People say that kids grow up too soon these days. Well, for kids growing up in America during the 19’90s, this should come to no one’s surprise, as one must look no further than the cartoons that accompanied us during those glowing childhood years. Indeed, with excellent boundary pushers (and tremendously source-loyal adaptations) like X-Men and Batman: The Animated Series paving the way and pulling few punches when it came to mature content and overall grittiness, the cartoon-scape of the ’90s was no place for sissies, with eventually everyone from Disney to Nickelodeon getting in on the grown-up content action. It was almost like the cartoons were secretly testing us, as if to say “hey, if you can’t take it, just turn off the TV and go play outside with your wussy friends, wussy McWusswuss.” And of course, we didn’t go outside. We stayed loyal to our beloved programming, content to leave our childhood behind. This list is dedicated to the moments during ’90s animated children’s programming that caused us to take pause and put down our bowl of Lucky Charms in order to attempt to digest what we had just witnessed, and some of the hard lessons we learned because of them.
11) Rocko is Seduced by Mrs. Bighead in Rocko’s Modern Life
When Bev Bighead can’t get any love from her hubby Ed (“Am I not a beautiful woman, a woman with needs?”) in “Leap Frogs,” she decides to attempt to seduce Rocko by asking him to do chores for her around the house, as she needs “a little attention from a man once in a while.” The rest of the episode is filled with not-so-thinly veiled innuendo and imagery as Mrs. Bighead does her best to get said attention from Rocko, trying everything from flirtation to tricking him into seeing her naked. The seduction process is forced to conclude when Mr. Bighead walks in on what appears to be Mrs. Bighead paying Rocko for his services as her gigolo. Later in their bedroom, Mr. and Mrs. Bighead make up and decide to excitedly break plates together with their tongues, an activity that culminates in a lot of heavy breathing. “Leap Frogs” was eventually prevented from airing due to its content only to later reappear on Nicktoons TV, presumably to be used as a primer for kids who wanted to know what they could expect married life to be like.
10) Dinobot Contemplates Suicide and Essentially Commits it in Beast Wars
Dishonored and apparently gravely depressed about having let down the Maximals in an earlier conflict, Dinobot’s first appearance in the episode “Code of Hero” shows him contemplating what some might interpret to be seppuku, the ritualistic samurai suicide technique used to die an honorable death. Having successfully set the episode’s dark tone, Dinobot begins what will become his last journey, intent on righting his wrong and retrieving the Golden Disc which Megatron plans to use to alter time in order to prevent the human race from ever existing. Knowing that time is not a luxury he can afford, Dinobot tragically engages six Predacons, including Transmetal Megatron, a skirmish that ends with him successfully defending the valley but sustaining major damage. With his power reserves all but completely depleted, Dinobot manages to wrench the Disc from Megatron’s clasp and destroy it with his last ounce of strength, forcing the kids watching to experience his robo-death shortly thereafter and to get a head start on knowing what a broken heart can feel like.
9) Apocalypse Murders the X-Men in X-Men
While the two-parter “Time Fugitives” ended on an uncharacteristically positive note (with Cable saving the future from a plague by using Wolverine’s healing power to create antibodies), part one of Time Fugitives involves a giant Apocalypse literally atomizing the X-Men with a blast of his energy beam. If there’s any scene darker in Saturday morning cartoon history than this display of an unstoppable, enormous force of evil unabashedly murdering the cast of heroes with ease, I haven’t seen it. Sure, those events took place as part of a tangent timeline that fell into oblivion once Cable saved the day, but that doesn’t make the imagery of Cyclops, Gambit, Wolverine, Storm, Beast, Bishop and Rogue (No! Not Rogue!) any less of a ‘nam-esque flashback that a kid might have while trying to keep his cool during an intense Super Soaker duel later that sunny Saturday afternoon. Lesson learned? Don’t mess with time travel or it’ll mess with you right back. R.I.P alternate timeline X-Men.
8) DarkWing Duck Becomes a Brutal Totalitarian Vigilante in Darkwing Duck
With roots in The Dark Knight Returns, this episode of former Disney mainstay Darkwing Duck was clearly designed to teach kids what can happen when an authoritative arm of power goes unchecked for too long. After losing Gosling in a time travel accident and simultaneously losing sight of what’s important in his life, Darkwing becomes Dark Warrior Duck in “Time and Punishment,” a cruel enforcer who drapes St. Canard under a cloak of fear, punishing any crime, no matter how small (such as jaywalking) with “death” or “the chair,” essentially illustrating and teaching kids at home why having more than one branch of government can be a good thing.
7) Batman Has a Heart Attack in Batman Beyond
6) Gambit Relentlessly Pursues Rogue Through His Cajun Sexual Innuendo in X-Men
If there were any questions left unanswered throughout the storied history of cartoons released during the 1990s, “What would Gambit like to do with Rogue if she didn’t have her powers?” was definitely not one of them. To the contrary, this question was one that was perhaps answered the most times, again and again, thanks to Gambit’s implementation of such stealthy pick up lines as “you can drain my energy anytime cher, Gambit has plenty” (while suggestively charging the tip of a pool cue with his powers) and “I’ll teach you plenty of things, if you ask me nice,” Gambit left
little doubt in anyone’s mind about his intentions with his object of affection. Meanwhile, innocent nerds who felt uncomfortable whenever Rogue graced the screen looked at each other, shrugged and anxiously awaited the next scene involving Wolverine carving off Sentinel appendages, secretly feeling relieved that it might actually be okay to talk to girls after all.
