Welcome to Super Saturday, an ongoing weekly column that will pay tribute to the animated classics of yesterday, and will be offered on Saturday mornings, a period that many of us remember being the only time animated kids’ programming was offered. Hope you enjoy and feel free to leave any feedback or personal remembrances in the comments!
For December, I wanted to write about cartoons based on toys, in honor of Christmas. But now Christmas is over and I have a different theme picked out for January, so I had an extra weekend. I could have written about another Saturday morning toy show, ‘Monchichi’, but… well, I just plain didn’t want to. So instead, I am taking a detour and writing something that isn’t about a specific cartoon, but a trope common to many — the sidekick.
Generally speaking, sidekicks are pretty reviled, but they do serve a purpose and they’ve existed longer than cartoons have been around. Sherlock Holmes had Watson. The Lone Ranger had Tonto. But even to this day, sidekicks abound and they tend to be pretty divisive.
Generally speaking, I don’t automatically hate sidekicks the way some do, and in some cases, I actually love them. I think I just grew up watching so many cartoons that had sidekicks that I just accepted that they were part of the whole package and that was that.
The first comic book sidekick was Robin, the Boy Wonder, the teen companion to Batman. Robin has appeared in nearly every adaptation of Batman in live-action or animation. Some people hate Robin, but from the time I was a toddler, I have been a huge Robin fan, and have never cared for Batman. (More like Cold Emotionally Distant Dad Man.) I guess the idea that kids would appeal to kids worked on me completely. Nowadays, most kids just relate to Batman and don’t need that entry-level character to jump into that world. I guess I did.
My exposure to Robin came via reruns of the 1960s ‘Batman’ series, which starred Burt Ward as the Boy Wonder, and ‘Super Friends’. And that’s where the sidekicks kept coming, in the form of the Wonder Twins, Zan and Jayna, shape-shifting siblings from the planet Exxor, and their chattering blue space monkey, Gleek.
My love of the Wonder Twins is a bit askew, but as a first-gen kid of an Asian immigrant (my mom), the Wonder Twins spoke to me because they looked like me. They had brown skin and black hair but spoke like ordinary American teens. I didn’t relate to Samurai, who was clearly a Japanese person. So that whole idea of “inclusion” totally worked on me, in a way that the creators probably didn’t expect. It’s probably a good thing they didn’t give the Wonder Twins purple skin, as they were originally designed, otherwise I might not have gravitated toward them.
Via reruns, I discovered that the Wonder Twins weren’t the Super Friends’ first sidekicks. In their first season, they were assisted by ordinary human teens Marvin and Wendy, and their pup, Wonder Dog.
The first season of ‘Super Friends’ is pretty boring, and part of the reason is that it mainly revolved around Marvin and Wendy. The superheroes were used to stop calamities, but it was the teens that actually unraveled the mystery of each episode.
Unfortunately, not only did Marvin and Wendy not have powers, they were pretty obnoxious. Marvin and Wonder Dog were clearly modeled after Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, but nowhere near as endearing. Wendy was… shall we say condescending?
But they actually wound up solving the problems, while the actual superheroes were just their “muscle.”
This dynamic was mirrored in a later series, ‘Inspector Gadget’. The show is named after the cyborg sleuth, but the twist is that despite his robotic enhancements, Inspector Gadget is an inept moron. Each case is actually solved by his computer whiz niece Penny and their anthropomorphic dog Brains. In this case, technically, it’s the “sidekicks” that are technically the heroes of the show, not the titular character.
So that begs the question of what actually constitutes a sidekick. Are they the comical side characters, usually kids or animals? Because if that is the case, aren’t Scooby and Shaggy the “sidekicks” of the straight Daphne, Fred, and Velma? That argument would also apply to the numerous ‘Scooby-Doo’ knock-off shows– ‘The Funky Phantom’, ‘Goober and the Ghost Chasers’, ‘Speed Buggy’, ‘Jeanie’, ‘Jabber Jaw’, etc.
And what about ‘Jonny Quest’?
‘Jonny Quest’ is generally considered the best action-adventure cartoon EVER, but if you really think about it, the entire show revolved around the “sidekicks.” Jonny and Hadji are about 12 years old. Bandit is their dog who can’t fully speak like Scooby-Doo, but is a lot more human than a real dog.
So I kind of get why some people hate sidekicks in general. Trust me, there are some I can’t stand as well. Snarf from ‘Thundercats’ is my choice for the worst of all time. Yet for whatever reason, they made more of him in later episodes.
But for every Snarf, there’s a Bumblebee. And sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between a sidekick and a hero. And like all things, everyone is someone’s favorite.
What are your thoughts on cartoon sidekicks? Do you have any favorites or least favorites? Feel free to sound off in the comments section below!