If you’ve ever said to yourself, “cartoons suck these days,” or “cartoons aren’t like they used to be,” then you’ve probably noticed the increasing abundance of the Nerd Toon: a style of cartoon series that is heavily based either in anime, Dungeons & Dragons, video-games, or most especially, modern internet culture.
To put it more clearly, Internet culture has inspired just about everything ever since it was released to the world in 1995. Back then, everything revolved around this new magical thing called the World Wide Web. Educational tapes explained how to use it, movies showed how it could be used for evil and to “Hack the Planet,” and every day there was some newfangled website popping up that either offered some miraculous new service, or presented a topic area that was wholly specific and completely inane. This then brought about a new subculture of people, known as the computer nerds.
Nerds were always known as the smarter of the bunch, but have stereotypically been depicted as the most socially awkward. Just look at things like Weird Science, Revenge of the Nerds, or any generic “teen-drama” cartoon in the 1980s, and you’ll see the stigma in action. They wore horn-rimmed glasses with a heavy-duty lens, button down shirts with a pocket full of pens, they’re straight A students and teacher’s pets: and everything else that the opening theme to Revenge of the Nerds says.
But once the internet age rolled around, nerds seemed to redefine themselves a bit in the public eye. Now they were no longer just the smart kids with an awkward laugh, they could also be the hard, tough-as-nails outcasts who know how to hack into Bank of London. And they used modern computer terms like, “super-user,” “algorithm,” “firewall,” “database,” and even “cookie.” And although hackers and other computer wizards are now just as real and as clever as they ever were, the media at large has since lost interest, and has embraced the most common modern nerd for what they really are: quirky, devoted, uniquely dressed (in overly black or overly fluorescent colors), rather friendly and polite, and incredibly creative.
Yes the modern nerd may still be a social outcast in some places and some circles, but for the most part the nerd has now become merged with the “geek” in order to create a general culture of people who love comic books, adore Japanese anime, wear their favorite characters on their shirts, wear glasses of many different colors, can recite quotes and phrases like there’s no tomorrow, and have a deeply rooted knowledge of how to over-clock their computer systems. But even more than that, the modern nerd is no longer a social dullard, and is actually redefining what social equality and social fairness is within the millennial generation.
So then how does this tie back into cartoons? Well simply put, these are the people who make them now. These are the people with the clever ideas and unique concepts that grab television executives and developers. And actually these people have been around in modern cartoon media for a while, coming up with things like The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Pepper Ann, Kim Possible, and plenty of others. But what can specifically be described as a “Cartoon born of the Internet age” is a different beast all its own, and it did not come onto the scene until 2007.
Back in the 1980s, cartoons went through a major renaissance after the induction of Michael Eisner into the Walt Disney company, when Walt Disney Television launched their brand new Prime-time Afternoon series called Ducktales. Before that point, cartoons had been rather stilted and flat, relying on simple jokes, sight gags, limited animation, and a lot of good radio drama skills from the principle voice cast. But after Ducktales came out, suddenly everyone wanted to create dynamic, highly adventurous, and well-animated cartoons. And so we got shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Thundercats, Transformers, The Real Ghostbusters, and The Muppet Babies. The animation was still a little rough, but much less so, and far better drawn and colored than their predecessors. This was mainly because all of our animation was now being outsourced to Japan and other Asian countries, who worked on a limited animation rhythm. And even to this day, we still outsource most of our animation work to overseas studios.
The 90s then brought us another renaissance of the wacky and the absurd. A new love for Looney Tunes spread like wild-fire, and inspired everyone who watched those classic Warner Brothers shorts in the 80s to now make their own similar shows in the 90s. This brought about such classic shows like Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life, Cow and Chicken, Angry Beavers, and most especially, the two brand new Warner Brothers/Steven Speilberg vehicles known as Tiny Toons and Animaniacs. This style of Neo-Looney cartoon lasted all the way up to the year 2000, when the world of television animation was dramatically changed again with the re-introduction of the teen drama.
A style similar to that of the 1960s and the 1970s, teen drama cartoons almost seem a bit wasteful of the animation medium, because they don’t tend to use the format to its fullest advantages. Animation is best when it depicts the fantastical and the unrealistic. But if you’re simply trying to recreate real life with a slightly quirky design aesthetic, then what are you really gaining from it that you couldn’t do in live action? Answer, you make the teenagers extra-ordinary.
