Adventure Time is a smash hit cartoon aimed primarily at kids age six to eleven. It’s also a deeply serious work of moral philosophy, a rip-roaring comic masterpiece, and a meditation on gender politics and love in the modern world. It is rich with moments of tenderness and confusion, and real terror and grief even; moments sometimes more resonant and elementally powerful than you experience in a good novel, though much of Adventure Time’s emotional force is visually evoked—conveyed through a language of seeing and feeling rather than words.
The heroes of Adventure Time—a boy in a white helmet named Finn, and his shape-shifting mutant dog/adopted brother, Jake—spend their days fighting evil, playing games, saving (and, sometimes, dating) princesses, learning secrets, and exploring their half-ruined home world of Ooo, as well as other worlds and dimensions. They possess a blind optimism that is as clueless as it is comforting: Whether they are fighting a swamp giant, trapped in a garbage-strewn cave or testing the super-spicy instant bath serum in the palace of Princess Bubblegum, they are (almost always) brave and kind; they want to have fun and they mean no harm. Finn and Jake are also full of a magical quality that real children have—of resilience, and of seeing the world as if for the first time.
These heroes are as fallible as can be—they’re quite capable of displaying selfishness, impatience and thick-headedness—but their essential good nature always wins out, if not their wisdom or their power to set things right. They mess up a lot, in fact, and their errors and imperfections aren’t magically erased at the end of each episode. At one point they accidentally create the conditions whereby a monster is able to extinguish all life in the universe with a wish; this idea scared me halfway out of my wits and into a curled-up ball under the covers. But it all blindly, clumsily gets set halfway-right again, leaving a host of potentially terrible consequences in the uncertain future: The show often produces a relieved, tender and half-frightened sensation, along with shock, pleasure and laughter.
Literature fans are likely to enjoy Adventure Time’s deliriously loopy philosophico-comical language most of all. Sometimes the “deeper” message is double-edged, both joke and not, as in this pronouncement from the scarily toothless, smeared and bitten gingerbread man, the Royal Tart Toter: “This cosmic dance of bursting decadence and withheld permissions twists all our arms collectively. But, if sweetness can win—and it can—then I’ll still be here tomorrow, to high five you, yesterday, my friend. Peace.” But mostly the language is just full of fun:
- “I’m not righteous,” Finn laments. “I’m wrongteous. Stupidteous.”
- “Accept what fate has given you… can we stay here in this pile of trash and rats forever?”
- “Imagination is for turbo-nerds who can’t handle how kick-butt reality is!”
- “You’ve gifted us nothing but heartache, Magic Man! Where’s the life lesson in that?”
The resolution of each eleven-minute episode is anything but tidily triumphant; each one is as likely to end on a question or a joke as on an answer. Yet one comes away satisfied, a little bit the way one might at a David Lynch movie. The narrative is endlessly malleable, and includes all the possibilities granted by the existence of wizards and magical creatures, time travel, and a huge, ever-evolving cast. It’s a canvas and a story big enough for dozens of artists to make their own way. Even the drawing style is inconsistent, handmade-feeling; longtime fans may learn to detect the hand or voice of a favorite storyboard artist or writer. The goal of the show seems to be exploration, not uniformity.
Adventure Time’s dozens of characters are complex in a way that is rarely seen on television for adults, let alone children; each seems to inhabit his own world. In E.M. Forster’s memorable phrase, they are round characters, “capable of surprising in a convincing way.” Lumpy Space Princess is a lovable but ghastly teenager, tediously obsessed with her old boyfriend, the unprepossessing Brad; she treats her well-meaning parents very shabbily. Marceline the Vampire Queen’s father is present just enough to make it impossible for her to ignore or forget his cruelty and selfishness—qualities she has inherited, to some degree. Princess Bubblegum is afflicted with intellectual arrogance and an inability to anticipate the dangerous consequences of her scientific experiments. (One of the story’s most provocative threads concerns the tension between science and magic).
Adventure Time’s complexity is owed in part to the many writers, performers and artists who make it. But there’s no question that the whole is illuminated by the spirit of its creator Pendleton Ward, whose warmth and antic imagination are offered not from above the audience, but from the seat beside yours. He is as much viewer as auteur; as much fan as creator. In this way, not only the artists and writers who contribute directly to Adventure Time but also the executives who support and enable it and the audience who’ve come to love it are invited to participate in the continued making, extension and sharing of Ward’s vision.
Unlikely as it is that Roland Barthes could have imagined anything remotely like it, his essay “The Death of the Author” exactly prefigured the sense of collaboration informing Adventure Time, which is in every sense “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” and “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” It is delightful to find that the basic tenets of twentieth-century French literary theory are the opposite of boring when harnessed in the service of a cartoon about a boy and his magical dog in a fantastical post-apocalyptic Earth.
The Ice King is a tragic figure—to my mind, the hero—of Adventure Time. The bearded, chubby, blue-robed wizard monarch leads a solitary and delusional existence at the farthest corner of the Ice Kingdom of Ooo, where he lives in a prism-shaped palace of ice with only a drum kit and a flock of penguins for company. A complicated history of torment and self-sacrifice has brought him here: One that will take us, as viewers, a long time to learn.
