So, based on the replies I got, Saturday Morning Cartoons weren’t as much of a staple for you, my fans, as I would have imagined or hoped. Which sort of put me in an awkward situation given that I’ve devoted like this entire month to eulogizing them.
Most people would take this as a sign to abort the whole idea. I already had the whole month planned out though, so you guys are just going to have to suffer or at least maybe stick around for a bit more discussion on what made these stories well… awesome.
Cartoon Month continues unabated!
Of course, Saturdays weren’t the only time one could catch children’s programming, just the most consistent. When I was growing up, the era of the after school cartoon block was already waning. The choices had narrowed to Fox and the WB, and in my case, the WB’s signal was really weak to the poin that I could only tune in one day out of every seven.
Luckily, Fox’s after school block of programming was arguably stronger than everyone else’s Saturday Morning offerings. Not only that, but it was full of the superhero animated series that would have a huge hand in shaping my sensibilities when it came to the genre.
It wasn’t all superheroes though, and I would say that the non-superhero shows I’m going to talk about today went a long way toward teaching me more of the lessons about spectacle and storytelling than even Batman: the Animated Series.
So without further jawing, let’s talk about three obscure after school cartoons that were still AWESOME.
[[Why only 3? Well, this list is limited solely to shows I watched after school and most of those: Beast Wars, Talespin, Ducktales, etc aren’t obscure enough for the list. Then there are the Superhero shows which I’m not going to talk about here because next week is the Top 10 Superhero Cartoons of All Time, so they’re not in the running.]]
Number 3: Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates
This is number five because I’ve been waiting so long to talk about this that I refused to wait any longer.
This is one of my very favorite cartoons. It’s not on the level of near-flawless execution in my eyes like Pirates of Dark Water, or Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it was so good on so many levels and I can’t fathom why it didn’t become a cultural phenomenon.
Okay, actually I totally can. It was, as the title suggests, on Fox… and Fox is the absolute worst network ever at scheduling. We’re all nerds here, so I will spare you the requisite rant about Firefly and Wonderfalls (or a personal rant about Brimstone) dying on the network because of Fox’s scheduling incompetence. You’ve heard it before or can easily find someone else to hear it from.
However, it is relevant here because for whatever reason, Peter Pan and the Pirates came on at 3pm. Now, I’m sure the time varies from district to district, not to mention country to country, but for everyone I’ve talked to, school dismissed between 2:45pm and 3:15pm. Mine let out at the later, so unless you are capable of performing a tesseract (quick, run to the comments to correct me if you don’t know the reference, but do know math!), you were not going to see to see this damn show except when you were home sick, or over the summer.
And that is the deepest of shames because Peter Pan and the Pirates was the second best adaptation of the Peter Pan story ever produced.
This being the first.
See, I never really liked Peter Pan. He always came off as an asshole who never faced the consequences of his assholery to me. He was just a huge jerk, but no one but Tinkerbell took any notice that he was a jerk and nothing bad at all happened to him for it. That, plus NeverNeverland was such a vague and bland setting; devoid of any cohesion or continuity.
Peter Pan and the Pirates seems to have been written by someone who had the same feelings.
First of all, Peter is still a remorseless assclown… but it’s shown and made clear that no one likes that he’s a remorseless assclown and that it has a TON of negative consequences not just for him, but his victims.
Case in point: one of the constant traits of Pan is his pathological desire to harass the pirates even when they’re doing nothing to him. Usually, this is justified (to a point) by the fact that the pirates are flat, evil characters and anything bad done to them is okay in the eyes of the audience.
Peter still enjoys trolling the pirates in FPPatP, but the pirates are all fully fleshed out characters here and they’re less evil and more ruthless in accomplishing their goals. And what diabolical goal do Captain Hook and his crew have in mind? Getting home.
See,NeverNeverland in this universe seems to a dumping ground for whatever falls into their equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. The indians (oh they of the incredibly racist [and catchy] song from Disney) are the descendants of a group that was lost, hinted at being Roanke Colony (ignore that it was the Englishmen who disappeared there), the mermaids are possible Atlantis survivors, ad the Lost Boys are literally lost boys.
Naturally, Hook and his crew want to get out of this place, preferably with any loot they can take with them (pirates remember). However, Peter screws with them at every turn and on several occasions, has actively ruined their chances to escape. Hook even seems to think Peter is the reason they’re trapped personified and he might be right.
It’s not just the pirates either. Plenty of being in NeverNeverland hate Peter on this show, all for very real reasons that it is usually Wendy’s mission to patch up and sometimes she can’t. He even turns the Lost Boys against him a few times.
