- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with DVD- and Blu-ray-enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

* X-Men: The Animated Adventures, Volumes 1 through 4 (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, rated TV-Y7, $23.99 each) - Two breakthrough series of the early 1990s helped redefine the superhero cartoon. The one not named “Batman: The Animated Series” found Marvel Comics‘ famed team of mutants enjoying a five-season run on Fox’s Saturday morning lineup, appealing to both child and adult.

With stories adapted from pivotal issues of X-Men Comics from the 1960s through the early 1990s and many character designs adapted from artist Jim Lee while he worked on the X-Men (Volume 2) series with writer Chris Claremont, the 30-minute shows dazzled with a cavalcade of color and familiar friends.

The core X-Men team of Cyclops, Storm, Jean Grey, Jubilee, Rogue, Gambit, Wolverine, the Beast and Professor X found plenty of mutants to embrace and battle over the series’ 76 episodes. Touching on socially relevant topics of racial discrimination, genocide, child abuse and hate groups, the serious series also presented intelligent dialogue and plenty of action every week.

The first four seasons are available on DVD, with an average of 15 episodes on each of the two-disc sets. The animation holds up surprisingly well, with wonderful detail on such characters as the Beast (who also offers a quote from classic literature no matter the situation) and comic-accurate costumes that really accentuate the female mutants, such as Rogue and Jean Grey, along with the muscle-busting Wolverine and Sabretooth.

Evergreen fans of the comics will froth over multiple-episode arcs devoted to such legendary comic story lines as the Dark Phoenix (from X-Men Nos. 129 through 138), the Phoenix Saga (from X-Men Nos. 101 through 108) and Days of Future Past (from Uncanny X-Men Nos. 141 and 142).

Guest appearances in every episode will overwhelm with favorites such as Mr. Sinister and his Nasty Bunch, the Hellfire Club (given the more-child-friendly name Inner Circle Club), Apocalypse and his Four Horsemen, Omega Red, Cable, Mystique, Nightcrawler, Magneto and Sauron.

I didn’t have time to watch the shows when they first aired, and it is a true treat for this X-Men fan to appreciate them nearly two decades later.

Expect Volume 5 someday, hopefully with episodes such as the two-part Phalanx Covenant.

Best extras: It pains me that Buena Vista treats the series with such disrespect - it’s even more annoying now, considering that Disney owns Marvel. I wasn’t expecting digital restoration of the episodes - I can only imagine how beautiful they would have looked - but to include zero bonus material is an outright insult.

Would it have killed the developer to offer an interview with Jim Lee, a few words from Stan Lee or Avi Arad, or even a fact track on a few episodes with comparisons from comic to cartoon?

Read all about it: A trio of Marvel’s trade paperbacks set the mood for what viewers will see in the four volumes. Start with “X-Men: Mutant Genesis” ($19.99) to read the first seven issues of the 1991 X-Men series presenting Jim Lee’s character designs. Then, “X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga” ($24.99) and “Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men Volume 1” ($24.99) to find out about Jean Grey’s rough life.

* Batman and Superman: Public Enemies, (Warner Home Video, rated PG-13, $29.99) - This faithful animated adaptation of writer Jeph Loeb and artist Ed McGuinness’ first story arc of the monthly Superman/Batman comic-book series has arrived as a direct-to-home-video Blu-ray release.

I have been pretty hard on the PG-13 collaborations between Warner Bros. animation and DC Comics, and it’s great to see the companies finally get it right.

The key to my annoyance has been the remnants of reverence to Bruce Timm’s DC animated universe. It was an important style shift back in the 1990s, and we still get some of that look here (especially with the ancillary characters), but fans got an animated break-out thanks to Mr. McGuinness’ cartoon-friendly designs.

The film is very accurate to the comic in a story that finds Lex Luthor as president of the United State, no less, and Superman with a bounty on his head, thanks to Lex.

Between fighting off an encyclopedia’s worth of villains (from Black Manta to Gorilla Grod to Silver Banshee), Batman and the Man of Steel also must work together to try to stop a green kryptonite meteor from hitting Earth.

The animation looks as if it were pulled from Mr. McGuinness’ fingertips. Superman’s boyish facial features and pointed eyebrows are near perfect, as are Batman’s angular and smothering cowl and everyone’s ludicrous muscle bulges re-created to seal the visual deal.

Among the near-nonstop action, I loved Superman’s battle with Metallo, Batman’s fight with Solomon Grundy and Bane and the pair of heroes fighting Captain Marvel and Hawkman.

The film stars the voices of Tim Daly as Superman, Kevin Conroy as Batman and Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, all reprising their efforts and cementing their position as the definitive voices of the legendary comic-book characters.

Although the film is rated PG-13, I found little to stop parents from giving their tweens a chance to appreciate the action.

Best extras: Warner Home Video backs up the main color-bursting, 67-minute high-definition Blu-ray movie with a healthy supply of bonuses.

The best, “A Test of Minds: The Psychology of Superman and Batman,” has Mr. Loeb and some DC and Warner Bros. types talking for about 20 minutes on the motivating differences between the heroes. The plethora of comic-book art tossed in - with panels from everyone from Frank Miller to Bob Kane to, of course, Mr. McGuinness - really makes the piece stand out.

Also, clocking in at nearly an hour, “Dinner With DCU and Special Guest Kevin Conroy” has Mr. Timm (executive producer), Andrea Romano (casting and voice director) and Gregory Noveck (senior vice president for creative affairs, DC Comics) eating dessert with the definitive voice of the animated Batman, Mr. Conroy. It isn’t just a boring promotional piece but instead is loaded with memories about the Caped Crusader-centric part of the DC animated universe.

Executive producer Timm also adds six episodes from his “Justice League Unlimited” and “Superman: The Animated Series,” which paired our heroes while embellishing the Public Enemies story line.

Read all about it: Grab DC Comics‘ trade paperback ($12.99), compiling the six-issue Loeb-McGuinness collaboration, of course.

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