Sketch’s Top 12 Animated Action Series

Posted: March 29, 2011 by Sketch in Animation, Animation Editorials, Authors, Sketch

All this talk about the Geek Cast Radio Network’s Top 100 cartoons of all time list got me thinking about which cartoons I consider to be the best of all time but rather than even attempt to do top 100 at this time I thought I’d narrow it down to one genre and under 15. I actually was going to go with 11 but then I thought of another and I couldn’t bare to leave any of them off the list so I made it 12.

A few which barely didn’t make this list include Batman Beyond, X-Men: The Animated Series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the 2002 He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Transformers: Beast Wars.

Now on to the list.

12: Mobile Suit Gundam

The mecha genre existed before Gundam but it was never the same after Mobile Suit Gundam hit the airwaves in Japan. In the US we were treated to Gundam Wing first and because of this, Gundam Wing is the most fondly remembered Gundam series in America and other parts of the world. Gundam Wing is a show I enjoy dearly but it has numerous flaws that put it far behind the original series in quality. Mobile Suit Gundam tells the story of a boy forced into war piloting a machine built by his father and discovering he may be more than human. It is a sci-fi epic that should not be overlooked by anyone.

11: The Spectacular Spider-Man

While many might consider Spider-Man: The Animated Series to be the best of Spider-Man’s animated outings for its longevity, its fantastic vocal cast, the excellent story-telling and great use of the characters, there is no question in my mind that Spectacular Spider-Man did Spider-Man better. Spectacular Spider-Man had equally good or better casting, better use of the characters and a much richer connected storyline. The only shame is it cut short at a mere 26 episodes. Despite that it managed to get a lot accomplished in two seasons. Gave us the best animated incarnations of much of the Spider-Man rouges gallery and was immensely entertaining throughout. This show is a love letter to the original Spider-Man comics of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee and it shows. It’s possible there might never be a better Spider-Man cartoon than this.

10: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2003

Spanning over 100 episodes and taking Ninja Turtles back to its darker comic routes is this bodacious animated series. The 1980s Ninja Turtles is fun and entertaining and among my favorite cartoons of all time but among cartoons where fighting action is a major part of their quality it sticks out like a sore thumb. Rarely did that cartoon ever have a great fight scene. This series on the other hand had them in spades. The storyline was also considerably stronger given that is had a linear plot and continuity. The amount of care put into the multiple seasons of this series is only rivaled by the Spectacular Spider-Man and the shows ranking higher on this list. I’d rank it higher perhaps but the last couple of seasons soured the entire package a bit. Even so it should be considered among the greatest action cartoons of all time.

9: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Nickelodeon made an action show and believe it or not, it was magnificent. Avatar had a lot of charm to it managing to balance fun comedic stories with the more suspenseful, dramatic and exciting ones. It had good drama, just the right amount of romance and very impressive fights. The heroic journey brought viewers to the table and the entertaining characters kept them watching all the way to the climatic finish. Few multiple season action cartoons manage to get a satisfying conclusion. That is an accomplishment in of itself.

8: Gargoyles

Gargoyles is a rare achievement among other animated action series. Where most are based on pre-existing properties, Gargoyles was an entirely new concept and is still quite unique among its’ action animation brethren. Greg Weisman crafted an intriging mythos that borrowed elements from various legends and folk lore and even bit of a Sharespeare. The voice acting was simply phenomenal and what this show got away with on weekday afternoon syndication still astounds me to this day. A well-crafted storyline and a great cast of characters gives this show a well deserved spot among the greatest action animated series of all time.

7: Dragon Ball Z

When Toonami called Dragon Ball Z the greatest action cartoon ever made, they were embellishing a little bit but it is certainly earns its’ place among the greatest out there. Dragon Ball more or less coined a formula of a young man going out on adventures with friends and protecting the people he cares about. Surely that story existed before hand in many forms including the one which Dragon Ball drew its inspiration from, Journey to the West. Though I’m not really talking about that part of the Dragon Ball story because when it comes to action, the later portion subtitled “Z” spanned over 200 episodes of beat downs and included some of the best fights in animation history. It was long-winded and maybe outwore its welcome and lacked some of the charm the first portion of the series had but it was by all means a great action cartoon full of entertaining characters and thrilling battles. I would rank it higher but I feel at least one show improved on the Dragon Ball formula and also offers a better written and more gripping story overall.

6: Superman: The Animated Series

Superman: The Animated Series always seems to be criminally underrated and perhaps it still is here since it’s kind of low on this top 11 but I have a great amount of respect for this series. Superman: The Animated series is easily the best Superman cartoon of all time and nobody does action like Superman. While a certain other action series is considered a better series, this is where the DC Animated Universe of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and company truly began. Before it was just one series, with Superman it was a universe. More importantly Superman: The Animated Series had some of the best writing an action cartoon has ever received. Surely not every episode was brilliant but the writing was consistently strong and a few particular episodes such as the “Apocalypse Now” multi-parter are simply sight to behold.

