A New Golden Age of American Animation?

American Animation has always been cyclical in it’s quality, something that has driven myself and many people who see it as an art form more than a little nuts. You see, Animation is a medium, much like TV or Comic Books or Music, and for most of my life it’s been the poor abused cousin of Comic Books in the US and the English speaking world.

There have been several high points in American animation on TV, with the first coming in the 1960’s, then the second in the 1980’s, and another in the 1990’s. In the 1960’s you saw the first real TV animation happening, and people rushed into it with everything from Johnny Quest and the Flintstones on prime time, to Marvel Superhero shows and many Hanna Barbera shows like The Herculoids, Wacky Races and of course (in 1969) Scooby Doo. Animation was a new art form, and people loved it. It was busting out with ideas and new things were being tried.

Unfortunately, in the early 1970’s concerned parents groups attacked animation as unhealthy for kids, and so it went from being wild and exciting to being safe, bland and boring. So that was that end of that!

Then the 1980’s came, and with it we saw the rise of first-run Syndicated TV, which allowed for the producers of animation to shake off the shackles that the big Networks had to run under. To add to that, recent changes in the law allowed for toy companies to directly sponsor cartoons and have their commercials run alongside those cartoons, and so the animation industry was suddenly flush with cash!

As any child of the 80’s can tell you, the early and mid-eighties were a marvelous time to be a kid. You woke up to Jace and the Wheeled Warriors (Wheels Keep on Movin’!), The Galaxy Rangers and The Bionic Six, you ate your lunch with the Thundercats and when you came home from school it was a double bill of The (original) Transformers and GI Joe every weekday from 4-5. So many shows, so much animation, so many toys.

There was a problem, though. While they were free(er) of Network Shackles, these were still toy commercials and they were still pretty limited in what they could do and say. The writing was sometimes good, usually okay, and sometimes awful, and it was all still aimed at 10 year olds with nods towards their 12 year old brothers and sisters.

Eventually, this too faded as the animation boom of the early 80’s faded into the doldrums of the late 80’s when the parents groups struck again, and the cash and quality of the shows dropped quite a bit.

The 90’s boom was the result of the rise of the fledgling cable networks, and their desire for new shows to bring in young audiences. FOX, WB, and others brought out new lineups that included shows like Batman:TAS, Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, X-Men:TAS, and others. While their quality varied radically, and there was a lot of bad, there was some good mixed in the, and especially the DC Superhero stuff like Batman, Superman, and then finally Justice League really showed a new maturity level over the previous animated shows of the 1980’s as it led into the 21st century.

Now, this is just personal opinion, but I wasn’t very impressed by most of the stuff that came out in early and mid-2000s. Leaving the DC Universe stuff aside, about the only show I can think of offhand that showed real style and wit was Avatar:The Last Airbender. There are few that weren’t bad, but pretty much anything half-decent on the air was usually a Japanese import, and the American industry was back into the doldrums again. I can’t say I watched everything, but I do keep an eye open on the American stuff, hoping beyond hope for a little quality that I know they’re capable of but rarely provide.

I’d say those doldrums are now officially over, and the results are sight to behold. For the first time in literally two decades, I find myself anxiously awaiting each weekend for the express purpose of watching cartoons, and ones that actually aren’t Japanese! It’s shocking when some of the better written stuff on TV (I mean, period) are cartoons for once! I suspect this is largely the result of the fact that Gen X finally has the reigns, and they’re using their power to make the shows they wanted as kids.

So what shows am I talking about? Well, I’ve already let it be known that I’m a fan of the Star Wars:The Clone Wars, which despite the awful character designs is pretty much the only Star Wars thing I like outside of the original trilogy. (Surprise, it’s also produced and directed by the team who did Avatar:The Last Airbender for Nick.) And, I’ve also made reference to the new Sym-Bionic Titan series that I can’t believe how much I adore for what it does with such a tired out old genre.

But, those aren’t the only shows on Rob’s Must-See TV List….

The Avengers: Earths Mightiest Heroes is a show that I checked out on a lark because I happen to be a fan of the old Avengers comics. (When I say Old, I mean 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, ending there.) I watched the mini-sodes like the one above they put on Youtube and thought it looked okay, the animation was so-so, and the writing and acting weren’t bad. So I watched more when the full show came to TV, mostly just to see how it would come together.

I have to say, this is probably the best superhero team TV series ever done, and I say that as someone who really enjoyed the Justice League cartoons. They took 40 years of convoluted, complex comic-book history and created a show that both sorted it all out (kinda like Batman:TAS did for Batman’s history) and made it all fit together incredibly seamlessly. The show just keeps getting better and better as it goes, with one thing evolving from the next and the storylines getting progressively more and more epic as the show is building. Combine that with a real humour and wit in some of the writing, and you get a show that I wish was more than 52 episodes long. This really is the show I dreamed of as a kid, brought to life, but I’m glad I’m now old enough to appreciate it.

