Why The Action Cartoon Era Ended – And How We Can Bring it Back

Cartoon Network’s “DC Nation” is a joke. Literally. As of this post, the only cartoon aired in during this block is Teen Titans Go!, along with a smattering of various DC shorts, which are cute, but primarily entertaining to the Youtube crowd (this is not an insult – most of the DC shorts are great). Yet with Young Justice, The Green Lantern, and Beware the Batman cancelled, there is something sad in listening to the deep, booming voice announcing the intense, upcoming “DC NATION” during the interstitial graphic, only to be led to another wacky episode of Teen Titans Go!. Teen Titans Go! is actually a really funny show (albeit from the Adult Swim template); its hated reputation stems from how its goofy approach to superheroism is really the only thing on Cartoon Network that’s related to superheros.

Beware the Batman

I wrote about this briefly over on my tumblr, but I wanted to expand upon this more, especially in light of a recent comic post made by the showrunner to The Green Lantern, Giancarlo Volpe. I sort of wish Volpe had a bit more insight on the superficiality of the testing process, and the portrayal of Bruce Timm as a cigarette-smoking, too-cool-for-school badboy irks me at a gut level, but the directness of testing and its poor scientific procedures (everything is geared towards a specific outcome, from the lack of a control to splitting boys up by ages but not girls) is notable. If testing is a creative hell that animation showrunners are going to go through, then they’re already at a disadvantage. That being said, testing is only a part of the issue – toy lines, marketing, ratings, and word of mouth is another. Beyond that, let’s be honest: Cartoon Network was never committed to DC – that much is obvious. The general vibe among all the kids’ network is clear:

1) The action cartoon is dead. Of course, I’m exaggerating. But let’s take stock of the action cartoons currently on the air. There’s Ben-10, Legend of Korra, Agents of SMASH (currently on hiatus it seems), Ultimate Spider-man and Avengers Assemble (which apparently is terrible), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and, if we’re reaching, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness). Note that everything has a strong comic element to it, save for Legend of Korra – none of the other shows listed delve into more serious, dramatic matters. (It’ll be a while before any of those cartoons pull a “The Man Who Has Everything.”) All of these shows have mixed reviews; Legend of Korra tends to have the most buzz when it airs, and even so, there have been issues with the current books. Time was that the major kids networks aired a block of action cartoons that mixed well with the comedy entertainment. Now, it seems like networks are scrambling to get rid of them – or, at the very least, to make them sillier and cartoony. I like my cartoons to be cartoony. I don’t like my action cartoons to be cartoony.

2) MARVEL killed the action cartoon. It’s the sad truth. The thing that made action cartoon thrive in the 90s was their ability to engage directly with their comic book aesthetics, delving to the more bizarre conceits like time travel, aliens, robots, and multiple dimensions. CGI was pretty much shit back then. Cartoons were where you went to see the cool stuff. Advancements in CGI took place in the 2000s, but movie studios still believed that superhero fare could only succeed with the right degree of campiness (give or take a Batman Begins). The seeds were planted when X-Men and Spider-man did well at the box office; Marvel simply doubled down on their movie properties, to great success. The kind of rich visual aesthetics that were only available on the animated screen were now visible on the big one. Of course, these films were PG-13, so children of all ages could see it, and they were so enamored with the films that the cartoons look like crap in comparison. It doesn’t help that the writers, producers, animators, and executives of the last vestiges of the action cartoons were amateurish, working with low budgets and dwindling ratings and mediocre scripts. As Marvel films took their products seriously, action cartoon creators didn’t.

3) Action cartoons didn’t help themselves. Going up against a behemoth like Marvel is a daunting task, but it’s doable. The cartoons didn’t do themselves any favors though. Marketing research has emphasized comedy – apparently this is exactly what kids want to watch. So everyone – from executives to creatives – got caught up in the need for their action cartoons to be a few action scenes inserted in the middle of a vaudeville act – heavy on the jokes, goofy on the visuals, and silly on the set pieces. Which, in all honesty, is fine. The last thing we want is the brooding male mentality to seep into our animated fare. That being said, not every episode and not every scene need to be built around a million punchlines. Action cartoons have room for drama, for heart, for real character development, and of the shows mentioned above, I hardly see it (again, save for Legend of Korra).

