Making a Case for Cartoons
I love cartoons; lots of people love cartoons. From Bugs Bunny to Homer Simpson and all the classics in between. American animation has brought us some of the funniest and far-reaching cartoon icons in the world. They make us feel good in some way, and they usually make us laugh; but do they have to?
Maybe my ’90s nostalgia is acting up again, but I miss the days of adult animation. Not adult animated comedies like South Park, Archer or Robot Chicken. There isn’t anything wrong with those shows, but they all share the same basic conceit: no matter what, be funny. On its own, that’s not a problem, but why does that so often mean adult cartoons have to be the same kind of funny? For some reason, adult animation in America means cartoons that are funny, but the kind of funny that’s supposed to be slightly uncomfortable or mean-spirited (and only slightly so that it can still sell to mass audiences). I mean, I dig cringe humor, but anything is possible with animation; why are we stuck with such a narrow view of it? Why can’t Disney make animated horror films? Why aren’t there more animated dramas and slice of life cartoons for grown ups? Seems like the heyday of adult animation was the 1990s. MTV alone gave us Daria, Aeon Flux, and Downtown. Yet, since the end of King of the Hill, there hasn’t been much like that. Seriously, why are American adult cartoons only supposed to make us laugh?
One of the most striking images I ever saw on TV was the opening of Aeon Flux. I was four when I saw it for the first time, and I knew it wasn’t a normal cartoon intro. Just in case you’ve never seen it, check it out:
That is how Aeon Flux opens, and it’s awesome. There isn’t anything really funny about it, but it is certainly intriguing. The thing is, I didn’t like Aeon Flux when I first watched it as a four-year-old. I didn’t like it as a twelve-year-old either, and only kind of liked it as an eighteen-year-old. I just rewatched the series though, and my adult brain kicked in; I love this show. I love Aeon Flux like I love Daria and Mission Hill, and even that one Spawn cartoon that was on HBO. Still, I didn’t really like any of those shows when I first saw them as a little kid. I grew up on Robocop and Boyz n the Hood, (things like that), from the day I was old enough to crawl. I loved grown up films, but grown up cartoons just seemed strange; why? In fact, why aren’t there more serious animated shows like that now that TV is going through its own renaissance?
I put it down to two things: Disney and The Flintstones. Steamboat Willie and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves came at a pretty difficult time in American history and awed people. They gave people one idea of what animation was for: it’s meant to be charming and comforting, and a little whimsical through its spectacle of animation. They were based on adorable animal heroes and fairy tales. They could get emotional, but they were very easy to sell as simplistic and digestible little stories. Early cartoons like Betty Boop and Looney Tunes carried that idea forward, and added in what became accepted as the cartoon humor of slapstick gags and quick witted wordplay.
Then, The Flintstones came and offered a more sophisticated kind of TV cartoon. Through actual storylines and issues like finances and childbirth, The Flintstones showed that animation could have a bit of depth as long as it was still funny. The Flintstones was a massive success just as Disney was, and gave grown ups a cartoon to watch. With the advent of Disney animation and The Flintstones, American animators kind of just accepted that animation had to be pleasant, overly slapstick, or funny in a relatable kind of way. They developed their characters around those tenets. Four fingered, big-eyed, simplified humans or cute and witty talking animals were perfect for expressing exaggeration, but not so much for nuance or realism. Eventually, that’s just what American cartoons became: funny and distinctly inhuman. Audiences understood that that’s what cartoons were going to be. When I watched cartoons as a kid, I was trained to judge them in that vein.
With that formula, animated shows can be marketable to every audience. Animation is a laborious process, and always has been. Every company wants to get into it knowing that they will for sure profit from it. That means they want as many viewers as they can to be entertained, and to sell as much related merchandise as they can to those viewers. Disney sold Disney, The Flintstones sold everything, and people were happy to buy things that reminded them of the warm lovability of those cartoons.
That makes sense until you remember that, over in Japan, anime and manga are major parts of pop culture. Several of the most globally popular anime are aimed squarely at adults. Spanning every genre from horror and sci-fi to domestic and romance dramas. Also, with varying levels of gore, nudity, and swearing, adult-focused anime move merchandise despite their niche audiences. I’m not a huge anime fan, but I do admire the fact that they’ve been using animation to tell different stories with different tones for decades.
However, that’s Japan. American animation, on the whole, has been less willing to venture down that path of using animation as another medium for the same varied storytelling we see in live action dramas. When the ’90s came and made cynicism and disruption fashionable, things seemed to be changing. For one golden period in time, networks were willing to invest in things that might not be everything to everyone at once. Animated sci-fi like Aeon Flux eschewed comedy to examine society through a vision of a dystopia. Spicy City was an anthology noir series. Mission Hill and Downtown followed the lives of young adults struggling in an urban setting, using humor to ground the story rather than to make audiences wince.