Saturday, February 19, 2011

In which I endorse cartoons.

I admit it, a huge part of why I enjoy Shank and Ultimate Ninja Storm is how much they look like cartoons.

On Wednesday, I went into my local HMV (which has secured my future game-and-movie custom, until such time as they betray me in a GameStop-like fashion) and picked up Let Me In on Blu-ray. I asked the clerk if they had Archer on Blu-ray, but she reported it only exists on DVD.

I've had these conversations before. Every store you walk in to will tell you Pulp Fiction doesn't exist on Blu-ray, because if an item isn't listed in their computer it doesn't exist, even if it does. I told her I was certain I'd seen it on Blu-ray, so I purchased Let Me In and went home to verify my veracity. I was wrong - and that still stings.

Oddly, a show on FX's HD channel, broadcast in HD, isn't available to purchase in HD. Which is idiotic. So on Thursday, I went back to HMV and picked up Archer on DVD. Upon returning home, I gazed upon my collection of cartoons which are ostensibly for adults, and realized I seem to have a bit of a library going.

So let's chat about cartoons, shall we?

My affection for animated series from North America - which I view as a wholly different experience than Japanese serials - can only begin with Batman: The Animated Series. In the early 90s, after-school cartoons were big business, and Warner Bros. was attempting to lock horns with Disney. (This was during the period where Disney would launch one new high-quality cartoon series per year - the age that gave us and Chip N' Dale's Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck and Duck Tales.)

Warner Bros. had their own high-quality series, though. They gave it a good go with Tiny Toon Adventures (1990), and hugely improved on things with Animaniacs (1993) - and while there's no denying that Animaniacs was some fantastic viewing, it was Batman: The Animated Series (1992) that made me sit up and take notice.

This, it seemed, was a cartoon not expressly made for me - a child. This was a cartoon made for everyone, and I often sensed it was going over my head in some areas. I now realize that Batman: TAS was courting the same ambition as those old Japanese animations which so soundly floored me as a youth, without risking all the blood and boobs - it was animation that adults could enjoy too.

Just well-told stories, never watered-down.

As I look at my library now, I realize that Batman: TAS is the only North American cartoon series I'm missing. The only remaining series that's important to me, any way. It's... unfortunate that the seasons are so damned expensive, but... I'm not sure that will stop me.

You could certainly point to Fox and thank The Simpsons and Family Guy for the late-90s resurgence of "mature" cartoons, but let's not be generous, here. For some reason, there's a line I draw between The Simpsons and Futurama. While I haven't really enjoyed a Simpsons episode in... the better part of a decade, both are replete with references that require a quick eye to notice, but for me it's only Futurama that really holds up to repeat viewings. Watch a Simpsons episode, and you never need to see it again - watch an episode of Futurama a half-dozen times, and you'll find you're still noticing new stuff. Or at least I do.

Which is why Futurama was the first TV series I ever bought.

For me, Futurama is a bit like the God of War franchise in that it took me a while - multiple viewings/playthroughs - to really appreciate what makes it so damn special. Like many North American 'toons, Futurama has a supremely talented cast, but I believe without question that it's the writers who made the show so different from all the rest.

It's a bit like The Far Side (anyone remember The Far Side?) in animated form - a show for nerds and geeks, by nerds and geeks. There are little - and many not-so-little - in-jokes everywhere, if you take a moment to look for them, and they sometimes manage to pull off stuff that is both supremely funny and absolutely brilliant.

My Futurama collection - what with the four straight-to-DVD movies and the new season - now spans... hang on, let me check... nine purchases and twenty discs. That's a lot of quality entertainment.

I do feel the most recent season attempts, on occasion, to be trendy instead of focusing on what makes the series great - but it's largely a return to form, and a welcome gift to fans of the series. Futurama remains one of the single best examples of an animated series that children and adults can each thoroughly enjoy on entirely different levels.

