Size / / /

A highly impressionable audience? Check.

Jingle-like theme songs designed to linger in the mind like an evil curse? Check.

Storylines buried somewhere beneath endless toy tie-ins? Check.

One third of every hour devoted to highly compressed doses of manipulative commercial enticements, researched down to the latest nuance of cognitive psychology in order to implant a militantly consumeristic attitude in young minds? Check!

The Unscientific Survey Says:

Absolute favorites:

  • Astroboy
  • Darkwing Duck
  • Jem and the Holograms
  • Looney Tunes
  • Spider-Man
  • Thundercats
  • Transformers
  • Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  • Woody Woodpecker

Other cartoons:

  • Animaniacs
  • Bugs Bunny (see Looney Tunes)
  • The Care Bears
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Cops
  • Dr. Snuggles
  • Duck Tales
  • The Flintstones
  • Gargoyles
  • G.I. Joe
  • The Green Forest
  • Gummi Bears
  • He-Man
  • Hercules
  • Inspector Gadget
  • Jeremy
  • The Jetsons
  • Mighty Mouse
  • Mr. T
  • My Little Pony
  • The Popples
  • Rainbow Brite
  • Richie Rich
  • Rocket Robin Hood
  • Scooby Doo
  • The Shirt Tales
  • The Smoggies
  • The Smurfs
  • The Snorks
  • Strawberry Shortcake
  • Tailspin
  • Teddy Ruxpin
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Tom and Jerry

Good old cartoons for kids. Remember them? Remember how it used to be? I've overheard this conversation many times—going back all the way to high school, which wasn't that many years removed from the cartoon-watching stage of life—and once people get going, it's hard to stop. The bad parts are forgotten, and fond memories from childhood wash through like a flood.

The explanation, as I see it, is fairly simple: cartoons are often the first exposure to pop culture for kids, and pop culture is shameless in its unending attempt to please the audience (which is as it should be, but that's another argument for another day). What other response could there be? Add impressionable young minds to the mix and it's an instant recipe for concerned parents and delighted kids.

I decided to find out where my generation stood on this important question—which cartoons do you remember from childhood? The results of my rather unscientific survey are in the box to the right. The time period is basically pre-Pokemon, heavily weighted to the 1980s, but classics like Astroboy and Spider-Man are up there. There's also a bit of a Canadian bias in the list, if you're wondering what Jeremy, Rocket Robin Hood, or The Smoggies might be. Two of the cartoons, Scooby Doo and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, have been revived and new episodes are airing.

Not surprisingly, there are quite a few blatantly commercial tie-ins—I'm looking at you, G.I. Joe. Also, when I asked people, they would often remember a show by recalling which toys they had in childhood. This would make all those participatory culture theorists like Henry Jenkins quite happy: the toys became props in individually-created storylines, and this playtime ranked higher in memory than the officially sanctioned version. By the way, Jenkins has just started an excellent blog, for those who are interested in reading more on this type of topic.

Another mnemonic device: the catchy jingles that some shows used as theme songs. I don't know all of these cartoons (see my reason below), but at least one respondent could sing or hum almost every theme song.

There are some oddball items on the list. The Mr. T cartoon especially sounds like a hoot—I wouldn't have believed in the existence of such a thing before doing this survey. I couldn't find much information about the Wonderful Wizard of Oz cartoon, but according to those who put it on their list, it was a serialized version of the story (and it's available on DVD).

Where does genre interest fit in? Are there any fantasy or science fiction stories here? I would point first to that fountainhead of manga/anime, Astroboy, the most famous robot boy in the world. Superheroes are well-represented, with Spider-Man as a popular result. Fantasy is most often seen in the guise of funny talking animals, while The Jetsons and Inspector Gadget are about the strength of science fiction you'll find. I'll return to this question when I talk about more recent cartoons.

A word about the availability of these cartoons. Generally speaking, the DVD releases for older shows (and some newer ones as well) have been pretty spotty. Complete sets are slow to come out, which is strange since I think these nostalgia items could be raking in the cash. I have some more recent favorites (see my list next), and I would pay through the nose for a proper DVD set of any of them. But if it's not out yet, I'm much too impatient to wait for the whim of some faceless marketing department that just doesn't understand my self-importance as a fan. This throws a conscientious consumer on the horns of a Bit Torrent-sized dilemma, but some of these shows are so obscure that they haven't been aired recently enough to be available illegally. That might mean that there wouldn't be enough demand for a DVD set but I'd like to think differently, based on the enthusiastic (if limited and anecdotal) response I got to this survey.