He is desperately alone. His penguin companions can honk, in a manner simultaneously bewitching and annoying, but not even his favorite, Gunter, is capable of conversation. Sometimes the Ice King flies to other kingdoms in Ooo and kidnaps a princess or two (or more)—with a view to marriage, bien entendu so that, in some sense, his intentions are honorable. He flies quite silently, floatily, and barefoot, revealing sad, skinny little blue legs under his robes. He sometimes gets the upper hand, as in the episode “Still,” where he freezes Jake with magic and makes him have a slumber party and talk about girls. More often, Finn and Jake are able to thwart the Ice King’s evil schemes without much trouble.
The Ice King is a danger to himself and everyone else, subject to unpredictable rages and fits of violence, but he will break your heart. He is forever trying to marry a princess or make a friend, but it never, ever works out; he can only push the thing he desires out of reach by the very force of his longing. Despite being a furious half-crazy blue cartoon villain, he is entirely human; he is ridiculous, needy and sad; he is oneself.
“I identify with him more than any other character,” said Pendleton Ward, chatting offhandedly in the writers’ room at the studio, where we had gathered with the show’s key writers and producers: Adam Muto, Kent Osborne, and Jack Pendarvis, who appeared on a large screen via Skype from Oxford, Mississippi.
“But not in terms of, like, trying to capture women….” replied the slender, saturnine Muto.
“Oh, yes!” Ward said stoutly. Then, after the laughter subsided: “No, no, no, I mean…. not capture, literally kidnapping women…. Just like, living alone and having to talk to your pet.”
Ward is a big bearded guy in his early thirties with a bemused, friendly air about him. He was on his own when we’d met earlier that morning, wearing a plaid shirt and a baseball cap, seated at a long wooden conference table and preparing to tuck into a foil-wrapped breakfast burrito.
We began by talking about humor. Children’s humor, I suggested, is commonly thought of as a kind of “diversion” from fear or sadness. But Adventure Time confronts very dark themes head on: The apocalypse, the possibility of loss and pain, grief and mortality. Yet somehow it makes these grave things seem so simple, unthreatening, even hilarious.
“It’s funnier when you’re sad, I think,” he said. “I’ve heard laughter is releasing stress from your body, like when you go, ’HA! Haaaa!’—you know, you get it out of you. My favorite kind of humor is dark comedies, because I think, mmm… I guess that’s my personality, maybe I’m more cynical about things, so I laugh stuff off easily, and life is really scary?
“I constantly am thinking about how death is always looming,” he said. “I’m trying to do the best thing that I can do in the time that I have, when I should be thinking about this very moment—just being in the moment. Enjoy where I am, these eggs taste good, have a nice conversation, and I’m satisfied now. But I’m always thinking about the end of me, and what I can do right now to make the most of my time. I guess that’s where a lot of my humor comes from, too, is just thinking about that.”
Ward, Muto, Osborne and Pendarvis walked me through the making of the show, which is set to debut its sixth season in April of 2014. Each episode takes around nine months to produce. After talking over ideas, the four write a two-page outline, which is then assigned to writers and storyboard artists. Most of the artists here combine roles in a way that is particular to the studio: They may voice characters, draw, write, or any combination of these.
There are four teams, each with two storyboard artists, who also write all the dialogue and all the jokes for each episode. “They’re basically directors, too,” Muto said. “They’re deciding what the shots are going to look like; sometimes they’ll take the outline and not write part of it, or like, contort part of it.”
But you have veto power, right? I asked. You four.
“It’s not like veto,” Muto said, “it’s more like a conversation, it’s not like, ‘Take this out.’” Here, Ward broke in: “I remember I did that once, I remember putting my foot down.”
I think I was just in a mood. It was the mom from “BMO Lost,” and everyone wanted to make her a giant baby? With a big goofy silly-putty thumb, the baby—they wanted to make the mom a larger version of that baby?—and I was like, now, NO! Because I wanted to relate to their relationship immediately, when she emerged from these bushes, she was looking for her baby and I wanted them to be like, “My baby!”And I know if I was watching it, I’d be thinking about her big baby body, and not their loving—like, that thing that I knew I would immediately grasp. And if I [hadn’t been] in a mood, we would have talked it out, eventually I would have settled on the big baby idea or something, but I was like, nnnNNOOO! I put my foot down—I’m on Skype!
I asked them about their vision of heroism, because Finn and Jake are a little bit like heroes, but only a little.
Muto: Well, I think Finn is kind of, the guy with the sword, wears blue, and he goes on quests, and he serves princesses and he does all these things that a hero would do in old stories. But I think how he executes it is just so different. It’s not like he’s always outsmarting; he’s not even that smart.
There’s like a moral universe that sort of belongs to all of them, though, and a shared code?
Muto: Yeah, definitely. At the beginning, too, it was like… this is what a knight would do, this is my alignment, and this is how I’m supposed to act. He would even talk in those terms, which are Dungeons & Dragons terms: if you’re aligned like this you’re supposed to act a certain way. And now it’s gotten a little more nuanced than that, I think. Not like, “I have to be the hero.” It’s usually, “I have to just be a good dude.”
