This week I’ve been thinking about cartoons. I ran into a quirky new show (that happens to be #2 on my list) and it got me thinking about cartoons made to include adults. So here’s my list of cartoons adults should make themselves familiar with. Some of these should be shared with children, a few should be saved for the TeenNick years, and one of them should be hidden in the closet next to the adult literature.
6. Justice League Unlimited
Cartoon Network has a long history with DC productions. Pretty much everything Marvel has been doing right for the last 15 years in cinema, DC has been doing in cartoons. Beginning in the early 90s, Batman: The Animated Series debuted on the coattails of Tim Burton’s box office success. The show-runner, Bruce Timm, turned that one series into Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, and pretty much every straight to DVD cartoon movie DC has put out since Batman Begins. More than that, the man had the balls to keep most of it in the same continuity. He’s also the reason Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill have been voicing the same iconic cartoon characters for the last 20 years.
Justice League Unlimited enjoyed a two year run as the successor to Justice League. Unlike it’s predecessor, which tended to focus on more classic threats, the sense of paranoia and betrayal in Unlimited permeated the entire show. The audience, presumably children, saw episodes in which heroes like Superman were feared as much as revered. One season actually concludes with a showdown between the league and the U.S. government in a game of human weapon one-upsmanship. Not sure who won, but the city the Justice League accidentally blew up certainly lost. Add the personal character stories and drama and this show will always be a favorite of mine.
Proof that dating and crime fighting don’t mix.
Futurama is Matt Groening’s creative sequel to The Simpsons and, like Family Guy, was cancelled and then picked up by another station that ran the show into syndication until fan commotion and DVD sales revived it from creative oblivion for new seasons. Honestly, I haven’t kept up with the show since the new episodes started, but I did see the episode where they accidentally traveled all the way to the heat death of the universe. For all of its slapstick and goofy one-liners the show has more touching moments than you would expect from a cartoon. Unlike The Simpsons, who many modern parents grew up with, Futurama is a less raunchy (at least than we thought The Simpson’s were in the early 90′s) and center around the strange, diverse relationships of the future.
Below is the episode “Godfellas”, in which Bender accidentally becomes god of a small colony of space-dwelling people, then meets God to compare notes.
4. Invader Zim
In the 90′s and early 2000′s one of Nickelodeon’s favorite things was creating “kids shows” with suspiciously adult themes. While Invader Zim could take the place of Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life, Angry Beavers or pretty much any Nicktoon that didn’t get a major motion picture, I picked it as the placeholder because it made me laugh the most. Invader Zim was created by author Johnen Vasquez in 2001. The show completed two seasons and was cancelled with a remaining 19 episodes and TV movie in production. The show follows the mission of Zim, an invader of the Irken Empire that is accidentally selected for a mission to Earth. And by accidentally, I mean he escapes from a fast food planet and is sent to Earth by the “Tallest” (leaders chosen for their gifts of vertical prowess) to shut him up. Over the run of the series, Zim faces off against Dib, a grade school paranormal investigator and the other oddities of a world that seems to be hiding horror at the periphery of the screen.
This show was the best kind of nuts. Vasquez is an artistic genius, but also quite insane. Comics like Johnny The Homicidal Maniac and Squee! portray Vasquez’s obsession with characters trapped in a strange, warped worlds where everyone is oblivious to how messed up things are. In his comics, as with this show, the “crazy” people tend to be the only ones who see that something is wrong. Only instead of being funny, his comics are bloody, violent, and the most emotive work I’ve ever read. Still, Invader Zim has the sort of early 2000′s hipster quirk that’s well reflected in DVD sales. You can watch the entire pilot here.
3. Avatar: The Last Airbender
You may already be familiar with this because of the colossal flop directed by M. Night Shyamalan in 2010. It actually hurts me to remember, but the cartoon still holds a special place in my heart. Avatar: The Last Airbender could have made this list for its portrayal of war, genocide, betrayal or broken family life, but I put it on the list for the subtle ways spiritualism is addressed. The show follows the adventures of Avatar Aang, a boy who has been trapped in a glacier for over a decade. Upon awakening he discovers that he has less than a year to master his powers and stop the Fire Nation, an allegory for Imperial Japan, from conquering the rest of the world. Along the way the show forgoes some of the more dominant Judeo-Christian themes to adopt eastern philosophies about how to relate to the spirit world and nature.
A sequel series is currently airing on Nickelodeon. I haven’t seen it yet, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
2. Adventure Time
This is by far the most whimsically weird show on the list. While some of the others are funny, dark, and/or sentimental, Adventure Time feels like a team of west coast hipsters were given free reign to create a show for their kids. The character’s are oddly adult in that post 20-something kind of way and the music plays like a bedroom collaboration between Ben Gibbard and Zoe Deschanel. Most of the episodes contain absurdest plot devices that seem oddly aware of how ironic mainstream cartoons can be.
I’m still new to this show, but it feels like the writers make fun of pop culture themes… or they are poking fun at the ridiculousness of kid’s programming. Honestly, I’m not sure what the mechanism is yet, but it’s ironic and entertaining… even if the Ice King gives off kind of a rapey vibe.
Below is the first part of The Jiggler. Finn and Jake find a baby… something and decide to take it home for a dance party. Both realize they don’t know what it is and weirdness ensues.
1. Morel Orel
This one barely straddles the line. Like most Adult Swim programming in the middle era it should be pretty clear the demographic is teen plus. Moral Orel was created by Dino “Star Burns” Stamatopoulos in 2005 for Cartoon Network. Stamatopoulos’ credits also include Frankenhole, Tom Goes To Mayor and appearances on Community as a cast regular and writer. If you get some time, check out his twitter to see him be quirky. He’s more proof that behind every cartoon peddling big lessons, there’s a crazy person with an in at a network.
The show follows the misadventures of Orel Puppington who is a resident of Moralton in the great state of Statesota. The town is geographically in the center of the Bible belt and the setting where Orel constantly misinterprets the community’s own interpretations of the Bible. The show’s stop motion quality is stylized after Davy and Goliath, Gumby, and other 1960′s children’s programs. That’s where the similarities end. While the first season is an episode for episode mockery of the ways Orel interprets the church, later episodes evolve into a strange character drama about the people of Moralton. More shocking is how far Orel develops a personality as he becomes aware of how broken his family and friends are.
This is a good show, even a great show but the content is not for children. Episodes include zombies, bigotry, and at least one banned episode for sexual content. Below is the episode where Orel is grounded from church and deep existential angst ensues. While not every episode is like this, major themes through the course of the show lead Orel to these kinds of revelations. The result is profound and uncomfortable.
An honorable mention to MAD for it’s stream of consciousness approach to parody. I probably would have put it on the list if I had seen a single episode.