Jennifer Williams is a fantasy writer and Lego obsessive who spends much of her time frowning at notebooks in cafes and fiddling with maps of imaginary places. She's the author of the highly-acclaimed (and immensely enjoyable) fantasy adventure, The Copper Promise, and its brand-spankin'-new sequel, The Iron Ghost.
She's here to make our lives "dramatically better" with cartoons. A tough claim - can she back it up? Read on and find out.
When I was a kid I was only interested in watching cartoons.
Children’s programmes that were live action and involved real, living, breathing children, were switched off faster than you could say Thundercats. While my fellow kiddies were getting a grounding in TV drama with Byker Grove, Children’s Ward, and Press Gang, I was flicking through the channels looking for a rogue episode of Scooby Doo. I even had a deep wariness of things that were animated in stop-motion, because that was a little too close to real life for my liking (this is clearly a conversation I will have with a therapist in the future) so Paddington Bear, Charlie Chalk and even the beautiful Wind in the Willows would be abandoned if Defenders of the Earth was on the other side.
And if I’m honest, I still prefer cartoons to almost anything else that might appear on the telly, and these days I’m actually justified because, let me tell you, cartoons in the 21st century are amazing. Here are five that will dramatically improve your life.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
I’m just gonna put this out there: A:TLA is pretty much the greatest cartoon ever made. Probably the greatest thing to have ever been on telly. It takes place in a secondary fantasy world inspired by a mixture of Asian and Inuit culture, where some people are born with the ability to bend certain elements to their will. One being, reincarnated through the generations, is able to bend air, water, fire and earth, and is destined to do awesome things and generally kick ass. This is the Avatar, and in A:TLA the Avatar is a little kid called Aang, a child brought up with the peaceful Air Nomads. Aang accidentally takes a 100 year long time out and misses a devastating war – the TV series covers his struggle to master his bending abilities and defeat the evil Fire Lord, assisted by a gang of young people with their own abilities and problems.
The setup is cool, and it starts like your usual children’s adventure series (“Oh hey, Mysterious Cities of Gold,” you think) but A:TLA is incredibly well written and beautifully animated, and pretty soon you find yourself flying through the episodes. It does character development incredibly well, and spends time fleshing out its villains as well as its side characters so no one feels underwritten – I have a particular fondness for Prince Zuko’s character arc, who starts out as a flat-out git in the first series, but gradually, through genuine thought and experience, comes to fight on the good side. The way that his story runs parallel with Aang’s is particularly affecting, and the sort of subtle writing you barely see in mainstream telly. It’s funny, the action sequences are excellent, and unlike most of the cartoons I watched as a kid, it has a good and satisfying ending.
Legend of Korra
This is the sequel to A:TLA, where we follow the adventures of the next Avatar, a young woman born to the Water Tribe. All the praise I heaped onto A:TLA can be smoothly transferred over to Korra, with an emphasis on amazing action sequences (seriously, some of the stuff in the last series is better than most movies I’ve seen) and a dedication to a big cast of varied characters. Perhaps reflecting the fact that the kids who watched A:TLA will have grown up a little, LoK follows the Avatar as a teenager, and her struggles – coming to understand the world and most importantly, herself – are the struggles of a young adult. LoK also focusses on politics, looking in its own way at communism, fascism, and anarchism, and this is reflected in the 1920s/almost steampunk design of the cartoon; this is a world in flux, just as Korra herself is in flux. One of LoK’s truly ground-breaking aspects is its approach to female characters; not only do we have Korra, a capable, complex, and interesting woman at the heart of the show, but she is surrounded by interesting women of all ages, all with different roles and concerns. A number of times I would realise I was watching a group of people discussing war and politics, and all of them were women. How often does that happen in live-action mainstream telly, let alone a children’s cartoon? It’s a long way from the days of 80s Saturday morning cartoons, where you’d be lucky to get a single token woman.
Korra also ends on an incredibly progressive note, which I won’t spoil here, but needless to say I cried a few tears of happiness over it.
I wasn’t taken with Adventure Time at first. The art style put me off (this seems ridiculous now, as I own a copy of the beautiful coffee table book, The Art of Ooo) but after a few episodes it suddenly clicked, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Adventure Time follows the adventures (*cough*) of the human Finn and his shapeshifting dog friend, Jake. They live in the land of Ooo, which is filled with strangeness and danger and annoying little gnomes. What you don’t initially realise with AT, what gradually creeps up on you, is that this is a world recovering from a great catastrophe, and behind all the weirdness and butt jokes is a slightly chilly vein of horror. It was when, I think, I realised what they meant by “Mushroom War” that I sat up and took notice. There is deep and thoughtful world-building going on here, and an awful lot of emotional intelligence. Amongst all the sword and sorcery bubble gum weirdness there is a great deal of wisdom about joy, growing up, and the cycle of life. It also contains one episode that I found so unutterably sad that I can’t think about it without welling up. Blub.
Regular Show concerns a blue jay called Mordecai and a raccoon called Rigby, who supposedly make a living as groundskeepers at a park, although they spend much of their time avoiding doing anything that might be classed as actual work. It is delightfully nuts whilst at the same time being rooted in the deeply familiar habits of young people.
For a cartoon broadcast in the 21st century, it’s hugely influenced by 80s culture, with old school VHS tapes and boomboxes popping up all over the place, and features lots of lovely video game music and visuals that are enormously pleasing if you grew up with a SNES or a Megadrive. The creator is apparently a big fan of the Mighty Boosh and it shows, with wildly odd things happening when trying to perform normal tasks, like setting up a barbeque or buying a video game. Often, some sort of possessed item of technology will fling them into another dimension or time, and through a series of weirder events, they make their way back to where they need to be. In the grand tradition of these things, it’s also the sort of cartoon where you pick up a bunch of catchphrases – I can often be heard bellowing “HAMBONING!” at people, or entreating them to “do me a solid”. Thanks, Regular Show.
If Regular Show is odd, Bravest Warriors is batshit. If you don’t believe me, try making sense of the episode summaries on the Wikipedia page.
The Bravest Warriors are the teenage children of original hero team Courageous Battlers (now lost in the See-Through Zone, whereabouts more or less unknown) who spend their time having deeply strange, incredibly fast adventures on a myriad of strange worlds. Made by Pendleton Ward, the same chap responsible for Adventure Time, Bravest Warriors shares its eyeball popping aesthetic and surreal sense of humour with the Cartoon Network series, but essentially dials everything up to eleven; watching an episode can feel a little bit like watching a flickering montage of random crazy things, until your brain catches up and you realise it all makes a glorious kind of sense. The frenetic pace of Bravest Warriors is almost my favourite thing about it – the series airs online, so each webisode zips across your consciousness like a shooting star made of sherbet and turtles – because it feels like an incredibly modern thing; this is a cartoon that could only exist in the age of the internet. Also, the humour is somewhat naughtier than you might expect. I’m still getting over Wankershim, personally.
Jen also co-hosts the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club every month, so you can talk to her about her animated viewing pleasures there. Or just poke her on Twitter at @sennydreadful. (And did we mention The Iron Ghost? Out now? Because, out now!)