5: Cowboy Bebop

With the dynamic fight scenes and the engaging main plotline it is a given Cowboy Bebop should be on this list but what truly puts it here is how unique it is. The jazzy sound track, the great cinematography and the overall atmosphere are what make this show so phenomenal and respected. Several episodes have little to no action but when it is there it puts the competition to shame. The show’s appeal is very universal and that earns it some points as well. What else is there to say? It’s a fun action-packed ride with some compelling drama and great characters. Even so I feel I should stress again the main reason I rank it so high is because of the show’s style.

4: Samurai Jack

Speaking of style, if any show has more of it than Cowboy Bebop it is Samurai Jack. Genndy Tartakovsky knows how to get what he wants out of a scene and does so creatively, beautifully and strikingly in nearly every episode of this series. The fight choreography is hard to top. The use of various styles is masterful and the unique animation style is unforgettable. Unfortunately it has no ending and many episodes are not as good as the majority but what the show does well it does incredibly well. It is amazing how Samurai Jack can hold a viewer’s attention with little to no dialogue. The use of ambient sounds and background music further enhances ever scene. It is such a shame the show never got a proper conclusion.

3: Justice League

Justice League, particularly the final seasons subtitled “Unlimited” is the culmination of the DC Animated Universe and probably the greatest super hero cartoon ever. The folks behind it all took every opportunity to breathe life into barely known super heroes and make them entirely likable and compelling to watch. The storylines were the strongest they have ever been in the DC Animated Universe in my opinion. Personally it is my favorite chapter in that universe but because it was the last of its’ kind the impact of the series is considerably less than another of its’ ilk. Impressive battles, entertaining characters, well written stories and taking the time to tie up some loose ends from other series makes this truly one of the best cartoons ever made.

2: One Piece

The Dragon Ball formula was perfected and expanded upon by one show and one show alone. One Piece is a thrilling adventure from the beginning but it does take a bit of time to ramp up. However, once it does it holds the viewer’s attention and holds on for dear life. I will say it is a very flawed show because it is supposedly about pirates but barely has anything to do with them. Try not to hold that against it though because if you do you are going to miss out on the charming and expansive world One Piece has to offer. Eiichiro Oda’s story is in my opinion one of the greatest works of fiction ever produced. Somehow he has managed to make nearly every story better than the last. At this point and time the story is still pressing forward and continues to delight audiences the world around. The animated series has more flaws than the comic however due to Toei Animation’s lazy work from time to time. It certainly is not as well animated as Cowboy Bebop or Justice League or probably most of the shows on this list so I’m basing this ranking more so by the story, the fights and the characters. One Piece has some of most likable and most entertaining characters of any action cartoon I have ever seen. It is also quite hilarious but so are many other brilliant action comedies. Where One Piece truly shines though is its use of heart-felt drama. I have never cared more for any other characters in fiction than I have for this cast. This is the only show on this list that has made me cry, not once but multiple times. Due to the amazing Japanese voice cast and the great use of music, it is beautiful and it is powerful. Without question it is one of the best cartoons of all time.

1: Batman: The Animated Series

Well you didn’t honestly think I picked something else did you? I tried to throw in some curve balls and attempted to make this list more about quality of the storytelling, action, characters and entertainment value than about sheer popularity with respect to impact and legacy but not over those other qualities. None the less it is Batman: The Animated Series’ quality that sets it apart as the best action cartoon of all time. It was a game changer specifically because of its’ quality. The atmosphere has often been imitated but never entirely matched, the stories were powerful and well written, the use of music was perfect, the voice cast was sensational and the overall package remains unrivaled. It is about as close to perfect as you can get when it comes to making an action cartoon and that is why it changed action animation forever.

Well there you go. That’s my 12. They could certainly change if something impressive comes along but that is them for now. Feel free to comment and make a case for any show you felt I overlooked. Here at The Scratch Pad we appreciate your comments and critiques of our comments and critiques.

  1. Jeff Harris says:

    No Gargoyles? That show set a lot of standards unseen in Western animation, just as much as Batman: The Animated Series, introduced the world to great characters like Goliath, Elisa Maza, and Xanathos, a complex villain/anti-hero that not only gives Lex Luthor a run for his money but also one that has inspired the popular webpage TV Tropes to create many categories based on the traits, schemes, and master plans the character performed throughout the series. Not many shows could bring Shakespeare, Arthurian lore, and regional/global mythologies in a manner that wasn’t overtly preachy nor educational to a mass audience while creating lore of its own as much as Gargoyles.