Now all of a sudden you had shows like Kim Possible (a cheerleader who happens to be a vigilante super-spy), Teen Titans (a DC comic series revamped with an anime inspired look), Totally Spies (three 17 year-old girls are recruited by W.H.O.O.P. to thwart the plots of meglo-maniacal fashion and cosmetics moguls), and of course, My Life as a Teenage Robot (a show about a robot girl who learns to deal with high-school drama, while also having to save the world from imminent destruction on a daily basis).
There were plenty of other strange and bizarre shows that came out around these trends. Like the “Bratty kids with super-abilities” (Fairly Odd Parents, Codename: Kids Next Door), “the kids with rather exciting but seemingly mundane lives” (Hey Arnold, Doug, Rocket Power, Recess) “the quirky kids who tend to annoy everybody” (Spongebob Squarepants, Ed Edd ‘n’ Eddy, Camp Lazlo), “the young boy with the extra-ordinary best-friend” (Chalk-Zone, My Gym Partner’s a Monkey, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends), and of course the adult oriented cartoons (King of the Hill, Family Guy, Futurama, and anything playing on Adult Swim).
But even with all of that, the most recent trend seems to be the most far removed from anything we’ve been used to in the past. And its style falls into two major categories: the “ridiculous and absurd,” and the “sci-fi/fantasy heartwarming drama.”
You may not believe it, but certain cartoons have made a dramatic change from just mindless tv garbage into something that can actually make you learn about life, be thankful for the things you have, and even cry when something amazing happens to a fictional character. And it all started with one of the most absurd of them all, Adventure Time.
Adventure Time was a brand-new Cartoon Network series in 2007, created by Pendleton Ward, about a young stringy armed boy with a bunny hat and his shape-shifting side-kick dog, who travel the lands of Whereeverthehellthisis, fighting monsters, rescuing princesses, and just trying to have some epic fun. The show soon became to Millennials what the Yellow Submarine was to the Baby Boomers. And due to its undoubtable popularity, relatable spoofs and references to all things sci-fi and fantasy, and its modern sense of humor, many more shows quickly began to spring up in its wake.
First there was its sister series, Bravest Warriors: which was also created by Pendleton Ward, and is animated by many of the same crew as Adventure Time. It’s a Youtube Exclusive web-series (meaning it only plays online at Cartoon Hangover) about a group of teens who inhabit the invisible body of a dead giant robot, and who travel to different worlds and dimensions righting wrongs and protecting the innocent, all while having to deal with their relationship and friendship issues.
•Bee and PuppyCat
Then there was Bee and PuppyCat: a kickstarter funded series—created by yet another artist from Adventure Time named Natasha Allegri—about a young woman and her alien pet named PuppyCat, who have awkward and strange adventures together between Earth and extraterrestrial worlds.
Next there was Steven Universe, which is by far the best out of the four so far (as far as I’m concerned), and was yet again created by a storyboard artist and writer who used to work on Adventure Time. What a surprise?
This time it’s the incredibly talented Rebecca Sugar, who develops this endlessly endearing and lovable little world of Beach City, inhabited by the titular Steven Universe (yes, that’s really his full name), his father Greg, his friend/girlfriend Connie, the doughnut shop owners Lars and Sadie, a weird little mute kid named Onion, and of course the Gems: extraterrestrial beings who live on Earth to defend it against evil creatures, great disasters, and world ending catastrophes. They consist of Garnet, the tough and quiet one, Amathyst, the slobby, brash and tomboyish one, and Pearl, the poise, highly practical and often paranoid one. Steven also happens to be a Gem as well: the child of both a Gem and a man, and possesses great powers which he has yet to unlock.
Go check out my review for the episode “Alone Together” to learn more about the show.
Finally we have the newest of this trend, Uncle Grandpa: the single dumbest sounding concept I’ve seen for a series so far, and yet admittedly not too far removed from the others when you really think about it. It’s really just about an old man, who flies around in an RV, with a deep voiced lizard man and a talking pizza, and spreads joy and happiness to kids of all ages by taking them on crazy adventures to far off lands. He’s kind of like your uncle, or your grandpa (get it?), if he were mixed with Santa Claus and flew around in an RV powered by the TARDIS (Doctor Who reference). And there’s also a giant, realistic, flying tiger too.
And no joke, that’s actually what they call the thing: “Giant Realistic Flying Tiger.” Because apparently modern humor dictates that it is “freaking hilarious” to be both lazy and obvious.
Now the similarities between each of these five shows are clear. Each of them involve quirky main characters who either exhibit the loud “Go Get’em” attitude, or the soft, passive, mildly amused attitude. Finn and Steven both love adventure and excitement, while Bee and the Bravest Warriors just consider their adventures another day at the office: it might be exciting as hell, but they sure don’t look like they care too much.