* * *

The rest of the series listed here are pretty much for adults only, and feature a certain contrast that I find especially tasty. And before you tell me about it, yes - I have seen Frisky Dingo.

Next up, we have Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, about a superhero from the 60s trying to get by as a lawyer. Each twelve-minute episode of Birdman is a rapid-fire blink-and-you'll miss it barrage of sight gags and sharp writing, but two things set it apart, for me. First off, the cast is stellar - particularly Stephen Colbert as Phil Ken Sebben and Reducto (Colbert launched the hugely popular Colbert Report during production of the final season of Birdman, but returned to lend his voice here and there).

The second thing - the thing which I find so endearing whenever I see it - is the dichotomy of the uncanny and the mundane (perhaps the best example of this is Pixar's The Incredibles). Birdman is, without question, a crazy show where crazy shit happens all the time, but what makes it work on a higher level is that we often, in our own lives, have friends or family members just as weird and seemingly complex as many of the ancillary characters, and Harvey's own foolish optimism and debilitating self-doubt mirrors our own.

Harvey is the emotionally crippled straight man to the rest of his wacky life - the only one who sees how weird things are - but he's still got a job to do, and by golly he'll wear a suit while doing it.

Arguably the purest distillation of the "incredible and mundane" conceit put forward by The Incredibles is The Venture Bros.

The Venture Bros. posits a world where magic, aliens and super-powered humans exist - but it's still our world. It's still a world of selfish, flawed people and hungry capitalism, of desperation for success and affection, of basest desires and questionable morals - and two wholly innocent boys.

In the world of Venture Bros, Johnny Quest grew up to be a junkie, desperately doing every drug known to man to keep the post-traumatic stress of his "boy adventurer" childhood in check. Super villains debate whether or not the malicious laugh at the end of their last ransom demand was too much or not, and the question of "why would someone actually be an expendable henchman for these people? What kind of person does that?" is raised and explored.

In this scene, the young Dean Venture walks in on the villainous Monarch, fucking a robot with the face of Dr. Venture. It's all very character-driven.

Cartoons have changed.

Every character - from the heroic to the "heroic" to the depraved - is given just enough weight to flesh out their character beyond your standard two-dimensional fare. These people feel relatable, understandable and - whether a master Necromancer, capable of piercing the veil of perception or not - a touch pathetic.

The show's creators have said they feel The Venture Bros. is "about failure" - and it is - but to me, it's also about exploring the real-world consequences of the grand tales and larger-than-life characters we unquestioningly accepted as children. Very Watchmen.

It's a real full-circle kinda' thing - and if you don't want to look at it in such light, let me also add that it's funny as hell.

Finally, Archer premiered on FX in 2009. Leading the cast is H. Jon Benjamin, the go-to-guy for an everyman voice with comedic timing - and while it's uniformly strong throughout, I feel Judy Greer steals the show.

It's the same basic idea - apply the idea of combining the fantastic world of international espionage with the familiar office environment, complete with the freakish personalities you'd find within, and mix with comfortable writing and excellent voice work.

Like Birdman and Venture Bros, Archer is the result of kids who became addicted to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman: The Animated Series and... well, dozens of others who have now grown up, and found they'd still rather watch an animated comedy than a sitcom. But we're not kids any more. Our kids are watching Dora The Explorer and Phineas and Ferb (which is actually pretty good, if you've ever seen it), but our tastes have... I hesitate to use the word "matured," but you get my drift - we want stories and comedies that speak to our life experience, to the understanding we hold of ourselves and the world, and sure - a little violence and sex appeal. Archer boasts all of this, along with jokes you wouldn't want your mom to know you enjoy.

Season 2 of Archer is now three episodes deep, but the first season is available on DVD for a helluva lot less than those Batman seasons.

And I'm spent.

[update] HMV was having a spend-fifty-get-ten-bucks-off dealie today.

I am officially ridiculous. [/update]

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