    Perhaps the only Disney cartoon not bearing the Disney name, it also introduced viewers to the world to Greg Weisman, currently the co-creator of Young Justice and the showrunner of many animated series, including W.I.T.C.H. and the number 10 show on your list, The Spectacular Spider-Man. He even wrote a script performed by many cast members uniting Gargoyles and Spectacular Spider-Man. Now that would have been nice to see animated.

  2. Sketch says:

    Perhaps Gargoyles deserves the place of Spectacular Spider-Man. I do consider it among the best cartoons of all time particularly for being an original concept. I honestly didn’t realize it’s impact was that far reaching but it was Greg Weisman’s first and in many ways his opus. I think I’m already kicking myself for not having 15.

    • Jeff Harris says:

      No, no, don’t kick yourself. I think Spectacular Spider-Man deserves a place in the top 10 as well. I believe that was the best take on the nearly 50-year old franchise in ANY medium, including the movies and even the comics. I think that’s part of the reason I’m not on pins and needles in anticipation over Ultimate Spider-Man. SSM did the franchise right. Any thing else is going to be a letdown. I’m optimistic about it, but I think they should have waited a bit longer to create it.

      • Sketch says:

        Yeah I agree. I’m looking forward to Ultimate Spider-Man and expect it to be enjoyable but it’s going to be hard pressed to come even close to as good as SSM. A show that was brilliant and tragically cut short before it could tell all the stories it wanted to.

  3. Knigthammer says:

    Ever since I saw you post this today I have been thinking about how I’d personally be ranking everything myself.

    The one thing I’d like to ask is: What is your MO here? Are you going for absolute best quality? Are you factoring in its impact? Are you factoring in it’s reception?

    If I was going for absolute best series, I probably wouldn’t be including Gundam and I’d certainly be going for Wolverine and the X-Men instead.

    I’m also finding myself wondering if I would include DBZ, Bleach, etc. Do I want to factor in the filler and say the series is a net loss in my book or do I want to say “When its good, ITS GOOD”?

    I’d actually like to see you start this thread on Toonzone. I think it would be interesting.

    • Sketch says:

      I attempted to factor quality of the writing, characters and the action sequences. Impact, reception and legacy were also factored in but much less so. With respect to what some shows were capable of doing, some fantastic shows never caught on and in my mind that should not make them lower on a greatest cartoon list in of itself. All of those factors matters but not over the quality of the writing, characters and if it was good at displaying action for the audience.

  4. Desensitized says:

    Nice list, Sketch. I might not personally agree with some choices, but I would have a hard time arguing against any of them which in my mind makes it a good list.

  5. Avaitor says:

    I’d personally replace Gargoyles with either X-Men (which I find to be a soulless lift from the original comics) or Bebop (which I find hard to classify as an action series per say), and maybe find a place for another series or two, but besides that, this is a great list.

    I’m also not a big OP fan, but I think second place is fair considering how far it has reached over the years and how it still continues to keep fans interested. As long as B:TAS is tops though, I can’t really call the list out too much.

  6. Sketch says:

    Alright after some debate with myself and considering all the things I believe to be most important in regard to the quality of an animated series I had to give X-Men the boot and moved TMNT behind Avatar for having more consistent quality. So that made room for Gargoyles and I placed it 8th but I could see it argued Gargoyles should be ahead of DBZ and maybe Superman and Samurai Jack because it has a richer story than any of them but there are other reasons why I felt those should rank higher still and it might actually come down to action sequences more than anything else.

  7. Sketch says:

    And for the record if I was going by shows that had the biggest impact on culture (world wide) it would probably go something like this

    12. Superman Theatrical Shorts (had to be there)
    11. Sailor Moon (biggest girls action brand probably ever)
    10. Cowboy Bebop (a game changer in every way and you see the influence in cartoons from around the globe)
    9. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (the first of the 80s toy pushers)
    8. Pokemon (affected cartoons world wide and started the monster battle genre)
    7. X-Men: The Animated Series (super hero cartoons in a nut shell and probably second most popular among them to Batman:TAS)
    6. Mobile Suit Gundam (changed the mecha genre forever)
    5. The Transformers (most revamped action franchise by far huge merch seller and many imitators)
    4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987) (maybe just a bit bigger than TFG1 at selling stuff and it had countless imitators)
    3. Astroboy (grand daddy of action toons with Gigantor)
    2. Dragon Ball (how many series have taken pages from this one by now and the model of a successful anime brand)
    1. Batman: The Animated Series (its influence reached far beyond American shores really it changed everything, everywhere)

  8. cartoons says:

    swat cats also should be there

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