Each show has a distinctive color pallet, usually pastels with a lot of white accents and crystalline vistas. Character designs are always soft, round, and very visually iconic: which is always the mark of good character design, but here it’s clearly better than in most shows. And unsurprisingly each subsequent show took note from their ancestor, Adventure Time, and chose to use a soundtrack that sounds like a cross between a Casio keyboard and an old SNES game.
Very retro. Always and forever… they must be retro.
Now the biggest things that these five shows have in common are perhaps not their premises, but rather their styles of humor, and the types of references and jokes that they choose to make. You see, humor, for the most part, has made a huge leap in what is considered immediately funny. Because within the past ten years or so, the “dorky” and the “foolish” has become epitome of comedy.
Because of people constantly being able to talk to each other and share images and videos online through facebook, tumblr, Instagram, vine, twitter, and wherever else, and due to the popularity of sharable pictures known as “memes”: such as “The Troll Face”…
…People randomly proclaiming their love for bacon…
…”The ‘Surprise!’ Nigel Thornberry”
And especially “Nyon Cat”…
…the modern internet culture of teens, tweens, and children has become obsessed with humor based not in witty comparisons or word play, but instead in contextual anomalies. Things like: stating the obvious in a quick and simple manner (“I LIKE PIE!”), talking like babies and using short sentences (“It’s cold on mah feets”), making things unnecessarily plural (“such powerful magics”), over-simplifying words (“so many feels”), and sticking random pictures of things on top of other pictures in order to make a statement, such as the famous “Deal With It” GIFs.
This form of loose, contextual, and often childish humor has become the norm, and I see no end to it any time soon. And to be honest, I’m not against it at all. In fact, I find it rather charming and likable. And I’m no different than anyone else, I do this sort of stuff too. Hell I wouldn’t even be able to explain this all to you if I didn’t understand it on a similar level.
I grew up in this age. I really didn’t subscribe to it all until more recently, since I wasn’t in the same chat rooms or forums or online communities, and some of it I still don’t quite understand, since many memes come and go in just one short week or so, while others will last years.
But the fact remains that this is the type of humor that is popular now. And for those who do understand it, it can be absolutely side-splitting.
However, these five previously stated tv shows are not the only shows of this type: there are sub-cultures of shows, born from the same ideal, and yet born on a different path.
Take for example Regular Show: a show that is anything but. It’s a veritable trip down a drunken hallucination you had once in 1984 while watching Buckaroo Banzai, where animals and birds walk on two legs, they have children with mortal men and women, Yetis exist, some men are green, and gumball machines and lollipops have gained sentience.
And as if that wasn’t enough to fry your brain, these characters have to deal with the undead, the minions of hell, evil spirits inhabiting their televisions, and the many different official councils of different sacred things: such as the God of Basketball, the Guardians of Eternal Youth, The Ancient Order of the VHS, The Phone Guardians, and the Guardians of Obsolete Formats.
Any time these two knuckle-heads, Mordecai and Rigby, do even one little thing wrong, they unleash the powers of hell upon the world and nearly get killed by the ghost of Lo Pan (from Big Trouble in Little China) because one of them cheated by hiding and ace up his sleeve during a game of Texas Hold’em.
So as you can see, this show is similar to Steven Universe, in that it has weird and strange people living on Earth, while other strange and weird creatures travel to Earth through portals to wreak havoc. And yet it also includes this 1980s mentality with retro cars, retro hair-styles, retro gaming systems, retro pop-culture, and retro copyrighted music. And at the end of the day it’s up to two witless morons to save the world, and their little city park, from total destruction. Definitely in the spirit of Bill and Ted.
Another show that has a similar vibe, but came a little bit earlier on, is Chowder: a show that lives entirely in its own fantastical universe, does not involve alien or astral-plane invasions, but does involve a large amount of animal and human related characters, a bizarre socio-economic structure, and a lot of food puns.
The main characters here are Chowder, a bear/cat/raccoon thing, Mung Dahl, the master chef, his wife Truffles, the fairy of the mushroom, and Shnitzel, a rock monster who only speaks in “Radah.” He’s kind of like Groot, only he uses just one word over and over and over in continuous sentences.
Chowder’s premise is far less formulaic than Regular Show and more free-form like Adventure Time, in that the circumstances of the day could be very very different, and characters could end up going to drastically different places each time. The beginning of the day often starts out with the team making some sort of dish to be delivered to a customer, but sometimes they’re just out to buy more groceries and some nonsense starts to happen, or one of their bizarre ingredients becomes hard to wrangle. Sometimes we don’t even deal with food at all, and instead we deal with a Wooly Mammoth’s mommy issues and inability to tell good jokes, the difficult logistics of putting on a stage play, or the intricate details of some strange field-based ball game that can never, ever, under any circumstances, be won.
