Why Cartoons Are Relevant

“I like physics but I love cartoons.”
-Stephen Hawkings

I love cartoons in an almost religiously fanatical way although most people think they are exclusively for children. Kids give you disease, religion fills you with shame and cartoons make you realize that life is wonderful and absurd.

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The Simpsons: The Gateway Drug to the Cartoon World

Of course, I started with The Simpsons– the gateway drug of the cartoon world– which was getting started just as I was; it first aired in 1989 and I was born in 1986. I like to think The Simpsons was the first thing my conscious mind absorbed. In fact, it would clear up a lot of questions.

The Simpsons was at the forefront of the new renaissance of adult cartoons that would revolutionize television and though it took until the late eighties for people to figure it out, cartoons were always intended for adults. Cartoons were modeled after old-fashioned comics which were designed for adults with just enough humor thrown in that children would enjoy them as well. Nowadays, animation is geared toward children with snippets of adult humor. Children were drawn to the color since most entertainment of the day was in black and white, and according to Calvin’s dad in Calvin and Hobbes, so was the rest of the world. We’ll get to them in the next article.

Adult cartoons being made before the eighties were mainly feature films like R. Crumb‘s perverted and twisted projects like Fritz the Cat or Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Traffic. Cartoons were a difficult but cheap medium in a world where special effects and film cost more than anyone’s artistic integrity. These were brilliant works, but were never mainstream because they were movies, not television. They are still considered cult favorites with their obvious fill of dark humor. The Simpsons was presented as a sitcom and had a more subtle satire to it. Matt Groening’s clear adoration of the nuclear family gave us the episodes that are more tear-inducing while his disdain for greed and stupidity in the world bred characters like Mr. Burns and the uncomfortable happiness of Ned Flanders. So here’s where it starts: the beginning of cartoons finding a home among adults and children. But where can it possibly go from there?

I’m glad you asked, voice in my head that’s always interested in the useless topics I have too much information on. Fox had a slew of animated shows to follow The Simpsons while the quasi-edgy Comedy Central a few years later started producing less benign cartoons like Dr. Katz and South Park. Fox and ABC shared the short-run but wildly brilliant series The Critic which had a different style of humor than The Simpsons but was still following the same episodic sitcom format. The stage was set for Cartoon Network to get in on this party.

2001 birthed the premier of Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. Playing Hanna Barbara cartoons all night is fun for a bit but the network realized that by 2 am kids are asleep and stoners have already seen every episode of Scooby-Doo. It was time to introduce a full line-up of cartoons just for adults. A glorious, glorious line up… (look, I smoked a lot of weed in high school and lived in the middle of nowhere). This was a big deal to me. Adult Swim presented not only completely bizarre cartoons that confused the life out of most people (like Aqua Teen Hunger Force) but satirical creations that would make the first eight seasons of The Simpsons proud, like The Boondocks. Satire is the reason cartoons exist. Let me explain why.

I’m going to do so but also attempt to not sound like a lunatic for being this obsessed with animated shows. Satire by definition is subtle and subtlety is difficult. Right, Family Guy? One of the best weapons of subtlety is that it is like a trojan horse, subtlety enters the castle gates in a benevolent package and wreaks havoc while the soldiers sleep. Cartoons are often written off by the unenlightened as being an innocuous waste of time. Cartoons are considered childish and most people can’t imagine a cartoon would have the brains to insult or criticize anything at all, let alone everything. That’s when these magical vehicles of humor and truth can unload some reality on an unsuspecting public, best exemplified by everything Mike Judge has ever touched. Information and opinions presented through cartoons force the viewer to think harder about a concept because it’s not presented in black and white like an editorial piece or a news article. A person watching a cartoon has to think about the joke and why it’s relevant, not just laugh because it’s funny or get angry because it’s inflammatory.

Cartoons are considered childish and most people can’t imagine a cartoon would have the brains to insult or criticize anything at all, let alone everything

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Beyond the episodic template, there are cartoons today that have running story lines that create more complex animated shows. A lot of anime shows from Japan and Korea have been doing this for years and while I can’t say that I am well-versed in the ways of Asian cartoons, I am constantly impressed with the depth of their plotlines and complexity of their characters. Back when we in America were struggling to wrap our heads around Beavis and Butthead, they were making Ghost in the Shell and wondering why Americans kept making Jim Belushi movies. We’re getting there though, and the unsung and rabidly loved Venture Brothers shows us what can happen when the amount of writing and work that goes into most HBO dramas is applied to a 13 episode season of a cartoon. If you’ve never heard of Venture Brothers, look it up right now. You can come back to me; you won’t miss anything important.

Of course if you’re someone who thinks cartoons are for children and even adult cartoons are inane and ridiculous, then I doubt I changed your mind. I can only hope that when presented with my arguments you might reconsider your stand point and think on why I have mine. We decided that cartoons are for children the same way we decided blue is for boys and pink is for girls: sheer randomness. There is an endless supply of relevant, quality cartoons and while some of them are doing nothing to further the brilliance of the medium (looking in your direction Seth MacFarlane) the ones that are making the grade are so good that we can overlook the tripe.

Here’s an extensive list of cartoons shows and movies you should watch at least a few episodes of:

Shows:  The Simpsons , Bob’s BurgersVenture Brothers ,ArcherThe CriticDuckmanDr. KatzDeathnote, The BoondocksKing of the HillFuturamaAqua Teen Hunger ForceMetalacolypseSealab 2021Harvey Birdman: Attorney at LawMoral OrelSuperjailHome MoviesMission HillClone HighDariaBeavis and Butthead (both new and old), Ugly Americans

Movies: Triplets of BelvilleFritz the CatPersepolis,Waking Life,Waltz, Akira Waltz with Bashir, Paprika,  When the Wind BlowsHeavy MetalHeavy TrafficFantastic PlanetPerfect BlueA Scanner Darkly (kind of a cartoon)