Most of our treasured childhood cartoons were awful. Some people refuse to admit this. You?ll see these people commenting on YouTube videos of Bravestarr or My Little Pony Tales or Tom and Jerry Kids, proclaiming them to be ?awes0me!!!? and asking why the hell they don?t make good cartoons like this anymore. These people are insane.
There are, of course, genuinely good cartoons from our youth, and most of them are available on DVD at our local consumerist outlets. Yet a few series are left foundering in obscurity or in the hands of bootleggers who?ll charge $80 for a season of M.A.S.K. Below, we?ve profiled ten cartoon series of our youth (a lot of them involving the word ?Mighty?) that should be preserved in DVD box sets so we don?t have to rely on grainy YouTube and Google Video encodes. And no, M.A.S.K. isn?t one of them. Have you watched M.A.S.K. lately? It?s crap.
1) MTV’s Downtown
We all lament the fact that MTV barely plays music videos anymore, but more?s been lost by the channel?s knack for killing promising animated series. Downtown wasn?t the last MTV cartoon knocked off too soon, but it?s the most underrated. A deliberately cluttered slice-of-life show about wry New York nerds and their unfairly cool friends, the series relied on stories within stories, most of which came from real-life anecdotes. It was rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but there was a weird, slow-burning charm to it all, and a sense of growing coherence, as though it would?ve been amazing in its second season. That season never materialized, though the team behind it went on to stuff like Megas XLR and Metalocalypse, where anti-MTV gags curiously pop up.
So insistent is Downtown?s following that series creator Chris Prynoski came up with a wink-nudge way of getting the whole series in a box set. It?s not quite official, but it?s much better than buying a greasy bootlegger?s burned discs.
Downtown?s opening is just a ten-second title shot, so here?s a dildo joke instead.
2) The Pirates of Dark Water
It?s hard to imagine Hanna-Barbera going from tripe like Captain Planet to something genuinely inventive, but that?s what the mediocrity-racked studio did when it rolled out The Pirates of Dark Water in 1991. The story was a somewhat standard fantasy yarn about a one-note prince named Ren, who seeks mystic treasures and meets a Han Solo analogue and a devious-yet-caring psychic girl. But Pirates is all about the scenery. Mapping out a weird, ocean-heavy world full of carnivorous ?dark water,? the show?s detailed (if stiff) animation boasted all sorts of interesting ideas, from a village of sound-worshiping priests to a city-sized pirate ship made of bones. Better yet, Pirates was willing to kill off characters now and then, as kids learned when some of that dark water swallowed Ren?s grandmotherly kung-fu adviser in the pilot episode.
Pirates has some annoyances, among them a chattering lemur-butterfly sidekick and a tendency to make characters spout more hokey, made-up profanity than Battlestar Galactica marathons. Yet it?s an intriguing little experiment that helped American cartoons break out of their G-rated rut in the ?90s . And hey, water that eats people. Top that, modern cartoons.
3) The Maxx
An entire generation pissed off their parents by watching MTV cartoons like Beavis and Butt-Head and the sex-and-killing novelty of Peter Chung?s Aeon Flux, but the channel?s real gem was a lesser-known adaptation of Sam Keith?s The Maxx comics. Pulling Keith?s style straight from the comic pages, the mini-series created an astonishingly faithful version the story, which follows freelance social worker (it made sense, trust us) Julie Winters? bizarre psychological run-ins with the psychopathic Mr. Gone, his emotionally adrift daughter, and the hulking, homeless and endearingly clueless monster-man called The Maxx. The four of them turn the series into an engrossing, artfully rendered web of character studies. That?s probably why it didn?t catch on.
The Maxx was too short and too on the fringe for MTV to typically exploit it, though it managed to make its way to VHS in the ?90s. But it deserves the full DVD treatment, complete with creator commentaries explaining just what the hell it all meant.
The Spielberg-sponsored Warner Bros. cartoons of the ?90s are beloved by many, but they?re also uneven. Animaniacs episodes (available on DVD) are interminably awful whenever their focus strays from the Warners or Pinky and the Brain, while Tiny Toons (surprisingly not available on DVD) often revels too much in its own ineffective Looney Tunes tributes. Freakazoid, a later attempt by the same creative team, came through the best, even if it ripped off Mike Allred?s Madman comics to do it.
Plagiarized or not, Freakazoid is a fun superhero parody that manages to hit just about everything from Disney?s Gargoyles to Gilbert and Sullivan, running rampant with non-sequiturs and celebrities cameos, some of which actually weren?t impersonated. To date, Freakazoid is the only cartoon to feature late MPAA president Jack Valenti talking about his cheeks. That?s DVD material right there.
5) Mighty Max
If ever a toy line got a better cartoon than it deserved, it was Mighty Max. The toys? Lame, boy-oriented versions of those Polly Pocket mini-playsets that even 8-year-old girls hated. The show? Not what you might expect. Apparently realizing that no one gave a shit about Mighty Max toys, the writers and producers did whatever they wanted, turning Max into a wisecracking kid (voiced by Rob ?Raphael the Ninja Turtle? Paulsen) who traverses time and space with the help of a talking bird-man scholar (voiced by the ever-amazing Tony Jay), a towering ancient warrior (voiced by the bald guy from Night Court) and a baseball cap that bridges dimensions.