Ward: I watched a lot of Star Trek, and Captain Jean-Luc Picard was my favorite, I think, because he always—he was flawed but he’d still always do the best that he could do in any situation, and he was confident in his ability to continue to do the best thing even when the odds were stacked.
And then I’d bring up Janeway a lot, who was the captain of Voyager, who in the first few episodes—she’s really panicked. She’d go to her ready room with Tuvok the Vulcan and would be like, “Tuvok, I don’t know what to do!”
Get it together, Janeway! You’re leading the ship!—and you’re—you know: How’d you even get to be in charge of this thing?
So we did a few episodes in the beginning where Finn was really panicked about things; he had all these problems? You’d go, “Oh, I don’t know what to do!”—and I hated that. It made me feel terrible. So, I made sure, I tried to wipe all of that out so that Finn could be more like Jean-Luc. So you’d feel… comfortable and enjoy watching him take care of a situation. And relax, and relate to him.
Yes, because a really scary thing will happen and Finn’ll say, “Yeah, we’ll just do thus and so,” and I’m thinking yeah, you could do that!—and then you feel happy.
Ward: Yeah, it feels good.
Ward [wailing]: “Tuvok, I don’t know!?!?!?”
There’s this idea in English literature, in their narrative style, that you imply rather than speak; that if you speak something, you make it less. That’s why they don’t go around saying “I love you” all the time… they’re not showy like that. But it’s not that they don’t have a deep feeling. I see that in what you guys do as well.
Muto: In this conversation right now or in the show?
[SILENCE. MORE SILENCE. Laughter.]
No! I know, I’m telling you to say it.
Osborne: We’re all not speaking.
The four returned with me for a moment to the Ice King.
He wants so badly for them to like him.
Muto: Okay that’s true. Yeah, that’s real. But he’s crazy.
Yeah, but he really wants that contact. It’s so…
Pendarvis: He’s lonely!
Ward: He just wants someone to do the dishes with…. Why is Ice King interesting? It’s because he’s sad. And it’s fun for me to laugh at sad things because I think sadness makes me laugh in a cynical way. And I think because it also reminds me that I’m alive and that’s what makes me laugh, because I think I’m cynical about that? Or maybe more than being cynical, it’s fun to laugh at that stuff because… oh, jeez.
Muto: Ha, that’s so complex!
Ward: There’s panic—I wrote this down—there’s panic around death, because it’s coming for you. But if you’re looking at it you can settle down and feel relaxed because you know where it is, and it’s not going anywhere. And I wrote—I really like that sad tingle.
Pendarvis: I don’t think Adventure Time is too much different from old fairy tales that are about the most terrifying things that can happen. Children being lost in the woods, and ending up in a witch’s house…. I mean, a person that seems like a nice person, but she might put you in a pot and cook you, or something.
Yeah, I really hate when they sanitize them.
Pendarvis: Bruno Bettelheim said that fairy tales are ways for children to deal with the things that scare them. Anyway, it’s fun to be scared, right?
Osborne: Hearing Jake talk about his perception of death and dying, I remember when that was pitched, it made me feel better about my own mortality than watching like five seasons of Six Feet Under. It prepared me for death better.
Pendarvis: And that’s what we’re really trying to do at Adventure Time, is prepare people for their own death.[All burst out laughing.]
Rob Sorcher, Cartoon Network’s executive vice president and Chief Content Officer, is a handsome fifty-something, the picture of a Los Angeles studio executive, with salt-and-pepper hair and haute-nerd black framed glasses; elegant, witty, and fast-talking; beautifully dressed in a navy cashmere pullover and slim dark jeans. He was the studio’s original general manager at its founding in 1992, and went on to USA Network and then AMC, where, as executive vice president of programming and production, he helped develop Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
When Sorcher returned to Cartoon Network under former president Stuart Snyder in 2007, their original business plan had been to move the network away from animated shows and toward live action, and shows aimed more explicitly at boys. But Adventure Time was the first project Sorcher greenlit on his return, and as it happened, audiences made it a roaring success, while the live-action series fared less well. Together with Regular Show, Adventure Time redefined and re-energized the studio, and they were soon joined by Steven Universe, and Clarence and Uncle Grandpa. This fall Pat McHale, Adventure Time’s original creative director, will debut his own series, Over the Garden Wall, alongside them. Sorcher led me through the development of the Shorts Program that the network has cultivated as a sort of incubator for these artist-driven cartoons.
What these shows have in common is that they do not start with a script. And that’s unique to this studio. Everywhere else you go there’s a script, and the animators are animating to it. That’s not happening here. These are animators and board people, and they are doing the writing. They are people who process things visually.
I worked on Mad Men, and Matt Weiner pitched me that thing beat by beat. He’s a master salesman, and I’m a words guy, I come out of advertising, I’m a copywriter, a talking guy…. This is a different thing entirely. For one thing, they are very young, they are 23, 24, 25… they have some characters, maybe they’ve had them since school. It’s easy to look at that and beat that up, and go, “What would the 25th episode be?” and “What’s at stake?” and all this nonsense you do in TV development and then you’ll end up with nothing, because they can’t answer those questions. They don’t know.So we designed a program to let them process and think through that in not so much of a challenging way—in a positive way. You will produce a seven-minute film if you are in this program. It will be with a minimum of executive interference. We installed artists at the top of the program, so that I’m talking to more experienced and senior artists, and they’re talking to the younger ones in a way they can understand.
