Search form

Not Fade Away

Dr. Toon encourages adults to bring cartoons out from the caves of their childhood memories and embrace the nonsense sometimes.

A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys
-Puff the Magic Dragon, Peter Paul and Mary, 1963
Would Puff have to go gangster, smoking a blunt to appeal to kids these days?

Would Puff have to go gangster, smoking a blunt to appeal to kids these days?

Most kids and young adults currently growing up with 50 Cent and Audioslave may have only passing acquaintance with this once-popular folk song. In this charming metaphor for the fantasies of childhood, a magic dragon named Puff shares friendship and adventure with his young pal Jackie Paper until the sad day Jackie puts his imaginary friend aside in order to grow up and make his way toward adulthood. The song ends with Puff in significant need of Prozac and Jackie presumably on the fast track to a glamorous career in high-risk stocks and an equally high-maintenance trophy wife.

Well, OK, Peter Yarrow never did specify that exact scenario, but you get the general idea: We grow up and leave the loves of our childhood behind us. They may be enshrined in the golden amber of nostalgia, wistfully recalled on a balmy June evening as we relax on the back patio, but that-was-then-this-is-now and we aren't kids anymore. One rather depressing aspect I have noticed among my cohort and contemporaries is that cartoons were frequently one of the things left behind, never again to be enjoyed once a certain age or phase of life has passed.

This month we examine why adults seem to outgrow cartoons and some happy reasons why this unhappy situation appears to be changing. Finally, here are some steps adultscan take to make sure Puff stays with them well after the degree, spouse, kids, career, and mortgage threaten to send him back to his dreary cave.

Cartoons in America have, for the most part, been seen as the exclusive province of the young. The sassy, knowing works of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, the more cerebral characterizations of Chuck Jones, the stylish maturity of the UPA output or the subtle satire of Jay Ward and Bill Scott counter this perception for some, but most adults tend to link cartoons and children rather closely. The advent of original animated programming on television did little to dispel the notions that toons were for kids, since many of the early programs were directly aimed at children. Admittedly there were some early great efforts on the small screen but costs and deadlines defeated any attempt to replicate theatrical glory; animation slipped from a Golden Age to one far less gilded.

Jonny Quest attracted older audiences because of its action, but could it do the same today? © Cartoon Network.

Jonny Quest attracted older audiences because of its action, but could it do the same today? © Cartoon Network.

The Hanna-Barbera output from 1959-65 is an example. The early episodes of Huckleberry Hound had a cult following among adults, Jonny Quest was the first great animated action/adventure series produced in America and The Flintstones was revolutionary for its time: a primetime animated series that succeeded. However, the novelty wore off and TV animation began a rapid march to Saturday mornings. Before long only children were left to hear pitches for toys, sugary cereals and chocolate beverages. The Hanna-Barbera cartoons degenerated into showcases for indiscriminate funny animals, and studios such as Filmation were not producing much better material either.

By 1966 much of the programming was derived from the exploits of superheroes, some established and some created just for cartoon shows. The association with comic books (at least at that time) further defined animation as a children's medium. This period represented the final designation of cartoons to the world of the very young, and those maturing into mid-adolescence and early adulthood began to leave cartoons behind.

Lion King was the pinnacle of the new theatrical toon revolution. © Walt Disney.

Lion King was the pinnacle of the new theatrical toon revolution. © Walt Disney.

Painted wings and giant rings made way for groovy flings and piston rings. High school was a place to impress the opposite sex, get a car, find a job for the $2.00 minimum wage and vaguely worry about that distant day when one would hold a No. 2 pencil in clammy hand and face the Supreme Arbiter Of All Future Life the SATs. Saturday mornings passed by unnoticed while one slept till noon, ducked chores such as cleaning out the Aegean stables (more commonly known as the garage or your room), cruised to Zeppelin and dreamed feverishly about... well... suffice it to say that Trollkins and Help! It's The Hair Bear Bunch! were flying very low on the radar. Now think about Mom and Dad watching this stuff. It would not be unfair to say that the networks or sponsors minded this at all; they, like the rest of society, agreed that kids were their selected audience.

In other words, peer and cultural norms (including the expectations that went with them) combined with the deliberate targeting of a juvenile audience to turn American animation into Kiddieland as the 1960s dawned. Disney was still producing animated features but the Disney films of that decade (and the next) cannot be said to have the emotional depth or sophistication of those produced by the studio in earlier times. The theatrical short, once the showcase of our most beloved classic cutups, was long since dead. Independent animators of the mid 1960s-70s who might have made an impact on the future of adult animation were largely unrecognized, their esoteric works limited to art houses and universities.

Animated cartoons slowly became a cultural backwater: a Saturday morning slum inhabited only by those young enough to desire immersion in those limited (animation) joys. The high school and college crowd moved on, and so did the adults. Most would never return.

Independent comics like American Flagg helped change the image of superheroes in the minds of older audiences.

Independent comics like American Flagg helped change the image of superheroes in the minds of older audiences.

Some 45 years passed between the extinction of the theatrical short and the revival of interest in animation among older audiences. During that time span cartoons were increasingly relegated to younger viewers, but various influences finally brought animation back to more mature consideration. One reason for this was the revival of Disney feature films beginning in the late 1980s, particularly the trilogy of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. All three films featured Broadway-style show songs (two of these films were actually adapted to stage) and the sort of nuanced personality animation missing from Disney for over a decade. Adults who ignored The Great Mouse Detective flocked to see Beauty and the Beast, and there were certainly no 4- to 12-year-old members on the Oscar nominating committee when that film made history by becoming the first animated nominee.