Chowder and Steven are also very similar characters, but Chowder is far more obsessed with food, and Steven is far more competent: likely because there’s a slight age difference between the two characters.
•The Amazing World of Gumball
Another show that was born from this modern internet culture, but not necessarily from Adventure Time, is the uniquely original Amazing World of Gumball. This show is in fact one of the loosest free-form shows I have ever seen. Just about anything could happen on any day, so you never know what to expect.
The characters of Gumball, including Gumball himself, all live in this well textured and realistically shaded, three-dimensional world, inhabited by characters who look like just about anything (a puppet, a monkey, a hairball, a dinosaur, a balloon, a banana), and are created from just about every form of animation there is (stop motion, hand-drawn, flash, paper-craft, CGI, etc).
Gumball himself is part of the Watterson family, consisting of Nichole and Richard (a cat and a bunny), and their children, Gumball and Anais [An-eye-eese] (also a cat and a bunny). They also have an adopted son named Darwin (who is a fish), and he is both Gumball’s brother and best friend in the world.
The series tends to do just about whatever it wants. But to be honest I couldn’t really recount any of its episodes for you, because I simply can’t remember what happened in them. I think in one of them, Gumball and Darwin were worried that they were becoming men too fast, and they wanted to remain little kids, and yet the whole time, their voices kept changing, they grew facial hair, and they continually got themselves into trouble due to their puberty issues. Or maybe I’m mixing two episodes together. I can’t be sure.
Anyway, all manner of madness ensues in this series. And due to its highly unique and (I’m sure) rather cumbersome animation style, it’s a brilliant feast for the eyes, and a real treat for any fans of animation.
•Wander Over Yonder
But we’re not done yet folks, we still have one more show to talk about. And it’s perhaps the goofiest of them all. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you… Wander Over Yonder.
The brain child of cartoon creator Craig McCracken (The Powerpuff Girls, Foster’s), Wander Over Yonder was born and created from a chance encounter Craig had with 30 Rock actor, Jack McBrayer, as Jack had been a big fan of Craig’s for some time. And upon meeting Jack, Craig immediately knew that he had found the perfect voice and personality to fit a character he had doodled on a sketch book many many years ago in the mid 1990s. And so a story soon developed, and it became the tale of Wander: a nomadic do-gooder who travels the galaxies and all their planets with his best pal and trusty steed Sylvia, as they right wrongs, save planets, and generally just help some folks out. Because good ol’ Wander, he just likes to help everybody.
But during their travels, the two constantly come up against Lord Hater: destroyer of worlds, jammer of epic jams, and Number One Super Star! And as the mortal enemy of Wander, Hater has sworn to destroy Wander at all costs. But, of course, that just never seems to work out.
This show tends to take the quirky internet humor to a minimum, and doesn’t involve too much referential humor like Adventure Time, Bee & PuppyCat, or Regular Show do. In fact, its main internet related meme is Wander’s “good-bye” phrase, “Later Hater,” which he says whenever he says goodbye to Lord Hater. Which I imagine is precisely why Craig named him that, so that it could further relate to the good-natured focus of the show’s premise and moral stance. The rest of the time the show pretty much follows the similar style of antics and goofiness that purveyed the halls of Foster’s and the streets of Townsville: although admittedly far less graphic and gruesome. I mean, have you looked at those old Powerpuff Girls episodes in a while? Those were freaking “hardcore” man! Lots of blood, broken noses, weird tentacle creatures, and a pension for minor sexual innuendos. Wander Over Yonder, though, is much more tame: much easier to digest in the modern age. And maybe that brings us back to why some people just don’t like modern cartoons as much, they’re too tame.
Cartoons in the 90s used to be gritty, dark, edgy, creepy, disgusting, and sometimes sexually perverse, but usually in a subtle “hidden” way.
Now’a’days, most shows are calm, peaceful, relatively wholesome, and have only slightly started to stray back into semi-sexual territory. I distinctly recall both Wander, and a new show called Star VS the Forces of Evil, which made the joke of calling another character a “Cheap Horse:” trying to equate “horse” to “whore.” Which was honestly pretty ballsy word-play and surprised me so much that I found it really funny.
In this way, you can definitely feel this vibe that modern cartoons want to be both adult and childish at the same time, perfectly encapsulating a sort of pre/post-pubescent mind-set that best appeals to kids in that age range, but can also deeply appeal to children of all ages, even college kids.