There’s a lot of fancy technology and fun furnishings around the Cartoon Network studios, which are on a nondescript street in Burbank’s commercial center, quite near the giant IKEA. There’s a massive rooftop party space with an over-sized ping-pong table; a big white stairwell, which the artists are free to decorate with graffiti; a lobby wall tiled with Etch-A-Sketches, many of them bearing intricate drawings. The overarching vibe is unselfconscious, easy and comfortable.
Sorcher and I dropped by the recording room, where J. G. Quintel, the creator of Regular Show, was voicing characters with a colleague. The ability of these performers to do a series of wild voices on command, sighing, shrieking, cackling, hooting, as required, to act out the whole rollercoaster of pratfalls, exclamations, insults, sadness and hilarity in a cartoon—all without being able to watch the finished product as they work, but just to intuit from the script and drawings—is breathtaking. Two sound engineers supervised the performance.
Good, Sammy, on the squeal from the trailer hitch, a little more sense like, you’re falling and you have to jump up.
Falling and what?
Falling and have to reach up to grab onto the trailer.
[the performer yodels in about eight registers] Oh NOOOO, BRO?!
[all laugh approvingly.]Just INSANE! So, 103 is going to be an add-in: Muscle Man, you get slammed into the back of the truck. And the other Muscle Man is holding on for dear life, and gives another scream.
Generally, the creators don't do the voices in animation, Sorcher told me. “Because, it’s a lot of work! He’s standing on that stage, in the booth, and now he’s not working on the show! They’re not directing, so… But invariably, they’re characters that they’ve had, since… this show is based on J. G.’s student film! So you can’t—you just gotta let ’em do it, you can’t worry about that.”
There is a definite paternal component to his relationship with these young artists.
“I still miss having little kids in the house,” he said a bit later. “I was a camp counselor….”
“And you are still—?”
“Exactly.” He laughed. Sorcher’s a businessman, but also something like an interpreter, a cosmonaut, traveling freely between art and business, chaos and order, children and adults. Without the broad compass of his understanding and responsibilities, a creative (and commercial) machine of this size could not exist. He said:
These are difficult productions… so much harder than making any other kind of TV show that I have ever made. Everybody is incredibly young; the ideas are rarely completely hatched before beginning production, so you’re building the car as you go, and the deadlines don’t stop; animation in general is a complex activity requiring a lot of people, and then we ship overseas.
So you put all that together and then add in the question of, “Hey: Who are we making this for?” I feel that a big part of my job is to make sure that that conversation does not come up in the building.
And you have to perform to metrics for your own bosses.
The beautiful thing is that the show performs—and by the way, around the world, too, it’s really powerful—the show performs against kids, but the secret is, what isn’t even included: The total population watching that show. Yeah! There’s a million or more people watching that show who are not kids 6 to eleven. So it’s really interesting, but we won’t even pay attention because we’re not slicing it that way from a revenue perspective.
Are you kidding me right now? You are not even thinking about undergraduates.
Nope. We are just… not monetizing them.
You are blowing my mind.I know. And I’m not allowed to run it on Adult Swim simultaneously. So… my next wave is to invert the proposition. Have it be a cartoon for everyone that some kids might also come to, because we can monetize that.
Things unseen and unseeable, things that could never exist in the “real” world, appeared in some of the first movies ever made, as if imagination itself had been struggling to break free of its empirical limitations. Le voyage dans la lune, the mystico-fantastical 1902 film by Georges Méliès, for example. With its weird imagery and ideas, its wigged-out costuming and magical lunar cream-pie effects, it is very like today’s cartoons: Loopiness and surrealism that unleash a torrent of strange ideas, feelings, laughter. These are vehicles for pure enjoyment and fun, and for liberating the imagination, a realm in which adults and children are on a roughly equal playing field. But their very freedom, the blankness of the slate upon which such a work begins, means that a whole world must be constructed from the ground up.
Adventure Time began as a short film when Ward was still a student at CalArts. Pat McHale, a classmate, was involved from the first moment. The two are still very close. “Pat is a guy I met in school,” Ward wrote in an email. “It’s hard to put into words how much I admire his cartooning. I’ll try though: Pat’s drawings and storytelling [are full of] tenderness and honesty. A punchline for Pat is the calm smile of a man made of watermelons being revealed through parting morning mist. I trust Pat to believe me if I call him and say, ‘I’m calling from beyond the grave and I need your help.’”
McHale is soft-spoken and slight; he looks quite like an indie rock star, with tousled hair and a gentle, piercing grey gaze. “Nickelodeon came to CalArts and wanted to make a whole bunch of—I think they were like thirty-second, or one minute shorts, with students,” he said.
So we were all pitching stuff, and Pen—
They all call Pendleton Ward “Pen.”
—pitched, he had a character named Bueno the Bear, and basically he took that character and made a hat out of it, and put it on a kid, and that was the character [that became Adventure Time’s Finn].