Animated TV fare became noticeably hipper at just around the same time. It would be simple but incorrect to attribute all of this to John Kricfalusi, though he certainly contributed heavily through Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures and the original Ren & Stimpy Show. Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. teamed up to produce fare such as Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Freakazoid!, all of which harkened back to Warner's theatrical days. Full animation, cultural in-jokes, animated celebrities (foibles and all) and cinematic parodies sent some of the humor well over the heads of less mature audiences and back into young adult and mature territory. If Ren and Stimpy were not exactly cartoons characters for kids, much the same can be said for Pinky and the Brain.

Then there was the revolution in the comics, which are inevitably and inextricably bound to American animation by common history; they are sprung from the same evolutionary branch and have crossed over countless times since George McManus' domestic strip The Newlyweds made the leap to film in 1913. During the mid-1980s independent comic book companies began challenging the trust-like supremacy of Marvel and DC. Some pioneers of the self-publishing comics industry like Dave Sim and Richard and Wendy Pini had tried this route years earlier, but now the floodgates opened. There was a wild, sudden proliferation of independent titles and companies, all of them marketing startlingly original ideas or revisionist takes on the rich history of past comic books and their heroes.

New companies like Dark Horse, Image, First and Comico produced comic books such as GrimJack, American Flagg, The Elementals and Flaming Carrot, to name a few. Many of these titles featured graphic violence, sexual situations and bitter, morally ambiguous heroes. Here at last were comics for late teens, college students and many adults. In response, the mainstream heroes at Marvel and DC began to redesign their own mainstays in order to compete. Frank Miller's revision of Batman and Alan Moore's benchmark series Watchmen are just two salient examples. The influence showed up (albeit more weakly) in animation as well in series such as Batman, Batman Beyond, X-Men, Samurai Jack and the terrific Sony/Marvel co-production Spider-Man: The New Animated Series. Challenge of the Superfriends it wasn't, and older viewers stayed tuned.

Watch SpongeBob to see what all the hubbub is all about. You may be pleasantly surprised. © Nickelodeon.

Watch SpongeBob to see what all the hubbub is all about. You may be pleasantly surprised. © Nickelodeon.

Although most attempts at primetime, adult-oriented animation failed in the early part of this decade, there were enough successes to change some perceptions about who the proper audience for animation might be. The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Futurama and the seemingly unkillable Family Guy represented a major stab at the adult demographic, and all of these shows are currently available for viewing. At least two networks, Spike and the Cartoon Network, with its commendable Adult Swim block, made a direct pitch for older viewers in the 17-34 age range. Some of Adult Swim's appeal comes from the inclusion of mature-themed anime, which brings us to our next consideration.

The influence of anime cannot be underestimated. American animation was sputtering along with extended toy commercials, few notable feature films and syndicated imports in the early 1980s. At the same time, Japan was producing racy comedies, dark spiritual legends, imaginative science fiction and apocryphal epics. Often these elements were combined, with ninjas, cops, vampires and androids thrown into the mix as well. Some anime was so graphic in its depiction of sex and bloodletting that it could not be imported for TV and was typically purchased on video.

But who was doing the purchasing and who was really behind the massive anime boom in America? If you answered seventh-graders, you're wrong. To be sure, the younger set had anime to enjoy (those series where all the characters seem to have razor-cut icicles stuck on their heads) but there are thousands of American otaku who are taking a love of animation into adulthood. Of course, many other artists in Europe and across the world have produced animation as exciting and thought-provoking as Japan's, but little of it seems to find its way to American audiences; mores the pity.

How can we stay in touch with animation throughout our lives? Although it may be more acceptable today for adults to watch and enjoy animation, a lifelong appreciation still requires some effort. One place to begin is to enjoy what animation offers these days with an open mind and childlike enthusiasm. It's cool to watch The Simpsons, but tuning in to other offerings is encouraged. Check out the burgeoning anime market and see what appeals to you. Some series appear to be primarily for kids but have great crossover appeal; since there is no escaping SpongeBob SquarePants in 2004 America, tune in and see why so many grownups love this show.

If you have children, sit down and watch cartoons with them; it's a wonderful, endearing way to bond with them and get in touch with those old feelings of joy that animation used to bring. If they enjoy this activity, well, much of animation's past is now widely available on VHS and DVD; rent or buy your old favorites and share them with your kids. At the risk of sounding like a shill, ensure that stations like Cartoon Network's Boomerang are in your cable package so that the sharing and nostalgia is within the touch of a remote.

Go see the latest animated feature releases. This is not just a matter of seeing the latest $300 million-plus CGI blockbuster, but all appearances of animation on the big screen. The best of them are exquisite exercises in art and storytelling, and even the worst of them tend to have some redeeming features. Besides, they aren't appreciably worse than some of the semi-literate, live-action mall-rat fare crowding today's screens.

There are more books on animation and animation history available today than ever before, and some of animation's best writers and historians are turning them out. From the detailed historical approach of John Canemaker's Walt Disney's Nine Old Men to the lighthearted fun of Jerry Beck's Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide, there are dozens of great reads. If you have the Web at your command, animation Websites are legion and begging to be explored.

Finally, if you find yourself immersed in the hectic rat race, remember that you too once had a magic dragon for a friend. He appeared on the television or movie screen every time you called, and many happy hours were lovingly spent together with him. He lived, and still lives, in the timeless pleasure of an animated cartoon those you have seen and those you haven't. Call him out of his cave, even if only for an hour or two a week. As one of the greatest children in adult clothing, Willy Wonka himself, observed: A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.