Ironically I'm Left Out

The instant nostalgia surrounding childhood timewasters was always obvious to me for a simple reason: my family didn't have a television when I was growing up. Shocking, I know, especially considering the pop culture junkie that I later became (throwing the nature vs. nurture debate for a loop). I've seen around 50% of the shows on the list, but most haven't been on the air for years and are not available on DVD, as mentioned. The nostalgic conversations are largely lost on me, making me feel more like an anthropologist than a participant.

That's changed for me, and with cartoons in particular, it seems as if the situation has reversed. I keep an eye out for new cartoons to watch, and almost always have a current favorite, whereas most people seem to have grown out of their fondness for cartoons. I suspect that's partly due to the development of critical faculties. To those pessimists out there, yes, the current cartoon landscape is a Pokemon-inspired apocalypse, mixed with the worst of the old brought back to life (that's the Ninja Turtles, for those keeping track), and a general lack of pithy morals by way of conclusion, unlike what many people remembered about shows from two or three decades ago. But each generation always sees newer pop culture as a wasteland, so the same mountain of evidence that's always used to condemn this stuff doesn't convince me. At least not to the point of writing all cartoons off as unworthy for a grown-up to watch. All this is leaving aside shows for adults like The Simpsons, King of the Hill and South Park, which are a different matter.

This might be a slim list for an entire decade, but here are four cartoons that I'd like to recommend.

The Tick, 1994

The Tick is the ur-satire of its kind, one of the original and best superhero spoofs. It was originally the creation of Ben Edlund as an indie comic book, and New England Comics is still cranking them out. The concept made the leap to animation on Fox Kids, but had a shaky time of it, lasting three seasons. Edlund and co. tried again with a live action version in 2001, again with Fox. The Tick in live action got cancelled after making 9 episodes, and that was no surprise: despite some couldn't-ask-for-better casting, the show never found its bearings. The cartoon was sweeter and seemed grounded by the necessity of staying clean enough for kids; in live action, the jokes got a little more risque and the balance was off.

As for the cartoon version, I was in university at the time, and that certain smart/dumb thing going on here seems to appeal to undergrads. The Tick is a giant blue superhero—he's strong and basically invulnerable but he has no smarts whatsoever. He also has a fondness for declaiming, either as a prelude to battle or in a series of bizarre metaphors that closed each episode in lieu of a moral.

The first episode, "The Tick vs. The Idea-Men," starts with The Tick going to a superhero panel, asking for a city to protect, and of course he ends up with The City. We also see an accountant named Arthur get fired from his job for wearing a moth suit to work. The two meet and immediately hit it off, if somewhat calamitously for Arthur's apartment (the first of many such mishaps). The Idea-Men threaten to blow up the dam above The City, and The Tick saves the day by withstanding the blast at close range.

If I had to pick a single episode as the best, I would go with the finale of Season 1: "The Tick vs. Arthur's Bank Account." The show always excelled in creating inventive, weird and funny superheroes and supervillains (the Wikipedia entry is worth checking out for the complete list), and The Human Ton and Handy the Handpuppet from this episode are my favorites. As befits his name, The Human Ton is a really big thug, not so bright, while Handy looks like a simple handpuppet on one of his hands. So how does Handy know so much about Homeric epics? It's a question not answered even for those who have seen the show.

Edlund's creation still stands, a dozen years later, as a strong hybrid of adventure and comedy. And I'm hearing rumors that DVDs will be out soon for The Tick. Fingers crossed!

Batman Beyond, 1999

Batman has been one of the most durable cartoon characters recently, beginning with the first incarnation in 1992 as Batman: The Animated Series. That series was heavily inspired by the Fleischer Superman cartoons from the 1940s, and suitably enough was joined by Superman: The Animated Series a few years later—both shows have that old-timey look. Both shows were excellent and made the reputations of the people involved, notably Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. Batman: The Animated Series ran for eighty-five episodes, and was followed by a short-lived show called The New Batman Adventures. Timm and Dini then brought Batman into the future, with a show called Batman Beyond. More on that in a minute.

After Batman Beyond's three seasons, Batman joined a show called Justice League, which expanded after two seasons into Justice League Unlimited, which ran for another three seasons. JLU just wrapped up this year, so I'm curious to see what happens next for the DC Animated Universe (as they call it). JLU's Batman showed up less and less on that show because yet another Batman show was launched in 2004. It is simply called The Batman, and it's a kind of a combination of Batman: Year Zero and Batman Begins. It's on air now. The Batman has fantastic theme music, like all of the Batman shows, and some excellent voice work, but it hasn't grabbed me as much.

