The first comicbook-related thing I followed with any regularity was the X-Men cartoon show, and cartoons in general were how I started to get serious about superheroes. I am not alone in this, and much of what I'll say here has been said before, likely online and definitely in conversation, but what can I tell ya? I got influenced by the shit that was popular when I was young, and in fairly typical ways.
There's a lot I loved about X-Men, but I think the original draw was more visual than anything else. Beast and Nightcrawler were friendly monsters, Rogue and Storm both had a commanding presence that was hard to look away from, and Gambit was wearing that ridiculous open head sock of his which was just so bizarre that I wanted to know more. They also all kicked ass. So I started watching because of the aesthetic and the action, but stayed and eventually became a diehard fan because of the stories. I still have a pretty strong memory of being totally wowed by Morph coming back from the dead and turning against the rest of the team in the second season, not because he seemed like such a morally upstanding guy (he didn't) but because the whole idea of a former good guy becoming a bad guy blew my mind. I'd never encountered something like that in my entertainment before, because I was like six or seven years old and had only recently started watching shows with actual plots, let alone plot twists, let alone crazy post-resurrection role reversals. Morph's heel turn is just one highlight from a whole bunch of happy X-Men memories. Wolverine fighting Sabertooth in the snow, the "Days of Future Past" adaptation, anything with Gladiator in it because, hello, blue mohawk. Hell, the theme song alone is enough to excite me even now, and looking back, the show is likely the original source of my lifetime romance with longform narratives. Storylines lasted for many episodes in a row, characters recurred, the team roster and dynamics changed over time. I loved that, and I loved being rewarded for my devotion to it. I don't remember necessarily X-Men being the first superhero thing I was exposed to, but it was definitely the first one I got seriously invested in, both emotionally and intellectually. While I was watching the show, it held my heart. In between episodes, it lingered in my mind, teaching me the fundamentals of solid storytelling. It really had it all: well-developed characters, a balance of action and conversation, humor blended with comedy, and captivating stories with great structures.
A close second, and a show I fell in love with around the same time, was Batman: the Animated Series. I didn't care about it quite as much as X-Men, which I attribute mostly to the X-Men being a team while Batman was a single hero (though he did have a stellar supporting cast, of course). Also, X-Men was a little more overtly funny, and it was brighter and more energetic, all of which appealed to child me. Even so, Batman was an amazing show, and in the long run I'm sure I soaked up just as much from it as I did from X-Men. Batman was, of course, a little grimmer, and there were more serious consequences for people's actions in that show. It was, for lack of a better term, more grown-up than X-Men, and even if that made it slightly less fun, it was also more gripping. I would feel legitimate fear and powerful anxiety watching Batman sometimes, because it felt like traumatic shit could go down any second. But it was an anxiety I enjoyed, a safe kind of fear, because Batman would inevitably win in the end. While the X-Men mattered to me as people, Batman mattered to me more as a hero—a super-cool, totally unbeatable, and, above all else, reliable force for good.
Honorable mention cartoons include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, and Spider-Man, even though the first two are arguably not superhero series. I think they also arguably are, and either way they're from the same era and had a similar spirit as the superhero cartoons of my youth. It was animated do-gooders battling the forces of evil, and I'd take that in any form. Plus watching all of these shows on top of each other made me appreciate their varied sensibilities early on. Turtles was goofy but with moments of intense vulnerability; Ghostbusters was pretty much sheer absurdity, and the violence was the most toned down; Spider-Man landed somewhere in the middle of everything else, its young, flashy star making quips and having a good time but also dealing with serious threats and, sometimes, major tragedies. Though they all shared plenty of common ground, I also turned to each of them for different things, and they have stuck with and inspired with me in different ways over time.
I have rewatched a handful of episodes of all of these shows, save Ghostbusters, as an adult. Batman holds up a little better than X-Men I think, if only because its artistic style is more distinct. They really did find a perfectly modern yet classic look. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn't amazing, but I remember it being better than I expected when I saw it again in college. As for Spider-Man, it was always my least favorite as a kid, and so it unavoidably remains so today.
I watched a lot of TV as a kid, because it was the 90s and there was a lot on. I'm not saying it was a good thing, but I absolutely valued it, and still do. Superhero cartoons pushed me to want more of the same, more modern myths told in serialized installments. Thank goodness for that.
Tomorrow: My first favorite comicbook.