From what Pen has said it was sort of like, coming up with the most cliché idea in order to get it picked up: There’s a hero kid with a dog, and then there’s an evil wizard, an Ice King wizard, and then there’s Princess Bubblegum. They’re all like clichés, purposefully. But because it was coming from him, it kind of felt like—I don’t know, it doesn’t feel cliché, it just feels slightly “off” in just the way it’s drawn, and in the humor of it. That combination of really traditional children’s television tropes, mixed with Pen’s more sophisticated vision, and emotional stuff….And so when there was talk about bringing it over to the network, Pen talked to me and Adam Muto about kind of coming on as second and third in command.
When I asked him to say more about the nature of Adventure Time’s collaboration, he said: “At this point it seems like a lot of the board artists have their own little stories and worlds that they kind of own, and they’re like, ‘I want to tell stories about this character, and this character!’ to kind of see where they go, and everything. And that’s what Pen always wanted.”
Nick Jennings, Adventure Time’s art director, has been in animation for decades; he was the art director of Rocko’s Modern Life and SpongeBob SquarePants. He is the grooviest dad in North America, probably, with short greying hair and thickly lashed, observant blue eyes. He supervises the show’s whole visual vocabulary; it is a complex business, creating a visual unification of all the ideas, characters and locations in the land of Ooo. “Every show is comprised of a bunch of paintings and drawings we do that we send overseas as a reference, and then they draw and paint and animate all of the two hundred twenty scenes…. I have two guys that draw background layouts, which is what these are”—glowing, richly colored, jewel-like cartoon backgrounds that would have been unimaginable, impossible to produce like this even twenty-five years ago. “I have three painters.”
I remark how well the visual style of the show matches the wild emotional ride it takes you on—the contrast between the dingy, dripping, frightening ruins and the monsters, and the sweetness and the rich, happy colors of the Candy Kingdom. These reflect the depth and complexity of the story.
“I think that’s a testament to Rob’s leadership, and Pen’s vision,” he said. “I mean, for a while we’ve been struggling to build this brand and find our place. We have a lot more freedom here than we would at other places. And Rob pushes that and wants that to happen, and wants the creators to be able to just fall into it and do the thing they do best. So I think it really—I think he and Pen, they’re a good combo.”
Fred Seibert, the head of Frederator Studios, where Adventure Time was first produced, talks about the show’s creators with an avuncular affection. He is sixtyish, tall, warm, funny, voluble. Frederator’s basic business model is to make a large portfolio of short films at a time and then try to sell them to the big studios; they’re based in New York, with a West Coast outpost in Burbank decorated in wall-to-wall posters of the company’s many brilliant successes: The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog and The Fairly OddParents in addition to Adventure Time. Seibert is a serial entrepreneur with a wide range of interests; for example, a young intern named David Karp built Frederator’s blogging platform in 2004, and Seibert became an early investor in this intern’s startup, Tumblr. (A small investor, he insists.)
Seibert has an instinctive sense of what one might call the postmodern movement in storytelling. He spoke freely about this transformation, first in what he calls the “post-Hill Street Blues era,” when the style of television narrative changed dramatically and developed on its own path, away from the conventions of the movie business and into what he called “novelistic storytelling,” with multiple threads, stories and characters that could be followed out and developed over months and years.
“Now we can balance fifteen storylines simultaneously, without even thinking about it,” he said. “Traditional movie and television narrative would tell you, you have to have a main character, three subcharacters and a couple of ancillary characters, and that is all you can balance in an hour or ninety minutes. Games, in the same way, have changed our ability to think through characters and stories. For example, in Pokemon, there are 150 characters just to start, and then it grows from there.”
“One of the things that I am most blown away by in Pen’s storytelling is that for all of the attempts over the last twenty years to integrate video games into filmmaking, I think almost no one has done it successfully except him,” Seibert said. “Going through a great Adventure Time episode is like getting into a video game for the first time and not knowing the rules of the universe, and fumbling through until, at a certain point, you’re playing the game without even [having realized] you’ve started.”
The intimacy of the audience’s involvement was a key element of Seibert’s and Ward’s vision from the start. Both are intimately attuned to the culture of the web, and wanted to share Adventure Time storyboards and works in progress with their online audience when the original short was in production (it was released on the Internet in January of 2007, to instantaneous and immense acclaim); this was a very unorthodox move, the idea of opening the hood to fans of the show.
“When I was talking with Pen about this, he said, ‘Well, I was a kid sitting in San Antonio and I couldn’t find out anything, so I’d scour the Internet looking for the things that were meaningful to me. And you know, I had a really hard time finding those things, so I’m really happy we can share anything we want with anybody.’” But, Seibert says, there was a lot of resistance at first to sharing too much in public. “But Pen just said, ‘Look, there’s certain secrets that we want to hold for the audience so that when they see the episode, they’ll get these secrets, but other than that, just tell anybody, share anything—because I remember what it was like, being a fan.’”
