2014 06 22

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Feature Cast for 2014-06-22

(00:00:17.212) Intro

(00:03:58.452) Adventure Time

  • I don't know if you are familiar with Adventure Time
    • It is a surreal show created by Pendleton Ward for Cartoon Network
    • My kids started watching it first and occasionally watching it with them drew me into it
    • I find that it follows in the footsteps of other more modern cartoons
      • Like Courage the Cowardly Dog and Invader Zim
    • Very little is explained and the story and humor
      • Are driven as much by the characters and random circumstance as anything
    • Unlike the earlier Cartoon Network shows, Adventure Time hints at something more
    • The hero Finn and his magical, shape shifting dog, Jake
      • Inhabit a world referred to as Ooo
    • While this world has been fairly internally consistent
      • Little is explained about it directly
      • Rather being revealed in hints and glimpses over the seasons
    • There was a theory very early on among fans that Ooo was actually Earth
      • After some sort of cataclysm
    • Aspects of this were confirmed by later episodes
      • That dug much more into the characters of the Ice King and Marcelline the Vampire
    • I will try not to spoil those episodes
      • Leaving it at the fact that the pair are older than they seem
      • And have at least some personal history of how the world became as it is
    • The early theories about Ooo got me thinking of another cartoon
      • One from my own youth, Thundarr the Barbarian
    • Thundarr was one of a later barrage of fairly formulaic adventure cartoons
    • It definitely followed in the same vein as The Herculoids and Space Ghost from decades earlier
    • The intro set up really all you needed to know
    • In the near future, a catastrophe shatters the Earth's moon
      • Wreaking havoc with the environment and destroying modern civilization
    • Centuries later a new world finally, slowly emerges
    • In this primitive world, magic and technology exist side by side
    • Though technology is rare it is surprisingly advanced, more so than modern day
      • And as often as not is treated the same as sorcery which for unexplained reasons now exists
    • The main characters are three heroes, the titular barbarian
      • And Ariel, the sorceress, and the ape like Mok, Ookla
    • I did a little digging and it turns out that the character designs
      • Were done by none other than Jack Kirby
      • A giant of the golden and silver age comics
    • Much later in life I was drawn to Kirby's iconic New Gods books
      • That have a sort of grand mythos that is never really directly explained
    • Kirby apparently had little to do with the show beyond the designs
      • Which is why I guess the story telling really falls flat
    • However, within that formulaic approach, I think there are some astonishing similarities
      • And of course some very compelling differences that say a lot
        • About the current wave of cartoons, both in their design and story telling craft
  • The first similarity that drew me in was the natures of the different sets of characters
    • In both shows, there really is little to no explanation, at least initially
      • Of the history of each of the characters
        • Let alone how they joined up to adventure together
    • Far more important is the action and to varying degrees the relationships it reveals
    • In Adventure Time, there is even an almost parody level self awareness
    • While Thundarr, Ariel and Ookla just do what they do with little rhyme or reason
      • Other than it being necessary to introduce the villain of the week
      • Finn and Jake come across more as children who watched shows like Thundarr
        • Play acting at adventure either because it is simply what is expected
        • Or for want of any better idea of what to do
    • As Adventure Time unfolds as a series, the nature of the adventures
      • And the motivation to have them does get questioned and played around with
    • In both, the adventures often are just a MacGuffin, or conceit
      • To tell more of the story of each of the characters, both past and present
    • In Thundarr, this always remains very superficial
      • With just some tantalizing glimpses revealed
      • That invite only serve to beg still more questions
    • I guess mostly as a consequence of how much longer Adventure Time has been running
      • We have been been treated to peeling back more and more layers
    • We learn directly that the relationship of Finn and Jake isn't random
      • That there is much shared history between them
    • Even their adventuring is inspired by Jake's dad, who both set a direct example
      • And leaves them a legacy in his demon-cursed sword
      • And the messages he recorded for both characters to help them after he was gone
    • The way that unfolds is more convoluted and indirect than I make it out
    • The pieces of back story and information are shared only as the viewer really needs them
      • Rather than with huge amounts of boring exposition
    • When a character's past is explored more directly, it can still be a surprise
      • Both in the reveal and the way it affects the rest of the story
    • BMO, for instance, at first appears to be just another unexplained oddity of Ooo
    • Even as the writers explored BMO's character more, showing us a surprising depth
      • That, in the small, touches on both broader themes in the show
    • In that episode, those themes are uniquely addressed through BMO's perspective
    • Up until then, the writers didn't give away that there was much, much more to the story
    • Over and over, Adventure Time uses a starting point recognizable from shows like Thundarr
      • Only to bend it into unexpected but ultimately enjoyable directions
    • This is true whether we are taking about the villains or the ubiquitous villagers
    • Ooo's villains are almost all wizards, like Thundarr, with first impression as stock evil
    • Scratch the surface and more intriguing back stories beckon
    • Over time, many of these characters cross the simple bright line of evil
      • Some times being more friendly with the heroes or simply showing more nuanced motives
    • The villagers each have a distinctive look
      • The individual members having an obvious set of shared traits, just like those in Thundarr
    • In this instance, the qualities are exaggerated to the absurd
      • Like the Candy Kingdom or the Lump Space People
    • This is more than some sort of tribal affiliation taken from a misunderstood symbol of the ancient past
      • But rather an intentional alienness that supports Finn's role as the last human
