Tuesday, 26 June 2012

What happened to cartoons?

I'm curious and ambitious. How about that?

Curious because I'd like to know how people perceive the genre of children's cartoons usually referred to as 'adventure' or 'action/adventure' in 2012. Ambitious because my life goal is to create an animated adventure series.

LIKE THIS! (Not like this. Not like this.)

It's fair to say that most adults in their 20s and 30s (probably 40s, to a lesser extent) have some kind of nostalgic feelings towards their childhood favourites. I personally can't count the number of conversations I've been involved in or overheard which amounts to little more than a Tourette's-style shouting of names of TV shows, each participant recalling a show and the others either fondly remembering said show or denying all knowledge of its existence until somebody hums the theme tune. This is borne out by the typically hyperactive and ridiculous YouTube comments under any posted video of an opening to a cartoon. There's a distinct "The 80s was AWESOME!" / "The 90s was AWESOME!" split.

Personally, I'm an 80s child and so I recall Transformers, Thundercats, Masters of the Universe, Visionaries, GI Joe (or Action Force in the UK), Dungeons and Dragons, Shaft in Africa (wait, what?) warmly, but I felt it start to go downhill with the advent of shows like Toxic Crusaders, Captain Planet and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes in the 90s. As much as the 80s shows were fairly ridiculous, camp, overly hokey or whatever in retrospect, they seemed to take their subject matter a little more seriously. Or rather, there was a lack of self-awareness. No ironic undercurrent.

I distinctly remember in an episode of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes there was a moment where a main character broke the fourth wall and said something about how silly and 'Saturday morning cartoon-like' his situation was. Maybe it was because I was growing up, but that was kinda the death knell for adventure cartoons in my head. There was an element of self-parody and silliness which seemed to take over. Teenage Mutant Ninja (or Hero in the oh-so sensitive UK) Turtles, Bucky O'Hare, Biker Mice from Mars, even The New Adventures of He-Man... all so silly. With the possible exception of Biker Mice, the source material was more intelligent for each of these but the cartoons were dumbed down.

Now? We're seeing the return of Thundercats, Transformers (in various forms, of which Prime is the most successful in terms of critical acclaim; I can't find any viewing stats at this point) and have in the last few years seen adventure cartoons based on Marvel and DC superheroes and a Masters of the Universe revival.

Soooo... what happened?

Where did all of the new properties go? I'm not so blinkered as to miss out on the connection between merchandise and the show which essentially supports it which has obviously been affected by the rise in popularity of video games and the decline of action figures, but it's clear there's been a steep, steep drop in the number of animated adventure series since the mid-90s. I guess the internet can take some of the blame, with kids able to get stuff for free, the costs of making an animated series are more than likely a much bigger gamble than before, which means that only shows with a built-in fanbase, or at least a curious crop of long-term fans of the original, stand a chance of being commissioned. There's also the rise of anime in the west to consider. Where once the anime element of these shows was reflected in the likes of Robotech, Battle of the Planets, Ulysses 31 and The Mysterious Cities of Gold, now we have full-on epics like Naruto and Bleach.

What I'm saying here is that I miss the older, less cynical shows with a moral or two if need be, a done-in-one storyline and the chance for new stuff! A quick Google search brought up a link to Cartoon Network's new slate of shows from last year. Of all those listed, the only brand new original property I can see which fits the bill for what I'm talking about is Redakai. Even that show looks immediately like a cynical anime rip-off. Oh, and Ben 10. That might be the one (or two, with Generator Rex) exception to all of these criticisms but I haven't seen enough of it to judge the level of self-awareness and silly/comedy points.

Am I nostalgic? Probably. Maybe kids are that much different now that they would reject another seemingly po-faced, moralistic action show. Or maybe not. So here's my plan with which I intend to get started on bringing this (what I consider to be) great stuff back...

Oh yeah! Like I'm going to reveal the whole thing here! But I do have a plan. It starts with getting opinions on this kind of subject, whether they're from parents, adults without kids, or kids themselves. It involves a very hard look at distribution methods, funding options, collaboration and more. I may be naive about this whole thing, but I'll learn as I go. By the time I'm ready to announce the project, it'll be in a form which (hopefully) will be very appealing.

For now, please chime in with your thoughts. I'm eager to hear from you. Also, I'm going to point you towards a great resource if you're a fan of this subject: Cereal Geek - a great magazine published by James Eatock! Have fun!


  1. I just want to check you didn't miss Avatar: the Last Airbender and Korra. If you're being really good you watch Avatar first instead of skipping to Korra (which is new and still happening,) but it stands alone if you're impatient. They're beating a lonely path, but they're exactly the sort of thing we 80s-rememberers were waiting for.

  2. There are a few which slipped my mind, Avatar chief amongst them. Never really watched it, honestly. Am I right in thinking it's something of an epic, long-form storyline?