It sounds creatively bankrupt, but more often than not, the show came across as an elaborate mockery of kid-hero cartoons, with both self-aware humor and rather grim content. Many episodes open with nameless schlubs being murdered by the monster du jour, and the series finale actually kills major characters and gets around the annoying nothing-ever-ends credo of syndicated kids? shows. Despite the sluggish animation, dull ?educational? epilogues and a few horrible jokes, Mighty Max holds up a lot better than anyone could?ve ever expected.
6) Rocko’s Modern Life
Good or bad, Nickelodeon cartoons were adept at sneaking things past the censors, and there was no better Trojan horse than Joe Murray?s Rocko?s Modern Life. Few would be surprised at finding adult humor in the grotesque Ren & Stimpy, for example, but Rocko?s is a deceptively cute show that slipped in stuff for parents and gifted-class kids in a much smarter way.
Gags involving milking-machine romances, veiled phone-sex jobs and a restaurant called the Chokey Chicken inevitably get Rocko?s mentioned in ?I can?t believe they did that in a kid?s show!? discussions, but perhaps the real adult angle came from the way Rocko?s titular life was an awkward, meaningless parade of humiliation and loss. This wasn?t just a subversive cartoon for children; it was also a look into their futures.
Instead of boring you with the title theme, here?s a Rocko?s clip that Nickelodeon didn?t let through twice.
7) Might Orbots
There?s only one reason Mighty Orbots made this list. It?s not because of its stories, which are clich?d, grade-school preaching about robots fighting space creatures sent by a giant vagina-like living computer. And it?s not because of its goofball heroes, who are all quite lame compared to Voltron or any given Transformer. No, Mighty Orbots is worth a DVD release just because it?s one of the best-looking cartoons Saturday morning ever saw.
The ?80s were a wasteland of badly animated shows, but the 13-episode Orbots has shockingly high production values, thanks to all the money that its American producers threw at TMS Entertainment and Osamu Dezaki. The director of pulp anime classics like Rose of Versailles and Golgo 13, Dezaki enlisted frequent collaborator Akio Sugino, future Studio Ghibli animator Katsuya Kondo and a host of other anime talents to make the series look better than any cartoon on the air in America or Japan. Their budget was sadly wasted on storylines only slightly less dull than your typical Snorks time-killer or toy-commercial anime, but man, Orbots looked great wasting it.
Another show with ambitions far beyond the forgettable toy line it shilled for, Exosquad put together a far-reaching pastiche of ?realistic? robot anime and World War II allegory. Comparing its bald blue villain to Hitler may be a bit much, but Exosquad came credibly close to adult-level space opera, casting its beleaguered grunt heroes at the center of a three-way war among Earth?s military, space-faring pirates and humankind?s rebelling, genetically engineered slave race. Better yet, the series had the holy-shit-someone-actually-died element that makes a cartoon into a masterpiece when you?re 10 years old.
Despite sharing crappy timeslots with awful shows, Exosquad lasted 52 episodes and, like most ?90s cartoons better than Extreme Dinosaurs, gained a fan following. And unlike a lot of its counterparts, Exosquad deserves it.
9) Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures
Ralph Bakshi is revered as the father of mature-audiences animation, even though nearly all of his creations, from Fritz the Cat to Spicy City, are god-awful and about as ?mature? as naked drawings of Princess Jasmine on the restroom walls at Disney World. Bakshi has his moments, though, and he found more than a few in his 1987 revival of Mighty Mouse.
Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures also marked the genuine debut of animator John Kricfalusi, capturing the manic style that he?d later use in Ren & Stimpy (and then waste by becoming a hopelessly bitter, self-exiled malcontent). Kricfalusi wasn?t the only future animation star who worked on the series, which also shows off early work from Batman: The Animated Series? Bruce Timm and Tiny Toons? Tom Minton, among others. It?s spastic, sketchy and never as fluidly animated as Kricfalusi?s later stuff, but Mighty Mouse?s offbeat humor makes it far better than nearly anything else Bakshi?s given us.
10) New Kids on the Block
There are hordes of terrible cartoons lurking in the past two decades, and the worst are often misguided attempts at turning celebrities and cult movies into Saturday Morning fodder. Somewhere, amid Hammerman, Gilligan?s Planet, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Little Shop, Little Rosie (yes, a Roseanne Barr cartoon), It?s Punky Brewster and the Kid N? Play cartoon, there?s a monument to commercialism and boy-band ephemera in New Kids on the Block.
No one would buy a DVD boxset of New Kids on the Block: The Animated Series, a dreadful, cheap-looking bore based primarily on the five New Kids being chased around as though they?re Beatles in 1965. But that?s not the point. This should be resurrected for a DVD release just to serve as an example of the unvarnished, soulless inanity that can be wrought through cartoons. Like a criminal?s head stuck on a pike in the middle of Best Buy?s DVD section, it?d be a warning to us all.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.