  • Each deviation from the core formular of Thundarr and its contemporaries
    • Undertaken in Adventure Tim adds to the overall charm of the whole show
      • Or adds delightful textures to the main characters in some way
    • At the same time the writing demonstrates an interest in formulaic set pieces and progression
      • It often pulls characters into direct focus that shows a wider interest and more deft touch
    • There is still a core of silliness or randomness that resonates with Thundarr
    • Sometimes that is the ludicrous nature of the adventures, from the quests to complete
      • To the often ridiculous nature of the monsters to defeat
    • Now and again that also seems to have a more sinister edge
    • It isn't villainous like the machinations of the evil sorcerers in Thundarr
      • Although there seems to be plenty of Adventure Time appropriate takes on outright evile
    • I am thinking of the character of the Magic Man
    • He certainly outwardly fits with the magic using bad actor trope
      • But his motivation isn't about power, control or conquest
    • Rather the few episodes where he appears seem to have no point, verging on the surreal
    • Very superficially, episodes including Magic Man seem to be about teaching the heroes some lesson
    • To paraphrase Finn after being turned into a giant foot and then after some trials restored to himself
      • There really is no point, nothing that is learned or that changes
    • The character who increasingly better fits one of the formula of the older cartoon
      • That of the mad sorcerer tinkering with ancient science
      • Is the one who outwardly has no other connection with the stock villain from Thundarr
    • Princess Bubblegum seems to be more and more obsessed with the forgotten lore of Ooo
    • We see her creating creatures and devices like so many Thundarr baddies
      • Who provided the monster or gimmick of the week on the old show
    • Not surprisingly, the effects of her tinkering are less obvious
      • Leaving us uncomfortable or simply wondering about the point
    • I am thinking of the two episodes featuring the semi-disposable character James
    • There doesn't seem to be a reason for PB's actions in either
      • Except to call into question her motives
        • By showing her putting herself and others in unnecessary jeopardy
          • Nominally to learn something, but what we are never clear
    • Adventure Time even borders on the mythic, especially with cosmic over tones
    • Thundarr had similar touches but again in a diminished fashion
    • Some cult or culture was used one time in a random episode
      • As a prop or back drop, then never seen again in the shows admittedly short run
    • The Wishmaster, the Lich, the Cosmic Owl, all of these and more seem
      • On first use seem to be doing something similar
    • At first encounter, they appear to be odd for odd's sake
    • Then we realize, again, building on the show's internal consistency
      • That they really make up their own pantheon, adding yet more threads to the show's fabric
  • I would be remiss if I didn't spend at least a little time discussing the art
    • While doing the research for this piece, I was delighted to discover
      • That the Thundarr characters were designed by Jack Kirby
    • Kirby is a legend of the comic book industry, who created or helped create
      • Many of the icons that we take for granted like Captain America
      • As well as the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Hulk
    • Kirby definitely had a strong sense of the mysterious and the mythic
    • My favorite characters and work by him are the stories in the Fourth World
    • In these stories, two worlds are in opposition, New Genesis and Apocalypse
    • Each world is inhabited with powerful, god-like characters
    • Each world and its respective inhabitants represent an extreme pole of good or evil
    • The books explain very little directly, leaving much up to the imagination of the reader
    • Some of those characters have found wider audiences in more main stream comics
      • Such as the larger than life villain, Dark Seid, in the Superman comics
    • Kirby's eye is a good fit for Thundarr and there is probably some more than coincidental connection
      • Between it and his own post apocalyptic work, Kamandi
    • The distinctive look of Adventure Time was created by Pendleton Ward in an original short
      • And has been lovingly maintained and expanded since it got picked up as a full series
    • Thundarr is both a product of Kirby's aesthetic, especially his work for TV
      • And possibly exists on the cusp of the cartoons that came later with parallel toy lines
    • The overall design is somewhat detailed, somewhat realistic
      • But the animation quality robs it of anything but a superficial gloss of design
    • Adventure Time is much simpler, Ward claims to be heavily influenced by his work
      • On another Nickelodeon carto0n, Flap Jack
    • He has also claimed a strong influence in Hiyao Miyazaki and his work at Studio Ghibli
    • This would seem to manifest not necessarily in Miyazaki's almost painterly design
      • But rather the sense of wonder that runs strongly through that director's works
    • Despite the seemingly simpler design in Adventure Time
      • There is a much greater liveliness that belies what superficially seems
        • Like a much lower quality of animation
    • The vibrancy and fluidity of Adventure Time's clean lines and bright colors
      • Mirrors the playful take the writing pursues
        • In un-self consciously deconstruction of earlier shows like Thundarr
    • Counter intuitive, Adventure Time's more simply rendered world
      • Is much more deeply thought out exhibiting a surprising complexity and reality
    • Thundarr by contrast seems like it at most aspired to having a set of dedicated action figures
      • Like its successors in the lack luster decades of Saturday mornings between these two shows
  • Adventure Time is the Thundarr we deserved
    • The old series was short lived
      • And a product of a different time
    • We got glimpses of more, saw some interesting potential
    • Adventure Time has succeeded perhaps in part
      • Because of the adult audience that wanted more from its childhood cartoons
    • Adventure Time is also perfect as it is
      • A reason to resist the urge to remake old inspirations
      • Instead investing that passion and energy into entirely new creations
        • That at most evoke their forebears but more through striving to be more
        • While honoring some simple kernel of wonder, myth and fun

(00:23:16.586) Outro

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