Beyond that, the actual action is questionably portrayed. The thing about action scenes is that they’re a physical extension of the dramatic beats of the current scene (it’s why thugs in Batman are dressed similar to the current rogue Batman is up against). Action scenes, like any scene in entertainment, needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They need to have a clear goal and clear obstacles. What is the protagonist trying to physically accomplish? How are the villains actively trying to stop him/her? My rant against the second season of TMNT is antagonistic but clear, and I’ve questioned a few action scenes in Legend of Korra. Thundercats failed because it never took full stock of the seriousness of its premise; Beware the Batman took way too long to get to its admittedly intriguing story arc.

The future of action cartoons look grim, but there may be a way to save them. Primarily, we need networks willing to commit to them, in a way that goes beyond toy sales. From a critical perspective, though, action cartoons need to do the following:

1) Hit the ground running. You have about two or three episodes before you lose the attention of kids. So your first few episodes should hit some serious dramatic beats. Don’t only establish the world you built. Establish the characters we’ll be introduced to AND the kind of action scenes we’ll be seeing. Go big, don’t go ridiculous. It doesn’t have to be dark, but it does have to mean something. It has to be appealing. Blow their minds. And everything that you established – action, drama, comedy, world-building, tone, and atmosphere – has to travel to the next few episodes. Beware the Batman had tonal issues and its rogue gallery had potential but never amounted to anything but various villains with different voice actors. All that has to be clear in the aesthetics, so make sure to –

2) Bring your A game (in storyboarding, animation, and writing). I find myself noticing more and more hiccups in storyboarding – the staging of the action is unclear and muddled, the animation tends to get lazy at time, and the writing feels forced and goofy. Both Beware the Batman and TMNT have passable action beats, but it’s obvious that both shows feel the need to have brawling actions scenes all the time, despite the fact that the heroes of these shows are ninjas and should be working more in the shadows. There’s a discrepancy here, when everything has to be working on all cylinders. The writing has to display why action is happening, the boarding needs to make every move and beat clear (why is he jumping out the way vs. running away?), and the animation should make every impact and near miss feel real and tense. That being said –

2) Stakes must be huge. Early and often. Thundercats’ pilot was dark, deep, and intense. It involved the murder of a leader of a kingdom, a kingdom that was isolated from the rest of the world and treated outsiders like shit, which was then followed by the mass genocide of said kingdom. Subsequent episodes pretended like that didn’t happen. It took till the second season before actually characters were developed, the genocide/hated-strangers-in-a-strange-land aspect was downplayed, and what started as a murky grey area quickly changed into black-and-white heroes and villains. (Probably due to that stupid testing?). The lesson we can learn from this is –

3) Don’t pander. Kids will know when you pander. Enough with mustache-twirling villains, charmingly-vague heroes, solitary female companions, and goofy sidekicks. How are we still working with this template in this day and age? I suppose that there’s plenty of marketing out that saying kids want to see goofy, comic versions of themselves in the characters on-screen. That may work now, but kids – especially those older kids – need to be challenged if we’re ever going to “earn” their respect for cartoons. If we can show them that cartoons can be as dramatically appealing and audaciously diverse as their live-action counterparts, we can work towards breaking down those “anti-cartoon” barriers. Do you know what else would help with that? Action cartoon should –

4) Appeal to adults and “trickle” the admiration down. Cartoons have a “trickle up” approach right now. Appeal to a specific demo – 6-11 boys mostly – and hopefully bring in girls, older boys, and ultimately, not irritate the adults who watch them with their children. Maybe we should work backwards. I’m not saying action cartoons should be super-serious. But maybe if action cartoons caught the attention of adults first and spread across word of mouth, then children (who want to be “grown-up” like their parents) would follow suit, watching it along with their parents instead of parents watching it along with their kids. That’s a bold call, but in some way, that’s exactly what Marvel is doing. I would argue that’s what Dreamworks managed to do with Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon as well (in some ways, this is exactly what WB did with their DCAU properties in 1990s-2000). Applying this approach to action cartoons today may save them. With so few studios willing to commit, though, this most likely may not happen anytime soon.

