Deep down, all of us love to wallow in a bit of nostalgia, and there’s a certain guilty pleasure that comes from catching a TV show we watched when we were young. You might just be flicking through the channels and come across something you can make an excuse to watch on the grounds “I haven’t seen that for years!”
But when you’ve got over that, you might think about changing the channel when your significant other, parent, or flatmate comes in, on the grounds that, well, you’re watching a cartoon. Embarrassment overcomes you, your cheeks get flushed and even that excuse you just came up with sounds flimsy now doesn’t it?
But should you really be ashamed to own up to watching a cartoon, or, as the more discerning viewer calls them – “Animated Series”?
Well, that depends on what you like. Series like Adventure Time and Dragonball Z are popular now, because they’ve tapped into a certain zeitgeist of a pocket of society. Like quirky humour and not to fussed about true to life animation? Adventure Time is your bag. Dragonball and other Manga influenced anime tap into the obsession into Japanese and far Eastern Culture – but these series haven’t pulled off anything that Ren and Stimpy and Pokemon didn’t do years before. Kids like them, adults like them, they’re the guilty pleasures I described above – but when does a cartoon become more?
Japanese manga like Akira can have a claim to being the first real “grown up” cartoon, and the visions of NeoTokyo as a dystopian future, coupled with the moral implications of keeping a young boy as a weapon of mass destruction have long endured. Make no mistake, Akira is unshakingly violent, and marked a high point in Japanese animation where previous Manga had been well known for cutting corners wherever it could. Akira had none of that, and its $11m budget all goes up on screen. It moves at breakneck speed, never letting up, and its influence raised the bar for future animated features. The antagonist, Tetsuo, is unflinchingly brutal, rampaging through the city, but also carries a degree of sympathy with him. At every turn, someone is trying to kill him for powers he didn’t want or knows how to control. He’s the very definition of people wanting to control or destroy something they feel threatened by.
Akira deals with adult themes of responsibility, power and its abuse, corruption and ultimately redemption. It’s far more than just a cartoon, as the central characters show development throughout the movie, and the fact it’s constantly in lists of the top 100 movie of all time by organisations like Empire and critics like Roger Ebert shows how much of a legacy it has. Couple that with it being largely responsible for the huge wave of interest in Japanese animation in the 1990s, as well as being a significant influence on critically acclaimed movies like Chronicle and The Matrix, and you have a film that it more than just a cartoon.
That’s not to say this type of development is exclusive to Eastern culture. In 1992, a TV series started that is still remembered fondly to this day for it’s maturity, tackling of adult themes, and its stellar voice cast. Batman: The Animated Series is perhaps the finest example of a cartoon that transcended its roots. It would be cynical to suggest that Warner Brothers were seeking to capitalise on the success of the 1989 Michael Keaton version of the Dark Knight, but the way that movie performed certainly opened a lot of doors for the character that had perhaps been closed for a long time.
Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the two men in charge of the show, created a series that looked vastly different anything else on television at the time. While Marvel has it’s X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons taking off (the former of which also fits into this category), they were full of primary colours, outlandish villains, literal two dimensional characters, and the problems that came when showing violence on what were shows designed for children. No direct punches, no blood, no real way to demonstrate the powers each character had without them being inherently neutered by the those that were producing them, in this case Marvel, Saban (think Power Rangers) and Fox, the channel on which they were aired. Batman though, was animated with black backgrounds, immediately giving it a darker edge. You can thank artist Eric Radomski for that, as he was the one who drew the backgrounds based on Timm’s designs for the characters themselves. Radomski told the series’ animation department that all backgrounds be painted using light colors on black paper – completely different to the industry standard at the time, which was the opposite. The animators called this “Dark Deco”, and look that have been often imitated, but never duplicated, to the same extent.
The reasons the show caught the eye though were great in number: It gained much notoriety for its use of violence – contrasting completely from its Marvel counterparts. Antagonists were routinely beaten by Batman, evoking not just the otherworldly atmosphere of Batman’s predatory nature from the 1989 movie, but also incorporating the brutality of successful comics like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
Dini encountered much resistance from Warner Brothers for depicting realistic firearms, characters being injured and shot, and in some cases dying – watch the commentary on the DVD box sets and you’ll see how fearful Warners were about the direction the show was taking. That changed when they saw the finished product, which captured the legacy of Tim Burton’s movie and the pulp nature of the comic books.
But does that still make it acceptable to watch it as an adult? Batman: The Animated Series tackled issues like
Batman’s guilt over the death of his parents (in the episode “Nothing to Fear”), child exploitation (“The Underdwellers”), unrequited love and death (“Feat of Clay”), and in perhaps the greatest episode of all, “Heart of Ice”, bereavement, revenge and justice. Bruce Timm’s script for this episode won the series a 1993 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program. It also reinvented one of Batman’s more comical enemies, Mr. Freeze, as a tragic figure who will go to any lengths to revive his terminally ill wife from suspended animation, and mete out revenge on those he holds responsible for her condition.
Batman: The Animated Series had further legacies, as a successful Superman spin off followed, as well as a Justice League Animated Series – all on the strength of Dini, Timm, and Radomski’s work. Its voice cast became so closely connected to their characters, that Kevin Conroy is still playing the voice of Batman now, in the Arkham games. Mark Hamill meanwhile, is now probably more famous for his depiction of The Joker, than he is for Luke Skywalker.
In conclusion – some people will always see a cartoon as something for kids. There’ll always be a part of us that will switch over to something a “bit more grown up” when we come across one of the series’ we watched in our youth. But really, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Cartoons, or animated series, can teach us much about the side of life we regularly ignore, and help us understand that two dimensional drawings can sometimes have three dimensional resonance.