Were the ’90s really a golden age of cartoons?

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Cartoon Brew, the essential Cartoon blog by Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi, has a fascinating post on TV animation in the ’00s that mirrors many of our own ongoing discussions over comics:

How many shows debuted in the past decade that were entertaining, made a lasting impact on their audience, and have a shot at being remembered by future generations? A handful of American shows come to mind as standouts, most of which were cult favorites rather than mainstream successes—Invader Zim, Superjail, Venture Bros., Samurai Jack, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Yo Gabba Gabba. (A comprehensive list of TV shows can be found on Wikipedia.)

Compare this to the 1990s when we saw the debuts of TV shows that were cultural phenomenons like The Simpsons, The Ren and Stimpy Show, South Park, Beavis and Butt-Head, Batman: The Animated Series, Dexter’s Lab, Rugrats, The Powerpuff Girls, Spongebob Squarepants and yes, even Family Guy. It seemed like we were on the cusp of a new era of “creator-driven” shows that were free from the meddling impulses of network execs. It’s little surprise that these shows are the ones that audiences still discuss nowadays.


We’d never really thought of the ’90s as a wonderland for animated TV, especially when there are so many MORE toons these days, and every cable channel has gotten into cartoons. On the flip side, Cartoon Network now is live action, audiences are smaller than ever and there are three shows by Seth McFarlane on.

What’s especially interesting in regard to cartoons is the lack of new blockbuster characters — something that the comics industry also laments. To be fair, sometimes it takes 20 years for a character to become a household name — Deadpool being the latest example. But in the world of animation, things normally move much faster. The merch is part of the plan from the gitgo.

There may be lots of Venture Bros. cosplayers and their panels may be riots, but you still can’t buy Venture Frosted Flakes — or indeed…ANY Venture Bros. merchandise aside from DVDs and T-shirts. Although just thinking of what Venture Flakes might be frosted with gives one pause.

Of course, Venture Bros. is very much a cult show — in a world peppered by cults. Last night’s episode, “Self Medication,” featured Rusty going into a therapy group with other former Boy Adventurers, one of them a failed hero named Boy Wonder (voiced by Patton Oswalt) taking off on Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown fantasies. The idea that an obscure Chris Ware character would ever be “mainstream” enough to be referenced on a cult TV show is kind of mind-boggling in itself.

The conversation at Cartoon Brew continues in the very lively comment section, where the various quirks and trends of programming execs as part of the process is also discussed. So what do you think? Were the ‘toons better in the ’90s?

Comments

  1. Speaking of ’90s cartoons, I can’t believe that article overlooked…

    – Animaniacs
    – Pinky & The Brain
    – Earthworm Jim
    – Freakazoid
    – Sam & Max: Freelance Police
    – The Tick

    In my eyes, the ’90s wins, no contest. But then, I was 11-20 during the ’90s, so I watched a LOT more of them.

    I wonder how much of the dearth of good new animated shows in the ’00s can be traced back to the rise of Pokemon (and anime in general) in the late ’90s. It had to be hard for American animation to compete with Japanese shows, which were much cheaper since the bulk of the production costs had already been paid for by the Japanese audience.

  2. Donna M. says:

    Dear lord, that’s Doug Funnie in that picture, isn’t it…

  3. I’m mildly amused that when I clicked on the article, there was a banner ad for Ponyo across the top of it.
    Really, if you want to get down to brass tacks, so many of the great cartoons of the 2000s were imports – Naruto, Bleach, Death Note, Full Metal Alchemist, ect. And yes, this does reflect the comic industry. And yes, there is a merchandising to it.
    But really, to say there’s no merchandising for the American cartoons is just silly – Ben 10, Avatar, Justice League, Star Wars Clone Wars and more had plenty of the merch pushing them.
    New ideas? Flapjack, Metalocalypes, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Jimmy freaking Neutron, Class of 3000, Fairly OddParents, Evil Con Carne, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy… ug. I’m running out of energy to list all the great cartoons of the 2000s that had a cultural impact on society that were made in America.
    The Saturday Morning push of cartoons is done. The exotic bonus of seeing an “adult” cartoon not on at Saturday morning is done, too. Cartoons have managed to become commonplace, so there’s a chance that reviewers just don’t notice them sans hype. But TV Guide should have done better.

  4. Well, part of the problem may simply be because of the well documentation fragmentation of the audience due to the plethora of cable and other media distribution channels. With so many choices, it’s tougher now for shows to get a true “mass” audience; it’s easier to target specific audiences.

    As one who grew up on cartoons in the late ’60s/early to mid-’70s and remembers shows like Super Friends, the Batman cartoons from the era, Spider-Man, etc.–my fond memories notwithstanding, I still think cartoons today are way better than they were back then!