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Tumblr Tuesday – 04/15/14

Tumblr has been slow the past couple of weeks, but I managed to gather a few nifty ones for this week’s Tumblr Tuesday:

Some observations on an episode of Darkwing Duck

My own quick and dirty observations on the #CancelColbert nonsense

A hilarious bit starring Steve Coogan

Someone compared Parks & Recreation characters to Animal Crossing characters and it’s spot-on

Someone else is schooled when misguided tumblr activism is applied to The Legend of Korra

The difference between Buddha and Hotai, goddammit

And finally, The Green Lantern Animated Series’ showrunner tackles the fallacy of test screenings in comic form

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Lloyd In Space

Lloyd in Space is a disappointing show that never allows the audience to connect to its characters. How Lloyd in Space fails to follow in the brilliant footsteps of its predecessor, Recess.

Lloyd in Space screenshot

The Lloyd in Space episode entitled “Neither Boy nor Girl” has become somewhat of a rallying cry for the transgendered community. In the episode, an alien reveals that members of its species, upon reaching their thirteenth birthday, get to decide which gender its going to be. The episode breaks through the silliness of designating specific items and activities as “for boys” and “for girls,” showcasing the alien character genuinely enjoying both. It portrays the male and female students battling over which gender the alien should be, up until the point that the alien, politely, tells the other students to shut the fuck up – the decision is really up to him/her. In the end, the alien makes the decision, but doesn’t tell anyone, because its rightfully no one else’s business. It’s clear why the transgendered community has taken this episode as their own, battling to convince an unfortunately bigoted world that their gender is not up for everyone else to decide. It’s a personal, deep, insular decision, and we as a society should respect that.

As an episode for social change, it works wonders. As an episode of Lloyd in Space, it’s representative of an overall flawed approach to a surprisingly weak show out of the minds of Paul and Joe, two creators who had their hands in some of the best cartoons of the 90s – Rugrats, Recess, and Hey Arnold. (They also worked on the 2012 Pound Puppies remake, which I still claim to be one of the best cartoons of the modern era.) Paul Germain and Joe Absolabehere usually have a rich, distinct insight on young people, creating shows and writing episodes with a quick sensibility and a warm pathos that delve into a specific element of growth, not focused on hormonal changes but interpersonal ones. Paul and Joe characters are smart and resourceful, yet deeply flawed, constantly struggling to improve themselves through the wild creative stories they come up with. Paul and Joe create CHARACTERS, so it was tough to see Lloyd in Space and note how lacking these characters were, even for aliens.

When you watch cartoons, beware of what I would call “broad exposition intros,” or BEIs. BEIs are signs of weak writing, and if a majority of episodes contain BEIs, nine times out of ten, you’re going to have a bad show. BEIs occur at the beginning of an episode. Your main characters are sitting around or walking together, without any context of being in their current location, and they witness either another character doing their job/task/daily routine, or maybe they witness an event occurring. Completely unprompted, they begin to talk SPECIFICALLY about that character or event, for no other reason than to alert the viewer that the episode is CLEARLY going to be about that character or event. BEIs don’t count if the characters are actually involved in that character’s life or in the event, but if they suddenly just start heaping praise on the character or event, then things are going to be rough.

BEIs happen all the time in cartoons. Once in a while is okay, but when BEIs go overboard, it creates a problem. The main characters don’t seem to be living their own lives, but instead seem to be vocal catalysts to prompt the direction of the episode. Paul and Joe resorting to BEIs for Lloyd in Space is surprising, but indicative of a weak, single-approach premise at the core of this show. Lloyd in Space lacks real, in-depth female characters, Lloyd’s friends are shallow and kind of selfish, and the stories are frustratingly weak without the humor to back it up. It feels like Lloyd in Space was created as a nothing show, forced into more episodes, where the writers and animators scrambled with create subsequent episodes without properly developing them.