Ward’s fan feeling hasn’t undergone one iota of alteration. When I wrote to ask about his interest in video games and their potential for the future of storytelling, he replied:
Oh man, the intensely emotional storytelling in games like Gone Home… it’s through the roof! The wild goosebumps I experienced after Gone Home, I felt like I was in the body of a different person… a VERY different person haha! I don’t want to spoil it, but it was wild to feel so intimately connected with the character in that game. Movies and books transport you to a place where you’re along for the ride, games make you drive the thing forward. That’s especially true in scary games, because instead of shouting “Don’t go in that room!” …you’re the one taking the steps forward towards that room. It’s huge. I think games are a thing you can’t fully appreciate until you play them.I’ve been to game conventions where games are being projected on screens all around you, they all look nice and it’s fun to see how visually appealing they are… but unless you wait in line and play them… you’ll leave there without knowing how they can pull so many good feelings out of yah. But for emotional storytelling in games, Gone Home is the front runner at the moment…. There’s plenty of games play on moral decision making… in Red Dead Redemption, a hermit sent me on a quest to decimate the wild Bigfoots who were terrorizing him. I sought out and killed all of the Bigfoots…. I killed them from a distance, they never attacked me. Then I found the final Bigfoot who was sitting by a tree and crying… he told me that I had murdered his ENTIRE FAMILY!!! I still feel HORRRRRIBLE ABOUT IT! He wanted me to SHOOT HIM because he no longer WANTED TO LIVE! It was miserable!!!
When asked about his relationship to Adventure Time’s fans, Ward took care to explain the responsibility he feels to the kids who watch the show, again because he’d been a devoted comics fan himself. He’s terrified of being tired, or not on his game, when a kid comes to talk with him at a public event.
Because that happened to me, before. The first time—do you know who James Kochalka is?—he’s a comics artist. I met him once, and I was a big fan of his, at a comic convention. And he was just tired, I think; he was just running his booth, and he was exhausted, and I was like, [in a breathless voice] “Hey, man! how’s it goin’, have you heard about this CD that I liked, I think you’d like it!” And he was like “Uh, I don’t know.” I’m like, “Oh, he hates my guts, I’ve got to get out of here!” So kids, when they meet me, I try to keep my energy up the whole time.
This sense of connection to the audience is spread throughout the cast and crew of the show. Many of the storyboard artists maintain extensive private Tumblrs and blogs of their own, in which they speak directly with fans. Adam Muto answers all manner of questions on Formspring, writing as MrMuto:
kevinjantar: why does your picture looks like Danny from Bravest Warriors?
MrMuto: Or why does Danny look like my picture.
Storyboard artist Cole Sanchez, too, answers fans’ questions very gently and kindly (as ColeSanchez, on Formspring); he also advises them on their cartooning studies and critiques their work. In one reply he completely redrew a fan’s character: “I tweaked the arm a little bit and the hair line on the left side of his face I made round, just to simplify it. Over all I think I just kinda rounded out the character. I like rounded shapes because the volume feels nice and has a fun sorta rhythm. Thanks for asking me to critique your drawing, hope you saw something that helped.”
At the 2013 Comic-Con in San Diego, there was an audience of more than two thousand people at the Adventure Time panel, many of them dressed as characters from the show: There were dozens of Finns and Jakes (and their gender-swapped counterparts, Fiona and Cake), and quite a lot of Marceline the Vampire Queens and Princesses Bubblegum, Ice Kings and even a Lemongrab or two. There wasn’t a seat to be had; it was touch and go even for a crafty member of the fourth estate to wrangle her way in there. There were deafening cheers for Ward, Muto, Osborne and Rebecca Sugar, an erstwhile Adventure Time storyboard artist who now runs her own show, Steven Universe. She performed “Bacon Pancakes” on the ukulele, and led a rousing audience sing-along. The crowd went just as wild for the voice performers Tom Kenny (the Ice King), Olivia Olson (Marceline), Jeremy Shada (Finn) and John DiMaggio (Jake).
On the Internet you may see Adventure Time characters painted on fingernails, and buy helmets sewn of white felt modeled on the one worn by Finn, and handmade cuddly toys of almost every character. There is a Wiki of 2100 pages and 30,000-plus images illustrating and explaining every imaginable detail of the show. There’s fan fiction and Pinterest boards, and a ten-hour YouTube mashup of Jake singing “Bacon Pancakes” with Alicia Keys singing “Empire State of Mind.”
Last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade featured a balloon of Finn and Jake, surely the arch-imprimatur of acceptance into mainstream American culture.
One of the best—and saddest—parts of Adventure Time is the subplot of Simon and Marcy, a section of the story that takes place just after the ruin of Earth, and the favorite of many of the show’s admirers. Pen Ward loves that part, too.
Oh oh oh OH my god, Simon and Marcy….
Yeah, make you cry.
Made me cry, man. Made me totally cry.
Yeah, I bet.
I cried a bunch. I had to watch it a million times, because I had to edit it.
Oh, god! I’m gonna cry NOW.Let it out!
This story was written by Rebecca Sugar, together with Cole Sanchez and Adam Muto. I was particularly interested to talk with Sugar, whose songs and stories have evoked such strong feeling from fans, about different aspects of collaboration and fandom. Adventure Time “can mean different things to different people, because that is what real experience is like,” she told me. “Nobody’s having the same experience in reality, so it’s totally fair to have your own feeling be specific to you and not the same as someone else’s experience.”
I totally cosign all you’re saying about the legitimacy or validity of each person’s view. Artists in general I think aren’t trying to dictate to other people what they should think. But don’t you think there’s another layer of aesthetic communion, or camaraderie, with those people who really did get exactly what you meant?