  5. I’ve been kind of angry lately by the shoddy treatment that Secret Saturdays has been given –

    I mean, a new episode debuts at 9:00PM on a Saturday night?

    What programming genius came up with that slot? Who the f%@k is going to be home to watch that?

    For cripessakes, the show isn’t called the Secret Saturday Nights!!

    ~

    Coat

  6. On the flip side, Cartoon Network now is live action, audiences are smaller than ever

    That is probably because Adult Swim hasn’t put on a good show in quite a while. Seems like they debut something new every other month, but somehow each show manages to be cheaper, less funny, and more annoying than the one before it. I mean, come on. Squidbillies? Moral Orel? Superjail? 12 Oz. Mouse? To some extent, even Metalocalypse…what happened to the glory days when they debuted ATHF, Venture Bros., Space Ghost Coast to Coast, etc.?

  7. Simon Jones says:

    I’ve always thought of the mid 80s ~ early 90s as the golden age of TV animation, when everything still looked like animation:

    Gummi Bears
    Inspector Gadget
    Duck Tales
    Dennis the Menace
    New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
    Rescue Rangers
    Animaniacs
    The Real Ghostbusters
    Tiny Toons

    The common thread between them all = TMS (Come to think of it, why doesn’t anyone outsource to TMS anymore?)

    That said, there’s still a lot to love on TV right now…

  8. Whats wrong with Seth McFarlane? Crass yes but he is hilarious.

  9. Michael says:

    Rose-colored glasses. There were just as many, if not more, horrible cartoons in the ’90s (I know, I was there), but they don’t get mentioned as much because we prefer to remember the stuff that didn’t suck. Which is exactly what will be happening with this decade’s cartoons in five to ten years. Mark my words, we’ll be hearing rants about how the cartoons of 2016 can’t hold a candle to the likes of Avatar and Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends.

    There’s also the element of the author’s own personal Golden Age influencing his thinking.

    And the problem with Seth McFarlane is that he’s not funny unless you’re high or functionally retarded.

    P.S.: It’s “phenomena,” for Christ’s sake.

  10. Cartoon Brew is a terrible website in terms of critique, they tend to hate the current and love the past, even when they hated the past when it was current.

  11. SPY GUY may not have become a cultural phenomenon in the 00’s… but just wait for 2010!

  12. Caged Wisdom says:

    cary coatney Says:
    11/23/09 at 3:26 pm
    I’ve been kind of angry lately by the shoddy treatment that Secret Saturdays has been given –
    I mean, a new episode debuts at 9:00PM on a Saturday night?
    What programming genius came up with that slot? Who the f%@k is going to be home to watch that?
    For cripessakes, the show isn’t called the Secret Saturday Nights!
    Coat

    Unfortunately this is not a new trend for Cartoon Network – they used to run new episodes of JLU in that time slot too. Which is why I missed 90% of the episodes until they came out on DVD.

  13. Kids aren’t really going anywhere on Saturday Nights. I think…

  14. True Alex – but again most kids such as my five year niece aren’t supposed to be up at 9:00 at night unless they’re waiting to stay up to watch Family Guy or King of the Hill which airs an hour later.

    What happened to the 2 hour action packed Fridays, where you could tune in and watch Secret Saturdays, Brave & the Bold, Star Wars Clone Wars, and Ben 10 all in a row?

    And tekende, Assy McGee rocks.

    ~

    Coat

  15. “And the problem with Seth McFarlane is that he’s not funny unless you’re high or functionally retarded.”

    Or hes not funny if your some hipster loser

  16. Could one consider the Aqua Teens being breakout characters?

    The Mooninites were accused of terrorism, and Shake, Meatwad and Carl were on an album with MF Doom, Danger Mouse, Ghostfase Killa and Talib Kweili. That’s pretty impressive.

  17. Animation on television is in a race to the bottom. Increasingly stoopid, and the worse the actual animation the “better”. There are some exceptions, but that’s the trend.

    Adult Swim is currently winning.

  18. Torsten Adair says:

    Each decade (however you wish to define that!) has significant achievements. The 90s was when television broke out of the ghetto of kiddie show sugar fueled Saturday Morning drivel. (Yes, I was a kid back then… love Krofts and Galaxy High….) Simpsons in Prime Time, Fox Kids Club in the afternoon, Cartoon Network, anime on SciFi…

    This decade is all about computers. Innovation is done with animated shorts. YouTube and websites and Flash make it easy to animate an idea and publicize it. Yeah… it may look herkyjerky, but compare that to Bambi Meets Godzilla…

    Meanwhile, the computer also makes animated features easier to produce. Where once there might be a new Disney feature once a year, now we have Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Studio Ghibli, a Best Animated Feature Academy Award…

    Life is good. Now excuse me… I need to go watch me some Beany And Cecil… Nyah Ah Ah!

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