Lloyd himself is an generic character, a green alien known as a Verdigrean who is going through the turmoil of turning thirteen. Using this alien/space set up, Lloyd in Space tries to use its intergalactic premise to metaphorically tell its stories. The problem is 1) the show is so aggressively metaphoric that neither Lloyd or anyone else register as real characters in this space station, and 2) the stories are so drastically simple, lacking the secret depth that is usually present in a Paul and Joe show. The writers seem uncomfortable attempting to let Lloyd and his friends stand on their own, spelling out the lessons directly, as if to say “SEE THIS ALIEN BEHAVIOR IS REPRESENTATIVE OF THIS LESSON” instead of having the audience draw this conclusion themselves. (This causes some real problems down the line.) The stories around these lessons are surprisingly lame for such a rich, potential premise as well, focusing primarily on the improvement of class reputation and wildly shallow love stories.

Lloyd and his friends – Eddie the human, Kurt the Blobullon, and Douglas the Cerebellian, are way too concerned with being cool, finding ways to be cooler, and reaching the top of the school’s caste system. (Eddie in particular instigates so many of the conflicts with his behavior that he’s actually a really fucking bad influence instead of the occasional troublemaker). Part of what make Paul and Joe shows work is their commitment to characters pushing through bullshit caste systems and abstract ideologies, allow characters to connect as people, not ideas, or concepts, or metaphors. Yet here’s Lloyd in Space, doing exactly that. “Neither Girl Nor Boy,” in this light, is less a symbol of transgenderism and more a re-iteration of how shallow the characters are, and even episodes that address exactly that mean nothing as everyone returns to their usual shallow selves.

Lloyd in Space begins with an episode where Lloyd turns thirteen, which begins a pretty straight-forward “what does it mean to be a man” type episode, which is typical for a pilot. It allows viewers to get used to the cast and gives the show a generic plot to follow as all the major players are introduced – Lloyd’s sister Francine, his mom Nora, his friends, his schoolmates, his teachers, his grandfather. The episode is focused on Lloyd’s belief he’s finally grown into an adult, but ultimately realized he still has a few years ahead of him. His teacher, Miss Bolt (and the most notable character in the show, voiced by the GREAT Tress MacNeille, cribbing a bit from Miss Krabappel by way of Bender), makes him write an essay on what it means to be a man, and the episode ends with him gaining some insight on what that is, yet doesn’t explicitly say. There’s a case to be made that the meaning is personal, that “being a man” isn’t something one can merely say but encompasses the entirety of growth, responsibility, learning, and relationships, but in reference to the whole series, it comes across more as if Lloyd in Space simply doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t really grow in that respect in subsequent episodes, nor does the show dismiss the disingenuous designation of “being a man” in the first place. For a jumping off point, Lloyd in Space barely moves an inch.

As the show chugs along, Lloyd in Space’s weaknesses become more pronounced, which in turn inspires some insipid, misconstrued lessons. The second episode, “Double Date,” involves Lloyd developing a crush over a two-headed female alien, where one head is nice and sweet, while the second head is mean and crude. “Double Date” WILDLY misreads this situation. The second head treats Lloyd like shit and the first head allows the second head to continue its verbal vitriol. Finally Lloyd stands up to her, telling the second head to shut up and yelling at the first head for ignoring this behavior. Please, note, Lloyd reaction is correct. And yet the episode has the audacity to imply, somehow, Lloyd was in the wrong. How? Well, cause when you date someone, you have to accept the good and bad sides of that person, or at least that’s what the episode claims. Yet there’s a marked difference in connecting with a person that has flaws, and a person who demeans your character. Lloyd in Space here tries to metaphorically represent this dual-headed female as one person, but this metaphor completely falls apart, and that’s mainly due to the obnoxious behavior, but also the one-note characterization. If we knew about Trixie’s life as a dual-headed alien, if that concept kept her at arms length from people for years, if the episode treated that dual-head as one “humanized” character, then we’d have something. Right now, we have a poorly established feminine unit that ought to be respected because, apparently, explicit verbal abuse is the same as having a bad side. No one is buying that space trash, guys.