But whether a show is absurd or not absurd, the best thing about modern cartoons is that they actually work to make you care about their characters. They build complex narratives, where characters develop and change and things that happened in the last episode directly affect what happens in the next. Consequences are real. And these characters cannot bounce back un-harmed if they get hurt, physically or emotionally.
Shows like the award-winning Avatar: the Last Airbender, its sequel The Legend of Korra, Disney’s Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and even My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic all try to build worlds and ongoing stories that entice viewers and elicit honest emotional reactions. You learn to connect with the characters on screen: they are not passive, they are not one-dimensional, they are not always happy, but no matter what happens to them, you love them just the same. You want to see your favorite characters triumph over adversity, and you want to see your favorite two characters get together in the end. But most of all, you actively want to “feel” when you watch these shows. You want to watch it because it will make you cry, or make you angry, or make you cheer.
And it’s all because the people making modern cartoons know that children are not just children, they are little adults. And the sooner these little adults can learn good lessons and become compassionate and empathetic people, the better chance we have of making the Millennial generation better than the last one.
So if you think Millennials are a travesty, and that we are the worst generation to come so far, then you are very wrong.
People have not gotten any worse than they used to be. Humans have always been selfish, cruel, greedy, devoid of compassion, and often heartless. And to be honest, humans have improved greatly from what horrific acts we used to commit on a daily basis. The world is not as barbaric, we are not as collectively cruel and unapologetic, and we are certainly not without warmth and compassion for others’ plights.
And you may not believe it, but the horrible, cruel, and selfish types of people that are out there have always been here, and there have been hundreds of thousands of them. The only reason it looks like there’s more now is because they finally have a way to speak their mind anyday and anytime they want that they never had before. It’s called the Internet.
The internet allows anyone with even the smallest inkling of an opinion, to speak their mind and spread hatred and mistrust. And with all of the dirty pictures, horrible racial and sexual slurs, and inappropriate hateful comments that have been posted on almost everything, its no wonder people think Millennials are worse than Generation X.
But at that same time, many of us also use the internet to spread joy and happiness to others. While the haters out there now have a way to speak their mind, the “Lovers” (as it were) now have a way to speak theirs too, and it is actively changing the way that people interact with each other both online and in the real world. Millennials care about what goes on in the real world, we care about other people’s feelings, we care about and respect our families, and we are incredibly clever and creative now that we have the freedom of modern digital tools.
It’s also true enough that Millennials can be a double-edged sword. While we can be very compassionate and loving in the kinds of things we do, say, or create, we can also be very crude, inappropriate, and even passionately negative in the things we do as well. A large amount of humor online, especially when it comes to internet videos, is filled with heavy swearing, angry rants, and laughing at someone else’s expense. And yet it is all done in a satirical way.
People like the Nostalgia Critic, the Angry Video Game Nerd, RedLetterMedia.com, or plenty of other voices of internet criticism, may present personas that are angry, hateful, vengeful, and very harsh with their words. And yet the real people behind these internet characters are some of the nicest, kindest, and most genuine people you could ever meet. They do what they do to make other’s smile, and to allow other people to let off a little steam through the words and rants of someone else. And so while I can also see why some would find us a rather crass and foul-mouthed generation, actively speaking our minds perhaps a bit too much, I don’t think the seniors have proven much better in that regard, nor do I think all that should take away from the fact that many of us are also still good at heart.
My generation is drenched in cartoon media and video-games. We play and watch things constantly. We comment and write about the things we do. We make videos about our thoughts and feelings. And then share and experience these things together in forums and conventions all across the world. And because of that, we may never truly grow up. But I don’t think we should.
We certainly need to learn to move forward, leave home, build our own lives, and become financially independent. But the minute that we forsake our childish interests like cartoons, or video games, or comic books, we forsake what makes us better than a lot of people: our innocence. And the minute that a person loses that innocence, the less they understand what it means to be a kid, and the more likely they are to distrust and dislike the generation that will come after them.
This I believe, is the mark of the Millennials, and the Nerds: we want to remain kids at heart, so that we can understand our own children better. This is why we still love our childhood hobbies. This is why we are as passionate as we are. And this is also why the cartoons of today have not only become more crazy and insane, but also more impactful and honest, in a way that can teach kids how to be respectful towards others, thankful for what they have, and to develop a good and healthy opinion about themselves.
I know this was originally just supposed to be about cartoons and such. But I soon felt that this was my way of talking about my generation and what we are really all about, all while speaking about it through the subject of cartoon history. And so I hope you learned a little something about the 20-somthings out there, and why many of us do what we do.