Batman Beyond fits in nicely right after The Animated Series, and one of the key bits of continuity is the voice of Bruce Wayne, a voice actor named Kevin Conroy who carried the character all the way through to Justice League. In the first episode of Batman Beyond, a two-parter called "Rebirth," it's Bruce Wayne's voice but in a snazzy new Batman suit. He's getting old though, and after a mini-heart attack, he threatens a thug with a gun. That's beyond everything he stands for, so he hangs up the suit and closes the batcave. Skip ahead 20 years.

A kid named Terry McGinnis meets Bruce while fighting off a gang who call themselves the Jokers. Later, Terry's father gets murdered, and Terry thinks Bruce can help. Bruce refuses to do so, and Terry takes matters into his own hands by stealing the Batsuit. It's the beginning of a very cranky friendship. Bruce Wayne is understandably reluctant to see someone else in the role he made famous, and Terry has some anger management problems of his own.

I'll say right up front that Batman Beyond has at least 2 strikes against it: the main character's attitude and long stretches of boring high-school-related material. It's a nice idea in theory to make Terry as different as possible from Bruce Wayne, but the dynamic gets stretched and reused a bit too often. Terry also runs into too many "thematic" high school issues, like bullying, dating, and so forth. Sometimes this was amusing, like in the episode called "The Eggbaby" where Terry has to take his assignment from the parenting unit of social skills class around with him fighting crime: it's a gadget that cries without warning, registers any sudden drops or violent motions, and will give him a pass or fail as a prospective father. Comedy ensues.

I liked how Terry's Batman had new villains to fight—one ongoing struggle is against Derek Powers, who has taken over Bruce Wayne's company and created something quite evil called Wayne-Powers Industries. Of course, without all of these familiar props, why bother calling it Batman at all? But Batman is constantly being reinvented, including the new cartoon version, the recent movie, and a comic book by Paul Pope called Batman: Year 100 that has some interesting parallels to Batman Beyond.

Is the futuristic Batman worth calling science fiction? Maybe, but not much more than any other superhero story. I should add that when I was rewatching a few episodes—and remember, the show is 7 or 8 years old now—I noticed that Bruce shows Terry some news footage on a handheld gizmo that looks suspiciously like a video iPod. Maybe we are catching up to the future after all!

Jackie Chan Adventures, 2001

I started watching Jackie Chan Adventures while Batman Beyond was still on; odd, since I most often end up with just one favorite show at a time. And I started watching it on a whim, not expecting much. To my surprise, it tickled my funnybone. It's a fantastic comedy, and much better than the recent movies that Chan has done.

The show features a cartoon version of Jackie Chan voiced by another actor, although Jackie himself shows up after the credits to answer questions from viewers. The show ran to five seasons and concluded in 2005. As good as the first two or three seasons were, I have to admit that I lost track of the show in its last years, since it became repetitive. I plan to come back to it some day. . . some day when there's a proper DVD release. This show is the only one that has no hint whatsoever of any complete DVD set coming out. The older shows on the earlier list at least have the excuse of not having aired in the digital age.

Jackie Chan is an archaeologist living in San Francisco. His uncle owns an antiques shop and his niece Jade from Hong Kong is staying with them. In the first season, the three of them band together to save the world from an ancient evil being named Shendu. Shendu has to collect twelve talismans to reanimate himself in our world, so each episode is about the chase for a particular talisman. In the first episode, they have to track down the Rooster talisman, which gives the power of flight. Add a secret government agency called Section 13, Mexican wrestlers, a beautiful thief named Viper, and some criminals who call themselves the Dark Hand, and you've got an action-packed show.

The level of action in each episode was another surprise to me. I didn't think that an animated show could capture the silly/spectacular sense of most of Chan's work. And since he built his name on doing all of his own stunts, disdaining any movie trickery, how could a cartoon match that? It seems esthetically opposite, but through a combination of speed and grace, the show pulls it off. Cartoon Jackie is just as cocky and full of grins as the real one, and while the cartoon throws magical peril at him every episode, he doesn't have any sorcerous powers of his own. Always outnumbered, always outclassed in magic—it makes for some fun times for the viewer.