Absolutely. In the same way that when you speak to someone and they actually listen, that’s one of the greatest things. Yeah, I think that would definitely be the best. But then, there’s also something interesting in the variations. The only thing that makes me sad is when I see people say, No, it can only mean this one thing, and that’s I think just the worst.
I see so much of that fan feeling, the feeling of “this belongs to me” that I saw when I first met you guys at ComicCon: You’re so surrounded by all that love and devotion, that sort of “rock star” feeling that the audience has toward you. Like: I want this person to like me, so much, and I want to be the one who understands it, and all that sort of stuff. It took me back, in kind of a sweet way; there’s something so touching about wanting to understand, and join in and participate in someone else’s way of looking at the world?
Yeah. [In college] we read this Roland Barthes book called A Lover’s Discourse, and it had this sort of breakdown of a romantic relationship; talking about how when you fall in love with someone, you fall in love with this image that you have of that person. And you tie to that an image repertoire: A series of things that you associate with that person, and all of that is what you love.
The kind of love that I had for people whom I’d never met, who were making comics that I thought were incredible, made me think that if you take that image repertoire that you have in a relationship, you know—you share with them a series of images and ideas that are powerful to you, it really feels like you have a connection with someone. I think that people roll their eyes at obsessive fans of cartoons and comics because it seems so bizarre, but it makes so much sense that sharing something as fleshed out with music and imagery and stories, as cartoons are—you know who did that, and you want to tell them that you connected with it.
Yes! You want somehow to tell them, “Look! You made something, an articulation of your whole entire character, and, you know, just: ‘Message received.’”
I think especially kids who are maybe a little troubled at home, and don’t necessarily have a very secure sort of home life, are sometimes totally rescued by this, the knowledge that somebody’s out there whom they can connect with. A lot of young people are rescued by art. And comics and cartoons, because they are so abstracted—a pure art form that is only very loosely tethered to the so-called real world—are maybe particularly useful for that.Absolutely. On Adventure Time—and in a lot of what’s going on now—we all make an effort to really make it personal and specific. Because with entertainment, a lot of times there is a push to de-specify everything, so that you understand it: To deal in generics, like just generic ideas, because that will make your jokes read, and will make your stories read. But to say something very specific that lets people know that their experience, because it’s specific, it’s not illegitimate. That’s something that I think needs to exist in television.
Pat McHale mentioned to me during a talk at the studio that Pen Ward was not a fan of “Art”—“as a word, or as a concept. He likes entertainment. But he’s very artistic—”
Is there a difference, to you?
I think there’s like a snooty side of art that turns him off of talking about “Art,” in a way, of like, symbolism, or anything like that, but I think he automatically brings that into things without thinking, because of his own… creative intelligence, or whatever the word is that you would use.
How do you feel about that? Are you more okay with the snooty side?
Yeah, I mean I like it.
So do I, I like the snooty side.
I like literary criticism, and so I like, when I’m making stuff, to [be able to consider], 'Oh!—this can be interpreted in this, and this and this way.'
Like what literary criticism? Do you have particular writers whom you admire, or—?
No, it’s not even about writing. It’s about the literature of—the literature of the universe, or something. Any kind of symbolism, like looking into the mythology of monsters, or of religion, and history. Or like the Dark Ages, when there’s no historical documents that you can really trust—and what is the truth of those, and [with respect to] science, [and finding] oh, they had this—and then even further back—
There’s no such thing as documents you can trust.
Yeah! So it’s all, you have to critique it in a way…. Going into something like a cartoon for children’s television is the same thing as talking about the cosmos or human history, or whatever.So that’s been sort of the most fun, is like finding sort of I guess tropes and things about the characters, and kind of delving into them, and trying to get at the core of why. Why people are the way they are, and why the world is the way it is, and what’s good and what’s not so good about it.
Pen Ward had already told me something along these lines, in a reverie about capital-A Art.
Early days, I was real mad at the idea of—I considered myself an entertainer more than an artist. I always wanted to just make people happy on a very surface level. To plug any message or anything in below that was annoying to me. But I realized I was doing that anyway, and that I shouldn’t—I shouldn’t not call myself an artist.
I was doing that at the beginning a lot. I was like, “I’m an entertainer, not an artist!” Because I just wanted to make something fun and make people enjoy it, and that was all I cared about. But I was still plugging in all the same kind of stuff…. There were sad themes. Because that’s just what made me laugh, what I liked watching…. It wasn’t like “Let’s make a beautiful show!” It was like, “Time to make a funny cartoon!” Something that I would want to watch when I was a kid.
There’s a lot of baggage around the idea of “artist” in the culture that is not very productive, maybe.I was maybe carrying that baggage, and then I think I got rid of that at some point. Now I like being artful. It’s fun, the right way to be.
Art that pretends to seriousness, whether moral or philosophical, tends to come in clearly marked packages: “For Intelligent People Only” is stamped right on the tin. “Highbrow” reading. Art Movies. Literary Fiction. Fine Art. But because it’s made with such vast and rich resources, and because so many people get to experience and share it, mass media can sometimes offer inclusive, human and dynamic dimensions often denied to more recondite forms of art. Mass media can more easily approach universality, for example. It can be truly for everyone, of any age, class or level of education. It can be freer, lighter, funnier.
