As a child born on the cusp of generation X&Y and one who was not allowed to go outside much for medical reasons, I was in part raised by the warm embrace of my television set. There are a lot of life lessons in the stories that 90s programs presented to their audiences, but some of the most important ones for myself and many my age came from cartoons. Superhero cartoons specifically helped to shape many of my still growing ethical views on the treatment of those who were different, an incredibly important social lesson at such a young age.
Captain Planet, later known as The New Adventures of Captain Planet and the Planeteers, ran for one hundred and thirteen episodes, featuring an incredible lineup of voice talent and has the distinction of being seen as the definitive educational cartoon for environmentalism. Captain Planet was also the first of the cartoon superheroes to broach the subject of HIV and AIDS. In the episode “A Formula for Hate” a community is brainwashed to believe that the virus could be contracted through simple touch which turned the town against a kid named Todd. This episode featured Neil Patrick Harris as the young man and Elizabeth Taylor as his mother. It addressed a pandemic that not only was a real problem but one that no one was talking about to children. It was an odd episode to watch at ten years old, but it taught a very important lesson about ignorance breeding fear and is remembered as one of the darkest episodes of the series.
Learning about tolerance of others is important. Two cartoons and their cartoon superheroes teach that lesson better than any others without being too heavy handed in their delivery. Savage Dragon was an animated adaptation from the Image comic written by Eric Larson. Though the show only ran for twenty-six episodes it continued the theme that was so prevalent from the comic: racism. Dragon, like many others in the series, is a freak and seen as a second class citizen. As well, freaks are said to be predetermined to either be criminals or leeches on society. Though racism is explored throughout the entire series, the episode “Loathing” covers the most ground by showing how even Dragon, a freak on the right side of the law, is the victim of hate by his own fellow police officers as well as the media. The episode also touches on direct racism using some downplayed tactics from the comic like rephrasing actual racially charged statements and debunking excuses for intolerance. Dragon’s partner was also used to breach boundaries having her date freaks within the series and revealing other characters thoughts on mixed relationships. It was also heavily suspected that Dragon himself was African American until his true origins were finally revealed in the comics. With characters that are no strangers to hate, the X-Men cartoon shined as Marvel’s longest running animated series and took to heart the themes of racism and the struggle of the LBGT community from the comics. Groups like the Friends of Humanity and the vicious sentinels created by Bolivar Trask were explored and demonized in the cartoon for their prejudices and genocidal attempts. Mutants were not only seen as second class but as a blight; they were unwanted even though they were a natural occurrence. In one particular episode the issue is explored further when the distinction is made about mutants who are not empowered, but simply victims of genetics. These individuals are still being targeted and beaten for their association based solely on appearance. Characters with several different perspectives are highlighted to show how this affected them, from Beast who can’t pass as human, Mystique who must use her abilities to hide, and Rogue whose powers cut her off from human contact. Professor X and Magneto are also viewed as two leaders within the conflict who believe in different approaches to solving the problems between the two sides. Observing why Magneto was wrong in his choice is a valuable lesson. Each character deals with being different in their own way, many of them growing through the series, like Rogue who actually seeks to find a cure for her mutation for the majority of the first two seasons. X-Men also dealt with the subject of AIDS in the episode “Time Fugitives.” An epidemic known as the legacy virus spreads through mutants, and later humans, causing mass panic, but it is eventually revealed to have been designed by Apocalypse to instill fear thus merging many of its on-going themes.
Though poignant, none of these moral lessons were overdone to a point where they felt obnoxious, even if the shows were sometimes silly or overly dramatic. Each of the superhero cartoons were entertaining above all else, helping the lessons to be memorable. Children of my generation that grew up with these shows and these cartoon superheroes learned more about tolerance and understanding presented in forms that were not as readily available to my parent’s generation. These lessons ensure that even if our children don’t have access to the same amazing learning medium that we did, the ideas can still be passed along.