Jackie Chan Adventures is a deeply silly show, and I won't defend it the way I might do for The Tick, for example. But at least it's different than the Pokemon-ized Asian influences in most other current shows. Which brings me neatly to Avatar, another exception to that trend.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, 2005

This show is shaping up to be the best on the list; it's certainly the most ambitious. I mentioned Avatar in a previous column as a worthy show if you have a hankering for more Miyazaki, so that's the type of praise I'm talking about here. It's an odd mix of massive ongoing storyline, deep character development, and incredibly obnoxious humor. The kids lap it up though. Watching it reminds me of how I felt when I first read The Hobbit at age 9, to put a different type of spin on it.

Avatar airs on Nickelodeon; the first season finished up earlier this year, and the second season is partly done. Like most shows with a continuing storyline, it's an issue for new viewers to find out where they are in the storyline. Unlike 24, which gives you the hour that the characters are in but not in relation to where the day started, Avatar makes it as easy as possible. The show labels each episode clearly, divvying them up so far into Book 1: Water and Book 2: Earth, with a numbered title for every episode. The complete set of Book 1 is due out on DVD this fall.

The world of Avatar is divided up into four kingdoms, each corresponding to one of the four elements. The Fire Kingdom has been waging war on the other 3 kingdoms for a hundred years and is close to conquering all. Two kids, Katara and Sokka, live in an isolated Water tribe, and one day discover a boy frozen in an iceberg. The boy is named Aang and he's there with his flying bison named Appa. And as it turns out, Aang is the long lost Avatar, the one who can control all four of the elements. He knows a bit about airbending, since that was the tribe he came from, but he has to learn the other three. The hopes for the battle against the Fire Kingdom rest on a small boy who has missed 100 years and who has mostly silly thoughts on his mind.

In most ways, Aang is the stereotypical good guy who always makes the right choice, the humble boy who will go on to be the most powerful being in the world. Not the most unique plot in the genre! To me, the character that makes the ongoing story arc worthwhile is actually Prince Zuko, the exiled son of the Fire Lord. He wants to reclaim his honor by capturing the Avatar; bitter, confused, angry, and quite dangerous, he's a villain alright. But his experiences as an exile gradually drive him away from his former stance as a harsh supporter of all things Fire. His uncle Iroh followed him into exile, and has taken it upon himself to educate and civilize the young hothead. It's a long process, with many heartbreaking moments along the way. I like how the show never snaps its fingers and makes personal issues resolve too easily.

Book 2 has had two of the best shows so far, one which embodies all the cheesy comedy—Chapter 2: The Cave of the Two Lovers—and one which develops Zuko's backstory—Chapter 7: Zuko Alone. Zuko's episode is self-explanatory. In the other episode, the three kids run into some travelling troubadours, and so on top of all the other perils, they have some wisecracking nomads who make up zany songs for every situation.

Avatar features a very carefully constructed fantasy world. The amount of detail doesn't come across as heavy or intimidating; it's easy to jump in and enjoy the show, but you're always left with the sense that each point has been sweated over until it's just right. The show can clearly support a storyline that might stretch over 4 seasons, something that can be said about few other shows.

I'm actually nervous praising Avatar at this moment: it's at a parallel point to the one in Battlestar Galactica's existence where that show had a spectacular meltdown in quality. My one consolation is that while I was always a little anxious whether the creative team behind Battlestar knew where they were going, Avatar seems to have a simpler overall story that the writers having been absolutely nailing so far. Who said serialized entertainment died with Charles Dickens? I'm like the people in the crowd on the pier in New York City, waiting for the boat from England to bring me news of the fate of my favorite character—anyone who has seen what happened to Uncle at the end of Book 2 Chapter 8 will know what I'm talking about. It's the oldest trick in the book of cliffhangers, but when it's done well, it proves a show has the goods. I only hope that situation continues.




James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa. This column will be his last for Strange Horizons.
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29 Nov 2021

It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that our donor's choice special issue for 2021 is titled—simply—Friendship.
The year before this, the girls at school had called her Little Lila .
Pictures of me that day are kept in the ship’s files, sent back to Earth to be used in my captors’ eventual war crimes tribunals.
Perhaps a new urban system of star navigation is needed
This world, covered in spectral ebullience, was tied together by bows of light
Are you a good witch / or a bad witch? / as if there’s an answer earned, inscribed in bubbles reflecting an inverse crown.
When does the pursuit of pure thought, pure idealism, pure escapism become detrimental?
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