How much truth can “highbrow” works really contain, when their audiences are limited to only the “serious” and “intelligent”? Granting that they can’t possibly pretend to be speaking to everyone—because, when we say, “everyone,” shouldn’t we mean exactly that? After all, the human condition is the property of all—of the youngest as well as the oldest. The same fears, and the same delights are what make us all human. The same mystery at the heart of existence, times seven billion.
Pen Ward told me to ask Rebecca Sugar about the sublime, and what she said turned out to be intimately involved with this idea of universal mystery, and with imagination. “I learned about this in college,” she said, “in a class I took with the artist Bill Beckley”:
The idea is that a beautiful image is frameable. Everything you need to see is there: It’s everything you want, and it’s very pleasing because there’s no extra information that you don’t get to see. Everything’s in a nice package for you. But sublime art is unframeable: It’s an image or idea that implies that there’s a bigger image or idea that you can’t see: You’re only getting to look at a fraction of it, and in that way it’s both beautiful and scary, because it’s reminding you that there’s more that you don’t have access to. It’s now sort of left the piece itself and it’s become your own invention, so it’s personal as well as being scary as well as being beautiful, which is what I really like about art like that.
My teacher described it as the difference between a sort of cute pinup drawing of a smiling woman, and then the more modern model sort of staring off into the distance and you can’t tell what they’re thinking and they look depressed? What that’s trying to achieve is the sublime, because you don’t get to know what this person is thinking…. Something’s wrong, and you don’t know what it is, and that’s a powerful idea.Cartoons achieve that almost sort of by accident all the time, because you cannot show everything: And every moment that you’re seeing something—like, the sight of a room with a cartoon character standing in it, it’s a drawing, and nothing else but that exists; but the point of a cartoon is to imply that there is this whole world that these characters exist in…. In order to enjoy it, you have to believe that that drawing’s real. But in order to believe that, you have to enter a sublime artwork, because you’re convincing yourself that this place exists, and it doesn’t, and everything you’re seeing is a little nod to the fact that there’s a bigger world that just isn’t there. And when we’re making it we have to believe that, too.
There’s a kind of intuitive correctness that corresponds more to the aesthetic operations of taste and to the instinct for humor and delight than it does to intellection, a sensitiveness to what feels right, what seems to reflect aspects of existence for which we have as yet no words, no concepts. We have an emotion that we might represent with colors, with images or music, clothes or flowers. Or maybe with poetry, or a cartoon. This is evocation, rather than the explicit message-making of the kind one engages in when writing a news story. There are things one thinks out, and then there’s what cannot be thought out. Pen Ward wrote something to me about this, perhaps as a warning not to “read too much” into a work which, in the end, for all its sublimity, really is better understood as “entertainment” than as “art”:
In our conversation with you we talked a lot about theory and death, but I think a lot of us are just following our instincts for what’s funny, we just like making funny stuff and it doesn’t have to go deeper than that. Lumpy Space Princess living with a family of wolves is just funny…. Analyzing it can be fun… but sometimes the answer is just “we did it cause it’s funny.”
Countless works of art touch on this theme: The casting off of self, living in the moment, in a more instinctive and intuitive way; an awakening into a more vivid world, a world of expanded awareness, of enlightenment, pure being. “These eggs taste good.” Ikiru is like this; Along Came Polly and Adaptation and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin are like this. Harold and Maude, and Ulysses. Adventure Time.
Certain works of art signify “impeccable taste.” For example, the Bellini St. Francis in Ecstasy is one of the fanciest, most valuable, most important paintings in the world. To love this painting is not only intellectually unimpeachable: Your love for it will also serve as a signifier of taste and sensitivity. Say that this is your favorite painting and even the snobbiest person in the world will sigh knowingly, in the way he might when you say that you admire Beethoven’s late quartets or confess, or brag, that your favorite poet is Rilke. But in its message, the Bellini St. Francis almost exactly resembles Adventure Time.
Adventure Time, it is true, is a cable network cartoon principally intended for boys age 6 to eleven, and the Bellini St. Francis is a religious painting from A.D. 1480, worth about one kazillion dollars, and hanging in what was once Henry Clay Frick’s living room in New York City at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street. Even so, the detachment of Bellini’s Saint Francis from earthly concerns, his evident regard for all living creatures as worthy of love, attention and respect, the cute creatures and little details hidden all around, the beauty and sadness and solitude in it, and the mixture of self-awareness, awe, doubt, affection, kindness, humor and dread in which he confronts the world and the mysteries that may lie beyond it are all very reminiscent of the work of Pen Ward, Pat McHale, Adam Muto, and the many artists and performers who have contributed to Adventure Time, a work likewise loved by millions, a very substantial proportion of whom are not boys age 6 to eleven.
But how unsurprising that the people to come up with such a fine portrayal of the world in art would include the imagination and worldview and reality of childhood, of children. That the natural champions of the instinctive, the wordless, the sublime, should have been the ones to create such a satisfactory and resonant picture of beauty, tragedy, humor and truth. The literature of the universe, and the mirror of the world.