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The world of comic books has always been fodder for all sorts of crossovers into other mediums. Radio, television and movies have all taken ideas from the comics for some of its most exciting adventures. There is possibly no better medium for a comic book adaptation than animation. It allows for all sorts of wild and fantastic situations without spending millions of dollars for special effects, etc. One of the best animated vehicles was done beginning in 1996 with Superman: The Animated Series.

The Series
Hot off the heels of their wildly successful Batman: The Animated Series (from here on referred to as B:TAS), Warner Brothers animation decided to take on the other superhero pillar of the DC Comics universe: Superman. First appearing in 1938 in Action Comics # 1, Superman has come to really be representative of super-heroes as a whole. When one thinks of super-heroes and comics, the Man of Steel comes immediately to mind.

The first eighteen episodes of Superman: The Animated Series (henceforth known as S:TAS) appear on this first volume, and they do not disappoint. The first three episodes form the origin story of Kal-El, the infant who was rocketed from the dying planet Krypton by his scientist father Jor-El. When Jor-El discovers that Krypton is dying, he devises a plan to ensure that at least his son with outlive his planet. In a twist on the well known origin story, Brainiac here is portrayed as a repository for all Kryptonian knowledge. He, too, knows that Krypton is dying, however, he schemes to save himself just before the planet explodes. Brainiac and Superman will meet later in the season in a stand out episode.

Superman: The Animated Series - Volume One
Meanwhile, the rocket ship carrying little Kal-El lands in a cornfield in Smallville, Kansas, and is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent. They raise Kal-El as their own, giving him the name Clark. Clark soon begins to realize that he has abilities that others do not. When he finally confronts his adoptive parents, they tell him of his true origin. Clark freaks out at this news, but during it he realizes that he can also fly, which seems to calm him down.

A few years later, Clark is now working for the Daily Planet, a newspaper in the major city of Metropolis. We are introduced to Perry White, the paper's editor-in-chief, Jimmy Olsen, the paper's photographer, and someone who will become a major part of the Superman mythos, Lois Lane. She becomes infatuated with Superman, and also very competitive with Clark Kent.

One of Superman's first tales brings him into direct confrontation with Lex Luthor, here portrayed as a wealthy businessman who owns ‘practically all of Metropolis’. Lex likes to be the centre of attention, and when the public turns towards Superman, Lex believes he must eliminate the competition. As with the comics (and virtually every incarnation of the Man of Steel), Luthor ends up being Superman's # 1 arch enemy. Luthor figures into virtually two-thirds of the tales in this first helping of episodes.

During the course of these episodes, the Man of Tomorrow will face some of his biggest adversaries: Luthor, Metallo, the Toyman and Darkseid. In addition, unlike his Dark Knight cousin's first outings, Supes will interact with several of DC's other characters during the course of the series run. In this set, look for a two-part episode guest starring Lobo, and also a take on the race to see who is the fastest man alive as the Flash makes an appearance in the set's final episode. Future sets will see Superman meet Dr. Fate, Aquaman, and introduce Supergirl.

Superman: The Animated Series - Volume One
Obviously, the success of the series rests not only on the stories, but also with the animation itself, and the voice characterizations. Thankfully, the producing team of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (who collaborated on B:TAS) once again come through with flying colours. Superman himself is voiced by Tim Daly (probably best known as one of the stars of the show Wings), while Dana Delany (of China Beach) voices Lois Lane. In a final bit of inspired casting, Clancy Brown (of Highlander and Shawshank Redemption fame), gives a menacing voice to Lex Luthor. Other voices of note include Malcolm McDowell as John Corbin/Metallo and Brad Garrett (from Everybody Loves Raymond) as Lobo.

On the animated the front, S:TAS differs from B:TAS in many ways. One of the first things one will notice with Superman is that most of the action takes place during the day. Colours are very vibrant and rich, with the blues especially so. The style of the animation is very unique as well. To me, the entire animation in the series is a cross between the old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons and Japanese anime. And it works, on almost every level. There were some very conscious decisions made along the way to aid in the animation. Although there is a yellow ‘S’ symbol on Superman's cape, it was deliberately left off in this series to make the animation simpler. The city of Metropolis is very much a part of the entire feel of the series, as well. It seems to tower over everything, but not in a way that Gotham City does in B:TAS. Metropolis almost seems like a ‘city in the clouds’. Elevated highways dominate the skyline, adding to its sense of the ‘city of tomorrow’.

Superman: The Animated Series - Volume One
Video
I have to admit, for a series that is less than ten years old the masters used for the DVD set really need to be cleaned up. There is an awful lot of film grain noticeable at many points in the set. Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting the job that Disney does on restoring their animated movies, but it seems to me that some cleaning up of the films could have been done. The same thing plagues both of the released B:TAS sets as well. Having said that, it is a treat to have these released, but I would like to have my cake and eat it, too. As mentioned previously, the colours used are rich and vibrant and do the set justice. But the quality of the transfers! Okay....I'll get off my soapbox now.

Audio
Sporting a Digital 2.0 Surround track, the audio serves the material well. Obviously one of the main components of the soundtrack will be the dialogue, and here it is very clear and crisp. The musical score for the episodes is also very strong, but not overpowering, much like the Man of Steel is supposed to be. There is an almost regal quality to it. Other important parts of the series obviously include all of the mayhem that occurs, including bullets shooting, items being thrown and broken. The surround track handles these all well, but nothing really to write home about. For an animated series though, the soundtrack is a good one.

Superman: The Animated Series - Volume One
Extras
There are good helpings of extras on this first volume. There are two featurettes on the set. The first deals with the creation of the series itself. It offers a good comparison between B:TAS and S:TAS. Timm goes on about some of the conscious choices that were made in the design and look of the series, from the lack of ‘S’ on the cape, to the design for Luthor and Lois Lane. It is an informative piece. This is followed by another featurette on the supporting cast and how they came to be incorporated into the series. There are some characters that are not ‘regular’ members of Superman’s supporting cast in any other incarnation of the Man of Tomorrow. Bibbo, Lt. Turpin, Maggie Sawyer and Professor Emile Hamilton are all characters that make several appearances here, and add to the mythos of the Man of Steel. Several of these characters have become recurring characters in the many Superman comics.

A rather unusual extra is the ‘Pop-up’ trivia that one can activate while they are watching the episode ‘A Little Piece of Home’. Done in almost ‘VH-1’ style, it offers the viewer opportunities to learn not only about the series and what is included (did you know that are fifty-four episodes total in S:TAS?), but also in regards to some of the ‘behind scenes work’ in the animation and voice work areas—very informative.

Superman: The Animated Series - Volume One
The commentary on the four episodes is done by a variety of individuals, most notably Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, although in one instance the director of an episode joins, in another the producer Alan Burnett is along for the ride. It is obvious from the interactions between the participants of their love for the work they have done, and how proud they are of the final product. They very much wanted it to stand alone than be compared to their work on B:TAS. Although the comparisons do occur, they succeeded in a large way. At one point, one of the directors mentions that he was asked whether he wanted to go back to working on B:TAS or continue with S:TAS, and he said without hesitation that he wanted to work on Superman.

Overall
Both Superman and Batman are iconic figures in the DC Comics Universe. Both have had their adventures told in almost every medium imaginable, and I can only assume this will continue (in fact, both will have new feature length live-action movies within the next year and a half). Although no new episodes of S:TAS are being made, the Dini/Timm Man of Steel continues in the current adventures of Justice League Unlimited. But to go back to how it all began, pick up the first volume of Superman: The Animated Series. You won’t be disappointed.


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