was a full-on war story set at the beginning of the 22nd century, a time when mankind has expanded beyond the earth, terraforming and colonizing Mars and Venus. The Neosapians, a blue-skinned artificial race created to work as slaves for the human race, revolt and capture the three inhabitable planets right in the first episode, as humanity moves its space fleet to combat a pirate menace around the outer planets of the solar system. The rest of the series details what comes to be called the Neosapian War, which sees massive casualties on both sides. The show dealt heavily in themes of racism, slavery, and self-determination, as well as the civilian and psychological costs of war. Watch the first half of episode 7 below, which opens with Exofleet officer Nara Burns detailing her recurring nightmares about the death of her family, and also includes the torture of human civilians by Neosapian military personnel attempting to weed out resistance fighters.
1. Batman: The Animated Series
This four-time Emmy award-winning series ran from 1992 to 1995 and was a formative element for almost all of my male friends who grew up watching it. Batman: The Animated Series received universal acclaim for multiple components of the series, particularly the mature and cinematic writing, the excellent voice acting (which they had all the actors record together, unlike most animated features of the time), and the dark and atmospheric art direction – a combination of dark colors, film noir, and Art Deco that created what has been described as an “otherworldly timelessness.” It was the first cartoon in decades to feature actual firearms being fired as opposed to the usual laser guns, characters were actually depicted striking one another as opposed to flashing cutaways, and unlike the two previous Marvel Comics entries that had a tendency to water down comic book arcs and characters, Batman: The Animated Series actually revitalized campy villains like Clayface and Mr. Freeze, turning them into complex, tortured individuals. See this clip (embedding has been disabled) of the downfall of Clayface, a disfigured former actor mutated by experimental cosmetic products.