5) Lieutenant Alice Noretti Dies While Simply Attempting to Land in Exosquad
Alice Noretti was not a major character in Exosquad, but it’s how her death was handled that may have been the ultimate “wait, did she just die? I thought this was a cartoon” moment for ’90s kids animated programming. I think I remember deaths in Saving Private Ryan receiving more pause than the brief acknowledgement that J.T. Marsh and his crew pay the late Noretti upon landing their respective crafts in the episode “Target: Earth.” This episode was great for teaching kids that even though you might have just met a person and you think they’re really great, it’s best not to get too attached as they can be gone in the blink of an eye. Forever.
4) Matt Hagen is Smothered in Renuyu and Left for Dead in a Mob Style Hit in Batman: The Animated Series
It goes without saying that Batman: The Animated Series was an excellent show with an intentionally adult approach that helped redefine what a Saturday morning cartoon could be, something it deserves credit for. The origin of Clayface, however, as portrayed in the episode “Feat of Clay” goes the extra mile by introducing kids to the mob phrase “let’s go for a ride,” a saying that would-be hit victim Matt Hagen obviously has no problems recognizing as he immediately shoots back “I know what that means!” and bolts for the door before he is essentially drowned in Renuyu (the addictive facial cream he was using to reshape his damaged physique and continue his acting career) by Roland Daggett’s mobster henchmen. The sequence is topped off with Daggett’s henchmen carrying a presumably dead Hagen out to his car, a scene that chillingly echoes Martin Scorsese’s mob films and reminds us that having connections to the mob is usually a bad idea.
3) Broadway Accidentally Shoots Elisa with Her Own Gun in Gargoyles
Disney’s Gargoyles was known for being dark and gritty, as it was a gothic show about gothic beings that came to life and did gothic things together. The Gargoyles episode known as “Deadly Force” probably took it up a notch though when it decided to embark its own brand of after school special style justice on the yet-to-be jaded Disney toon-watching public: “Deadly Force” made no qualms about its “Guns are bad, kids. Don’t touch them” message, and as it was a message episode, that’s probably O.K. The follow through however, a scene involving a badly gunshot wounded Elisa being found lying on her kitchen floor drenched in a puddle of her own blood while Broadway the accidental gunman freaks out may have raised an eyebrow of the theoretical parent who wanted to hold off on introducing his kids to anti-depressants. So might the rest of the episode, which included Broadway literally getting Elisa’s blood on his hands. Ironically, this episode is usually stripped from Toon Disney’s run of Gargoyles, (or edited to exclude the imagery in question) as the accidental but extremely violent gunning down of Elisa was apparently even too much for Mickey’s heart to handle.
2) Sabertooth is Revealed to be a Victim of Child Abuse in X-Men
The episode “Weapon X, Lies, and Videotape” begins innocently enough with Logan flipping out while hallucinating and going berserker on his fellow X-Men, which sets up a trip back to Canada for Wolvie to do some soul searchin’. While visiting America’s hat, Wolverine endures more flashbacks of his painful Weapon X program adamantium infusion and testing. Meanwhile, Silver Fox, Maverick, and Sabertooth are also drawn north and join Wolverine in a mental breakdown jamboree. Sabertooth then proceeds to have a flashback and “remembers” the abusive relationship between himself and his supposed father: While young Sabertooth cowers on the basement floor, his old man, standing over him on the basement steps with beatin’ stick in hand declares, “he’s no son of mine, he’s some kind of animal. He’s full of wickedness. That’s what it is. But don’t you worry boy. Jebediah Creed knows how to get the wickedness out of you,” to which child Sabertooth sobs “No please Pa, not again. I’ll be good. I’ll be good.” Thanks for the memories, Fox Kids!
1) Linka Gets Kidnapped, Hooked on Drugs, Goes Heroin Chic and Watches her Cousin Die of a Drug Overdose in Captain Planet
Perhaps feeling that things had been a little too warm and cuddly lately, the creative team behind Captain Planet and the Planeteers decided to shake things up a bit and show their viewership exactly how they really felt about the subject of drug abuse. The episode known as “Mind Pollution” takes a very “that’s what you get, druggie!” approach to drug addiction (at one point Wheeler, while standing over a bleeding drug addict even declares “Oh yeah, well nobody made him take the drug, he did that to himself!”) and is set appropriately in Washington D.C., home of The War On Drugs. This episode centers around 16 year-old Russian planeteer Linka (“Wind!”) and a highly addictive new drug called “Bliss” which is being distributed by the rat-like Ecovillain Verminous Skumm so that he can take over the world by controlling an army of drug addicts, a plan destined to succeed considering how reliable drug addicts are in terms of showing up for things in general. The real trouble begins when Linka’s cousin Boris gets hooked on Bliss; When he runs out, he begs Verminous to give him more in exchange for Linka’s Planeteer ring, an offer Verminous refuses, sa
ying that he’ll only settle for Linka herself, for who knows what disturbing reason. Feigning drugfreenicity, Boris drugs Linka’s snack wrap and delivers her to Skumm. The Planeteers eventually free Linka and flee Skumm’s drug-zombie army only to have the drama conclude with cousin Boris’ abrupt death scene, set ever so tactfully on the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building, teaching us that drugs can cause zombie-like behavior and deaths on top of governmental landmarks.
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.