When I was a kid, cartoons were just that, cartoons. They were semi-mindless drivel that served the purpose keeping kids under control for the few hours between school and dinner. Then came along a few enterprising geniuses who changed all that. Matt Groening and Mike Judge are two of the best examples, progenitors of the “adult cartoon”. Now, the idea wasn’t new at the time. The Flintstones and Jetsons were primetime offerings in their day, but face it, they’re kids fare. It was men like Groening and Judge who recognized the flexibility of the medium and the endless potential (reliant only upon voice actor longevity and good writing) of a cartoon sitcom.
These days, the cartoon world is an entirely different place. The kids cartoons from our youth are bigger, badder, and cruder than they ever were. And the market for adult oriented animation has exploded. Not only is The Simpsons still around, but now we’ve got Family Guy, South Park, Futurama, and the whole Adult Swim phenomenon.
What is it then that creates this rabid demand by increasingly older generations for animated comedy. In part, nostalgia plays a huge role. Growing up in the 80s or 90s, every American youth had a keen eye on the Saturday morning and after school cartoon farms. It was part of life, and not something most enjoyed leaving behind when they grew up. But, the jokes are sophomoric, the plotlines ridiculous, and for the most part cheesy. The cartoons of childhood (and thank you DVD release for allowing us to relive and cringe through them) were a bit too goofy for the adult mentality. No wonder our parents were nowhere to be seen. But, the cathartic joy of hand drawn television still lingers and so the prospect of the more adult, more mature cartoon flourishes.
Of course, let us not forget the influx of yet another cultural force in the last 10 years or so, that of the Japanese cartoon. Japanese animation – anime – never dedicated itself to the notion of children’s animation as much as their American counterparts. For the most part, they’ve been utilizing the medium for years with adult oriented, often times very much so, animation that just now is finding its way into the American consciousness. Films like Akira and the works of Hayao Miyazaki inched into the American marketplace in the 90s and then exploded in the new century, nearly taking over most US channels, including the previously brand loyal WB and Cartoon Networks. The idea that a compelling, serialized story could be told with animation was purely Japanese and the results are often times amazing.