I still can’t believe that a) this is a Marvel show (and it’s good), and b) it’s produced by Disney.

GI Joe: Renegades is a show that I found recently, but quickly grew to like. Simply put, they took the best parts of the GI Joe concept and combined it with The A Team and produced something that seems to have the best elements of both. What surprised me was (again) how good the writing was, and how seamlessly they were letting this play out on a big canvas with serial stories and interesting characters. (If not character designs, which I find kinda plain and ugly, despite the good animation quality.) There is a sense of wit the show is written with, and it all comes together in a way that I wish most of the prime-time shows were done. I’ve only seen a few episodes, and the show may go downhill, but I already have high hopes for it. (Unlike Transformers Prime, which has double the dimensions and half the excitement.)

The final show, which I’m still deciding on personally (but impressed with at least the quality of) is the new DC Universe show Young Justice, which is holding up the torch of quality as far the DC superhero shows go. It’s written in a mature manner for a teen audience, and the animation itself is gorgeous. I don’t think I will like it as much as I do the others on this list, as I find the characters a bit dull in some ways (they were done better in the previous Teen Titan series on WB) but I think that’s more of a personal issue, and the show itself is well done overall.

Anyways, with a lineup like this filling the American airwaves, it looks like we might just be having another upswing in the quality of American TV animation. I just hope it lasts!

3 thoughts on “A New Golden Age of American Animation?

  1. >in the early 1970′s concerned parents groups attacked animation as unhealthy for >kids, and so it went from being wild and exciting to being safe, bland and boring.

    True. A parallel with what happened to comic books a few decades earlier. I think there was a problem with cartoons that, even though the earlier ones weren’t seen as strictly kids fare (keep puffin’ them smokes, Fred!) they never quite made that jump out of comedy. So it was pretty easy for folks to buy what the ACT was selling ‘cos there was never a real edge to tv animation. Unlike; say the newspaper strips from the 50’s, which routinely featured death and mayhem and serious, dramatic material. We never had animated tv soaps, or action stories (although the doccumentary Chad sent shows that we were close with Johnny Quest.) or horror, or even credible sci-fi. (Quest a notable exception.) I’ve wondered about this, since it was during the late 60’s/early 70’s that Japan made that leap which allowed them to develop (for a long time, anyhoo) a serious tv animation market. Was it because of the ACT? Much like the Senate hearings kinda put the idea in the public’s heads that comics were for kids? Or was there something else? Puzzling, since feature and short animation PRIOR to this (Like the 40’s and 50’s) had some bite to them. Lots of stuff was produced that wasn’t kid fare. You’d think that would have seeded the audience for more of a push.

    I think Saturday morning had something to do with it. While the concept of first run shows in the wee hours of the weekend created a market quick/fast and in a hurry, it also ghettoized cartoons somewhat by regulating them to a time when their primary audience would be kids. (I thought it was interesting years back when I found out why the really cool cartoons were on Sunday morning.) But even this seems like an incomplete explanation, given tv animation’s inception was during primetime. Or pre-primetime: as I recall, even Huckleberry Hound ran at the 7PM timeslot.

    >While they were free(er) of Network Shackles, these were still toy commercials and they were still pretty limited in what they could do and say.

    Yeah; the 80’s are a weird time. During the middle of the decade, there was a fair number of big budget proijects that DIDN’T have toy tie-ins, but they were quickly washed away by the endless reams of Sunbow/Marvel crap. (Stuff like Galaxy High, or the Galaxy Rangers, Mighty Orbots: shows that seemed to exist primarily as shows, with minimal marketing.) I think it was discovered early on that 22 minute toy ads worked, and that quickly became the standard. I’ve seen a lot of refrence that it was He-Man who was the genesis of this, but I think Marvel/Sunbow perfected it. So the 80’s are a real mixed batch. Lots of unwatchable crap: like He-Man, GI Joe, Transformers (which was PARTICULARLY cheap) most of what was popular…. with some near misses: like Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, Thundercats (which, having watched recently seems to suffer from the newer restraints citizen groups were putting on cartoons, since you can almost see where the fight scenes were stopped and the morals dubbed in at points) and a lot of earlier toy tie-ins…. presumably made before they realized you could cut the budget.

    ….and lots of crap. SO MUCH crap….

    >While their quality varied radically, and there was a lot of bad, there was some good mixed in the, and especially the DC Superhero stuff like Batman, Superman, and then finally Justice League really showed a new maturity level over the previous animated shows of the 1980′s as it led into the 21st century.

    It seemed that SOME of the 90’s flare-up was inspired (at least in part) by the Japanese. Japanese fandom was getting some press…. good AND bad…. Japanese shows were increasingly available to the mainstream…. hell; even Entertaiment Weekly was covering new releases from Japan for a while. It didn’t last long though. You can see how shows like Batman: TAS started dialing it back almost immediately. Second gen shows liike The Adventures of Supercube… er…. SuperMAN, and the Justice League had a lot of the trappings of something more, but still fell back to type. Nobody REALLY got hurt, nothing REALLY happened, and anything that might upset or confuse the kiddies was watered down to be almost nonexistant.