Sure, he ‘learns his lesson’ every episode and forgets in the next, but the fact that the world he inhabits is so well-drawn and the characters so rich not just in their responses to Peter being a little monster, but in their inner lives, that Peter ends up just being the catalyst for a serious of surprisingly deep, character-driven episodes. I highly suggest you check out a few episodes because me telling you about it doesn’t do it justice.
Well now that the best is out of the way, let’s talk about something I won’t gush over quite so much…
Number 2: Eek! The Cat
Eek! The Cat was a show about a purple anthropomorphic cat (who is still a pet) who lives in the most absolute crapsack world since Game of Thrones. Seriously, the only reason there wasn’t just as much pointless death, incest and dwarf sex in Eek’s world as GoT is because Eek was TV-Y7 rated. Otherwise, the world of Eek the Cat is one where Murphy’s Law is strictly enforced as a law of physics. Whatever can go wrong WILL go wrong and there is not force on their Earth that will stop it.
Somehow, our titular character is blissfully unaware of this. And when I say ‘unaware’, I mean he literally cannot see anything negative in the world. His girlfriend’s dog constantly tries to murder him and he just assumes he’s being friendly. His girlfriend is so hugely fat that even I who hate fat jokes and the constant dehumanizing of fat people our culture holds as its most important value, thinks she’s gone a big far, but he doesn’t even notice when she is crushing his body flat by staring a couch with her. His owners are obnoxious idiots who only are about him as property, but he will risk his live for them and assumes the feeling is mutual.
Eek (and all the characters) suffer but in terms of the physical and in terms of lost dignity constantly.
Now, given my dislike for crapsack worlds, you might wonder why I put up with this cartoon, much less why I’m highlighting it. Well, the thing is… Eek usually manages to win in the end with guile. During the episode, he’ll lose nad lose bad most of the time, but eventually he’ll step back, assess the problem, then come up with some kind of solution that makes the best of what he has in front of him.
And that is unique. It’s very rare in fiction to see an unabashed optimist portrayed as not only smart, but as a planner. They even go out of their way to contrast Eek’s sunny but savvy disposition with some characters who are actual grinning idiots, the Squishy Bears.
So Eek took a beating, but he never brooded, never gave up and used his brain , all without ever losing his ‘It never hurts to help’ mantra. Eek, in my mind, is a character who has the makings of a superhero. In fact, given how all the horrible damage to his person is never permanent, he might be the closest thing to a mundane superhero ever. He doesn’t save the world from supervillains (often), but he does help kids find lost toys, take care of elderly people in need and all sort of other good deeds, pitting his immortality against the grinding jaws of the world that it trying to annihilate if not him, his bright spirit.
Interestingly, this is one of the rare cartoons where while I absolutely HATE the art style (distorted, purposefully ugly and sort of grotesque in places, a style a lot of NickToons use), but still like the show. Most of the time, when I see a show whose art I don’t like I don’t give it a chance (Home Movies and Regular Show come to mind. You may throw your machetes.)
And that brings us to…
Number One: Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot
The comic fans here might know Big Guy and Rusty from their Dark Horse comic. The show is an adaptation of it and I honestly can’t judge it as an adaptation because I own all of one issue of the comic and it’s from the middle of a storyline so… I have no idea what’s going on in it.
Anyway, this is about the animated series. Rusty is a crazy powerful (and fully sapient) robot built in the spirit of Astroboy to defend us from aliens and giant monsters with the combined powers of adorable and a sub-nuclear arsenal. The problems start when one realizes that Rusty’s advanced AI needs to grow and develop much like a human—and he needs to learn how to be a hero.
Luckily, there’s already a robot on the job, the gigantic gunnery platform, the BGY-11—The Big Guy. Rusty idolizes Big Guy and wants to be just like him when he grows up…
…Which is less lucky. You see, the BGY-11 isn’t actually a robot. It’s a mech’, or for you anime fans, a mobile suit. The machine is piloted and the idea that it’s a thinking robot is all a publicity stunt. Of course, telling Rusty this might scar his billion dollar mind, or worse make him go nuts. And so begins the ruse where Big Guy mentors young Rusty while his pilot is Rusty’s ‘mother’s’ (read: the scientist that invented him) friend and eventual love interest who begins to make friends with the little ‘bot himself.
The show strikes a very good balance between the personal lives and growth of the characters and the hardcore robot-on-monster violence largely supplied by the excellently creepy arc villains, the Legion Ex Machina. Every character gets development here, from the ‘Big Guy’ persona to the corporate weasels who keep trying to push Rusty farther than he’s ready to go. If the comic is half this good, I shall be forced to attempt purchasing it forthwith.
And that’s it for this week. Stick around for next week for the Top 10 Superhero Cartoons of All Time!
One extra note here: I’d like to say Thank You to commenter and community member shadowmaster, who has been doing a hell of a job over on the Descendants Wikia.