Female characterization is a huge sore point on this show. Granted, most of the characters are poorly developed but here, females get an uncomfortable amount of asinine, one-note traits. Women are only important in how they are romantic eye candy for other male characters. The growth and understanding that Lloyd goes through is established often through really shallow, poorly done love stories. In “You’re Never Too Old,” Lloyd is forced to hang out with his grandfather at his retirement home. Of course, Lloyd grows bored of the place, but episodes like this tend to really work by connecting their young protagonists to their elders through a commonality, through something strong and unspoken which allows the characters to see each other in a new light. Lloyd in Space opts for Grandpa Leo to have a childish crush on another elderly person. Like, he runs and hides from her when she gets too near and everything. I’m not exactly sure how old Leo is supposed to be, but that’s pathetic. Also, it’s boring! Lloyd’s only insight into his grandfather is that he acts skittish around other girls? That’s just depressing.

Then there’s “Nora’s Big Date, ” which only reduces Lloyd’s mother, who is the tough leader and respected commander of the space station upon which Lloyd’s lives, into, yet again, a skittish, doe-eyed victim to some random visitor. One of the most profound realizations a child can make is acknowledging that the adults in their lives are not just authority figures but people with feelings and flaws, people who once were young and grew up in similar albeit temporally different environments. That the writers here can only call attention to this acknowledgement via “adult crushes” is incredibly disappointing, indicative of material that they cared very little about. This is apparent in “Lloyd’s Lost Weekend” – note Lloyd doesn’t come to understand his family on their own terms, but only in how he fails to connect with his friends’ families, for obvious reason. Rarely do we see Lloyd come to terms with his family at a personal level; it’s always through some other contrived situation.

The best the show can manage are a few surprisingly nice moments between Lloyd and his sister, Francine. “Babysitter Lloyd,” “Lloyd Changes His Mind,” and “Francine’s Power Trip” all work in some part to subvert the “annoying younger sister” dynamic, showing Lloyd taking responsibility in keeping his sister safe and acknowledging how scary the world must be to someone so young and unaccustomed to change. The problem (and it’s a bit obvious that the writers realize this) is that giving Francine telekinetic abilities was a HUGE mistake. It seemed like it was intended to be a one-off, comical advantage that she would have over Lloyd, adding to the elements that would drive her brother crazy. That they would have to work through it to develop a sibling connection really throws them off. They do their best, but it always comes off half-assed because Francine has such good control of her powers – up until she doesn’t. The extent of her abilities is arbitrary, and since every episode reverts to the status quo at the end, any connection the two have are thrown out the window, as if it didn’t happen.

Then there’s the school. I don’t want to get too much into Lloyd’s class situation – that’s worthy of a blog post all by itself – but overall it’s just shallow and underdeveloped. Beyond Lloyd, Kurt, and Douglas, the only other “real” character is Brittany, a stuck up socialite who is the most popular girl in school. (There’s also Rodney, who seemed like someone the show would delve into more, but he’s pretty much dropped up until the point they need him.) Other characters are randomly name-dropped for the sake of various gags and throw-away plot points. Some characters are even introduced as A BIG DEAL even though we’ve never seen them before! (Looking at you, “Go Crater Worms.”) And the less said about the “unrequited love” between Lloyd and Brittany, the better. Lloyd in Space tries to suggest that they liked each other at some point, but the strict popularity lines of sixth grade rendered it moot, and everything about this is awful (there’s even a Love Potion episode, and yes, it’s cringe-worthy.)

That’s just it though. The characterization in Lloyd in Space is shallow and marginally sexist, so of course an non-gendered alien arriving to call them all out their awful behavior comes off satisfying. Too bad the show never lets such points stick, continuing wildly misguided and awkward lessons go unabated. The various creative alien/space concepts and designs are marginally interesting, but nothing really is allowed to stand on its own; the show constantly wants everything to be connected to a real life concern, sacrificing subtlety for simplicity. Since everyone and everything is a metaphor, no one is a character. No one learns, grows, or even seems to exist on their own terms. The few times the show Lloyd in Space reaches some kind of dramatic “truth,” it feels unearned. With no reason to grow attached to anything, Lloyd in Space floats ably along in uncomfortable mediocrity.

[Episodes of Lloyd in Space are available online via a quick Google search, but they're hosted on a questionable website. Be forewarned if you wish to seek them out. Also the series is available on DVD, which is obviously the safer route.]

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