Japan has mastered the art of the animated serial, but here in the west, we’ve produced some pretty awesome pieces of art too – and believe it or not, not all of them have been a part of the 8-10pm Sunday night line up on Fox. MTV, HBO, the Cartoon Network, and even Nickelodeon have been pushing the boundaries of cartoons both in terms of storytelling and artwork and they’ve been doing it for a lot longer than Eric Cartman has been stringing together terrible racial slurs. A lot of the most popular cartoons today can be attributed to Ren & Stimpy and The Simpsons pushing the envelope back in the early 90’s, but here are ten of the best lesser known animated shows that helped put a grown-up spin on Western animation.
10. Spicy City (1997)
The first cartoon to be produced exclusively for adults on HBO, Spicy City was a dark, gritty, sex-filled science fiction pulp series. It might have been somewhat ahead of its time but it would have been renewed for a second season had there not been trouble amongst the creator of the show. However, even with only six episodes, the show managed to stretch the boundaries for adult animated series here in the Western world where cartoons are widely regarded as being kid-friendly.
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9. The Tick(1994-1997)
The Tick slipped raunchy adult humour into a show that was for the most part marketed towards teens and it did it in a way that was both absurd and adorable. Shows like this proved that comic books didn’t have to be serious or hero-driven to be good and they certainly didn’t have to make sense. The continuity of the show was expertly handled as well, with the moon always saying ‘CHA’ after one of the Tick’s many nemeses tries to graffiti his name onto the moon with lasers.
8. Spawn (1997-1999)
Not all cartoons have to be funny and Spawn brought a whole new level of darkness into the mix. Based on a graphic novel again, the series brought artwork from page to screen in a beautifully crafted adaptation. Todd McFarlane hit all the marks with his hellish protagonist – the Dark Knight should definitely take notes. With a complex and rich story, excellent voice actors, and beautiful animation to boot, this comic book adaptation blew things like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Uncanny X-Men out of the water. If you were old enough and brave enough to watch it, that is.
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7. Mission Hill (1999-2002)
Though this show fell prey to the MTV curse and only lasted a season, there are unaired episodes on Youtube composed of partially complete animations and storyboards that show just how genius the show is. The cast of characters are fantastically nuts, with Andy and Kevin French pair up as a perfect odd couple. This is one of the few shows where the supporting characters are just as strong if not stronger than the main characters. Weirdy beans at…weirdy beans at….weirdy beans at….weirdy beans at….weirdy beans at…
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6. Duckman (1994-1997)
Jason Alexander is the king of awkward comedy but his role as Duckman moves far beyond the blundering antics of George Costanza. This show is definitely adults-only even though it follows a single father as he tries to raise his philosophical yet intellectually wanting son Ajax amongst the madness of his P.I. career. His business is constantly under threat and his narcissistic personality undermines all his attempts at love and success. The show definitely doesn’t get the love it deserves but it was testing the censors long before Seth MacFarlane cut his teeth of cutaways. Oh, and it killed off main characters every episode long before any Colorado natives yelled out “You Bastards!”
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5. Home Movies(1999-2004)
Dr. Katz might not ring a bell with too many people, but the much faster paced and accessible Home Movies is what made Bob’s Burgers what it is today. The show featured H. Jon Benjamin playing Coach McGuirk, a boozing, whoring, profane gym teacher and easily a clumsy precursor to Sterling Archer. The stories revolved around Brendan Small, a young aspiring filmmaker and his elementary school friends a they navigated an adult world through the lens of a young boy’s camera. The show does an excellent job of pitting naïve kids against a much more sinister world than they know how to deal with while keeping the situations light and hilarious and sets up call-backs and recurring gags which let the audience feel like they’re in on the joke, a technique mastered by the creators of Archer and Venture Bros. years later.
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4. Daria (1997-2004)
For those who watched Daria, Aubrey Plaza is all too familiar. Daria’s monotone cynicism came hot on the heels of grunge culture and managed to be both ironic and poignantly honest. Gen-Xers everywhere could identify with her disillusionment even if it was a little overblown. The show was emo and angsty with a flair for the dramatic well before MySpace and scene kids destroyed the art of being an angst-ridden teenager. Whether it played on clichés or created them is hard to say, but her signature volleyball move will forever be the universal symbol of not giving a crap.
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3. Rocko’s Modern Life (1993-1996)
The Nickelodeon cartoon might not have seemed like it was for adults on the face of it, but time and again it pops up in threads about cleverly hidden double-entendres in kid’s shows. The dog’s name was Spunky and his colour scheme did suggest white splotches. Moreover, Rocko worked at a sex hotline. It took some reading between the lines, but it did come out nearly a decade before the Adult Swim really got down and dirty with their writing.
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The Maxx was an incredibly dark and sinister comic book series adapted for MTV and it lost none of its unnerving strangeness in translation. It’s difficult to tell the story without running into tons of spoilers, but the artwork involved and the intricate and precise placement of clues are what made the series so captivating. It was a pleasure to watch, literally moving artwork and came to a frustratingly hasty end.
The Head, shown in conjunction with The Maxx was the story of Jim and his band of freaks, each with unique gifts and talents. Much like Fight Club, a support group flunky goes rogue and tries to uncover government secrets and help the alien living in his massive head. It was definitely an odd story and worth watching for the distinct American style of the animation. Somewhat clunky by today’s standards, there are still traces of it in modern cartoons, like Metalocolypse and most recently Bojack Horseman.
1. Aeon flux (1991-1995)
This show tops the list due not only to its seriously messed up storylines, but its dedication and commitment to being warped. The story itself is strange and confusing and so very difficult to follow, with standalone episodes being so far from canon that they change how the characters know each other and interact. It was odd and scary but gorgeous to watch with a mishmash of styles that eventually found their way onto the Animatrix. The cartoon pushes the limits of suspended disbelief, storytelling, by evoking uncomfortable emotion through stunning and awkward visuals. The use of perspective and proportion add to the effect making it one of the most spectacular series ever produced.
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These shows were trail blazers here in the Western world. Taking cues from things like anime and comic books, the artists created fantastic worlds full of intrigue and mature storylines in order to captivate audiences. They don’t rely on funky movement and crazy colours to keep our attention, but aren’t shy about putting forth beautiful images for us to consider. It’s no wonder that Adult Swim and the Sunday Night Line-up have been trying to emulate those experiences ever since.