    ‘Course, the superhero stuff had a lot of baggage from it’s source. You couldn’t do too much for fear of contradicting the books or upcoming movies. Superheroes are inherently limited by the perpetual nature of their stories, and certain expectations and conventions of the genre itself. On top of that, a lot of the newer stuff still insists on pandering to the “comic shop community.” SO MUCh of shows like “Justice League” was fanwank for the older audience members. (Were ANY kids impressed that the Shining Knight and Vigilante were part of the team?) But when you makrket to kids, you market to their parents at the same time, and it’s easier to sell said parents something they already like. (“What is this? Naruto? Looks stupid, you don’t need that! HEY! Look! A two pack with Vandal Savage and yet another Batman repaint! OOOOHHHHH!!!!”)

    Although during the 90’s and very early 00’s you got some weird little bits of non-suck. SWATKats comes to mind; as does the weekend Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon, which was actualy written and featured more bad things happening to the characters than you’ expect. (Weird, considering the WEEKLY cartoon was of the “Kowabunga! BAM! POW!” variety….) Maybe ‘cos there were still companies unsure about the nature of their audience? Or maybe some people working on these shows still cared? (They’re all dead now. Or in rehab.)

    One of the problems I think was South Park; which was INSANELY popular and created the “grownup cartoons = grossout humour and cheap animation!” So for a long time, anyone here who wasn’t doing toy ads was INTENTIONALLY producing utter crap.

    >I’d say those doldrums are now officially over

    Well…. I’m not as inpressed as you I guess. Clone Wars is pretty good. I’m not a fan of the Avengers though. Like it’s predecessors it still carries the baggage of it’s superhero origins. The fights are watered down, nobody REALLY gets hurt, there’s very little actual consequence to anything…. although I do think the characters are pretty well done. They’re different from each other, and the banter is entertaining. (Althouigh seeing Hank Pym as the voice of reason STILL feels weird.) But I suspect we’re not gonna get the Tony is a drunk subplot, or see Hank the wifebeater…. GI Joe: Renegades is similar for me: the characters are neat, and it’s nice to NOT hear the actors mugging for the mike, but it still falls to type. So…. nobody really gets hurt in the gunfights, (except poor RIP….*sniff*) collateral damage is kept to a minimum, and to keep the team free they have to fudge a lot of logic. (“Lady Jaye…. you’re fired!”)

    >Unlike Transformers Prime, which has double the dimensions and half the excitement.

    You’re being generous. HALF?

    I’ve heard good things about Young Justice…. mostly from oldster superhero fans, so I’m reserving judgement. It sounds like it’s got one of the problems the Justice League had: it’s a good take on the material, but it doesn’t go beyond the material. And seeing Sisquo as Aqualad kinda throws me.

    Don C.

  2. Really good article about television animation. I grew up in the 80’s and was probably brainwashined enough to not realize that shows like Transformers were basically toy commercials. I also bought the tie-in comics and some of the issues still come to mind fondly (I’ll always remember the 1-issue battle with Unicron attacking Cybertron and then transforming into a planet before being blown up by Optimus Prime and the matrix).

    Honestly, I think there were some good shows over the past few decades, but I’m dismayed at the way American’s treat animation in general, relegating a lot of it to kids stuff. I find it interesting that Japanese adults and kids are into Anime in a huge way and have a much deeper respect for the medium. I’m still a big fan of what I would call the last Disney renaissance with films like the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Lion King. Maybe I grew up, but after that, I thought most of Disney’s animated movies went way down hill after that. And I’m sorry, Pixar is cool and all, but I don’t consider movies like Monsters, Inc. or Toy Story to be “animated” movies, no matter how good they are. Plus I’m getting a bit tired of computer films featuring animals. Can we please find something else for subject matter?

    Hayao Miyzaki is one of the few animators I take more seriously as an adult in terms of quality and story. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle can hold their own against any motion picture drama in my book.

    One thing that I also get tired of is American animations tendency to keep recycling the same material over and over and over and over again. Are superheroes and GI Joe really all we have to offer? The medium is capable of so much more as Japanese Anime has proven. I really wish Americans would get more creative and mature with it. I do take heart though that each Barnes and Noble or Borders I walk into now has an entire Anime/Comics section. Hopefully animation will make another comeback some day.

  3. No love for BATMAN: BRAVE AND THE BOLD?

    Easily my favorite cartoon of the last five years. Something I can watch with my young son, and we both enjoy it (although for different reasons). He thinks Batman and Green Arrow are cool, and I’m sitting there going “Hey, the Faceless Hunter From Saturn! Neat!”

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